Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney most likely did not think much of “Lady Killer,” not even giving it a mention in his autobiography, “Cagney by Cagney.”  The film was a typical Warner Brothers programmer with the studio heads ensuring that Cagney’s character was exactly how the public liked Jimmy served; tough, cheeky, a hardboiled know it all with a winning sly smile. He had already in his short career played similar brash characters in earlier films like, “Taxi,” “Blonde Crazy” and “Hard to Handle.”  Released at the end of 1933, Cagney already seems to be spoofing his tough guy persona in this rough and tumble comedy/drama.

Dan Quigley, a typical smart aleck Cagney type does not like to play by the rules. Unlike his role of Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” that made him a star, Dan Quigley is more a small time con-artist than a big time gangster. Dan is soon fired from a job as a uniformed usher at  Warner’s famed Broadway Theater, The Strand after treating customers shabbily along with other previous infractions including running a dice game in the men’s room.  Though he is a con artist, Dan is quickly conned himself when a beautiful dame named Myrna (Mae Clarke) “drops” her purse on the street and he gallantly retrieves it delivering it to her apartment where her “brother” and some friends are playing a friendly poker game. Dan is quickly suckered into the game and loses his money just as fast. As he leaves, just outside the apartment, he runs into another chump delivering another lost purse! Realizing he has been had, Dan intimidates his way into the gang taking charge as the gang sucker more marks into losing their money with the help of a draw full of lost purses. With Dan at the helm, the gang’s cons quickly escalate their fortunes until they are running an upscale nightclub, and scamming better dressed suckers. They soon graduate to burglary until one of the crew kills a housemaid during a jewelry robbery. The entire gang skips town heading west to Chicago and on the L.A. where Dan is quickly picked up and questioned by the police. Held on five-thousand dollars bail, Dan calls Myrna who he gave his money to hold, only to find out she and gang member Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) are skipping the country heading down to Mexico leaving Dan out to dry.

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Pitfall Review Now Appearing at Noirbabes.com

 

Noir fans check out my review of PITFALL now posted at the fantastic website NOIRBABES.COM.

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

Libeled Lady (1936) Jack Conway

William Powell and Myrna Loy made fourteen films together marking them as one of the most recognized and great screen team pairings. They first appeared together in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama” which was soon followed by “The Thin Man,” the first of six films they would make as Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. They would go on to make eight more films with Powell always elegant and charming while Loy emoted style, wit and a flirtatious naughtiness. In 1936, they were teamed with two other of MGM’s grand stars, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, and made one of the most delightful and funny screwball comedies to grace the screen, “Libeled Lady.”

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “Libeled Lady” moves at a quick pace barely giving the viewer time to catch one’s breath. Directed by MGM house director, Jack Conway, Loy is Connie Allenbury, an heiress who is suing  a local newspaper for five million dollars for  printing false accusations about her stealing another woman’s husband. The paper’s editor is the scheming, crusty Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) who plans to obstruct the lawsuit by creating a scheme that will make Connie appear to be a real husband stealer. His plan is to enlist the services of Bill Chandler (William Powell), a former reporter for the paper, along with his own frustrated fiancé of two years, a reluctant Gladys  (Jean Harlow). Haggerty convinces both Bill and Gladys to get married to each other, but only for appearances sake, and not certainly not to be consummated! Bill will then “seduce” Connie, who is unaware that he is a married man, into a romantic relationship only to have Gladys come barging in causing a public scandal with  Tracy’s paper  breaking the news, forcing Connie to drop the suit.

Filled with one hilarious scene after another, arguably the most hysterical is the wedding scene of Bill and Gladys. At the end of the ceremony, the justice of the peace tells the bride and groom they can now kiss. The two uncomfortably peck each other reluctantly on the lips. When Haggerty congratulates the new bride with a kiss, it is a long and passionate, shocking the justice of the peace. The new husband, Bill looking on informs the flustered justice of the peace not to worry, “they are old friends… very old friends!”

A fishing scene is also a highlight with Bill pretending to be an expert on trout fishing to impress Connie’s father, a delightful Walter Connelly. He unnervingly finds himself in the stream soak and wet, yet somehow managing to bag the largest catch of the day (This whole sequence reminded me of Howard Hawk’s 1964 comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport” where Rock Hudson passes himself off as an expert on fishing but has actually never fished). As the film progresses, the plot becomes thicker and wilder, with Gladys beginning to believe she is really falling in love with Bill, while Bill  actually falls in love with his supposed mark, Connie, and the two impetuously getting married. A jealous Gladys will accuse them of arson when she really means bigamy.

