Movie Night: Red Dust

“The attraction here isn’t really the cultural relic/curiousity value, it’s the variation of the old man meets woman, they hate each other, they clash with sparkling dialogue and then end up together ’til death they do part. This bit has been done to death in Hollywood’s 100+ year run, but it can be freshened and redeemed if the scriptwriter is up to the job.”


FourStars
FourStars

From 1932, it’s the second of six films Jean Harlow made with Clark Gable: Red Dust. (21 years later, it would be remade as Mogambo, the setting moved to Africa, with Ava Gardner in the Jean Harlow role and Grace Kelly in the Mary Astor Role. It stank. Red Dust is superior, like most Hollywood remakes, to its later imitator. The six films Gable and Harlow did together were: The Secret Six (1931); Red Dust (1932); Hold your Man (1933); China Seas (1935); Wife vs. Secretary (1936); and Saratoga (1937). Harlow died during filming of Saratoga.)


The « synopsis » according to The Movie Database (TMDb) runs thusly:

“Dennis, owner of a rubber plantation in Cochinchina, is involved with Vantine, who left Saigon to evade the police; but when his new surveyor, Gary, arrives along with his refined but sensual wife, Barbara, Dennis gets infatuated by her.”

TMDb

IMDb has a « a shorter and poorer way of putting it »:

“The owner of a rubber plantation becomes involved with the new wife of one of his employees.”

IMDb

Way to drain flavor completely out of a synopsis, Amazonians!

Red Dust is pretty much everything that cancel culture despises today. There’s racism, sexism, slavery, the patriarchy time 100, misogyny, misanthropy, animal abuse, cuckolding, adultery, (and behind the scenes, homophobia and violence) and probably a few other things I can’t even identify off the top of my head right now. But even if cancel culture would like to burn this film, it’s rather juvenile to think adults can’t look, read or watch something from earlier periods of our history and gain some understanding of a time in the nation’s life and adopt what we’ve just seen as our own outlook. In other words, watching Red Dust won’t make you go out and slap blond women on the butt or enslave coolies in Vietnam or any of the other multitudinous sins.

We have been wondering if a boycott TCM movement will start; pretty much everything they show is a reminder of the really evil or tawdry foundations of this country. And pretty much everything they show is also a pointer to a better future, even if that future is on hold right now while Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, Orban, Netanyahu, Erdogan and various ayatollahs hold power.

But all that is a digression. The film itself should be considered in context. It has it’s funny moments in the banter of Gable and Harlow, but it is a drama with a twist ending. It’s the tale of what happens when a rubber plantation owner hires a surveyor, Gene Raymond, who brings along his pretty wife, Mary Astor. While Raymond writhes on the bed with malaria, Gable and Astor spark up some flames. And in the middle of all this lands, Harlow, a brassy blond hiding out in the jungle after some unspecified misunderstandings with the gendarmerie in Saigon (pronounced, inexplicably, as “Say-gone”). There’s some business with a local tiger, some difficulties with not being able to trust the local coolies, a caricature of a cook, Willie Fung who does the grinning, giggly “so solly” bit, and inadequate bathing facilities.

The attraction here isn’t really the cultural relic/curiousity value, it’s the variation of the old man meets woman, they hate each other, they clash with sparkling dialogue and then end up together ’til death they do part. This bit has been done to death in Hollywood’s 100+ year run, but it can be freshened and redeemed if the scriptwriter is up to the job. In this case, the writer wasn’t really up to the job with the majority of the script, but for some reason, excelled with the dialogue as long as it was between Harlow and Gable. And that’s where it shines.

Of course, anything Harlow did shined, especially Dinner at Eight. Gable gets first billing here, and the movie is supposedly about him, but it’s Harlow who does the best job. The proof is in the difference between the Harlow/Gable exchanges and those of Astor/Gable. Harlow wins hands down every time she’s onscreen. Gable may have dominated the 1930s cinema with his star power, culminating in 1939’s bullshit “Lost Cause” revisionist rebel/traitor masterpiece, Gone With the Wind, but Harlow was superior in every way, at least when she was given half a chance.

Sadly, Harlow was suffering from nephritis and died of uremic poisoning during the filming of her last Gable vehicle, 1937’s Saratoga. Remarkably, she was just 26 when she died, having such an amazing career in such a short time that it’s mind-boggling to think of what she might have done with a longer life. This would be repeated in the case of Judy Holliday in the 1950s, who was an awesome actress whose life ended too soon. It would have been incredible for Harlow and Holliday to have done a film together at least once. Ah, what might have been (at least if they had been given a great script and director).

We at least have Harlow and Holliday on film fairly easy to access. Red Dust is on TCM as well as DVD.

What did reviewers have to say about Red Dust?

And that behind the scenes homophobia violence? Well, that’s the Gene Raymond story, who married Jeanette McDonald (of “Nelson Eddy and” fame), but had a rather interesting life. Producer/Director George Sidney once called Raymond “the most gorgeous thing the world has ever seen.” Seems a bit far fetched for me, but he was pretty. And therein lay the problem. We’ll let Wikipedia take over:

“Biographer Sharon Rich reported in her Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald biography, Sweethearts, that Raymond and MacDonald had a rocky marriage, with Raymond physically and emotionally abusing MacDonald, and having affairs with men. This began on their honeymoon [in 1937] when MacDonald discovered Raymond in bed with Buddy Rogers.”

Wikipedia

I’m sure that would have been pretty frickin’ hot, the most gorgeous thing in the world in bed with the equally hot Buddy Rogers. But go on:

“Rich reported that Raymond had been arrested three times, the first in January 1938, as verified by a court document, and also in England during his army service, for his behavior. Raymond’s wedding to MacDonald, orchestrated by Louis B. Mayer forced MacDonald to become Raymond’s beard and the 1938 arrest resulted in Mayer blacklisting him in Hollywood for almost two years.”

Ibid

It gets better:

“Biographer E. J. Fleming also alleged that Eddy had confronted Raymond for abusing MacDonald, who was visibly pregnant with Eddy’s child while filming Sweethearts which ended with Eddy attacking him and leaving him for dead, disguised in the press as Raymond recovering from falling down the stairs.”

Ibid

Both Rogers and Raymond, like most queers of their day, went on to other marriages with women and spent their remaining years deeply in the closet. It needs to be pointed out that:

“Raymond publicly refuted the allegations of abuse, neglect and details of his marriage to MacDonald, which were published during his lifetime.”

Ibid

That quote construction seems to leave out things like affairs with men and romping in bed with Buddy Rogers, but who knows.

Critics at the time were fairly kind and the movie made a $400,000 profit (around $6.8 million in today’s dollars). The New York Times left a review up to a writer only identified by his initials, M.H., who basically recounted the plot and, while they liked Harlow, were a little snide about Harlow’s admirers in the audience at the screening at the Capitol:

“Life on a rubber plantation in French Indo-China receives attention in “Red Dust,” a pictorial adaptation of a play by Wilson Collison which is now at the Capitol. It is a far from pleasant spot, with its heat and sudden deluges of rain, its blinding sand storms and jungle beasts. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of this tale is more interesting than its story, especially the glimpses of the men at work.
“Dennis Carson, played by Clark Gable, who is in charge of the plantation, avers that so long as people in other countries want balloon tires and hot-water bottles such toil must go on. The natives are indolent, which causes Carson to use the lash on them, but no sooner have they settled down to labor than they are forced often to seek shelter from a sand storm.
To this uninviting area comes the immodest Vantine, a woman from Saigon. She at least makes existence more lively for Carson, who who is not precisely hospitable to her. There is trouble on all sides for Carson.

