John Farrow’s “The Big Clock” is a taut thriller with a tightly wound clock ticking away as its protagonist becomes more and more isolated and desperate after he has been indirectly set up to take the fall for the murder of his tyrannical boss’ lover. The film is based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Adding nicely to the tension is John Seitz’s impressive cinematography. The theme of greed, the cut throat behavior and heartlessness that exists in the corporate world, makes this film relevant more today than ever. Continue reading
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
“Dial M for Murder” was a successful play in both London and on Broadway (where it ran for 552 performances). Written by English playwright Frederick Knott (Write Me a Murder, Wait Until Dark) the hit play originally was turned down for production by London theater managers claiming there would be little interest in this sort of play. Finally the BBC showed interest and the play premiered on the British TV station in early 1952. The play made its West End debut when a businessman who owned a lease on the Westminster theater, and no play ready to put into production, decided to take a chance and put on a low cost thriller with some of the same cast members from the television version. The show was a critical and commercial success. In October 1952, the play opened in New York with Maurice Evans as Tony Wendice, (Ray Milland in the film). Evans had shrewdly acquired the North American rights to the play. Also in the Broadway cast were Anthony Dawson and John Williams, both who would recreate their roles later on screen. Williams won a Tony Award for his role as the Police Inspector.
Enter Alfred Hitchcock who loves a well plotted mystery. Hitch was at the end of his Warner Brothers contract and needed a film to complete his obligations. Women in peril has always been a favorite subject for writers (Knott) and film directors (Hitchcock) so the blending of these two talents was a natural fit. Knott wrote the screenplay which remained faithful to the play. Unlike most filmmakers, when they film a play, Hitchcock did not “open up” the story. He kept it confined to the apartment, where the entire play takes place, except for a couple of short scenes outside the apartment and one scene at a men’s club. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.’
Over the years, there have been plenty of movies about grifters, confidence men, scam artist and flim flam men. Think David Mamet’s “House of Games”, Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise”, “The Grifters”, “Confidence”, “The Flim Flam Man” and “The Sting” just to name a few. An early entry in this sub genre, just to give it a category, is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 film “Blonde Crazy.” Starring James Cagney, who would play a scam artist again a couple of years later in Merlyn LeRoy’s “Hard to Handle”, and Joan Blondell along with Louis Calhern and Noel Francis, “Blonde Crazy” is a lively, witty and entertaining piece of pre-code cinema that is enhanced by the screen chemistry of its two stars.
Fresh off his career-making role in “The Public Enemy” Cagney is Bert Harris, a bellhop and small time grifter working in a hotel in a small mid-western town. In walks Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) looking for a job as a chambermaid. Bert eyes her lasciviously and decides it worth having her around. He arranges for the last recently filled chambermaid position to be vacated and for Ann to get the position. Looking for Ann to be ever so grateful, he arranges for her to come up to an empty room in the hotel so they can be along and she can demonstrate just how thankful she is. Instead, Bert gets a slap in his face, one of many he will receive from Ann.
Despite Bert’s fresh attitude Ann soon hooks up with him and do their first con together scamming a hotel guest. They soon are off to a big Midwestern city where they meet Dapper Dan Barber (Louis Calhern) and Helen (Noel Francis) two big time con artists they team up with only to be swindled out of five thousand dollars by both of them. Ann meets rich Wall Street investor Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland) who is everything Bert is not, successful in an honest job, has friends who are into the arts. Joe is the kind of guy Ann would like to settle down with. However, there is a score to settle with Dapper Dan, and Ann comes up with a successful sting of her own that will get their money back from him. Bert now wants to marry Ann, but she has fallen in love with Joe. They soon marry while Bert looks on.
One year later Bert is living in a small apartment when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Ann, and it seems that honest Joe is not that law-abiding. Ann explains that Joe has embezzled thirty thousand dollars in unregistered bonds from his company. Ann wants to borrow money from Bert so Joe can pay back the firm. Only problems is, Bert is broke. After Ann married Joe, Bert quit grifting. Still stuck on Ann he comes up with a plan to help her husband only to be double-crossed by Joe when he notifies the police and Bert is caught in the act and arrested. Ann realizing she is love with Joe, who now faces years behind bars, swears her love and promising she will wait for him.
Up until the phony happy ending “Blonde Crazy” is unencumbered by censorship. There’s plenty of spicy dialogue delivered by many in the cast. Racy scenes include Cagney ogling Blondell’s body when she first arrives at the hotel looking for work, Blondell discreetly naked taking a bath giving the audience, if not Cagney, a partial view of the right side of her breast. We also have Cagney inspecting Blondell’s panties and bra to find where she hides her money (in her bra). Considering all this, why the filmmakers felt that Cagney had to pay for his sins with jail time is a mystery and Blondell as the woman promising to wait for him has been done so many times since it has become a cliché. Despite this, the film is a real pleasure to watch. Cagney and Blondell, in their fourth of seven films they made together are a perfect match as comfortable together as a pair of well-worn shoes. I don’t think the fast talking Cagney ever had a better match than the wise cracking sassy Joan Blondell.
The Cagney persona that became so recognized was not yet fully developed at this point in his career. There are scenes early in the film that seem a little off kilter coming from Mr. Cagney. For example, the first half or so of the film is comedic and Cagney’s character, Bert, keeps greeting the ladies with a loud uncharacteristic “Hello Honeeeeeey!” Later in the film, as it turns more serious, shades of the Cagney persona emerge that we know so well. This does not deter from the film, it is more just an interesting point as you watch Cagney’s career and persona develop from these early films to the classic Cagney we know so well.
Written by the team of Kubee Glasmon and John Bright who also wrote or had a hand in writing “The Public Enemy”, Three on a Match”, “Smart Money”, “Union Depot”, “Taxi” and “The Crowd Roars”, all films that costarred both or at least either Cagney and Blondell. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, one of Warner Brother’s studio directors the film is solidly made. Del Ruth made some of his best films during the pre code period under the Warner Brothers banner. Later in his career, his films became more uneven with atrocious work like “The Babe Ruth Story” and “The Alligator People” mixed in somewhat more successful films like “West Point Story” and a lot of TV work.
“Blonde Crazy” opened in New York at the Strand Theater on Broadway in early December and was a triumph at the box office guaranteeing Cagney’s and Blondell’s continued success. According Matthew Kennedy in his recent biography “Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes” Blondell, like Cagney, went from one film to another with little or no breaks in between. The Warner Brothers ran their studio like a factory. In just over a year since she was signed to a contract, Joan made twelve movies! Cagney, a huge star now with the success of “The Public Enemy” decided that after “Blonde Crazy” he wanted more money than his current contract with Warners was paying. When Warners refused, he walked out on his contract. Again, according to Matthew Kennedy, Cagney told Blondell she should do the same thing and demand more money. Insecure with no hit under her belt the size of “The Public Enemy” and responsible for supporting her family, Blondell stayed and continued to work. Cagney would return with a huge increase in pay while Joan continued to receive her contracted salary.
“Blonde Crazy” was released on VHS years ago as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood” series that came out in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a DVD release. Maybe, if we are lucky some creative studio executive with get a brilliant idea and release a box set of Cagney/Blondell films, all seven of them!