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

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) Howard Hawks

In a CBS Sunday Morning segment a while back, there was a piece on Cary Grant where Director and Film Historian Peter Bogdanovich told a story about how Grant and some friends went to a show one evening. Grant forgot his ticket and said to the ticket taker, “Excuse me, I forgot my ticket, I’m Cary Grant, is it okay if I go in?” The ticket taker took a good look at Grant and replied, “You are not Cary Grant!”  This leads me to what is the most obvious problem with Howard Hawks 1964 comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport?” starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss, which is, it needs Cary Grant, instead we get Rock Hudson, and Rock Hudson, with all due respect, is not Cary Grant.  Then again, who is?

Howard Hawk’s was one of the masters of screwball comedy. Back in its heyday of the 1930’s and 1940’s Hawks made some of the best in this sub-genre with films like “Twentieth Century,” “Bringing up Baby,” “His Girl Friday” and “I Was a Male War Bride.” Three of these four films happened to have starred Cary Grant. Grant was romantic, suave, debonair, and yet he could take a pratfall just about as good as Chaplin or Keaton. He also had a way with a line of dialogue that made even average lines sharp as a switchblade. He would have been perfect to play the bumbling Roger Willoughby in what would turn out to be Hawks final comedy. Grant and Hawks almost came to an agreement to work on the film together however, before signing contracts Grant opted out to make “Charade” instead with Audrey Hepburn.  Continue reading

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Howard Hawks

This is the first of seven entries I am writing for the Musical Countdown being hosted by WONDERS IN THE DARK. There are actually two reviews of the film posted, the other by Jim Clark. Below are links to both.

http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/gentlemen-prefer-blondes-no-56-john-greco/

http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/gentlemen-prefer-blondes-no-56-jim-clark/

Found this photo below, most likely a publicity stunt, where some swimsuit attired ladies were protesting the film in front of Graumans Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The women rightly claiming “they have everything blondes have.”

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)

His Girl Friday (1940) Howard Hawks

I have been watching a lot of Cary Grant films lately and while I always realized he was a talented actor, versatile at both drama and comedy, it seemed I just took Cary Grant for granted (no pun intended, well actually it was intended). “The Awful Truth,” which I watched for the first time recently and “Bringing Up Baby,” which I watched for the umpteenth time recently are both classic screwball comedies. Two other films recently seen,  “Room For One More” and” “Every Girl Should Be Married,” are both lesser works, though pleasant and entertaining. Yet all four films shine with the magic of a movie star, the kind of bright light that jumps off the screen and transports you to another world, someone like say, Cary Grant.

When I returned the DVD of “The Awful Truth” to my local library I came across another Grant classic, “His Girl Friday”, a film I have seen before though not for a while, so I decided to take another look, subsequently, the unplanned Grant marathon continued…

If one were forced to select a film director who would epitomize the screwball comedy, it would be Howard Hawks who has directed some of the finest examples in this sub-genre.  Just look at the list, “Twentieth Century,” “Ball of Fire,” “I Was A Male War Bride,” “Bringing Up Baby” and two late entries, “Monkey Business” and “Man’s Favorite Sport.” Is there any other director who has contributed so much? Among the great directors who come to mind in screwball, (Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra) Hawks is arguably also the most well rounded when it comes to working in other genres as well as screwball.  Look at his filmography, it includes such diverse works with Westerns (Rio Bravo, Red River), Gangsters (Scarface, The Criminal Code), Detectives (The Big Sleep), War (Sergeant York, The Dawn Patrol), Historical Drama (Land of the Pharaohs), Musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Adventure (Only Angel Have Wings). Continue reading

Scarface (1932) Howard Hawks

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    Howard Hawks “Scarface” follows the typical rise and fall of a gangster, similar to the two other gangster classics of the period, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” however, here the bodies pile up much quicker and a lot more violently. There is more action and shooting in the independently shot “Scarface”,  than in both of the studio system films combined. Even for a pre-code film “Scarface” is strong stuff. There is plenty of sexual innuendo, including a strong hint of incestuous interest by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) toward his sister Cesca (Ann Dorvak). Tony is perversely possessive of his sister scaring off a boyfriend after catching them kissing. “I don’t want anyone puttin’ their hands on you!” he tells her. At one point during this exchange he even violently rips part of her  dress. Cesca however, is too free-spirited to accept being sheltered by the dominant Tony. She is well aware that he acts more like a jealous lover than a brother. This abnormal relationship will come back to haunt them both later in the film.scarface

   Tony however, does not mind hitting on someone else’s sister or mistress as we discover when he meets his boss Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) mistress, Poppy (Karen Morley).  The first time they meet, Poppy is sitting at a dressing table in a flimsy dressing gown. When introduced by Lovo to Tony she cannot be bothered to cover up an exposed thigh from his wandering eyes.

