Redemption and Remember the Night

remember-the-nightBarbara Stanwyck was always at her best when her character came from the wrong side of the tracks. She seemed to have a natural affinity for those whose lives have mostly been filled with hard times, scrapping by the best way they can. Maybe, it had to do with her sad Brooklyn upbringing, her mother dying when she was four, pushed from a streetcar by a drunk, and her father leaving only weeks later, never heard from again. That kind of pain has to leave an indelible mark on one for life. Yet, beneath the tough exterior would hide a gentle desirous heart longing for acceptance and love that would eventually reveal itself. This double side of Stanwyck’s persona is clearly on display in many of her films including this 1940 holiday comedy/drama.

Fred MacMurray is prosecuting Assistant District Attorney, John Sargent.  He arranges through a legal technicality, to have Lee Leander’s (Barbara Stanwyck) trial for shoplifting postponed until after the holidays. This gesture results in Lee, unable to post bail, having to spend the long holiday week in a jail cell. Sargent, in a twinge of guilt, or holiday spirit, arranges through a shady bondsman to have Lee’s five thousand dollars bail paid. When the bondsman delivers Lee to the ADA’s apartment, she is cynical enough, and has no doubt, her payback to him will be in sexual favors. To her surprise, Sargent expects nothing in return. He really just did not want her to spend Christmas in jail. The look of surprise in Lee’s eyes and face is priceless when this realization hits her. Continue reading

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) Continue reading

Easy Living (1937) Mitchell Leisen

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     Wit. Such a simple word and yet it is so hard to come by in the movies or anywhere else for that matter. If you have been following my blog you will notice I have recently been watching a few films written and or directed by Preston Sturges. What has attracted me to Sturges is that simple three-letter word. His films are full of it. A rare commodity, only found in a handful of films by such filmmakers as Billy Wilder, Ernest Lubitsch and more recently Woody Allen. In a film world full of Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey movies, wit is at a premium.  While I have enjoyed a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey movie here and there, it was certainly not for any kind of cleverness or wit.  

 easy-living-dvd   This all leads to a 1937 film written by Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen called “Easy Living.” A bright and charming movie bursting with tons of that three letter word. The film stars the superb comedic actress Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a young woman who literally has a fur coat dropped on her head as she rides a double decker bus in Manhattan while on her way to work. This was a result of a fight between Bank Financier J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) aka “The Bull of Wall Street” and his wife Jenny ((Mary Nash). Ball. Fed up with his wife’s extravagant spending J. B.throws Jenny’s latest purchase, a $58,000 fur coat, off the penthouse landing and right onto Mary’s head riding on the bus below. When they meet later in the film, Mary tries to give the coat back but Ball tells her to keep it, plus he buys her a new hat since her old one was crushed when the coat landed on her head. This incident sparks a series of  incidents that result in Mary being fired from her clerical job at a magazine. It also gives the impression to many people, especially to Mr. Louis Louis, the owner of the Hotel Louis, and in debt to Banker Ball, that Mary is Ball’s mistress. As a result, Louis Louis now invites Mary to live in the hotel penthouse free of charge, thinking Ball will surely not foreclose on his hotel if his mistress is living there. Before she knows it, Mary is being offered free cars and jewelry from other customers indebted to Ball. Essentially, still broke and no food in her penthouse kitchen, Mary goes to the Automat diner for a cheap meal. Here’s she meets John Ball Jr. (Ray Milland) who not wanting to live off his father’s money is working at the Automat. Mary is unaware of John Jr.’s background and thinks of him as just another poor working Joe. When John spots Mary eating very little, he attempts to give her some free food and is caught by the store security. A free for all breaks out when Ball Jr. and the security guard get into a tussle.  Without giving too much more away let me say that the incidents just keep piling on including a potential  crash of the stock market.

“Easy Living” is a delightfully swift comedy set during the depression and it must have been amusing and maybe even hopeful to depression audiences as Sturges takes plenty of pokes at the upper class and their so called “problems.” As with many of Sturges films,  written or directed, there is a combination of high verbal wit and low level slapstick. The fight scenes in the Automat are pure laugh out loud funny.

Jean Arthur is charming as Mary Smith and makes the entire movie a joy to watch. Arthur was at the beginning of the peak years of her career. Only two years earlier, she starred with Edward G. Robinson in John Ford’s amusing “The Whole Town’s Talking.” The following year in 1936, she would make her first film with director Frank Capra in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Two other Capra classics would follow, “You Can’t Take it With You”, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Among Arthur’s other works are C.B. DeMille’s “The Plainsman”, Howard Hawk’s “Only Angels Have Wings”, Frank Borzage “History is Made at Night”, Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair”, and three films with George Stevens,  “Talk of the Town”,  “The More the Merrier” and her final film “Shane.”  Shy and reclusive, Arthur prematurely retired from acting, though she did make sporadic appearances on TV and some theater work. The theater work usually ended with disastrous results due to her shyness and severe bouts of stage fright.   John Oller in his biography of Arthur writes about one of  Ms. Arthur’s disastrous theater attempts, the 1967 Broadway production of “The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake”, which closed during previews.  The production was hindered with props that did not work, pot-smoking stagehands and actors who did not show up for work. According to the author, in one incident Arthur got down on her knees and begged the preview audience to let her leave the stage.  Nevertheless, Arthur’s work on the screen is memorable and should be better appreciated today than it is. Along with Carole Lombard, Arthur represents the quintessential screwball  heroine, spirited, confident and uniquely American.   easy_living

   Arthur’s co-star, Edward Arnold, as the magnate J.B. Ball is full of himself and is the source of much of the slapstick humor in the film. Though he died at a relatively young 66 years old, his career spans 50 years in film dating back to 1916. Ray Milland as Mary’s love interest and J.B.’s son holds his own and has some incredible funny scenes. When he made “Easy Living”, Milland’s career was on the verge of becoming a full-blown star.  Also, in the cast is William Demarest, who would become a regular member of  Sturges stock company. Demarest plays a gossip columnist here who is responsible for spreading  the rumors about Mary being J.B.’s mistress.

