Short Takes: Natalie Wood, Diana Dors and Ginger Rogers

Short Takes returns with three reviews, totally unrelated. A young Natalie Wood stars in A CRY IN THE NIGHT while 1950’s Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors is in THE UNHOLY WIFE. Finally, Ginger Rogers shines in the lightweight 5th AVENUE GIRL.

I wonder when they named this picture, “A Cry in the Night,” whose tears they were referring too, Natalie Wood’s character perhaps, who is kidnapped in the middle of the night or maybe the audience who had to sit through this cliché ridden tale about a child-like adult (Raymond Burr), think Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” who watches young couples making out at a local lover’s lane.

After knocking out her boyfriend old Raymond kidnaps Ms. Wood taking her to his secret hideout where he confesses he just wants to be ‘friends.’  Yes, Nat makes a couple of feeble attempts to escape but in the end only manages to ripe her skirt so she can reveal some leg in order to keep the males in the audience awake.   Wood’s father, played by Edmond O’Brien, is an overbearing, over protective, sexist who finds it hard to believe his eighteen year old daughter would  willingly go to a lover’s lane of her own free will after he forbid her too. In fact, ole’ Edmond seems more concerned with wanting to beat the crap out of the boyfriend for this dirty deed than finding his daughter. Oh yeah, by the way, he’s a cop who naturally wants to be involved in the case though he should not be. The cast also includes Brian Donlevy as the sensible cop who attempts to control the out of control O’Brien. As directed by Frank Tuttle, there is nothing original here, to say the least. Tuttle is best known for making “This Gun For Hire” some fourteen years earlier which made Alan Ladd  a star. Ladd, by the way, is the narrator who opens the film and his company co-produced the film. Continue reading

Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

One can easily understand why James Stewart’s introverted professor falls so quickly and hard for Ginger Rogers nightclub entertainer, she is sexy, charming and adorable. “Vivacious Lady,” directed by George Stevens, is a smart and funny romantic comedy, in other words, the kind Hollywood does not or cannot make anymore. The film won’t make anyone’s top list of great comedies, it’s certainly not in the same class as THE LADY EVE, THE AWFUL TRUTH or BRINGING UP BABY but it does have its charm. Written by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano from a story by I.A.R. Wylie it is a remarkably simple story with a running time of 90 minutes and few of those minutes are wasted.

It’s love at first sight when Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) falls for nightclub singer Francey Brent (Ginger Rogers) when he travels to New York to bring back home his wayward playboy cousin Keith (James Ellison). Within days the couple quickly marry and head back to Peter’s small hometown where he is a professor of Botany and his stanch, rigid, unyielding father, beautifully played by Charles Coburn, is the President of the University. Peter has always bowed to dad’s wishes, as does his mother (Beulah Bondi) who fakes heart problems just to gain sympathy and keep family peace when the senior Morgan gets on his high horse. You see, Morgan Sr. is a man who is just use to getting his way. Knowing his father, spineless Peter wants to hold off on announcing the marriage. Two attempts to tell Dad end abruptly with his father constantly interrupting him. As the conversations heat up, Peter’s mother would fake one of her ‘heart condition’ flare-ups. Also waiting back home is Peter’s fiancée, a stuffy, annoying woman named Helen (Frances Mercer) who is not letting Peter go too easily. Finally, the newlyweds are continuously attempting to consummate their marriage throughout the film. Continue reading

Short Takes II: Three Reviews

Theodora Goes Wild  – (1948) Small town girl living with her two Aunts leads a double life as a Sunday school teacher and organist while secretly writing bestselling “sexy” novels, one of which causes an uproar when the local town newspaper serializes it, much to the dismay of the self righteous local “literary society,” a group consisting of stuffy skirted elderly ladies, who want the so called “filthy” book banned. A entertaining if non-extraordinary romantic comedy thanks mainly to a sparkling and charming performance by Irene Dunne, with some fine assistance from Melvyn Douglas as  a book illustrator, who has a big secret of his own  that comes to the surface halfway through the film. Dunne’s character break out of her plain Jane small town mode once she hits New York and meets Douglas revealing herself to be a much freer spirit than anyone back home would have ever believed. The cast also includes Thomas Mitchell. Thurston Hall and Spring Byington. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. Based on a story by Mary McCarthy. (***)

