Short Takes: Three Reviews

“Kind Lady” is a 1951 remake of a 1935 film based on a play written by Edward Chodorov which itself was based on a story by English novelist Hugh Walpole. The story is involves an elderly woman and art collector (Ethel Barrymore) who meets a starving artist (Maurice Evans) and sociopath who charms his way, with the help of friends, into her house.  Posing as her nephew he holds her prisoner in her own home convincing everyone the kind lady is mentally incapable of taking care of her own affairs. The film is a little loose in style rendering it less effective as a shocker than it could have been but it does have its share of good moments. Fine performances from Barrymore and Maurice Evans. Cast also includes Angela Lansbury, John Williams, Keenan Wynn and Betsy Blair. John Sturges, best known for his work on “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “The Magnificent Seven” directs. (***1/2)

“Across The Bay” is a fair crime drama with George Raft doubled crossed by lawyer Lloyd Nolan and sent to Alcatraz for a ten year stretch.  While nightclub owner Georgie is away nice guy Walter Pidgeon meets and woo’s his ever faithful girl the sexy singer Joan Bennett. Nolan, not content to have screwed Georgie would also like to do the same to Joan. When he realizes Bennett won’t give him a tumble in the hay, he visits Raft in the big house and informs him Bennett is cheating on him. Somehow Raft manages to escape from Alcatraz bent on killing Bennett only to find out it was Nolan who was the creep all along. The revenge ending scene is preposterous; still you will have to find out for yourself how it all goes down. The film was produced by Walter Wanger who was married to Bennett at the time. According to Wikipedia Alfred Hitchcock directed a couple of scenes with Bennett and Pigeon. (**1/2)

I have a soft spot for backstage mysteries so when I purchased the Universal  “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection” box set,  “Murder at the Vanities”  was the first film I went for. Filled with semi-nudity, dated humor as well as two backstage murders and plenty of musical numbers to qualify as a genre of its own…the murder mystery musical,  “Murder at the Vanities” unfortunately moves along at a fairly slow pace with a few delightful highlights to break it up in between. The highlights include Duke Ellington and his band doing the “Rape of the Rhapsody” number so admirably that even director Mitchell Leisen’s dull direction sparkles a bit. Other highlights include Gertrude Mitchell’s performance as a nasty diva, as well as her musical performance with a stage number called “Sweet Marijuana.”  On the downside are love interests, bland Kitty Carlisle and Carl Brisson (he introduces the standard “Cocktails for Two”) and the overdone frivolous humor between Jack Oakie and Victor McLaughlin that gets a bit thick at times. If you got a good eye you might catch both Lucille Ball and Ann Sheridan as two of the showgirls. (***)

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7 comments on “Short Takes: Three Reviews

  1. John, you have a talent for discovering films (“Across the Bay”) I’d like to see that nobody’s ever heard of, at least not my crowd. I have no idea why I find George Raft so appealing as an actor— maybe it’s that voice, a movie star’s voice, if you catch my drift. And maybe I really am drifting here. But my interest actually is the scenes Hitchcock directed as a favor to Walter Wanger and while hoping for a little extra money. After all, Hitchcock had undergone great expense moving to America and had little in the way of savings and Selznick, David O., that is, kept him on a short financial leash. Any money at all Hitch had saved was in London where the new British Defense Financial Regulations would forbid him from taking money out of the country. As a matter of fact, according to Patrick McGilligan’s biography, it wouldn’t be until well after the war before the director could get his reserves.

    These money troubles were also a motivation for Hitch to help Wanger, whom he liked, with his minor production “The House Across the Bay” in January of 1940. George Raft was unhappy with the final scenes and wanted a substitute ending with a different director at the helm. Hitch came up with something clever that would be more exciting or at least more interesting. John Russell Taylor says the scenes involved an airplane with Pidgeon, Nolan and Bennett. Wanger called Selznick right away to arrange for several days of shooting despite the interruption in what would become “Foreign Correspondent.” Dan Winkler argued to Selznick that the ‘story twist’ Hitch came up with that everyone liked qualified him for a bonus, that is, the money Wanger gave him. But, pulling the Selznick financial strings ever tighter, David O. refused and took the money directly into his company.

    I don’t know if this trivia is interesting to anyone at all, but it helps paint a picture of Hollywood in that period.

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    • John Greco says:

      In my own opinion, for the little that is worth (lol), Raft was a limited actor though admittedly entertaining with a “star” presence that is lacking in many of today’s actors. I thought he and Bogart (They Drive by Night) or with Cagney (Each Dawn I Die) made a good team and of course his classic early role in the original “Scarface.” His voice was perfect for the characters he generally played, gruff and strong and he did a wonderful job making light of his screen persona in Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot.”

      Fascinating stuff on the Hitchcock/Selznick/Wanger thing. It’s well known Hitchcock and Selznick had difficulties working together. Hitch was use to pretty much having total artistic control in England and of course in Hollywood the producer had final say as well as controlling the purse strings.

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  2. Judy says:

    These films all sound interesting and varied – I keep meaning to start putting short takes on my blog too, so may take up this idea. I’m especially tempted by that Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection – Murder at the Vanities sounds like an intriguing mix and I rather like Jack Oakie from the couple of films I’ve seen him in. Also interested to hear about the Ethel Barrymore movie after just seeing her with her two brothers in ‘Rasputin and the Empress’! Great stuff, John.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy,

      The Barrymore film is arguably the best of the lot though “Murder at the Vanities” is the most unusual and intriguing. Hope you get a chance to do some ‘short takes’, looking forward to it.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    I haven’t seen the first film John, but certainly MURDER AT THE VANITIES boasts some wonderful things, like the Ellington number you note. Mitchell Leisen’s best film is EASY LIVING (1937), but he also helmed DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, and two Billy Wilder-scripted pictures, MIDNIGHT and HOLD BACK THE DAWN, as well as directing the episode “Worse Than Murder” from THRILLER and a few Twilight Zones. I must take a look at KIND LADY, especially with John Sturges ditection and Ethel Barrymore starring.

    Superlative capsule considerations here.

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  4. John Greco says:

    I have not seen DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, but I have seen the others you mentions and am a big fan of all three of those films. Thanks again for your input my friend.

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