Mary Astor’s career was a long one going back to the early 1920′s. Over the years her career continued to grow until an infamous marital scandal broke in 1936 while she was making William Wyler’s “Dodsworth.” During the court battle her husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe threatened to submit Astor’s spicy, fully detailed, diary as evidence of her infidelities with George S. Kaufmann and other celebrities. Ultimately, the diary was never offered to the court. Astor’s career could have been in jeopardy, since as with most actors at the time, a morality clause was included as part of the contract. Fortunately, Sam Goldwyn refused to fire her and she continued in her role as Edith Cortwright, Huston’s lover in the film. “Dodsworth” was a hit and Astor amazingly entered what could be considered her peak period with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “The Hurricane,” “Midnight,” “Brigham Young” leading her into arguably her best year, 1941, with “The Maltese Falcon” and an Academy Award winning role as Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Great Lie.”
After the successful year of 1941, along with its follow up with films like “Across the Pacific” and Preston Sturges, “The Palm Beach Story,” both in 1942, Mary Astor’s career hit another serious bump in the road. She made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM where they pretty much regulated her to playing “mother” roles in films like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Little Women.” In the 1944 musical, Astor, only 38 at the time, played the mother of Judy Garland who was 22. Suffice it to say, Astor was not happy. One of the few meatier roles MGM tossed Mary’s way came in 1948. Continue reading →
“Out of the Fog” is based on a 1939 play called “The Gentle People” by Irwin Shaw. The play ran for a respectable four and half months on Broadway and had one heck of a cast that included Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Sylvia Sydney, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt and Karl Malden. It was produced by the legendary Group Theater and directed by the visionary Harold Clurman. The play was an anti-fascist parable (Shaw subtitled the play, A Brooklyn Fable) of the meek overcoming the arrogant and the powerful. In the play the two main characters were elderly gentle Jewish men, Jonah Goodman and Philip Anagnos, who are shaken down for five dollars a week in protection money by a smart aleck, stylishly dressed, wise ass gangster named Harold Goff (Tone). Goff also awakens the dreams and sexuality of Jonah’s bored daughter Stella (Sydney) who has hopes of leaving her meaningless existence for a more exciting life. When Goff learns the two fishermen have money saved to buy a boat, he demands they hand the savings over to him too. In order to rid themselves of Goff’s extortion and threats, the two fishermen lure him into their boat. Once they are out in the ocean they kill him and toss him overboard but not before taking his wallet filled with the money. Continue reading →
At this point in his career, Henry Fonda was not happy with most of the films he had made. Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was certainly one he was proud of, and thanks to John Ford, he got the role of a lifetime. Like Brando as Stanley Kowalski, or Cagney as George M. Cohan, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fitting the role of Tom Joad other than Henry Fonda. But there was a price to be paid for getting that part. 20th Century Fox honcho, Darryl F. Zanuck would only give him the role if he signed a contract with the studio. One of the films he made for Fox during this period was “The Ox-Bow Incident,” based on Walter Van Tilbert Clark’s extraordinary novel. Directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, the film is an oddity in westerns of the period. In 1943, the war was on and most films focused on lightweight escapist entertainment, a two hour break from worrying about husbands, fathers, sons and the horrors of what was happening in the world. “The Ox-Bow Incident” was not lightweight entertainment, it was a downbeat, ugly look at humanity with little gun play, focusing on vigilantism, group mentality, reducing men to the lowest primal level of thoughts and deeds. It is also possibly the first psychological western ever made. Continue reading →
Based on Lucille Fletcher’s highly popular radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number” was brought to the screen in 1948 by producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The original radio show featured Agnes Moorehead and was primarily a tense one woman dialogue for the complete twenty-two minute show. The program was so popular, Moorehead reprised her role several times over the years, but when Wallis and Paramount purchased the property, they decided Moorehead was not a big enough star for the lead role in the film. So here came Stanwyck who had just signed a contract with Wallis making this her first film under the new agreement.
To expand the original short radio script into a feature film, Lucille Fletcher “opened” up her original story which she accomplished by adding a series of flashbacks and even some flashbacks within flashbacks, expanding the role of the husband, played by Lancaster. Fletcher would also turn the screenplay into a novel the same year the movie was released.
Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, the bed ridden wealthy invalid, neurotic to the core, with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays. She is confined to her lavish bedroom apartment, overlooking the New York City skyline. One evening Leona, attempting to call her boy toy husband Henry, accidently due to crossed telephone lines, overhears two men discussing a murder plot. She calls the police, then her father and finally her doctor, but no one believes her. Continue reading →
Steely eyed and sexy, that’s Barbara Stanwyck at her best. No one conveyed the tough dame, determined yet alluring look that can arouse a man’s loins any better. With a screenplay by Robert Rossen (Force of Evil) based on a story by John Patrick, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” is a hybrid twisting mix of film noir and 1940′s women’s melodrama with Stanwyck’s dangerous female right in the middle.