Open City (1950) – A landmark Italian film made with black market film stock, few professional actors and extremely limited finances, in other words, Guerilla filmmaking, Italian Style. The film centers on a group of resistance fighters eventually betrayed by a former mistress of one who is seduced by the German lesbian assistant of the Gestapo officer in charge, a sadistic creep named Bergmann. The film still contains brutal scenes of torture that must have been truly shocking to filmgoers when the film was first released. My only problem with the film is the extreme broad strokes of good versus evil director Roberto Rossellini, and scriptwriter Federico Fellini, paint. The resistance fighters have God, Church and family on their side versus the evil  Nazis who are vile, sadistic, heartless, homosexual, lesbian, anti-religious zealots.  Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi star.  (****1/2)

Moonrise (1948)  – Frank Borzage’s moody expressionistic and lyrical criminal tale of guilt, anger, violence and ultimately redemption contains a nice performance from Dane Clark who as the son of a convicted murderer has been tormented his entire life by schoolmates and others for his father’s sins.  When Clark,  now a young man, accidently kills one of his tormenters he must confront the choices in his own troubled life. Be like his father, a man on the run, facing a similar fate, or surrender to the law freeing himself of his guilt and his past. Gail Russell is his understanding love interest. Some early performances from Lloyd Bridges and Harry Morgan, listed here as Henry Morgan. (***1/2)

The Major and the Minor (1942) Billy Wilder

 

There was no love lost between Billy Wilder and film director Mitchell Leisen. Over the course of many interviews Billy expressed his strong feelings that Leisen ruined his scripts, he had no regard for the written word, changing, moving and deleting lines without a thought to storyline. Yet in Cameron Crowe’s essential “Conversations with Wilder,” Billy states, “Midnight, that was a good picture.” The distaste for Leisen seems to stem more from the making of “Hold Back the Dawn,” the final film Wilder, and his partner Charles Brackett, wrote for Leisen (their final screenplay before Wilder embarked on his directing career was “Ball of Fire” for Howard Hawks who Wilder admired). “As a director,” Wilder said to Crowe, “he was alright. You could get to be an old man writing just Mitch Leisen pictures.”  In “Hold Back the Dawn,” there was a scripted scene involving a cockroach that was never filmed. Wilder and Brackett worked on this scene for many long hours but Charles Boyer refused to talk to a cockroach as the script dictated, a bit which would have showed a softer side to his character. Leisen, siding with his star, just cut the scene out without regard. This burned Billy and they fought and fought but Billy, just a writer, low in the Hollywood hirarchy, lost the battle. In Leisen’s defense, one just has to take a look at “Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn” and ask how bad can he have destroyed them? Both of these films are good and still contain the wit and intelligence of Wilder’s and Brackett’s work. What’s lacking, is the acidic cynicism that Wilder’s self directed films contained throughout much of his career. I liked that cynicism, it is part of what separated and defined Wilder from most everyone else.     

Leisen was a successful and popular director whose films some claim were only as good as the script he was working with.  “Hands Across the Table” was penned by Norma Krasna. “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night” had Preston Sturges brilliance behind it, Sturges was another writer who had many of his own disagreements with Leisen. By 1941, Sturges had already paved the way for screenwriters to direct their own scripts with “The Great McGinty.” Wilder and Brackett were Paramount’s top screenwriters and from most reports, including Billy himself, the studio heads did not want Billy to  direct but they gave him a chance figuring the film would flop, he would get the directing urge out of his system and go back to script writing full time. Continue reading