[There is a recounting of the Gable/Astor entanglement and Harlow’s involvement.]

“… Barbara and her husband eventually leave the plantation and Vantine takes up her abode in Carson’s comfortless shack.
“The dialogue is not especially bright or strong, but some of the lines spoken by Vantine, who is impersonated by Jean Harlow, aroused laughter from the audience. Miss Harlow’s presence in the picture apparently attracted a host of other platinum blondes, for on all sides there were in the seats girls with straw-colored hair. Miss Harlow’s performance suits the part. Mr. Gable is efficient in his rôle. Miss Astor offers a striking contrast to Miss Harlow. Tully Marshall makes the most of a minor rôle, as does Gene Raymond, who appears as Willis.”

M.H., The New York Times

I’d agree about most of the dialogue (see choice quotes below for yourself). But it’s a pretty spot-on review from the original screening.

Anyway, regardless of its content and the soap operas behind it, Red Dust is a worthwhile, entertaining history lesson and should be taken as a positive sign of just how we’ve come in almost 90 years. Or, you know, you could ignore such Pollyanna-ish constructs and, I don’t know, burn it.


Red Dust Lobby Card
Red Dust: Clark Gable and Mary Astor

Red Dust: Willie Fung, Gene Raymond, Jean Harlow

Best quotes:

Dennis Carson: Why’d you get off the boat at all? You know it doesn’t stop here again for four week, don’t you?
Vantine: Sure I do. Think I’m overjoyed about it? But, its just got to be, that’s all.
Dennis Carson: Well, then?
Vantine: I left the boat here for the same reason I took it at Saigon.
Dennis Carson: What reason?
Vantine: I got mixed up in a little trouble and I thought I’d stay out of town ’til the Gendarmes forgot about it.
Dennis Carson: And what a cast iron nerve you’ve got.
Vantine: You have to have in my line. But, don’t worry, big boy, I’ll stay out from under foot. I’ll even pay for my board if you insist on it nicely.

Red Dust

Dennis Carson: Come on, lets have it. Who are you? Where’d you come from?
Vantine: Don’t rush me, brother. I’m Pollyanna, the Glad Girl.

Ibid

Dennis Carson: Here you are kid.
[stuffs some bills in Vantine’s cleavage]
Dennis Carson: It isn’t half enough, but, when I get down to Saigon, there’ll be more. Keep your chin up.
[pats Vantine twice on her behind]

Ibid
[The bath scene]
Dennis Carson: [naked, Vantine jumps in a rain barrel] Get out of there! Say what’s the idea?
Vantine: What?
Dennis Carson: Getting in that barrel?
Vantine: Oh, I don’t know? Maybe I’m goin’ over Niagara Falls. Whoop!

Vantine: What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll – shock the duchess? Don’t you suppose she’s ever seen a French postcard?
Dennis Carson: You’ll let those curtains down if its the last bath you’ll ever take!

Vantine: Hey, where’s the reception committee? It’s been a nice little walk. Did you hear that hungry pussy cat back there?
Dennis Carson: Now, listen. This woman’s decent. You watch your language and stop running around here half naked.
Vantine: I’ll stay as comfortable as I like.

Red Dust

Vantine: [sarcastically] What a pleasant little house party this is gonna be.

Ibid

Vantine: [sarcastically] I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning on what to wear to the country club dance Saturday night.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: That’s a… a very polished little speech for a… barbarian.

Ibid

Vantine: Don’t mind me boys, I’m just restless.

Ibid

Gary Willis: [eating dinner] Those coolies are tough to handle, aren’t they?
Dennis Carson: Didn’t I tell you they were a lazy bunch?
Gary Willis: Well, I mean, I didn’t know they were so sneaky about it. The minute you turn your back on ’em, they’re up to something or other they shouldn’t be doing.
[Dennis and Barbara look at each other]
Gary Willis: Are they always like that?
Dennis Carson: I’m afraid so.
McQuarg: I was telling him about that time that Malay tried to knife you in the back.
Vantine: Its a great country for that sort of thing.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: I won’t stand for this! Do you think you can treat Gary like – like one of your coolies?

Ibid

Barbara Willis: We shouldn’t have done that.
Dennis Carson: We did.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: Do you mind if I stay here with you?
Vantine: Think you can stand the company?

Ibid

Barbara Willis: It’s stupid of me to be so frightened.
Vantine: This storm isn’t the only thing that has you worried around here, is it? I saw him kick the door shut. He came out with rouge all over his mouth. I suppose he asked to use your lipstick?
[lights a cigarette]

Ibid

Barbara Willis: Oh, it’s too silly. What do I mean I’m scared? It was just one of those exciting little moment things.
Vantine: Well, watch out for the next moment, honey. It’s longer than the first.

Ibid

Barbara Willis: I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t do anything. He didn’t have any reason to believe that I’d…
Vantine: I didn’t hear any cries for help.
Barbara Willis: Oh, I don’t know what came over me. I should have stopped him. I tried, but…
Vantine: But you couldn’t. Even when you tried, could you?
Barbara Willis: No. That’s why I’m scared.

Ibid

Dennis Carson: All those lame cracks won’t help you any if I come back and find you’ve been annoying her.
Vantine: Oh, I wouldn’t touch her with your best pair of rubber gloves!

Ibid

Dennis Carson: What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?
Vantine: Just a little nauseated. This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here.
Dennis Carson: Stop looking through key holes. It’s bad for the eyes.

Ibid

FourStars
Four Stars!

Red Dust. 1932. TCM. English. Victor Fleming (d). John Lee Mahin, Wilson Collison, Donald Ogden Stewart (w). Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Mary Astor, Gene Raymond, Donald Crisp, Tully Marshall, Forrester Harvey, Willie Fung. (p). Harold Rosson, Arthur Edeson (c).


Movie Night: Born Yesterday

“Born Yesterday is pretty fabulous. At least until it sinks in that it’s just as applicable today (especially today!) as it was in 1950. In that year, it could have been warning against the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ultimately wrecked lives, but failed. But today, the movie is depressing when you realize that Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock is in charge of the country, the Senate and the judiciary and is sitting in the White House tweeting.”


Four.5.Stars
Four 1/2 Stars!

From 1950, it’s the wonderful Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden gem, Born Yesterday. (No, not that 1993 crapfest of the same name … how dare they try to “improve” on Judy and Broderick with —gasp— Melanie Griffith, John Goodman, and Don Johnson!)

The « synopsis » of the original, best Born Yesterday, is, per The Movie Database (TMDb):

“Uncouth, loud-mouth junkyard tycoon Harry Brock descends upon Washington D.C. to buy himself a congressman or two, bringing with him his mistress, ex-showgirl Billie Dawn.”

TMDb

IMDb has a « a shorter and poorer way of putting it »:

“A tycoon hires a tutor to teach his lover proper etiquette, with unexpected results.”

IMDb

Born Yesterday is pretty fabulous and much, much more that those paltry synopses reveal. Or it is at least until it sinks in to today’s audience that it’s just as fresh and applicable today (especially today!) as it was in 1950. In that year, the movie warned against the unAmerican activiteis of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which ultimately wrecked many lives, but failed, while today it pointedly shows that Broderick Crawford’s Harry Brock is in charge of the country, the Senate, and the judiciary and is sitting in the White House rage-tweeting.