It’s the late 1920′s when Martha Ivers, a young orphaned teen, living with her rich aunt (Judith Anderson) strikes the older woman with a cane causing her to fall down a flight and stairs and die. Witnessed by her friend, Walter O’Neil, the boy backs up her story to his father, a hungry and ambitious lawyer, that the older woman did in fact “fall” with no help from Martha. The father suspects that’s not what really happened but realizes Martha, as her aunt’s only living relative stands to inherit a fortune and will make for a perfect wife for his awkward son. Continue reading →
And with these words “On the Town” gets off to a rousing start gliding us through a montage of three sailors on a one day pass seeing the sights of the city, New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. It’s a world wind tour, a sparkling pioneering opening and possibly an early inspiration on music videos. Based on the 1944 hit Broadway musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The book, also by Comden and Green, was based on an idea for a ballet called “Fancy Free,” by Jerome Robbins who choreographed the stage production. In 1949, MGM brought the musical to the screen and of course had to change things including dropping most of the original songs and adding new ones (Bernstein’s music was considered too highbrow for movie audiences), this despite the fact that MGM was an investor in the stage production! Only four songs survived and, of those, the opening number had to be “toned down” (the line New York, New York, It’s a hella of town was change to read it’s a wonderful town) to appease the censors and blue noses. Additionally, the storyline was changed, enlarging and focusing more on Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Ivy (Vera Ellen) than Ozzie (Jules Munshin) and Claire (Ann Miller). Continue reading →
When James Cagney returned to the gangster role in 1949’s “White Heat”, the film exploded off the screen, just as it still does today. As Eddie Mueller points out in “Dark City” Cody is not a classic gangster but an outlaw and that is an important difference. Arthur “Cody” Jarrett was not a victim of growing up on the poor side of town, like Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” or a war veteran returning home to depression era high unemployment, as Eddie Bartlett did in “The Roaring Twenties.” Nor was Cody part of a criminal organization. Jarrett instead is a cruel, psychotic, homicidal, maniacal mamma’s boy, a brother to Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo, Lawrence Tierney’s Sam Wild and a father to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana along other post war psychotic criminals. Whether he shoots holes into the trunk of his car “to give some air” to fellow prison escapee Parker, who attempted to kill Jarrett in prison, or shoots Big Ed (Steve Cochran) and gleefully kicks him down the stairs telling his boys to catch, Cody is cruelly vicious and unstable. As portrayed by Cagney, he is magnetic, one of the great performances of all time; you just cannot take your eyes off him. Continue reading →
I grew up watching Abbott and Costello movies on WOR-TV channel 9, then an independent station in the New York City area. Every weekend one of the legendary team’s movies would be on and I would be glued to the TV set. Additionally, there was the Abbott and Costello Show which aired every weekday afternoon on WPIX Channel 11 just before or right after, I don’t remember which, The Three Stooges with Officer Joe Bolton doing the hosting. As a team Abbott and Costello made over thirty films, eight in two years! I’ve seen everyone, multiple times, some too many times to even remember. Along with “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and “Hold That Ghost,” one of my favorites is “Buck Privates,” their second film together. The film was released in February 1941, the U.S. was only months away from entering World War II which was already raging in Europe. The comedy duo would soon be among the top box office attractions during the war and were the number one box office attraction in 1942.
Bud and Lou outlasted many of their contemporaries as they moved from Burlesque to Vaudeville to Movies, Radio and finally Television, successful in each and every medium. They first performed together as a team at the Eltinge Theater on 42nd street in New York City which was located in what is now the lobby of the AMC Empire 25. Continue reading →
Crime in the streets is this week’s theme. Two low budget flicks that came and went from the screen in the final blink of a dead man’s eye.
The Gangster (1947) Gordon Wiles
Unconventional gangster flick with Barry Sullivan as a hardened, self made, top dog gangster who becomes obsessed with a beautiful dame (Belita). Meanwhile he soon finds himself being squeezed out of his territory by another outfit headed up by the snarly Sheldon Leonard. Each of his weaknesses are slowly exposed, the politicians once in his pocket are no longer there, and other hoods are no longer willing to back him up. His downfall is inevitable.
Sullivan’s character is obsessive and paranoid when it come to his girl and bitter, cold-hearted and cynical toward everyone else. Despite being a low-budget production director Gordon Wiles paints the sets with a shadowed noirish light. And the sets, though obviously backlot, are very stylized, the shadowy ironwork on the elevated train, the rain soaked streets, the details in the soda fountain shop add an engaging arty flavor. The look and detail most likely stems from director Gordon Wiles background as an art director. There is also a winning melodramatic score by Louis Gruenberg. Yet for all these nice touches there is something about the film that does not crystallize. All these nice pieces yet the whole does not ring true and leaves you unfilled.
The film represented a reteaming of Barry Sullivan and Belita one year after they appeared in the 1946 oddity, “Suspense.” Supporting cast include Charles McGraw, John Ireland, Virginia Christine, Harry Morgan, Akim Tariroff, Elisha Cook Jr. and Leif Erickson. Also look for Shelley Winters in a small role. The script was co-written by the soon to be blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Continue reading →
This essay is Twenty Four Frames contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch’s The Movie Projector. Click here to visit other great contributors to this event.
One of the most moving scenes in William Wyler’s epic film about returning war veterans appears only minutes into the start of the film when Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a disabled Navy veteran who lost both hands in the war, is dropped off at his parents’ home by the two other vets from his hometown he just met at the airport. The two others, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) remain in their taxi watching Homer as he approaches the house. He halts on the front lawn, feeling a sense of unease about what waits inside. It’s quiet, nothing happens for a moment, suddenly his kid sister Louella appears at the door, sees him, and excitedly runs out to greet her big brother. Homer’s parents are not far behind. They greet him, hesitant at first, his father then hugs him, his mother sobs, both tears of joy and sadness. They are soon joined by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Homer’s girl who lives next door. Their eyes meet, they stand still for a second and then she hugs him. Significantly, Homer does not hug her back. Continue reading →