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

The Awful Truth (1937) Leo McCarey

 

Along with Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey arguably epitomizes the art of the screwball comedy. Of course other filmmakers have dabbled in screwball with winning results like William Wellman (Nothing Sacred),  Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey), Mitchell Leisen (Easy Living) among others but these three men combined made some of the cleverest and funniest works of that period.

Made in 1937, “The Awful Truth” is one of the gems of this, for lack of a better term, sub-genre. Nominated for Best Picture, Leo McCarey managed to snag the Best Director award though the film lost to the more “important” and “esteemed” winner, “The Life of Emile Zola.”  Based on a play by Arthur Richard with an Oscar nominated screenplay by Vina Delmar, though it is said Dorothy Parker had much to do with the script. Continue reading

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Roman Polanski

Spoiler Alert!

Ira Levin’s novel “Rosemary’s Baby” was a major best seller back in 1967 and became an extraordinarily popular movie by Roman Polanski in 1968. Read the book and see the movie, they were interchangeable at dinner conversations. Like most products that become a phenomena, timing and luck play an important role in its success. Levin’s novel struck some kind of cord with the public that was hungry for something dark. Also, in the mid 1960’s there was the  “God is Dead” faction, a theological movement that surfaced in some academic circles and became a national controversy after a cover story in Time magazine.

Low budget horror producer/director William Castle brought the novel to the attention of Robert Evans at Paramount who purchased the film rights for Castle with the understanding that he would produce the film but not direct. Evans wanted a class production and Castle was known for his artless low level though entertaining productions like “House on Haunted Hill”, “The Tingler”, “Macabre” and “Homicidal.” According to Christopher Sandford in “Polanski” his biography of the director, Castle wanted to film “Rosemary’s Baby” in the “Illusion-O 3-D” process he pioneered in the 1950’s and have Vincent Price star (by the way look for Castle’s cameo appearance standing outside a phone booth when Rosemary is desparately calling a doctor for help). Evans instead presented the novel’s proofs to Roman Polanski a director he admired for his work in “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion.” Polanski would write the screenplay sticking closely to the novel.

Polanski opens the film with a long panning shot of the New York City skyline settling on the foreboding Bramford Apartments (The Dakota). Like D.W. Griffith pioneered in so many of his films Polanski will close the film with a reverse panning shot moving away from the Bramford across the City skyline. The plot is a woman’s living hell, literally and figuratively. Rosemary’s world quickly turns into a nightmarish downward free fall. After moving into a new apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called The Bramford (in reality The Dakota) with her unemployed actor husband Guy, they set out to start a family and have a baby. The bright sunny atmosphere soon darkens as their elderly new neighbors, the Castevet’s take an interest in the Woodhouse’s. Guy’s struggling acting career suddenly begins to get some breaks when a rival actor for a part in a play mysteriously goes blind (Tony Curtis, his voice heard only on the phone). Odd noises are heard in the Castevet’s apartment next door, and a young tenant Rosemary becomes friendly with  unexpectedly commits suicide.

Rosemary is impregnated after a hallucinatory nightmarish dream, raped by the devil aboard JFK’s yacht. Some weeks later Rosemary, pregnant and under the care of Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) a demonic obstetrician who despite her losing weight, abdominal pain and cravings for raw meat tells her that there is nothing wrong. Rosemary’s suspicions grow but it is too little too late, she is soon in labor. When she awakens she is told the baby died. Days later she hears a baby crying next door. Soon Rosemary will come face to face with a coven of devil worshippers praying to a new born child, her child, the son of Satan. They urge her to come see the baby, a mother’s instinct wins out as the film ends with Rosemary rocking the cradle.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is a great horror film for anyone, but it can also be read as a feminist woman’s nightmare, after all it is her career struggling husband who arranges to have her impregnated by the devil and then forcing her to be left in the hands of a demon doctor and strange neighbors, all to advance his career.  The fear of rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of an abnormal deformed childbirth are also filtered in. Rosemary becomes isolated, trapped with no family or friends to confide in or help her. Her husband who should be her most trusted ally is in on the dark plan. Unlike most horror films that build up to a fright and relieve the tension before starting again, Polanski continuously builds the tension never letting the pressure  loosen for one second.

Though Polanski did not consider “Rosemary’s Baby” a personal film but more as a gateway into Hollywood, he did find themes or motifs that he could relate to, alienation, paranoia (Repulsion, Knife in the Water, The Tennant), apartments as a refuge from outside dangers (The Tennant, The Pianist, Repulsion), sexuality (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Chinatown, The Tennant) and isolation (Frantic, Cul-de-Sac, Repulsion, The Tennant). Black humor is also a common thread in much of Polanski’s work (Cul-de-Sac, Chinatown, The Fearless Vampire Killers) here clearly demonstrated in the parody of the birth of Christ (most likely the scenes for why the film was condemned by the Catholic Church). Also in the “Is God Dead” Time magazine cover Rosemary browses at in the doctor’s office.

Polanski at first wanted a more full-bodied woman than the elfish Mia Farrow for the role of Rosemary, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld were names that came into play. Farrow whose claims to fame were the success of the TV show “Peyton Place” and her marriage to Frank Sinatra instead got the job. It was a fortunate choice. Her waif like little girl innocent look, part of which came naturally and part the way Polanski dressed her up contributes enormously, offsetting the dark mood that surrounds her throughout the film. Interesting enough Polanski’s slow meticulous work habits caused the film to over run its shooting schedule. Farrow was supposed to begin work on husband Sinatra’s new film “The Detective” right after finishing “Rosemary’s Baby.” When the film over ran its schedule conflicting with Mia moving on to “The Detective”, Sinatra demanded she walk off the Rosemary set which she refused to do. Their marriage ended soon after. Jacqueline Bisset replaced Mia in the Sinatra film.

John Cassavetes was not the best choice for the role of Guy Woodhouse, not that he is bad, he is an interesting actor and has an obvious demonic look in some scenes, maybe just a little too obvious. Possibly an actor with a more innocent though egotistical look would have fit the part better. The supporting cast is fine, Ralph Bellamy is perfectly devilish at Dr. Saperstein and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the next door neighbors look as kindly crazy as they do scary. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as does former Playboy Playmate of the Year (1968), Angel Dorian who plays the neighbor Terry Gionoffiro who meets an untimely suicidal death. There is an inside joke with Dorian in one scene where Rosemary tells her she looks like the actress Victoria Vetri, Dorian’s real name which she eventually went back to when she made “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.”

“Rosemary’s Baby” was greeted with mostly rave reviews and a large public willing to wait in long lines at theaters to see the new born child. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” became a common chant. The film was part of the New Hollywood that began to emerge in 1967 with “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde”, the youth audience had discovered the film. “Rosemary’s Baby” became another notch on the belt that killed the production code with its nudity and triumph of evil over goodness.

The film also ignited the popularity of horror films with satanic or occult themes. It is questionable as to whether films like “The Exorcist”, “The Omen”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Other” and many other lesser rip offs would have made it to the screen if not for the monumental success of Ira Levin’s book and the Polanski film.

The 1980 death of John Lennon in front of The Dakota subconsciously now adds another level of eerie darkness to the scenes that take place early in the film in front of the infamous gothic building.

****1/2

Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silents to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.

“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a street wise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.

After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink.  Not really suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up  with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his only true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.

Along the way Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two timing dame who is suppose to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame.  He is more attracted to a young journalism student  named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but loveable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s methods as a reporter are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison Danny, with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping by.

The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, who was also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity).   The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!

Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.

Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, “The Picture Snatcher” is overall a light hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. To say the least it is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian  character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.