In fact, the current ugly age of our country is the alternate ending to Born Yesterday with Judy Holliday silenced, threatened with death and manblamed and William Holden dead or emasculated while Harry Brock gleefully and dementedly flies around destroying the country.

Just as an aside: How much influence did the flying circus that was HUAC have over the 50s? Here’s some tidbits from the era, because what was going on with HUAC deserves some attention:

“TEACHER FIRED
“San Mateo, Nov. 17—Thomas D. Hardwick, Burlingame high school journalism teacher, has been fired from his job for refusing to sign the state’s new loyalty oath.”

San Mateo Times, Nov. 17, 1950

And still this stuff was going on 7 years later. This time, the human toll of stamping out ghostly “un-American activities” is more fully highlighted, especially the ordeal of teacher Hardwick, who had to become a factory worker to survive:

“SAN FRANCISCO UPI – Cameras continued to focus today on the House un-American activities committee hearing despite House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s flat announcement in Washington there would be no more television broadcasts. Chairman Francis Walter (D.-Penn.) of the subcommittee shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands when asked about Rayburn’s announcement. And the TV cameras continued to grind away.

San Mateo Times

“SAN FRANCISCO UPI – Congressmen turned from teachers to other professions today in an un-American activities inquiry already marked by the suicide of a subpoenaed Stanford Scientist and suspension of a radio broadcaster from his job for refusing to testify. A Richmond factory worker who taught in Burlingame High school seven years ago was a reluctant witness yesterday before the House sub-committee on Un-American activities.
“But he had a quick reply when asked about the testimony of another witness that he had been a Communist. Thomas Hardwick, 49, declined to answer when asked if he was aware from 1946 up to the present day of a secret Communist group in San Francisco and elsewhere known as the “Professional Cell.” Hardwick said he believed the question was “in an area where Congress is forbidden to legislate” under the First (free press and speech) and the Fifth (self-incrimination) amendments.
“Hardwick was dismissed m 1950 from the Burlingame High school faculty for refusing to sign a loyalty oath.
“Yesterday’s reluctant witnesses included a San Francisco radio broadcaster, Louis Hartman, 42, also known as Jim Grady, and a television and radio engineer. Hartman, a free lance man on radio station KCBS, refused to answer when asked whether there was a Communist Party professional cell active at Berkeley.

San Mateo Times | Thursday, June 20, 1957

But I digress (but only a little bit): New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther « loved Judy Holliday and the movie, and used Broderick Crawford’s performance to sound a warning that is incredibly prescient about our current political predicament »:

“Just in time to make itself evident as one of the best pictures of this fading year is Columbia’s trenchant screen version of the stage play, “Born Yesterday.” More firm in its social implications than ever it was on the stage and blessed with a priceless performance by rocketing Judy Holliday, this beautifully integrated compound of character study and farce made a resounding entry at the Victoria yesterday.

“On the strength of this one appearance, there is no doubt that Miss Holliday will leap into popularity as a leading American movie star—a spot to which she was predestined by her previous minor triumph in “Adam’s Rib” as the tender young lady from Brooklyn who shot her husband (and stole the show). For there isn’t the slightest question that Miss Holiday brings to the screen a talent for characterization that is as sweetly refreshing as it is rare.

“Playing the wondrous ignoramus that she created on the stage—the lady to whom her crude companion rather lightly refers as a “dumb broad” this marvelously clever young actress so richly conveys the attitudes and the vocal intonations of a native of the sidewalks of New York that it is art. More than that, she illuminates so brightly the elemental wit and honesty of her blankly unlettered young lady that she puts pathos and respect into the role.

“But it must be said in the next breath that Miss Holliday doesn’t steal this show—at least, not without a major tussle—for there is a lot of show here to steal. Not only has the original stage play of Garson Kanin been preserved by Screenwriter Albert Mannheimer in all of its flavorsome detail—and that, we might add, is a triumph of candor and real adapting skill—but George Cukor has directed with regard for both the humor and the moral. And Broderick Crawford has contributed a performance as the merchant of junk who would build himself up as a tycoon that fairly makes the hair stand on end.

“Where this role was given some humor and even sympathy on the stage, in the memorable performance of Paul Douglas, Mr. Crawford endows it with such sting—such evident evil, corruption, cruelty and arrogance—that there is nothing amusing or appealing about this willful, brutish man. He is, indeed, a formidable symbol of the menace of acquisitive power and greed against which democratic peoples must always be alert. And that’s why his thorough comeuppance, contrived by his newly enlightened “broad” amid the monuments of serene and beautiful Washington, is so winning and wonderful. In short, a more serious connotation has been given the role on the screen and Mr. Crawford plays it in a brilliantly cold and forceful style.”

The New York Times

“He is, indeed, a formidable symbol of the menace of acquisitive power and greed against which democratic peoples must always be alert.” A perfect description of Born Yesterday‘s villain … and Donald Trump both.

At any rate, I highly recommend this one. I took off half a star for the flag-waving, O Beautiful, misty-eyed crap here and there; but it actually doesn’t detract much, it just points out how much we’ve lost.

The Associated Press review « isn’t much of a review, but notes the movie’s success »::

“Born Yesterday,” another Academy entry, was previewed before the usual starstudded audience this week. It is a faithful adaptation of the Garson Kanin play about the junk dealer’s babe who gets educated by a newspaperman. The story should be familiar to a large segment of the public by now and it is enhanced by some scenes of Washington landmarks. The show comes off as one of the best comedies in recent seasons. This is largely due to a sparkling portrayal of Judy Holliday as the dumb blonde. She is wonderfully funny. Only drawback is that her lines are sometimes inaudible. Broderick Crawford plays the junk man with full voice all the way and William Holden is a quietly competent view of the newspaperman.”

Bob Thomas, the Associated Press

Born Yesterday Lobby Card
Another Lobby Card

Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford and William Holden … stickin’ it to the Man.

Best quotes:

Paul: A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.

Born Yesterday

Billie Dawn: He always used to say, “Never do nothing you wouldn’t want printed on the front page of The New York Times.”

Ibid

Harry Brock: What’s a peninsula?
Billie Dawn: Shhhh.
Harry Brock: Don’t gimme that “shush.” You think you’re so smart, huh – what’s a peninsula?
Paul Verrall: It’s a…
Harry Brock: Not you, her.
Billie Dawn: It’s that new medicine…

Ibid

Billie: Because when ya steal from the government, you’re stealing from yourself, ya dumb ox.

Ibid

Congressman Norval Hedges: I said to Sam only last week this country will soon to have to decide if the people are going to run the government, or the government is going to run the people.

Ibid

Harry Brock: WHAT’S GOIN’ ON AROUND HERE?
Jim Devery: A revolution.

Ibid

Harry Brock: How d’ya like that! He could’ve had a hundred grand. She could’ve had me. Both wind up with nothin’… Dumb chump!… Crazy broad!
Jim Devery: [raises a glass as a toast] To all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads, past, present, and future, who thirst for knowledge and search for truth… who fight for justice and civilize each other… and make it so tough for crooks like you…
[Harry stares at him angrily]
Jim Devery: …and me.

Ibid

Harry Brock: Shut up! You ain’t gonna be tellin’ nobody nothin’ pretty soon!
Billie Dawn: DOUBLE NEGATIVE! Right?
Paul Verrall: Right.

Ibid

Billie: Would you do me a favor, Harry?
Harry Brock: What?
Billie: Drop dead!

Ibid

Four.5.Stars
Four 1/2 Stars!

Born Yesterday. 1950. TCM. English. George Cukor (d). Garson Kanin, Albert Mannheimer (w). Judy Holliday, Broderick Crawford, William Holden, Howard St. John, Frank Otto, Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Grandon Rhodes, Claire Carleton. (p). Friedrich Hollaender (m). Joseph Walker (c).


Movie Night: Strait Jacket

“The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls.”

["'Tina! Bring me the axe!" Joan Crawford hacks up the Six Million Dollar Man in 1964's Strait-Jacket. "Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one."]
Four.5.Stars
Four and 1/2 stars!

From 1964 (and presented by the fabulous Svengoolie): It’s Mommie Dearest with an axe, but with a twist! Here is Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket!

The «synopsis»:

“After a 20 year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behaviour.”

TMDb

IMDb has «a slightly different way of putting it»:

“After a twenty-year stay at an asylum for a double murder, a mother returns to her estranged daughter where suspicions arise about her behavior. “

IMDb

Oh, okay, that’s not so different. Hmmm. Is there collusion between those two sites? But how else would you describe this thing? Let’s check «Rotten Tomatoes» then:

“In this chilling blood-tale in ‘Psycho’ style, Robert Bloch modernizes the Lizzy Borden story. A wife (Joan Crawford) literally axes her cheating husband and his lover, witnessed by her three-year-old daughter. Mom is packed off to the insane asylum for 20 years before reuniting with the daughter (Diane Baker). From this point, the axe murders continue along a contrived plot intended to lead the audience astray until the mystery is solved. Crawford’s strong performance and the excellently constructed suspense are the best elements of the film—and the chopping saves the show when the plot tends to slow.”

Rotten Tomatoes

But more importantly, what did critics say about Mommie Dearest, er, I mean Strait Jacket? Shaun Mulvihill over at Fan Boy Nation pretty much covers it very well:

“… Strait-Jacket is now hailed as a camp classic, which it is no doubt, but it’s also a throwback melodrama that is punctuated by its moments of violent ax murders. Shout!

“Having not seen Strait-Jacket in at least 10 years, one thing stood out in revisiting the film on the new Blu-ray – this film isn’t too dissimilar to the sordid drama of «Mildred Pierce» that won Joan Crawford her lone Oscar. Even though in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as Crawford was being repurposed as a scream queen, she always gave her all to the performance. Strait-Jacket may have been seen as a B-movie to the studio and the critics reviewing the film in 1964, Crawford gives an A performance as the mentally ravaged Lucy Harbin. Of course, Crawford made sure to employ her role as the spokeswoman of Pepsi in the film, inserting six-packs of Pepsi throughout the film.
“The violence of Strait-Jacket looks quaint by today’s standards, with some rather unrealistic looking limbs being violently severed by a swinging ax. Even though Strait-Jacket is released after Herschell Gordon Lewis created the modern gore film with Blood Feast, Strait-Jacket is remarkably graphic for a studio film of its era. The posters used the violence as a selling point, proclaiming, ‘Strait-Jacket vividly depicts ax murders!’ I won’t lie, the violence of Strait-Jacket is funny by today’s standards, but it’s important to remember its context of film violence of its era.

“There’s no defending Crawford the person and her deplorable actions. On the screen, though, she shined bright and continues to shine as her classic are restored and revived on home video. Strait-Jacket may not have been her proudest moment, but you’d never know it from her dedicated performance. It’s a true testament to Crawford’s presence as a performer that Strait-Jacket is much more a Joan Crawford picture than a William Castle picture. Castle was a great showman and huckster, and he stepped aside to give the spotlight to bigger showman. William Castle knew he didn’t need a gimmick when he had Joan Crawford.”

Fan Boy Nation

It’s all tremendous fun, especially if you remember the context. Yes, it foreshadows Mommie Dearest, which makes you wonder where that particular flick came from (did Christina Crawford confuse a viewing of Strait-Jacket with her life? Oh, sorry. I’m sure her trauma was very real.) But for gosh sake, cinema Joan wielding the axe on Lee Majors in 1964 and then supposedly-real-life Joan wielding the axe on a tree 17 years later is rather … interesting.

Nonetheless, it’s always a fun time. The bonuses here are George Kennedy as a farmhand foreshadowing by 22 years Billy Bob Thornton in 1996’s Swing Blade (“I like them French fried potaters.”), all the Pepsi placement, and Lee Majors in pre-Six Million Dollar Man mode, along with his very hairy chest, fluffily rising and falling just before the axe falls. Also fun is Edith Atwater as a society matron, her tut-tut husband Howard St. John, and their son, John Anthony Hayes as their son in the very-good-looking-man role, who discovers something very unsettling about his would-be fiancee.

The ending, featuring Edith Atwater’s horrifying discovery and a mask and Joan suddenly replaying her role as Nurse Lucretia Terry in The Caretakers (1963), is pretty fabulous, but shhhhh, don’t reveal it to anyone so as not to spoil their spine-tingly, horrifyingly good time! Watch it!


Strait-Jacket Lobby Card
Strait-Jacket Lobby Card

Best quotes:

Daughter Dearest, they should have called this thing. Love these quotes, especially, “Lucy Harbin took an axe …”

Carol Harbin: “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! No I didn’t mean that, I love you. I hate you!”

Strait-Jacket

First little girl: “Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one.”
Carol Harbin: [Lucy storms out to find two girls playing jump rope] “What is it, Mother?”
Lucy Harbin: “I heard them …”
First little girl: “London bridge is falling down, falling down, London bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”
Carol Harbin: “It’s just a nursery rhyme, mother.”
Second little girl: “Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up, take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.”

Ibid

Four.5.Stars
Four and a half stars – for the camp value alone!

Strait-Jacket. 1964. MeTV. English. William Castle (d). Robert Bloch (w). Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Howard St. John, John Anthony Hayes, Rachelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Mitchell Cox and Lee Majors' hairy chest as one of the axe victims. (p). Van Alexander (m). Arthur E. Arling (c).


 

Movie Night: An American Tragedy

“Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.”

[Phillips Holmes in An American Tragedy, realizing he really does hate that grasping little factory girl and would be much happier drowning her.]

FourStars
FourStars

From 1931: «An American Tragedy» with Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney and Frances Dee. The first cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, it was eventually remade as a more famous film in 1951 starring Montgomery Clift, Shirley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun.

But this version has much to recommend it. Except the sound. The sound is like what Singin’ in the Rain was parodying. Sound in motion pictures wasn’t yet refined, so everything in the pic, especially background noise, is loud and excruciating. In the courtroom scene when the D.A. pounds his fist on the bannister in front of the accused, the resounding thuds shook the walls. Meanwhile, whole sections of dialogue were hard to pick up. Just a quibble.

The synopsis:

“A social climber charms a debutante, seduces a factory worker and commits murder.”

TMDb

It’s hard to find reviews for films of this age, but fortunately «Richard Cross of 20/20 Movie Reviews» came through, writing in 2013 and comparing the two film versions:

“An American Tragedy was remade in 1951 with Montgomery Clift in the role played here by Holmes but, while this version isn’t without its faults (which are due more to its age rather than any inherent flaws). it’s far superior to the Clift version, even though Griffith (or Eastman, as he was called in the later version), is a much more sympathetic character in the second movie. Holmes’s version is selfish and manipulative, and yet we never entirely lose some level of sympathy for him. Deep down he’s not a bad person, but he falls victim—like Roberta—to his own cowardice and weakness of character. These character flaws are gradually and painfully exposed during the trial, a lengthy sequence which was once one of the film’s strengths but which appears a little far-fetched and overacted today. The grandstanding acting style of Charles Middleton (Flash Gordon’s nemesis, Ming the Merciless) and Irving Pichel is a real drawback which isn’t helped by the way Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay call upon them to almost engage in fisticuffs. Overall though, An American Tragedy stands up well for its age.”