Marriage of convenience has been a common plot device in many comedies over the years, “Hired Wife,” “Come Live With Me,” “The Lady is Willing,” “Next Time I Marry,” and “The Doctor Takes a Wife” are a few films that have used the same theme.  I  actually watched the last of these film’s mentioned recently, a pleasant entertaining movie with Loretta Young and Ray Milland, though not in the same league as “Libeled Lady.” If “Libeled Lady” has a flaw it comes in the final minutes when all that is going on in the convoluted plot needs to be sorted out to ensure a happy ending, particularly the problem of Powell’s character who married Harlow during the course of the movie, but is in love with, and marries Loy, making Powell a bigamist. Well, we can’t have that, after all, this is 1936 and the production code is in effect, so as the film comes to its conclusion, Bill announces he looked into Gladys’ past and found that her Yucatan divorce from her first husband was illegal, subsequently, she was not free to have married him, making it legal for Bill to have married Connie. Only the put upon Gladys has her day, coming back with an unexpected topper, by announcing to everyone she followed the fiasco Yucantan divorce with a legal Reno divorce, freeing her to have married Bill! Unfortunately, both of these plot points come out of nowhere, like a mystery writer who injects a totally unexpected twist, an unseen and contrived idea into the storyline in the last chapter, with no previous hint earlier in the story, to surprise the reader. The entire scene is too manufactured and feels forced in order to resolve Bill’s double marriage dilemma.

That said, this is a not to be missed fun filled farce with a spectacular MGM cast. Myrna Loy who can express witty and naughty looks by just the raise of an eyebrow is matched flawlessly against her ideal screen partner, William Powell. Jean Harlow is a comedic gem with  the right touches of cunning and naiveté, and Spencer Tracy is perfect as the calculating newspaper editor who puts the paper above all else.

****

Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) Sidney Lumet

Okay, first let me say that “Night Falls on Manhattan” is not a bad movie; it is just by 1997 we had seen it all before and better. Lumet is on familiar territory here, political fraud, crooked cops, and ethical dilemmas. It is a road he has traveled on many times and at a far better speed. What was once shocking in “Serpico” is now old hat, been there, saw that last night on “Law and Order” or some other TV police show. 

Life isn’t black and white; there are always shades of gray, that’s the theme running through this political drama. Based on the novel, “Tainted Evidence” by Robert Daley, author of “Prince of the City” and “Year of the Dragon” among others, high values are thwarted, the good guys are not all good, the villains are victims of life, and all are casualties of their owned flawed behavior. Lumet made movies for adults, his characters were not cardboard cutouts, they were real three dimensional people in difficult situations, and never perfect. No matter how hard they tried, they would get caught up life’s complicated twist and turns. Continue reading

Sidney,We Hardly Knew Ye

Like his New York cohorts, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet never quite fit in with Hollywood and remained outside the system for his entire career. A career that spanned well over forty-five years going back to the days of live television dramas when he and fellow directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, among others were creating their own version of a new wave.

Actually, Lumet’s career goes back to his childhood in the Yiddish theater district along 2nd Avenue in lower Manhattan. His made his Broadway debut, as a child actor, in the original production of Sidney Kingley’s “Dead End.” He appeared in at least ten other Broadway productions including the 1946 production of “A Flag is Born” where he was a replacement for Marlon Brando.  Lumet made one appearance in a film as an actor in “One Third of a Nation” (he also had a cameo appearance in Jonathan Demme’s remake of “The Manchurian Candidate”), a film most noted for being the last to be shot at the old Astoria Film Studio in Queens that is until Lumet inaugurated the refurbished studio in 1978 with the making of his failed musical, “The Wiz.” Continue reading

Milos Forman Filming “Hair”

I took this photo of Milos Forman in Central Park during the filming of HAIR. The stage production was revolutionary (I saw it on Broadway in the early 1970’s)  for its time.  Many critics narrow mindedly knocked the 1979 film as being too little, too late, but I ask, is a cry for peace and love ever too late?