   With all the bodies piling up and the sex, the censors came down hard on “Scarface.” Produced by Howard Hughes, “Scarface” was the last of the three seminal gangster films to released in the early 1930’s. Originally scheduled to be released in 1931 the film came out in March of 1932 due to a protracted censorship battle with the Will Hays Office and various State Film censorship boards including the powerful New York State Board. The censors felt there was too much glorification of gangsters in recent films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” scarfaceposter5They were demanding that the violence in “Scarface” be toned down and the lead character, Tony Camonte, be punished and condemned for his deeds. This  forced a second ending to be filmed long after the film wrapped. Muni and director Hawks were long gone by the time second ending was filmed. In this alternate version Muni is never seen (alternate ending is included on the DVD as an extra).  Additionally, a subtitle, “The Shame of a Nation” was added as well as an introductory text condemning the gangster lifestyle, blaming the government and demanding that something be done. Still after all this, some censors refused to let the film be released. Finally, producer Hughes scrapped the revised ending and released the film as originally shot in States with lenient film censorship boards. Subsequently, the world premiere was held in New Orleans. When the film was eventually released in New York, it was a censored version that both the critics and the public saw. In Chicago, the film was not released until 1934. Due its limited distribution and its late release toward the end of the first wave of the great gangster film cycle “Scarface” did well at the box office however, not as good as the earlier released films. About 1947, the film was pulled from distribution and became unavailable for public viewing except for some poorly chopped up bootleg versions floating around the underground market. In 1980, now owned by Universal, the uncensored version was finally shown in New York State at a special showing as part of the New York Film Festival. 

scarface1    While loosely based on the life of Al Capone (Capone was originally upset with the film’s likeness but eventually changed his mind and even had a personal copy of the film), the film’s realism was enhanced by screenwriter Ben Hecht’s familiarity with the Chicago underworld, and such real life Chicago mob figures as North Side gang leader, Dion O’Banion and Capone himself. Many scenes depicted in the film are based on actual events; the killing of “Big Louie” Castillo by Camonte (Paul Muni) was based the killing of boss “Big Jim” Colosimo.  Later on, Camonte has the North Side gang leader O’Hara killed in his flower shop mimicking the Capone ordered assassination of Dion ‘O’Banion his flower shop, and the resulting retaliation by the O’Banion gang when they shot up a restaurant where Capone was eating at the time, was recreated  by Hawks in its violent entirety. Still, there was much that was fiction also. The incestuous attachment Camonte has to his sister, screenwriter Ben Hecht used the Borgias, the infamous Italian Renaissance family as a blueprint, and the ending is pure imagination. Unlike the fictional Camonte, Al Capone died of syphilis and not by police bullets.  

    Looking at the film today, it still holds up as one of the most violent and best gangster films of its era. This is especially true if compared to “Little Caesar”  that today seems to move along at a creaky pace despite a strong performance by Edward G. Robinson.  What also contributes to the films modernity is Hawks use of the X motif, which shows up at various times during the film, mostly when someone is killed or about to be killed. The X, of course, looks similar to the scar on Camonte’s face. While parts of the screenplay are dated, the script contains a lot of dark and witty humor. Karen Morley as Poppy provides numerous sharp lines of dialogue mostly directed at Tony. 

    scarface2Paul Muni plays Tony as a not too bright thug, with an eye for the good things in life (power, gaudy clothes and women). Despite a bad Italian accent and a propensity for overacting Muni strikes the right balance as the crazed power hungry gangster with an unnatural attachment to his sister. The beautiful Ann Dorvak, who began an affair with director Howard Hawks during the filming, is vulnerable yet determined and sexy as Cesca, especially when she performs a seductive dance for Rinaldo (George Raft). Hawks would use her again in his next film, “The Crowd Roars.” Karen Morley portrays Poppy, Johnny Lovo’s mistress, with a cool sensual feistiness. For George Raft, this was well known territory. At one time the former ballroom dancer worked for real life bootlegger Owny Madden. The coin flipping that became his trademark and was parodied in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” was actually, used as an attempt by Hawks to calm Raft’s nerves while filming. Boris Karloff who previously worked for Hawks in “The Criminal Code” got the small part of Gaffrey, the new head of the rival gang.        

    “Scarface” remains one of the most violent and provocative of all gangster films managing to overcome some creaky dialogue, chew biting performances, by Muni and Boris Karloff, and some unfortunate attempts at misplaced humor by Vince Barnett as Angelo one of Tony’s incompetent henchmen.

    “Scarface” was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is part of the film catalog in the Library of Congress.