A Forgotten Film to Remember: Kind Lady

ethelopeningEver since reading Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore by his comrade in revelry, Gene Fowler, I have been fascinated with the Barrymore family. Handsome, tragic John has become my favorite Barrymore, because he was so flawed and yet so talented. Equally talented but not flawed was his older sister Ethel Barrymore. Next Saturday, February 28, at 9:15am, Ethel stars in Kind Lady, part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming.

Before noting Barrymore’s contribution, I would be remiss if I did not mention Kind Lady’s narrative pedigree. Originally a short story by Hugh Walpole titled “The Silver Casket,” it was turned into a beloved stage play by Edward Chodorov in 1935. The first film version was released in 1936 and starred Basil Rathbone as Elcott and Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Herries. The screenplay for the 1951 version, which was credited to Chodorov, Jerry Davis, and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, made changes to the original material. Characters were eliminated to streamline the story, a key murder was moved toward the end of the film, and an exciting climactic sequence was added (a Hitchcockian approach). The film was aided enormously by the direction of John Sturges, who has earned a place in the history books for his widescreen, Technicolor films that exploited spectacular outdoor settings (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Released in 1951, Kind Lady is a black-and-white thriller with a claustrophobic set, but Sturges seemed equally adept within these perimeters. He milked the limited setting to its full advantage to create tension while adding visual interest through camera movement.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of TCM with a free screening of CASABLANCA

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. To celebrate the event as well as give back to the many devoted viewers who regularly watch and enjoy the network’s programming, TCM has teamed up with Warner Brothers to offer free theatrical screenings of the romantic wartime classic CASABLANCA (1942). The film will be playing nationwide in 20 selected cities on Tuesday, March 4th and tickets are currently available to download free of charge on the TCM 20th Anniversary website. Although tickets are free seating is limited to a first-come, first-served basis and they do not guarantee entry. Want to know where you can catch a free screening of CASABLANCA? Read on but be prepared to wade through a few of my thoughts about the film first.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Bluebeard

bbopeningWhen I was in film school, the students in my group became avid John Carradine fans. Carradine was an aging icon of horror films by that time and was feeble because of a stroke. Yet he was still working, cast in bit parts and cameos by directors who wanted to pay homage to his long career by including him in their movies. In classes, we were exposed to his memorable work as a supporting player and character actor in the films of John Ford and others. He skillfully made the most of his sonorous voice, gaunt frame, and sharp features to enhance his characters—from the melancholy Southern aristocrat in Stagecoach to the charlatan professor in Fallen Angel. This Wednesday, October 30, at 4:45PM (EST), TCM airs Bluebeard, one of the few films in which Carradine played the leading man. Carradine was quite proud of the film and often cited it as his personal favorite.

Based on the life of a 15th-century serial killer, the story of Bluebeard was turned into a novel by Charles Perrault in 1697. Since then, the basic narrative has been retold, reworked, and rebooted in dozens of stories and films. A cautionary tale for young women, the basic premise tells of a handsome lover who courts women into marriage only to kill them. I wonder if the relevancy of the story is in the way it exposes the pitfalls of marriage, especially for women. Bluebeard-like tales represent everything from the fear of the wedding night to the loss of identity when a woman’s goals and dreams are sacrificed to marriage and motherhood (a kind of death). [...MORE]

On the Death of Harry Carey, Jr.

careyjrcardDuring the last phase of his career, Harry Carey, Jr., appeared in small but significant parts in some of the few westerns produced in Hollywood during the 1980s. In Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, he played a stagecoach passenger named George Arthur, who is robbed by members of the James-Younger Gang. When George reveals that he had fought for the South during the Civil War, Bob Younger shakes his hand. The unreconstructed rebel bonds with the outlaws as he helps them rob a cowardly passenger who lies about fighting for the Stars and Bars. As the gang rides away with guns blazing, George walks toward the camera, murmuring in amazement, “I’ll be god damned and go to hell”—a proper testimonial after an encounter with legends. The stage hold-up is one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is Harry Carey, Jr., who delivers this line. As a member of John Ford’s stock company, Carey had walked among a few western legends himself, albeit cinematic ones.

Carey died last week at the age of 91, and most obituaries identified him with Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, and the other actors associated with Ford’s troupe. Carey was proud of his close association with Ford and his westerns even when he didn’t fully agree with the great director’s attitude toward his actors. In his autobiography Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, he declared, “. . . I’ve only had one teacher. That man was John Ford. He was my nemesis and my hero. There were times when I was not an admirer—but when the day’s work was done—I loved him.”

