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Archive for the ‘Fredric March’ Category

Click for larger imageFor most people, the 1955 version of The Desperate Hours is remembered as the film that features Humphrey Bogart’s last tough guy role. For myself, it’s the film that reminds me of Fredric March. I watched The Desperate Hours when I was first getting into movies, so none of the actors involved–with the exception of Bogie–were familiar to me. A few years later and I’m a huge fan of Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young! How about that?

The Desperate Hours is a taut, exciting crime drama, expertly directed by William Wyler. The plot revolves around an ordinary suburban family, whose life is shockingly disrupted when three escaped convicts break into their home and hold them hostage while waiting for some getaway money to arrive. Bogie plays Glenn Griffin, the leader of the convicts, while March is the levelheaded, yet tense, father who attempts to hold his family together. As a criminal, Bogie is always good. I’ve never really seen him phone in a performance (although the bizarre 1939 horror flick, The Return of Dr. X, ranks pretty high on that list) and the character of Glenn is what Duke Manatee (from The Petrified Forest) would be like had he grown older. Yet, it’s Fredric March who really made the movie for me.

Studio issued still of Fredric MarchI owe my love of Fredric March to this film. A few years later when I viewed The Desperate Hours again, I realized what a powerful actor March was. As Dan Hillard, he appears cool under pressure–yet, you know that it’s all an act. He’s terrified that one wrong move will affect the fate of his family, and he does all he can to protect them. Can you imagine going to work while your wife and kids are back home, being held hostage by three gun-toting nuts? In one particular scene, March’s talents are on full display. After being visited by son Ralphie’s schoolteacher, March must pretend that the convicts lurking in the house are old friends that he met that afternoon in the bar. Adding to that, Ralphie has given his teacher a note describing the situation, disguised as homework. When March spots it, he must take it away before she leaves the house. And if that weren’t enough, he leeringly asks the teacher to “join the party!” as a cover for his nervous state. It’s marvelous, layered acting on March’s part.

The family and the convictsThe cast of “The Desperate Hours”
A family in crisis: Scenes from ‘The Desperate Hours’

Surprisingly though, March’s participation in The Desperate Hours almost never happened. The role of Dan Hillard was originally meant for Bogie’s good friend, Spencer Tracy. Since both of them were used to top billing, neither wanted to concede that first above-the-title spot to the other. And so, Tracy was out and March (who was pretty much second or third billed in all his later movies) was in. And thank goodness for that! While I love Spencer Tracy, there’s just something about Fredric March that grabs me. He’s a brilliant actor who always manages to find the heart of his characters, no matter what the situation. While he’s notable for so many wonderful films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Star is Born, The Best Years of Our Lives and Inherit the Wind to name a few), one of my favorite performances is his portrayal of Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Misérables, a movie I thought I would never like. Yet, it’s March’s skills as an actor that draw me in and make me care about this escaped French prisoner who creates a new life for himself. I’m not one for historical epics, but I love Fredric March in them. Go figure.

The paperback novelOddly enough, the backstory of The Desperate Hours originated from a real life hostage situation that took place in 1952. After reading about it in the papers, writer Joseph Hayes then turned the story of the Hill family into a 1953 novel and then wrote the script for the Broadway play. Directed by Robert Montgomery and starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman in the March and Bogie parts, The Desperate Hours won Tony awards for Best Director (Montgomery) and the Best Play of 1955.

Using the real house of the Hills (who had since moved away after the incident) and the cast of the Broadway play, Life magazine published an article that recreated many scenes from their ordeal. However, the Hills then sued Life magazine for falsifying the article. The magazine stated that the Hills were assaulted and sworn at–claims that the family’s patriarch chalked up to being false. In fact, the Hills were treated rather civilly by the convicts (but that wouldn’t make a good story now, would it?). The case wound up bouncing back and forth in court–at one point, the Hill’s attorney was future president Richard Nixon–with both sides winning and losing at different points. In the end, the case just fizzled out and the results were unknown. Either the Hills abandoned the suit or settled out of court with Time, Inc., the publishers of Life magazine.