Richard Cross

Dreiser’s work, and therefore the two films, was based on the real life murder of «Grace Brown by Chester Gillette» in an upper New York lake on 11-Jul-1906. Basically, amoral social climber from poor background seduces poor factory girl, gets her pregnant, wants to marry a rich socialite and so kills poor factory girl by smashing her in the head with his tennis racket and dumping her body in a lake, fakes a canoe accident, trips self up by being basically an idiot, dies in electric chair after mercy is refused by Governor Charles Evans Hughes.

Both movie versions were faithful to the book and real life, as far as these things go. The real life event could stand the Erik Larson deep dive nonfiction treatment, to see how and where Dreiser departed from events. For the 1931 film, Holmes manages to make you want to both hug him and strangle him. Sadly, Holmes’ extensive career, including an appearance in the Our Gange feature General Spanky, came to an end thanks to World War II. He had just completed flight training in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was being transferred from Winnipeg to Ottawa, when the transport he was riding in collided in mid air with another aircraft over Ontario. He was only 35.

An American Tragedy Poster
[Including this poster from An American Tragedy because it’s too awesome and Art Deco for words. Now THAT’S a movie poster!]

Best quotes:

Well, there’s not any from the movie, really. These are from the book:

“Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.” “

An American Tragedy (book)

“And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament—never how they had rescued any one else.”

Ibid

“For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else—some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays—and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.”

Ibid

FourStars
4 Stars! (Because sound. Ow.)

An American Tragedy. 1931. TCM. English. Josef von Sternberg, Hans Dreier (d). Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee, Irving Pichel, Frederick Burton, Clair McDowell, Charles Middleton, Arnold Korff. (p). John Leipold, Ralph Rainger (m). Lee Garmes (c).


Movie Night: Thieves’ Highway

“Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death.”

["Let me smoke your butt, Nick!" Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte in Thieves' Highway. Take that Bogie and Bacall!]
Four.75.Stars
4 3/4 Stars!

From 1949: «Thieves’ Highway». We weren’t really planning to watch, but were drawn in immediately. I think we had seen it before, but it’s been a long while. Glad we watched. Ironically, Valentina Cortese just passed away on 10-Jul of this year. Watching her performance here was fitting, and showed just how big of a loss was her passing.

Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death. Besides the fabulous Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte, it features Lee J. Cobb in a dress rehearsal for his role in On the Waterfront, Jack Oakie and Millard Mitchell, who would be seen six years later in the classic Singin’ in the Rain, as the movie producer R.F. Simpson.

The synopsis:

“Nick Garcos comes back from his tour of duty in World War II planning to settle down with his girlfriend, Polly Faber. He learns, however, that his father was recently beaten and burglarized by mob-connected trucker Mike Figlia, and Nick resolves to get even. He partners with prostitute Rica, and together they go after Mike, all the while getting pulled further into the local crime underworld.”

TMDb

Michael Sragow, writing in an essay for the Criterion Collection «Thieves’ Highway: Dangerous Fruit» has some nice observations:

“Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama in 1949, after Brute Force and The Naked City. … it has a rich sensuality all its own.


“All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion. And each time you hear “Golden Delicious,” the image it conjures of Olympian delight contrasts sardonically with the perils of the road and the savage competition of the San Francisco marketplace.”

Michael Sragow, The Criterion Collection

(I love how Sragow introduces Nico: “Garcos … has sailed around the world without ever getting worldly.” HA!)

He then notes the inner workings of the film and places it in context:

“Dassin … is just as deft as Kazan in Boomerang! (1947) or Panic in the Streets (1950) at using real locations for knifelike verisimilitude, then catching their most far-out and surprising emotional repercussions.”

“Dassin begins scenes with compositions that border on cliché–whether of a cheerful Fresno suburb or the bustling streets and crowded pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. But each time, he punctures the cliché with cascades of complex details emerging spontaneously from the conflicted drives of the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their situations.”

IBID

Sragow, writing 1-Feb-05, then notes something that is culturally a hot button right now: toxic masculinity:

“Under Dassin’s direction, Conte here minted a fresh leading-man archetype-a rough-edged, virile naïf, containing equal amounts of violent distrust and gallantry. And Mitchell brings deep-grained orneriness to Ed, a summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, willing to rook others to satisfy his sense of justice. What gives this movie its charge isn’t just the physical danger of the road and the injustice perpetrated when fixers like Figlia use dirty tricks on truckers and buyers—it’s the psychological drama of men tossed off balance by want and need as they strive to achieve equilibrium.”

“Ed pulls Nick out from under his truck after Nick botches a tire change and gets his face buried in sand. When the older man bandages his neck, and these two finally forge a bond, Nick mutters that passersby might get the wrong idea.”

IBID

Pretty advanced for 1949, but like the ending, it gets set right: Nothin’ but manly man hetero stuff … 1949’s equivalent of “No Homo.”

And just so we’re clear that Conte/Mitchell and Oakie/Pevney are just no homo bros, in comes Rico to keep the men manly. Curiously, she’s rather butch, both in her toughness and her physical, trenchcoat-wearing appearance. In fact she’s sporting a short Italian haircut (which would be the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years), which accentuates her Italian “earthiness,” (also the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years). AND her character was originally named “Tex.” (See the paragraph about Hope Emerson below for more on this stuff.) Sragow sums it up:

“Played by Valentina Cortese with dazzling emotional clarity and erotic warmth, she’s at once this film’s beating heart and the center of its existential concerns–she dares Nick to trust his instincts and trust her, despite her shady deal-making and background.”

IBID

The review is also interesting because it delves into the writing:

“Bezzerides’ writing at its peak boasts a dynamic blend of iconoclasm and bitterness–an ideal combination for the intersection of kinetics and moodiness that is film noir.

“Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” But in movie terms, he was incorrect on every count–to use his phrase, the only truly “chickenshit change” was a studio-inserted scene in which cops berate Nick for taking the law into his own hands. Cortese’s sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, always live-wire oomph makes this proletariat adventure unique and gives it the ravaged soul and earthy glamour of a demimonde romance. No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower. When Nick says Rica has “soft hands,” she says she has “sharp claws.” She uses them only to play tic-tac-toe on his chest–a fitting game for a film in which one false move can turn ethical and commercial triumph into disaster.”

IBID

In a shorter review, «John Chard» agrees with Sragow, and adds that the chicken shit ending, tacked on to appease the Production Code’s moralists, is ridiculous:

“Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream. … Dassin and Bezzerides push a revenge theme to the forefront whilst deftly inserting from the sides the devils of greed and corruption of the California produce business.
“The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the makers, both exciting and exuding the menace of the hard slog for truckers. … [once in San Francisco] underhand tactics come seeping out and the appearance of prostitute Rica (Cortese) into Nico’s life adds a morally grey area that pings with sharp dialogue exchanges. Real location photography adds to the authentic feel of the story, and cast performances are quite simply excellent across the board.
“The code appeasing ending hurts the film a touch, inserted against Dassin’s wishes, and there’s a feeling that it should have been more damning with the economic tropes; while the fact that Nico’s father is more concerned about being robbed of money than losing the use of his legs – is a bit strange to say the least. However, from a graveyard of tumbling apples to the fact that more than money is stolen here, Thieves’ Highway is sharp, smart and engrossing stuff.”