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HARRY CAREY, JR., c. 1948

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way … to writing this blog post

Have you ever gone to the theater expecting to see a movie (or play) about one thing but, once there, were then completely surprised – pleasantly or unpleasantly – with what transpired on the screen (or stage). For me, it used to happen more frequently before the explosion of the Internet (where spoilers abound), but it can still happen today when I adopt an intentional approach to such entertainment. For instance, when I watch a classic film, it happens more often because I tend to seek, find and view lesser known films on TCM or, in this case, the Fox Movie Channel.

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The Secret Life of a Character Actor

The careers of character actors seem to be a study in contradictions: They are unsung in their roles yet highly respected in the industry; they are unknown by name but recognizable by face.  Though today’s character actors can add texture and depth to almost any movie, their numbers can’t compare to the hundreds of supporting players in the films of the 1930s through the 1950s, which was as much a Golden Age for characters actors as it was for classic movies.

Character actors from the classic era were not movie stars. They rarely played the protagonist or leading lady, and expectations of their contributions to movies differed from that of stars. They specialized in well-defined secondary roles that were suited to their physical characteristics or individual voices. Once a character actor established a specific image, viewers learned to recognize the actor’s face and then associate him or her with certain roles. Characters that seemed sketchy or slight on the written page were vividly brought to life and given distinction by the casting of the right veteran character actors. Some of these actors played within a very narrow range, essentially appearing in the same roles for decades. Others enjoyed a versatile persona that allowed for some diversity while still fulfilling viewers’ expectations for their characters.

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Death Is Not an Adventure: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

On February 4th, the last living veteran of WW1 passed away in King’s Lynn, England. Florence Green was 110 years old, and had joined up with the Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918, two months before the armistice. The last surviving combat veteran, Briton Claude Choles, died in Australia in 2011. The Great War is no longer part of the world’s living memory, and so drifts slowly from history and into myth (see: War Horse). This process will accelerate in 2014-2018, the 100th Anniversary of the conflict. But no images, not even Spielberg’s, have defined the war more than those in All Quiet On the Western Front, Universal’s grim gamble of 1930. Banned in Poland, reviled in Germany, and a tough sell to  studios, this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s landmark novel is one of the bleakest films ever made in Hollywood. Universal is releasing it on Blu-Ray today in a pristine restoration, in a nearly-complete 133 minute version, while also including the rare silent edition, which was made for theaters not yet equipped for sound (For background on all the edits inflicted on the film, please read Lou Lumenick’s article in the NY Post).

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Reading Into Robert Cornthwaite

My favorite mad scientist may just be Dr. Arthur Carrington, the hopelessly naive (but very dressy) ascot-, turtleneck-, and blazer-wearing trailblazer in The Thing From Another World (1951). Every time I see this movie set in a military and scientific observation station in the frozen North, I always wonder where this man’s parka could be.  Did he forget to pack it in a moment of absent-mindedness while in the lower 48?  As played by character actor Robert Cornthwaite (seen above, with his head in a script),  he is the embodiment of polished intellectual curiosity without a shred of common sense.

As far as I’m concerned, you can keep the other actors in this movie, (even George Fenneman, shortly before he became Groucho Marx’s game show flunky and that big galoot lumbering around in disguise long before Gunsmoke premiered on television)–the star of this film is the rather epicene Doc Carrington, played to a fare-thee-well by the unsung Cornthwaite, a small man with a receding hairline, a sneaky wit, and a cold mien that suits this part perfectly. The authoritative actor, seething with a bookish hauteur, appears to have created a colorful backstory for his character–He is the erudite man of science, disheartened (and maybe bored out of his skull), who is becoming increasingly unable to cope with the psychological demands of his daily grind after months penned up inside the bleak, fetid atmosphere of  this frostbitten outpost where he languishes in the company of a passel of Air Force yahoos, a few doddering biologists, and some malleable underlings. The bottled-up, almost terminally frustrated Carrington appears to be a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as eventually becomes clear throughout the nimbly staged 87 minute movie. He’s also quite a hoot.

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The Face of Fear — Don Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”

I really wanted to contribute something to this Halloween blogfest, so I offer a little nonsensical coda about a movie I’m sure a lot of us have seen many times and probably enjoy.  Funny + spooky has been a movie tradition forever, and nobody did it quite as well as the limber-limbed and rubber-faced actor/comedian Don Knotts in his 1966 feature film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken

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