Life magazine - Page 1Life magazine - Page 2Life magazine - Page 3

the Broadway cast of “The Desperate Hours”Newman and Malden of Broadway’s “The Desperate Hours”
Top row: 3 pages from the controversial Life magazine article; bottom row: two stills from the Broadway version of The Desperate Hours, starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman

Despite the real life drama, the film version of The Desperate Hours turned out to be a hit. Much of the credit is due to William Wyler, who has a knack for making the most mundane scene interesting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gig Young’s experience in this film. While exhausting for an actor, Wyler’s strict attention to detail and demands of multiple takes pay off in the end. In the wrong hands, The Desperate Hours could have flopped, becoming boring or mundane during the middle section–but it doesn’t. If anything, the tension builds from the moment the convicts enter the Hillard’s home. There are also some interesting subplots that give the story even more emotional weight: the history between Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) and Glenn Griffin, Dan’s dislike of his daughter Cindy’s (Mary Murphy) Robert Middleton waves a gunboyfriend Chuck (Gig Young), and the tragic relationship between brothers Dan and Hal (Dewey Martin), which ultimately leads to Hal’s death. From the supporting cast, Robert Middleton plays the slimy, unhinged convict, Sam. Of the three, he’s the loose cannon, the one to watch out for. Sam is almost childlike in nature, yet he’s the first one to resort to extreme violence which culminates in the murder of an innocent bystander. In so many films, Middleton excels at playing heinous criminal types and here he’s no exception. You find yourself despising him throughout the film and cheer when he finally gets his just desserts.

Wyler also knew how to lighten the tension, albeit briefly. By using one of Ralphie’s friends, he interjects little slices of humor throughout the first half of the film. After picking up Middleton from an afternoon excursion, March pulls into the driveway. Noticing that Ralphie’s football playing friends are there, he then swats them away, causing one of the kids to turn to the others and whine, “Guys, what did I do?” It’s gives the viewer a brief chuckle before turning back to the situation at hand. In another tense drama, 1951’s Detective Story, Wyler employed the same technique with the shoplifiting character played by Lee Grant. Without the slight humor that these characters offer, the tension throughout both films would be practically unbearable. After all, it is a movie–not real life!

Bogie and Bacall at the Premiere of The Desperate Hours (10/5/55)It’s also interesting to note that in the script, the part of Glenn was aged considerably so that Bogie could play it. On Broadway, Paul Newman created the role–yet in 1955, he didn’t have much of a film career and I’m sure Wyler wasn’t willing to take a risk on a virtual unknown. Until that point, Newman had done mostly television and Broadway work (he made his Broadway debut in 1953’s Picnic). The only film on his resume was 1954’s historical drama, The Silver Chalice, which embarrassed him so much, Newman took out an ad in a trade paper apologizing for his performance. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Paul Newman was cast in the part of the Glenn. Can you imagine being taken hostage by him? Seriously, now!

Gratuitous shirtless shot of Paul Newman - because I CAN
While its addition is suspect, I’ve included a photo to show you what Paul Newman looked circa mid-50’s. Ahem.

Despite my silly meanderings, The Desperate Hours is a great film and one that’s well worth your time. It was remade in 1990, but as with all remakes, they’re somewhat trite and meaningless when you compare it to the original. And the original has it all: a great script, well-thought out characterizations of three desperate men and a family in crisis, as well as a nail-biting conclusion. And of course, there’s the wonderful acting between Bogie and March, who play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse near the end of the film. Unlike so many movies that I write about, I refuse to spoil the ending here. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

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Another group of images for your enjoyment! This time, I’m posting Publicity Shots from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Over the years, I’ve collected them from around the internet and I thought I would share them with you today.

However, I’ve always wondered what their source was. In the 1933 shots, there are numbers at the bottom of each page, so I’m assuming they’re from a book the studios sent out. Was this something available to the public? It doesn’t seem to be from a specific studio, but a grouping of them. You have Clark Gable (MGM) with Claudette Colbert (Paramount). I have to say though, a lot of the shots are gorgeous–especially the Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck ones (or maybe my love for Ball of Fire is showing!) If anyone has any information or knows what these are from, please let me know. They’re really gorgeous pictures though and the little biographical blurbs are fun to read as well. I’m also thinking that this is a book from the UK, since one of the Cagney stills says it’s from the movie Enemies of the Public, which was the UK title for The Public Enemy.

Also, I get a kick out of Greta Garbo’s little blurb: “Someday someone will find the real woman in her and she will cease to be Greta Garbo, film star. She will become, perhaps, Mrs. Somebody, housewife.” Yeah, right.

The 1930 shots of Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford are from their publicity packages. I doubt they wrote their own bios, although if I were alive at the time, I probably would have thought they did. I’m that naive.

Next week, part 2–but for now, Enjoy!