John Chard, TMDb

Sharp, smart, engrossing … and for us LGBTQ+ viewers, chock full of forbidden fruit.

We loved this one. Having spent many years in the Bay Area, we could relate to much of the scenery and sensibilities and subtext.

And speaking of subtext again, worth noting is the appearance of the wonderful Hope Emerson, a career character actor with a long list of credits, including Adam’s Rib in the same year as Thieves’ Highway. In Adam’s Rib, she played a very talented gymnast in a courtroom, in a role that noted both how big and butch she was, in an era when that kind of thing was invisible. She is somewhat the same in Thieves’ Highway, minus the gymnastics, as a very tough female fruit buyer. Dassin pretty much broke the Code in multiple ways throughout the movie; although the Code had the last say with its smarmy cop platitudinal lecturing about not taking the law in your own hands, the weight of his film said, “Nuts to you!” to the Code.

A good pairing for this would be The Grapes of Wrath, which starts with starving Okies hitting Route 66 in search of fruit picking work. Follow that with Thieves’ Highway and you get a clear picture of what it takes to get an apple off a tree into the teeth of someone wanting to cheat a doctor a day.

Sadly, much is unchanged in this process, except the grower, the picker, the trucker and the distributor-to-grocery-stores are all corporate behemoths and conditions may, if anything, be worse than 1940’s Grapes of Wrath and 1949’s Thieves’ Highway. We’ve let much slide since Reagan, who married anti-New Deal propaganda with our generation’s laziness and produced massive rollbacks of workers’ rights (and the current occupant of the White House), and our grandchildren will have to fight three times as hard as their ancestors between 1870 and 1950 did for decency, living wages, respect, clean air, clean water, and safe working conditions. Whether they will do it remains to be seen.


Best quotes:

Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos: [to Rica] “You look like chipped glass.”

Thieves’ Highway

Nick: “Hey, do you like apples?”
Rica: “Everybody likes apples, except doctors.”
Nick: “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.”
Rica: “I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.”

Thieves’ Highway

Four.75.Stars
My rating: Four 3/4 stars; Not a full five because of the Code-appeasing ending, tacked on against the director’s protests.

Thieves Highway. 1949. TCM. English. Jules Dassin (d); A.I. Bezzerides (w); Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne, Kasia Orzazewski, Norbert Schiller, Hope Emerson (p). Alfred Newman (m). Norbert Brodine (c).


Movie Night: Desk Set

“Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).”

["Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. A RomCom about 30somethings played by 50somethings falling in love under the benevolent gaze of EMERAC.]

Four.75.Stars
4 ¾ Stars!

From 1957: «Desk Set», my personal favorite among the nine Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films. Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).

The synopsis:

“A computer expert tries to prove his electronic brain can replace a television network’s research staff.” TMDb

TMDb

I’m beginning to think The MovieDb folks need better synopsis writers.

Movie Metropolis‘ James Plath «wrote this review» in 2013:

“Desk Set catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship … waiting for a ring and running out of patience. … “The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose. “Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.”

James Plath, Movie Metropolis

Joan Blondell is fabulous as always and the film marks an appearance by Sue Randall, who would later play Beaver’s teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Neva Patterson is awesomely uptight and Dina Merrill is far too glamorous to be a research assistant, but it works. The would-be pairing of Gig Young and Katharine Hepburn is a bit far-fetched, and both Kate and Spencer seemed just a little long in the tooth for a RomCom, but those are quibbles. It works and works raucously well.

A short bit about a rainstorm and a guy from legal and his wife, kids and mother-in-law is hilarious and reminds you of I Love Lucy. But the best bit is a silent one by Ida Moore, an unnamed “Old Lady” who wanders in from time-to-time, checking out a book or enjoying the spiked punch at the office Christmas party. Supposedly, she was, way back in the day, the original model for the giant sculpture which is Federal’s logo, and she has had the run of the place ever since. Ida Moore does this with such aplomb and excellence that even Kate seems to be in her shade.


Best quotes:

Besides the “Mexican Avenue Bus,” there are many great lines/bits:

Bunny Watson: “Have some tequila, Peg.”

Peg Costello: “I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.”

Bunny Watson: “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.”

Desk Set

Richard Sumner: “Hello? Santa Claus’s reindeer? Uh, why yes I can… let’s see, there’s Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, Sleepy, uh Rudolph, and Blitzen! You’re welcome!”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “Just for kicks. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. I mean, don’t dwell on the question, but I warn you there’s a trick in it: If six Chinamen get off a train at Las Vegas, and two of them are found floating face down in a goldfish bowl, and the only thing they can find to identify them are two telephone numbers – one, Plaza Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, and the other, Columbus Oh-1492 – what time did the train get to Palm Springs?”

Richard Sumner: “Nine o’clock.”

Bunny Watson: “Now, would you mind telling me how you happened to get that?”

Richard Sumner: “Well, there are eleven letters in Palm Springs. You take away two Chinamen, that leaves nine.”

Bunny Watson: “You’re a sketch, Mr. Sumner.”

Richard Sumner: “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.”

Richard Sumner: “How do you know that?”

Bunny Watson: “Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.”

Ibid

And of course my personal favorite, Curfew Shall Not a-Ring Tonight!:

Richard Sumner: [Watching the computer result on “Corfu”, which is mistaken as “curfew”] What the devil is this?

Bunny Watson: [Also having a look] It’s the poem, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” Isn’t that nice? [reciting] “Cromwell will not come till sunset, and her lips grew strangely white… as she breathed the husky whisper, curfew must not a-ring tonight.”

Miss Warriner: [while Bunny goes on] Mr. Sumner, what can I do?

Richard Sumner: Nothing. You know you can’t interrupt her [the computer] in the middle of a sequence.

Miss Warriner: Yes, but, Mr. Sumner…

Richard Sumner: Quiet! Just listen.

Bunny Watson: “She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh, at the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”

Richard Sumner: Uh, how long does this go on?

Bunny Watson: That old poem has about 80 stanzas to it.

Richard Sumner: Where are we now?

Bunny Watson: “She has reached the topmost ladder. O’er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell. Lo, the ponderous tongue is swinging. ‘Tis the hour of curfew now, and the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath and paled her brow.”

[telephone rings]

Bunny Watson: “Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly…

[answers the phone]

Bunny Watson: …curfew shall not ring tonight!”

[audible click]

Bunny Watson: They hung up. And I know another one! “Out she swung, far out, the city seemed a speck of light…”

Ibid

Four.75.Stars
My rating: 4 3/4 stars for, ironically, casting.

Desk Set. 1957. TCM. English. Walter Lang (d); Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, William Marchant (w) Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Henry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens, Don Porter, Sammy Ogg (p). Cyril J. Mockridge (m). Leon Shamroy (c).


Movie Night: Hot Millions

“There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.”


[How veddy British! Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith in Hot Millions. Also, how veddy Sixties!]

Four.5.Stars
4 1/2 Stars!

From 1968: «Hot Millions». Some fun British fun from Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith.

True story. The very first time I ever went to a theater and saw a movie was in February 1968 at the Plains Theater in Roswell, NM. Which is sadly now the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” 1947 alien landing tourist trap and that’s upsetting and rather terrifying. But upsetting and terrifying is what my first movie experience was; my four-year-old self bawled all the way through it and I think my sister had to take me to the lobby.

