Ball of Fire (1941) Howard Hawks

balloffire2lcWhile Billy Wilder is best known as a film director, he always considered himself a writer first and director second. He worked best with a partner, and though he had many over the years, there were two, Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who were his most important associates.  Though he was born in Europe, Wilder quickly picked up and mastered the American vernacular. While Wilder always had a co-writer, there is no way to misinterpret a Wilder screenplay. His footprints are clearly all over them. Continue reading

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak

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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.

Sorry, Wrong, Number LC1To 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

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Lewis Milestone

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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

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading

Blast From the Past: No Man of Her Own

Recently Olive Films released “No Man of Her Own” on DVD. This is the first time it is appearing on home video in any format.

My original review linked below was from a bootleg copy back in 2008.

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Remember The Night (1940) Mitchell Leisen

Barbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those who lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance that would eventually show itself.

This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in an early scene in the 1940 holiday comedy/drama, “Remember the Night,” when Fred MacMurray’s prosecuting Assistant District Attorney John Sargent arranges, through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid for. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough to have no doubt her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise ADA Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her. Continue reading

Jeopardy (1953) John Sturges

“Jeopardy” is a terrific little thriller from MGM, cheaply made, did okay at the box office and disappeared without much fanfare. MGM known for its lavish and expensive musicals also had a small unit that produced low budget films, programmers, product to keep pumping out to theaters. With a small budget and stars who were no longer at the top of their career the studio was able to put out some decent films that turned a profit. “Jeopardy” falls nicely into this category.

A typical American family is driving down to Mexico for a vacation. Let’s remember this is 1953, post-war America, the Eisenhower years, folks were glad the war years were over and enjoying the open roads, the country’s super highways. Barbara Stanwyck’s narration in the film alludes to this as well as to the unknown trouble that lies ahead.  The destination is an isolated beach area her husband, Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) went fishing there years ago with former Army buddies.  The rest of  the family consists of wife Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker).

The first stop is Tijuana but from there it is a long ride to the isolated beach some 400 miles south on the Baja peninsula. When they first arrive young Bobby goes exploring on a pier that has been condemned (only the condemned sign is in Spanish and we do not find out the meaning of the word until it is too late). Bobby gets his foot stuck in between two boards and Dad has to go out on the pier and pry his son’s foot loose. On the way back one of the weaker boards gives way and Dad falls, a piling pinning his foot underneath. Unable to get him loose and with the tide beginning to come in, Helen, panic stricken, is forced to take the car and go for help hopefully getting back before the tide comes in drowning Doug.

Not knowing any Spanish, unfamiliar with the terrain and half hysterical Helen drives wildly searching for help. She meets some locals walking down the road but the language barrier prohibits any communication and she drives off frantically still in search of help.  She comes upon a roadside gas station but the place seems deserted. She breaks in looking for a heavy rope or some other material that would help free her husband.  Suddenly, a man appears standing by her car, he’s an American and she tells him her tale. He instantly agrees to help her; they jump into her car and take off. As they drive away, the camera,remaining behind at the gas station, slowly moves over revealing a dead body lying on the ground. The supposed good Samaritan is Lawson (Ralph Meeker) a half psychotic escaped prisoner.  He isn’t interested in helping Helen and her husband as much as using the car to get away from the Mexican police. To make Helen’s situation even more desperate he finds a pistol in the glove compartment, one Helen’s husband packed for shooting practice.

The remainder of this short (69 minutes) film becomes a duel between Helen, a woman determined and willing to do anything to save her husband and the crazed Lawson (the film hints that she agrees to a sexual encounter), who mocking her fears that her husband may die at one point tells her to “stop it, you’re making me cry, I’m a very sensitive guy.”

Stanwyck is always at her best when she combines vulnerability and toughness which she does so well here, but the real revelation is Ralph Meeker (who incidentally replaced Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway). Best known as Mike Hammer in the classic Robert Aldrich film “Kiss Me, Deadly,” here he just about steals the entire film in what has to be one of his best and juiciest roles. It was a good year for Meeker, he also had a role in Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur.”

As exciting as Meeker is in his role, Barry Sullivan is just as dull. He has the less fortunate part of the husband who for most of the film is stuck under the pile with the tide coming in, the waves crashing up against him harder and harder. Actually it is not so much Sullivan’s talent that is at fault as it is the role itself.  Lee Aaker who plays the young son Bobby is best remembered by baby boomers as Rusty in the TV series “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” that began filming the following year and ran for five years.