The 20’s – Norma Shearer (1925 & 1929)

1925 - Norma Shearer - Click for larger imagesmall_1929_norma.jpg

1930 – Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford

Gary Cooper - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageGary Cooper - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageJoan Crawford - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageJoan Crawford - 1930 - Click for Larger Image

1933: Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper 1 & 2, Joan Crawford

Claudette Colbert - 1933 - Click for Larger ImageGary Cooper - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGary Cooper - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionJoan Crawford - 1933 - Click for Larger Image

1933: Jimmy Durante & Buster Keaton, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Leslie Howard & Mary Pickford

Jimmy Durante & Buster Keaton - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionClark Gable - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGarbo - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionLeslie Howard and Mary Pickford - 1933 - Click For Larger Version

1933: Fredric March, Laurence Olivier, George Raft, Barbara Stanwyck

Fredric March - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionLaurence Olivier - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGeorge Raft - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionBarbara Stanwyck - 1933 - Click for Larger Version

1933 Movie Stills:

Cagney, Cimmaron, Lee Tracy and Ann Harding - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionCagney & Blondell, McCrea & Fay Wray - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionJames Cagney - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGary Cooper and Joel McCrea - 1933 - Click For Larger Version

From left to right:
Picture 1 – James Cagney, Cimmaron, Ann Harding, Lee Tracy
Picture 2 – Cagney & Blondell, Joel McCrea & Fay Wray
Picture 3 – Cagney in Enemies of the Public
Picture 4 – Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea

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Three on a Bed - Click for larger image

To get into the spirit for tonight’s pre-code marathon on TCM, I thought I would discuss one of my favorite movie from that era, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living (1933). I admit that I don’t know much about pre-code films or their history, but I do know a great film when I see one. And not only is Design For Living great, but it’s incredibly sexy and fun as well. It’s risque plot begs the question: is it possible for two men to share a woman and live happily ever after? While the idea of a menage a trois is common knowledge by today’s standards, it had to be a shocking topic for 1933!

Cooper, March, Hopkins - Click for larger imageThe plot centers around two friends, playwright Tom (Fredric March) and painter George (Gary Cooper) who meet a free-spirited commercial artist, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) on a train. Naturally, both men fall in love with Gilda and unbeknownst to each other, are having a physical relationship with her. Instead of choosing one, Gilda decides that the best solution is to forget about sex. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Instead, Gilda has separate dalliances with both George and Tom and when she sees that she’s tearing their friendship apart, she runs off and marries her humorless boss, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Soon, Gilda finds herself in an unhappy situation, surrounded by Plunkett’s boring, snooty friends while forced to play silly dinner games and sing even siller songs. It’s then up to Tom and George to rescue her from the boredom of Plunkett’s home.

While the “Lubitsch Touch” may not be for everyone, it’s precisely what makes Design For Living so fantastic. It’s a light, sophisticated sex farce that never crosses the line into smut. And while there are serious turns in the plot, they mostly revolve around the emotions of Tom, George and Gilda–never are they made to feel guilty for enjoying sex. It’s who they’re enjoying it with that’s the problem. But what makes Design For Living truly beautiful is that the main characters are friends first, and romantically involved second (a very close second, I might add). It’s clear from their banter on the train that they enjoy each other’s company. And when Gilda tells the boys to forget about sex, she turns it into something positive by critiquing their work instead and turning them into successes. Of course, none of the parties involved can go without physical comforts for long, but isn’t that what makes the movie so much fun?

Gary Cooper and Fredric March - Click for larger image

Both Fredric March and Gary Cooper are perfect in their roles. Not only do they have amazing chemistry with Hopkins, but they play off each other beautifully as well. The comic banter between them is easy and light and Design For Living playbill - Click for larger imageyou understand why their friendship has endured for eleven years. It’s also interesting to note that in the original Noel Coward scripted play, it was hinted that Tom and George were bisexual. Even though the Hays Code was lax, the powers that be insisted that Design For Living be cleaned up for the screen version. Hollywood wasn’t that liberated. Enter screenwriter Ben Hecht, who wound up rewriting all the dialogue except for one line (“For the good of our immortal souls!”), while keeping the plot the same. All traces of bisexuality between Tom and George were written out–or was it? In the scene where George finds out that Tom and Gilda have spent the night together, he angrily tells them, “It’s hard to believe I loved you both!” While the line was meant to express a platonic love between Tom and George, I’m sure some people were thinking along the lines of the original Broadway version. I know I was (but that’s mostly because I have a filthy mind). After all, Tom and George lived together before Gilda came along and after Gilda leaves them, they go off to China together. March and Cooper are not affectionate towards each other, but it’s hard not to think that there was something more to their characters, especially in such a sexually charged movie. I’m sure if Design For Living was re-made today (Heaven forbid), the writers would throw in some sexual tension and jealousy between Tom and George based on their previous, pre-Gilda relationship.

Cooper, March, Horton - Click for larger imageThe character of Max Plunkett is Design For Living‘s authority figure and the exact kind of attitude that the saucier pre-code movies thumbed their nose at. He’s awfully fond of the phrase, “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!” which describes the kind of guy he is. