Desk Set (1957) Walter Lang

“Desk Set” is not the best Tracy and Hepburn comedy. For that, you would have check out superior films like, “Adam’s Rib” or “Woman of the Year.”  Then again, it’s not the worst either, I personally reserve that position for the preachy, badly directed, annoyingly written but crowd pleasing, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  “Desk Set” is a charming piece thanks mostly to its charismatic beloved two stars. The film is also a look back at a time when computers, first entering the workplace, were so huge they required special rooms with specific climatic conditions, today all that computer power is compacted into a laptop that you can carry anywhere. It was also a time when smoking in the office place was common and a no smoking sign was one of those special conditions reserved for the new computer room.  The film is also a reflection on how office politics has changed. Women were mostly regulated to secretarial jobs, or if they were in a supervisor position, like Hepburn, it was in a backroom reference library type position. Finally, there is the Christmas party, the kind filled with champagne overflowing with every bottle that is popped! Continue reading

Riffraff (1936) J. Walter Ruben

A young Spencer Tracy plays Dutch Miller, a highly arrogant, egotistical blow hard of a fisherman with the ability to lead men ever since he was a kid. He commemorates his marriage to the pretty cannery row beauty, Hattie (Jean Harlow) by quitting his job and encouraging his fellow fishermen to go out on strike. When the labor battle is lost, Dutch is tossed out as union President and with his oversized ego in hand, and no job, goes off leaving his wife and former friends to prove he can be a success. Later, Hattie learns the Dutchman is not doing well and is living in a hobo camp. She steals some money for him, but the ego driven Dutch refuses to accept her help or even see her. Hattie is soon caught for the thief and sent to prison. Pregnant with Dutch’s child on the way, Hattie escapes from prison. When Dutch learns about his child he has a sudden epiphany, coming to the realization being a good fisherman is good enough. He doesn’t have to conquer the world.

“Riffraff” is a paranoid piece of entertainment, written by Francis Marion, Anita Loos and H.W. Hanmann, based on a story by Marion. The film cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a raucous waterfront comedy or a social drama dealing with issues of union labor, evil management and women behind bars. This is where the main problem with the film is, in the writing. Tracy’s character is not believable and his turn around at the end is just too quick and unconvincing. Continue reading

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) John Sturges

Spencer Tracy can act better than most others with one arm tied behind his back! He proves this in John Sturges terrifically well paced and tense film, “Bad Day at Black Rock.” Sturges paints a picture of a town that is barren, both physically and psychology. It’s a town with a dark secret cancer called hatred and it is slowly eating away at everyone in it.  Into this dust bowl comes John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), a one armed stranger dressed in a black suit and tie which only accentuates his difference even more from the rest of the town. Like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in “High Noon,” or Alan Ladd in “Shane,”  Tracy’s John Macreedy is one lone man who has to face evil alone. The film takes place shortly after the end of World War II when, for some, the Japanese were still seen as the enemy. Racial hatred simmers underneath the surface of the entire town. Like most racists it is their own fear and insecurities that drive them to action.

Black Rock is a small dusty whistle stop of a town where the railroad (the Streamline) always passes through, never stopping to pick up or drop off anyone. This time, the first in four years, it does stop and the folks in town are suspicious as to who this stranger is and what he wants. Small towns can be curious little places where local folks remain distrustful of outsiders and the outside world. That’s the way it is in Black Rock, it’s an inhospitable desolate place, where it can be cold in many ways other than the weather. 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.

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