Though the film was set in Mexico, the Yucca Valley and an area near Laguna Beach were substituted for the Baja Peninsula. The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli who wrote such fine thrillers as “The Spiral Staircase,” “Cause for Alarm,” “The Window” and “Beware, My Lovely.” Directed by John Sturges on a very small budget,  He would within two years go on to make his first great classic, “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Notice in both the poster and the insert how in the advertising of this film they allude to Stanwyck’s character having sex with the killer Lawson with phrases like “she did it…because her fear was greater than her shame!”  and “she did it…and no woman in the world would blame her”

“Jeopardy” is a fine thriller without ever reaching the level of greatness, but you will not be bored.

***1/2

Night Nurse (1931) William Wellman

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       Violence against women, alcoholism, child abuse, racy dialogue, gangsters, lust driven interns, bootlegging and sex – “Night Nurse”, a 1932 William Wellman melodrama, has it all. You never have seen so much vice tossed and mixed into one 75-minute cinematic festival of sin.  In addition, it stars two of the sexiest, talented and biggest stars of the pre-code era, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. If you add in a young virile, though nasty Clark Gable, you cannot ask for more.
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    Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse and is at first turned down by the old biddy nurse in charge because she lacks the required education. You see Lora had to quit school to help out with her family. Dejected and on her way out of the hospital, a gentlemen entering accidently knocks her bag out of her hand. Well, it turns out the man is Dr. Bell (Charles Wininger) head of the hospital. To make amends, for dropping the contents of her bag all over the floor, and staring at her legs as he picks up the dropped items placing them back in her bag, he arranges with the nasty head nurse, now all smiles, apologetic and under the assumption Lora knows Dr. Bell, for Lora to start her training on the night shift.  She is set up to share a room with fellow nurse the jaded gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell). Soon the two are going out partying and undressing together, even sharing a bed after being caught coming in after curfew by the old biddy nurse. On a more serious note, Lora get some real medical emergency education assisting doctors in surgery, sometime successfully and well sometimes not so much. One night, while on duty in comes Mortie, (Ben Lyons), a bootlegger we soon find out, with a bullet wound. Bound by duty to report all bullet injuries to the police, Mortie, who deep down is a swell guy, convinces her not to do so.

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     Upon graduating, both Lora and Maloney get jobs as private nurses for a well to do family with Lora as the night nurse and Maloney taking the day shift. Their main responsibilities are taking care of two young children, whose father is dead and whose mother is too busy drinking and partying to care of them.  The kids are heirs to a large fortune and this is where Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable), enters the scene. Nick is a low life who is arranging, along with a crooked doctor in on the plot, to starve the children to death, marry the widow mother, and get access to the kids’ trust fund. Of course, our heroine, discovered what Nick is up too and with the help of bootlegger Mortie manages to save the day and the kids but only after being viciously beaten by Nick and giving a blood transfusion to save one of the malnourished young girls.

    “Night Nurse” was one of the first of the pre-code films released on home video under the Forbidden Hollywood banner back in the 1990’s. Back in those days, the VHS series was hosted and introduced by Leonard Maltin.

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    The film is dated in many respects but there is much to keep you interested. Racy wild dialogue like when a young intern tells nurses Stanwyck and Blondell that they can’t show him anything he has not just seen in a delivery room and  the children’s mother wildly yelling out at one point “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it!” And what other film ends with the audience being told that Clark Gable has been “taken for a ride.”  Mortie, Lora’s bootlegging admirer and the guy who knows the guys who took Nick for his final ride end up with Lora riding off into the urban sunset.

    Gable, in an early role, is convincingly evil as Nick the Chauffeur. Had he not become a star he could have had a good career portraying immoral characters as he does here and in some other early performances. With his gruff voice, he is perfect. Joan Blondell is her sexy and sassy self and for anyone who has followed this blog knows Joan, along with Stanwyck, are two of my favorite actresses. This was the second of three films they appeared in together. Stanwyck is wonderful as the strong willed nurse determined to save the children from the cruelty being imposed on them by Nick and an inattentive mother. In one scene, she actually drags the drunken mother across a room hoping to get her to pay attention to what is happening to her daughters and mutters under her breath “you mother!” The part itself does not require much depth from an acting perspective just a lot of toughness and a ‘have been there before attitude’ from Stanwyck, which she does so well. Just how tough was Stanwyck? Well, here she puts the soon to be anointed “King” Clark Gable in his place and just two years later, she cuts down to size a young John Wayne in “Baby Face.” That pretty tough! Interesting enough, Warner Brothers had the chance to sign Gable to a contract but passed on him leaving the door open for MGM to sign the future Rhett Butler.