The list of things that scared me was long in those days; well into my teens, I was pretty much scared of everything. No reason; I had a good childhood, wasn’t abused or anything. But movie theaters, especially high ceilings and balconies, terrified me. So did fire engines, police cars, motorcycles, Walt Disney, sirens, fireworks, Carlsbad Caverns, roller coasters, teachers and teenagers.

But what was the most terrifying of all was the first movie in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, starring Peter Ustinov. It was a funny kid’s Disney movie, typical of the time, with Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Elsa Lanchester, Elliot Reid, Richard Deacon and Michael Conrad, in his pre-Hill Street Blues days.

And the worst scene was Ustinov as Blackbeard, riding a police motorcycle with siren blaring, invisible to everyone except Dean Jones. I really bawled at that. Even if it was about the funniest one in the movie. Sirens, invisible pirates, a huge theater, yeesh.

At any rate, Hot Millions is what we’re actually talking about here.

The synopsis:

“A con-artist (Peter Ustinov) gains employment at an insurance company in order to embezzle money by re-programming their “new” wonder computer.”

TMDb

It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, although «Roger Ebert’s impression» is probably spot on as usual:

“Today I would like to bow to another critic for my opening thought. Writing about Hot Millions in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann observed that it didn’t make him laugh out loud, but at the end of the film he realized he’d been smiling for nearly two hours. That says it very well: Hot Millions, which is not a hilarious comedy, is a pleasant, warm one.

“The warmth comes because the characters are developed rather more than is usually the case in movies about (a) embezzlers or (b) eccentrics. The British comedy tradition accounts for these two genres quite completely; eccentrics are usually Terry-Thomas whistling through the gap in his teeth, and embezzlers usually try for a sort of efficient anonymity.

“This is not, I suppose, a great comedy. But Ustinov and Miss Smith act with a sort of natural appeal, and there are moments you will enjoy very much. Especially recommended for computer programmers, their accomplices and their molls.”

Roger Ebert

I personally don’t need my sides to split when I watch a “comedy,” but that’s just me. There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.


Best quotes:

Carlton J. Klemper [talking about his corporation taking over the whole world]: “Yes sir! When the time comes, I may even put in a bid for all of England.”

Marcus Pendleton: }Hadn’t you better wait till it’s solvent?”

Hot Millions

Prison Governor: “You should be in politics, not in prison.”

Marcus Pendleton: “Well, in a way, I was, wasn’t I? When they caught me embezzling at the Conservative Central Office.”

Prison Governor: “Yes, I could never understand why you chose that of all places.”

Marcus Pendleton: [after a pause, says sternly] “I’m a Liberal.”

Prison Governor: “Oh.”

Elderly Gentleman card player: [Irritated by all the talk] “If this keeps up, I shall violate a lifetime principle and play bridge with women.”

Patty: “What does he want?”

Marcus: “Assets.”

Patty: “What are they?”

Marcus: “Young female donkeys.”


Four.5.Stars
4 1/2 Stars!

Hot Millions. 1968. TCM. English. Eric Till (d). Peter Ustinov, Ira Wallach (w). Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Karl Malden, Bob Newhart, Robert Morley, Cesar Romero, Peter Jones, Ann Lancaster, Patsy Crowther. (p). Laurie Johnson (m). Kenneth Higgins (c).


Movie Night: Die Brücke

“It’s hard to think of a better illustration of the end of the European theater of war free of the pernicious and ubiquitous American boo-yah of so many countless war films.”


Five.Stars
Five Stars + !!!!

From 1959: «Die Brücke (The Bridge)». Sure it’s an anti-war war film. But it also works as horror: you know what these teens are about to suffer as the film moves from happy school days with worries about English class, liquor, a boat and some girls to its inevitable conclusion, and you want to shout, “Don’t go in that basement [on that bridge]!” For a first-time film director, Bernhard Wicki sure knew what he was doing. This is German cinema at its finest.

The synopsis:

“A group of German boys are ordered to protect a small bridge in their home village during the waning months of the second world war. Truckloads of defeated, cynical Wehrmacht soldiers flee the approaching American troops, but the boys, full of enthusiasm for the “blood and honor” Nazi ideology, stay to defend the useless bridge.”

TMDb

I paired it with Ich war Neunzehn, the East German/Russian film about a 17-year-old Red Army lieutenant’s last days of the war north of Berlin. It’s hard to think of a better illustration of the end of the European theater of war free of the pernicious and ubiquitous American boo-yah of so many countless war films. With these two films, you get rare perspectives of both the end of the war and of the beginning of the peace; Die Brücke illustrates the final gotterdamerung of the Reich and Ich war Neunzehn illustrates the post-gotterdamerung of East German communism overseen by Russian propaganda.

While I still dearly love Der Untergang (2004), it and so many other films tell the same old stories of the major characters of the war. These two films however show what life was like for millions of ordinary people. Die Brücke barely mentions Hitler and Churchill, and they are far off and far removed from the school boys’ mundane cares. Ich war Neunzehn doesn’t mention Stalin. They both allude to the systems of fascism and communism, but that’s not the focus. The result in both cases is refreshing. Instead we see real human beings surviving or dying without madeup actors with little clipped mustaches and their historical names in print below to tell viewers this madeup actor is Hitler or Stalin or Churchill.

David M. Keyes of «Cinemaphile» describes Die Brücke this way:

“The bridge persists as a stubborn link between a decaying empire and imminent liberation, defended enthusiastically by seven young men on the precipice of mortal danger. They wear masks that distort their notion of the inevitable, but not merely out of ignorance; they have been molded by the vehement enthusiasm of nationalism, which remains unchanged even after buildings have crumbled and soldiers have been erased from the battlefields. Most of them are all too eager to step in as defenders of their treasured Reich, though the faces of their parents reflect a more anxious concern.
“In one notable moment, for instance, one of the mothers tearfully pleas with her son to ignore the drafting letter he has received, insisting that he flee to the country to stay with relatives. He declines, grinning the whole way, which places emphasis on the underlying conflict: can these teenage boys be faulted for being slaves to the pure and idealistic, even as the possibilities of triumph seem lost in a haze of downtrodden confessions? Perhaps it is more sobering to see them as symbols of the uncultivated, especially under the rule of the Nazis: because this essentially made them the most expendable in an impending fight against enemy combatants, an obligatory defeat only aggravates the wound created by their destructive occupation.”

Cinemaphile

I’ll come back again and again to this one, and to Ich war Neunzehn; next time, I’ll view them back-to-back on the same night.


Five.Stars
My Rating: Five Stars +!!!!!

Die Brücke. 1959. Criterion Collection. German with English subtitles. Bernhard Wicki (d); Manfred Gregor (novel); Folker Bohnet, Fritz Wepper, Michael Hinz, Frank Glaubrecht, Karl Michael Balzer, Volker Lechtenbrink, Günther Hoffmann, Cordula Trantow, Wolfgang Stumpf, Günter Pfitzmann, Heinz Spitzner, Siegfried Schürenberg, Ruth Hausmeister, Eva Vaitl, Edith Schultze-Westrum, Hans Elwenspoek, Trude Breitschopf, Klaus Hellmold, Inge Benz, Til Kiwe, Edeltraut Elsner, Vicco von Bülow, Georg Lehn, Johannes Buzalski, Heini Göbel, Alexander Hunzinger, Alfons Teuber (a).

