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 →
Like her character, Karin in “Stromboli,” Ingrid Bergman found herself ostracized in real life from Hollywood and America after making this film with her director/lover Roberto Rossellini. Their affair and out of wed-lock child caused a scandal that found Bergman unable to find work in the United States for six years. In the film, Bergman is a Lithuanian refugee, released from an internment camp when she marries Antonio (Mario Vitali), an Italian and former prisoner of war. They go to live in his home in Stromboli, an almost deserted village located on a small volcanic island off the coast of southern Italy. Marriage and life in the poor village is far from what Karin envisioned for herself. Most locals who were born there have left. The ones who remain are a stoic group unwelcoming to strangers. Her attempts to brighten up their home by decorating are met with indifference from Antonio. 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 →
More than seventy years after its release “Sabotage” remains relevant, in fact, it is even more relevant today, considering the world we live in, than in 1936 when it was first released. Based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel, “The Secret Agent,” the plot focuses on Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner from an unnamed country. Verloc owns a local cinema in London and is a member of a terrorist group set on crippling London. His wife (Sylvia Sidney) is completely unaware of her husband’s underground activities. Living with Mr. and Mrs. Volker is Mrs. Volker’s younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) whose death in the film sparks its most famous sequence and is the centerpiece of the film.
Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with a nice sequence of shots. A dictionary page explaining the definition of the word sabotage as the opening credits appear followed by a series of shots as the city of London loses its electric power. Two investigators identify the cause, the result of sabotage, and then a quick cut to a close up of Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) our saboteur. Continue reading →
The early years of sound in the 1930’s, those pre-code years, were William Wellman’s most inspired and also his most productive. He was a man who dived into the modern age of sound filmmaking and the mechanical age. An aviator in World War I, he continued on with his love affair for airplanes throughout his career, from “Wings” to “Island in the Sky,” “The High and the Mighty” up to his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Wellman’s work from this period also addressed the Great Depression head on with serious works like “Heroes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.” Like many film pioneers in the early days, Wellman worked fast and he worked best when he had actors who kept up with his speed, performers like Cagney, Stanwyck, Lombard and Frankie Darro. Later in his career his films developed a slower pace and the actors he worked with reflected that too e.g.; Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and Robert Mitchum in “Track of the Cat.” Continue reading →
By 1957, “B” film director Jack Arnold had already made some of the finest sci-fi films of the decade; “It Came from Outer Space,” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “Tarantula,” but the best was yet to come, 1957′s “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Ignore the silly title this is one of the greatest existential science fiction films ever made. The 1950′s would turn out to be Arnold’s best decade. With the dawn of the 1960′s most of his career sadly, would be in television with only an occasional foray back into film.
We meet Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), sunbathing on their small boat. It’s a beautiful day and the couple are playfully content soaking in the tranquility of the time spent together. When Louise goes down below to get a bottle of beer, Scott suddenly finds himself coming face to face with a bizarre, threatening cloudy haze that quickly falls upon him and then disappears just as quickly into the distance. After Louise returns she notices shiny specks have landed on his chest. They think nothing of it and soon it is forgotten. A short time later he is also accidently sprayed by some insecticide. 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 →
George Axelrod was a playwright, screenwriter, novelist and film director best remembered for his 1952 hit Broadway play, “The Seven Year Itch,” turned into a movie by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe. Axelrod’s plays which included “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” and “Goodbye Charlie” introduced to modern pop culture, the sex comedy, a sub-genre that would become more prevalent in the 1960′s and beyond. Axelrod’s other works include “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “How to Murder Your Wife” (screenwriter), “Lord Love A Duck,” and “The Secret Life of an American Wife” (screenwriter and director). 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 →
One of the holiday’s best known tales, Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” has been reproduced, adapted over the years many times in various formats from animation to TV, film and stage. From Charlie Brown to Mickey Mouse to “The Odd Couple” and multiple screen versions performed by a diverse host of actors including George C. Scott, Reginald Owen, Seymour Hicks, John Carradine, Patrick Stewart, Walter Matthau, Jim Carrey, Albert Finney, Vanessa Williams ( you are reading this right. Ms. Williams played Ebony Scrooge in a TV movie called “A Diva’s Christmas”) and of course the great Alastair Sim in what is considered by many, including myself, the best adaptation ever, the 1951 version, originally titled “Scrooge” in the U.K. but generally now known by Dicken’s original title.
Unlike most versions, this British production follows fairly close the Dickens novel, though there are some changes, and also unlike most versions this is a dark, bleaker account of the world’s best known miser. Recently I watched, for the first time, the Reginald Owen version from 1938, released by MGM, and while decent, the many needless changes to the plot along with a surplus dose of sentiment makes this a soft hearted second rate, if still entertaining, adaptation. Continue reading →