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    The screenplay is based on a novel by Dora Macy, aka Grace Perkins. Reading a review of the novel in Time magazine (6/13/30), demonstrates the faithfulness of the screenplay to the book except for the character of Nick who in the movie seems to have replaced an Uncle, along with a sister-in-law, as the brains behind the plot to starve the children.

Directed by William Wellman, who keeps the pace moving, though like many Wellman films it is rough around the edges, but never dull. “Night Nurse” was the first of five films Wellman would make with Stanwyck. The others were “The Purchase Price”, “So Big”, “The Great Man’s Lady” and “Lady of Burlesque.”   With at least ten sinful pre-code films in her credits Stanwyck stands up there alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton and other queens of pre-code films.

Baby Face – Before and After

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     The first time I saw “Baby Face” was back in the 1990’s when it was released on VHS as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood series.” The film had a well deserved reputation for being one of the racier films to be ever made with sex, prostitution and plenty of morally corrupt individuals. Now on DVD as part of volume one in the “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, I finally got around to watching the disreputable pre-released version. Discovered back in 2005 in the Library of Congress film archives, this version was unearthed when a request was made for a new print to be struck. Mike Mashon, curator at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, received a print that was struck from the original camera negative however; he was told there was a dup negative that was about five minutes longer. Intrigued, Mashon requested a print from the dup negative. After viewing the five-minute longer version, he knew he had struck gold. Typical for the times, “Baby Face” prior to its release was submitted to various state censor boards, in this case the powerful New York State Board of Censors and was rejected. Without the approval of the State Board, Warner Brothers knew the film would never play in the major New York City market. Subsequently the film was edited removing the Boards objectionable scenes. The recut film was released and opened at the Strand Theater in New York to mixed reviews.

   babyface-intro1 In viewing both versions, the dramatic changes are significant enough to change the tone, the pre-released version being darker and certainly more sordid. Barbara Stanwyck is Lily a young woman who is pimped by her own father to the slimy characters who frequent his Erie, Pa. speakeasy. This is explicitly shown in the uncut version where a coarse local politician pays dear old Dad hard cash to spend some quality time with Lily. When the politician fondles Lily’s leg, she pours hot coffee on him. Next, he crudely grabs her breasts and Lily retaliates by grabbing a beer bottle hitting him squarely on the head. In the officially released version, this scene was cut dramatically. No cash exchanges hands between Dad and the politician; the fondling of Lily’s leg is shorter and there is no groping of her breasts. In other scenes, dialogue was changed or cut to meet the censors’ requirements. When her father tells her she can’t talk to him so rudely Lily goes on a tirade about “What a swell start you gave me….” She goes on about him being a lousy father and about all the rotten lousy men of which he was the lowest. What was cut from the released version of this rant is a line about Dad pimping her out at the age of 14! baby-face-vhs2

    Soon after, her father is killed when his still accidentally blows up. A local Cobbler, who in the original version comes across as more of a father figure, tells her to seek her fortune by going to New York. He tells her a beautiful young woman like her can get anything she wants but she must remember there is a right and wrong way to go about getting ahead in the world. In the pre-censored version, the cobbler’s advice is not as fatherly as he encourages her to read Nietzshe’s Thoughts out of Season and to “Crush out all sentiment.”  He tells her, a beautiful young woman like her can get anything because she has the power over men. “Use men, don’t let them use you”, he advises her. He goes on to say that she must be the master and not the slave. Use men to get the things she wants. Like Lily, this version of the film follows Nietzsche’s advice and crushes out any and all sentiment.