Credit should also be given to director Mitchell Leisen, who despite a career that has been criticized by both Sturges and Billy Wilder is responsible for some respectable films,. In additions to “Easy Living” Leisen directed “No Man of Her Own”, Hold Back the Dawn”, “Remember the Night” and “Midnight.”  “Easy Living” is a wonderful screwball comedy that should be on everyone’s ‘to watch list.’

 Here’s a clip from  Easy Living and here is here is another.

No Man of Her Own (1950) Mitchell Leisen

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 Released in 1950, the film stars Barbara Stanywck and John Lund, it was directed by Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Sally Benson and Catherine Turney, based on the novel “I Married a Dead Man” by Cornell Woolrich who wrote it under the pen name William Irish. This was the first of four film versions to have been made from the book. In 1983, there was “I Married a Shadow (Jai Espouse une Ombre) starring Natalie Byle. In 1996 came “Mrs. Winterbourne” with Ricky Lake and in 2001 a made for TV movie called “She’s No Angel” with Tracy Gold. By the way, do not get this film confused with the 1932 Clark Gable/Carole Lombard “No Man of Her Own,” the only thing they have in common is the title.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman with an immoral past finds herself pregnant and dumped by her low life lover Steve Morley (Lyle Bettger) for another dame. He slips Helen some money and a train ticket underneath the door of his apartment and tells her to get lost, go back home to San Francisco. Thus begins a series of events, wild as they are, that will change everyone.

On the train heading home Helen meets Hugh and Patrice Harkness (Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter) a newly married couple who are on their way to Hugh’s parents’ house in Illinois where Patrice will meet her in-laws for the first time. Like Helen, Patrice is also pregnant. Enroute, Helen and Patrice become chatty, sharing some bonding moments; Patrice even lets Helen try on her ring. Just at this moment, the train derails resulting in a deadly crash. Hugh and Patrice are killed while Helen is injured ending up in the hospital. With the ring still on her finger everyone in the hospital assumes she is Patrice Harkness. Helen, her life at a dead end, allows the misunderstanding to continue and soon finds herself lovingly welcomed into the home of Hugh’s parents. Hugh’s brother, Bill (John Lund) is immediately attracted to her but he is also a bit suspicious of her however, he says nothing. Though at first feeling guilty, Helen eventually settles into the middle class, middle America home as both she and the baby are warmly embraced by the Harkness family. Life is good until her former creep of a lover Steve resurfaces, seeing dollar signs, he has a scheme of  his own.

“No Man of her Own” is a well-paced atmospheric tense noir and Barbara Stanwcyk gives another one of her effective performances with a strong female character. She is especially impressive during the marriage ceremony scene which is all part of Steve’s blackmail scheme. We here her in voice over telling us what she is thinking, yet if your watch her eyes, they reveal even more than what is said. The biggest problems with the film are a weak performance by John Lund who comes across as just plain bland and unexciting. Additionally, at forty-three years old, Barbara Stanwyck is a little too old for the role though, as I mentioned earlier, she gives her usual strong performance. Finally, I have not read the Woolrich novel on which the film is based however, from what I have read in doing research the book’s ending is much bleaker than the happy ending tacked on to the film. The darker ending would have made for a much stronger film than the obligatory happy studio ending.

 A few words must be said for Lyle Bettger who is excellent as the totally despicable slimy Steve, Helen’s cold hearted blackmailing boyfriend. Bettger made a career in mostly “B” films and later on TV typically as a villain. Here he is effectively vile and loathsome, he makes you just want to take a shower and wash his slime out of your system.

If you ever read a biography on Billy Wilder you would come to believe Mitchell Leisen to be the worst director ever to sit behind a camera. Wilder claims Leisen ruined his scripts (“Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn”, both co-written by Charles Brackett) and this is what made him determined to become a director himself, to protect the written word. Preston Sturges also complained about Leisen cutting his scripts (“Easy Living” and “Remember the Night”). So are Leisen directed films that bad? Well, I have seen “Midnight” and it is a funny and smartly written and well directed film as is “Hold Back the Dawn.” As for the Sturges written “Remember the Night” it is a nice blend of romantic comedy with some dark drama and a Christmas season background. It also is a precursor to the reuniting Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck four years before Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Leisen’s films are always visually stylish thanks to his background in art direction and costumes. In his time he was a well-respected and versatile studio director, despite Wilder and Sturges thinking, who did well whether it was a romantic comedy, melodrama, or musical. He sometimes even mixed them together as he did with “No Man of Her Own”, a blending of woman’s melodrama with noirish overtones and doing it successfully. Other Leisen films include “Hands Across the Table”, “Swing Low, Swing High”, both with Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray, “Arise My Love”, “I Wanted Wings” and “The Mating Season.”