Movie Night: Ich War Neunzehn

“Konrad Wolf’s 1968 feels like a real 1945; he takes us back to his youth and we’re submerged in the fog that he had to navigate through once upon a time.”


Five.Stars
Five Stars!

From 1968: «Ich war Neunzehn (I Was Nineteen)». Mesmerizing. Intense. Now in my top ten of all time. Yes, it’s Ostie/DDR propaganda sucking up to the Russians. And it’s very well done, transcending the (now deceased) confines of the DDR strait jacket.

The synopsis:

“April 1945: Gregor Hecker, 19 years of age, reaches the outskirts of Berlin as part of the Red Army’s scouting team. Having fled Germany with his family when he was eight, he is confronted with the dilemma of having to fight men from the very country he was born in. Through dealing with challenging situations (e.g. he is appointed commander of Bernau, talks to many disillusioned Germans, and is once and again attacked by scattered groups of German soldiers), he grows more confident that not all hope is lost for post-war Germany.”

TMDb

As a reviewer at DVD Talk puts it, ” The DEFA was responsible for some very creative films, but it was still under the auspices of a Communist GDR, so there’s the inevitable Stalinist propaganda. The Russians are naturally portrayed as the heroes of the war, and made to be the biggest victims of the war. ” The reviewer, Daniel Siwek, goes on:

Konrad Wolf’s 1968 feels like a real 1945; he takes us back to his youth and we’re submerged in the fog that he had to navigate through once upon a time. It spends a lot of time repeating it’s points and questions, but when you consider the subject matter, isn’t that the way it really is as well? It’s hyped as one of Germany’s greatest films, and while I’m no expert in Deutsche cinema, I can understand that it’s definitely a film that deserves to be examined and appreciated.

DVD Talk

Well worth having it in a collection and re-viewing it every once in awhile. Russian/German with English subtitles.


Five.Stars
My Rating: Five Stars (Yes, I do tend to see films I know I’m going to love, rather than ones I’m likely to which I might be ambivalent. Ergo, lots of five star ratings.)

Ich war Neunzehn. 1968. Criterion Collection. German/Russian with English subtitles. Konrad Wolf (d). Wolfgang Kohlhaase (w). Jaecki Schwarz, Vasiliy Livanov, Rolf Hoppe, Galina Polskikh, Jürgen Hentsch, Kurt Böwe, Hermann Beyer, Mikhail Gluzskiy, Jenny Gröllmann, Wolfgang Greese, Johannes Wieke, Fritz Mohr, Otto Lang, Aleksey Eybozhenko, Anatoliy Solovyov, Klaus Manchen, Walter Bechstein, Afanasi Kochetkov, Dieter Mann, Wolfgang Winkler, Martin Trettau (a).

Movie Night: Conquest

“The film itself is fairly representative of the period and shows how far ahead of her time Garbo was … that she could shine in spite of rather stilted dialogue, in a non-native language shows just how great an actor she was at the height of her career. It wasn’t bad, and I might have another look under certain conditions, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for the DVD collection, unless Criterion gets hold of it.”


Four.75.Stars
4 3/4 Stars!

From 1937: «Conquest», which pairs Greta Garbo with Charles Boyer and achieves something sublime (Garbo) and ridiculous (the script). Boyer is convincing at least as Napoleon. It’s based on the true story of Napoleon’s advances, on the field and off, and his retreats, on the field and off, and the Polish countess who he conquers, as well as his illegitimate son.

The synopsis:

“A [P]olish countess becomes Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistress at the urging of Polish leaders, who feel she might influence him to make Poland independent.”

TMDb

In the context of what would happen to Poland just two years after this was filmed, it was timely stuff. And anything about Napoleon is pretty much guaranteed to be pass-the-popcorn high entertainment.

Emanuel Levy «writing in 2010» had this to say;

“The project had been in development for years, based on MGM’s dream casting on Garbo, as the Polish countess Marie Walewska, Napoleon’s mistress. But they could not find the right leading man, within and without MGM. That changed after the Gallic actor Charles Boyer became an international star, thus deemed proper to play Napoleon.

“Tale, co-penned by Samuel Hoffenstein, Salka Viertel, and S.N. Behrman is too melodramatic to qualify as a genuine tragic romance and too fake to allow Garbo render a fully realized performance.

But it did not matter, as Garbo was then at the peak of her career, and MGM didn’t spare any money in making a lavish production, casting the film with numerous extras.

The scenes between Napoleon and his son (cute child) are fake and sentimental, and last farewell, when Maria fails to convince the emperor to escape with her, is ridiculous.”

Emanuel Levy, Cinema 24/7

He’s right, that ending is completely ridiculous, although «the boy, Alexandre Colonna Walewski, actually did exist», living until 58 years old and having an illustrious career in Polish and French politics, escaping Daddy’s continental conquest ambitions and confining himself to French legislative affairs.

The film itself is fairly representative of the period and shows how far ahead of her time Garbo was … that she could shine in spite of rather stilted dialogue, in a non-native language shows just how great an actor she was at the height of her career. It wasn’t bad, and I might have another look under certain conditions, but I probably wouldn’t buy it for the DVD collection, unless Criterion gets hold of it.


Best quotes:

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “I shall send it up to you, invite you to my quarters.”

Countess Marie Walewska: “I have a husband, sire.”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “He’s four times your age!”

Countess Marie Walewska: “He has his dignity. He has his honored name. He has his pride. And so have I, sire.”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Now I understand. So, it is pride you have in common!”

Countess Marie Walewska: “That does not become a conqueror, sire.”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “When you have conquered, Madame, you may instruct me. “

Conquest

“When you have conquered, Madame …” is mee-rowr fabulous! (I said above some dialogue is stilted, and so it is, but these quotes are pretty damn good, especially the following exchange with the Countess’ dotty, skeptical old mother

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Who are you?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “I am Napoleon!”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Napoleon? Napoleon who?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Hmm? Bonaparte!”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte? What kind of name is that? What nationality are you?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Corsican by birth. French by adoption. Emperor by achievement.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “So, you are an Emperor, are you? What are you Emperor of?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Emperor of France, madame.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Hee, hee, hee. So you are Emperor of France. And my very good friend, His Majesty, King Louis Sixteenth abdicated in your honor, I suppose?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Well, he didn’t know it at the time but in a sense he did, madame.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “This house is getting to be a lunatic asylum.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “What were you before you became an Emperor?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “A corporal.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “That’s what I thought. A soldier. Why do you say you were an Emperor?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “One can be both, Madame. Alexander was.”

Countess Pelagia Walewska: “Everybody who goes crazy thinks he is Alexander. Now, if Alexander went crazy, who would he think he was?”

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte: “Napoleon.”

Ibid

Brilliant.



Four.75.Stars
My rating: 4 ¾ Stars for some dialogue, which is mostly, but just not quite, excellent.
Conquest. 1937. TCM. English. Clarence Brown, Gustav Machaty (d); Waclaw Gasiorowski, S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein, Talbot Jennings, Helen Jerome, Salka Viertel, Carey Wilson (w) Greta Garbo, Charles Boyer, Reginald Owen, Alan Marshal, Hentry Stephenson, Leif Erickson, May Whitty, Maria Ouspenskaya, C. Henry Gordon, Claude Gillingwater, Vladimir Sokoloff, George Houston, Scotty Beckett, Dennis O'Keefe, (p). Herbert Stothart (m). Karl Freund (c).