 .    Lily puts the cobbler’s advice to quick use when she hops a freight train with her friend and helper, Chico (Theresa Harris). Caught by a railroad inspector Lily using the new found power of her body seduces him as they ride the rails. In New York, Lily, with no work skills nor any education, seeks to get a job at the Gotham Trust Co. A personnel clerk asks her if she has any experience to which she replies “Plenty” with a knowing smirk. Telling Lily there are no jobs available she proposes they could work something out as she makes her way into the bosses empty office. The clerk follows closing the door behind him. Lily climbs to the top as she sleeps her way from the Filing Room, to the Mortgage Department to Accounting where she meets Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) who is engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), daughter of bank head J.P. Carter or at least he is until Lily becomes responsible for breaking up the romance. Stevens is so hooked on Lily that when he finds his future-father-in-law Carter in Lily’s bedroom he shoots him and commits suicide. Unperturbed by the violence, Lily nonchalantly calls the police telling them there has been an “accident.”

 babyface1   At this point, with all scandal Lily is sent off to the Paris branch of the Bank, which is somewhat ludicrous, why not just fire her. In Paris, she meets Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), who falls in love with Lily. They marry and Courtland showers Lily with jewelry, clothes and money.  They eventually come back to New York when the Bank and Trenholm are having financial problems. He ask Lily to return some of the gifts and securities he has given her so he can pay his debt, she refuses. Despondent Courtland attempts suicide. As Courtland is taken away in an ambulance with Lily as his side, the censors strike one more time. They did not like the idea in the original version that Lily is shown as not “paying” for her sins. Warner’s was forced to tack on an artificial ending instead of the pre-censored version, which is more ambiguous and yet hints at the chance that Lily and Courtland will live happily ever after.000004115.JPG

    “Baby Face” is not a great film and is remembered today more for its place in film history as one of the most salacious films ever made. The discovery, in 2005 of the pre-released version only cemented its place in history. The first half of the film holds up well from a story point of view however, the second part of the film somewhat shaky. Still the film is a thrill to watch mainly due to Stanwyck who gives us an early version of one of her classic bold ice-cold characterizations that she would play to perfection later on in films like “Double Indemnity and even on TV in “The Big Valley.”  Also a pleasure is Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s helper and friend who hums the bluesy “St. Louis Woman” throughout the film, subliminally reminding us of Lily’s immoral roots. Her role is a rare example of a non-stereotypical black character that is treated as an equal, especially by Lily. Harris appeared in many well known films, generally, as a maid or waitress. Her impressive list  include “Morocco”, Horse Feathers”, “Gold Diggers of 1933”, “Hold Your Man”, “Jezebel”, “The Women”, Phantom Lady”, “Cat People” “ The Dolly Sisters” “Miracle on 34th Street, “The Big Clock”, “The File on Thelma Jordan” and “Angel Face” among many others. In the Jack Benny starring “Buck Benny Rides Again,” Harris had the opportunity to show off her singing and dancing talent in a duet with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Unfortunately, because of the times this talented lady was never given the opportunity to climb the ladder to stardom.  Also, look for a young John Wayne is a minor role as one of Lily’s conquest and character actor Nat Pendleton in a small role as one of Lily’s Dad’s slimy speakeasy customers.  Pendleton appeared in over 100 films including “Manhattan Melodrama”, “The Thin Man”, “Another Thin Man”, “Buck Privates” and “Buck Privates Come Home.”

  babyfacex  The film was directed by Alfred E. Green, who started in the silent days and continued to work up until the late 1950’s.  “Baby Face” is probably his most famous or more fittingly his most infamous film. Most of Green’s output consisted of fairly routine programmers. The screenplay was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck writing as Mark Canfield. Zanuck’s career with Warner’s Brothers would end shortly thereafter, only partially due to his part in creating tawdry films, “straight from the newspaper headlines”, such as “Baby Face” and probably more to do with disputes with Jack Warner and his own desires to run a studio. He would soon be a co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and a few years later, they would buyout Fox Pictures forming Twentieth Century Fox.

An interesting aside I came across is from an article by Molly Haskell in the New York Times on how so many pre-code heroines were called Lily or Lil. Beside Stanwyck’s Lily Powers, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lil’ in Von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express”, Jean Harlow as the gold-digging secretary Lil’ Andrews in “Red Headed Woman” and Lily, alias Mlle. Vautier in “Trouble in Paradise.” The character called Lady Lou played by Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” was based on the play “Diamond Lil” written by West. Paramount changed the character’s name in hopes of reducing the notoriety that preceded the play.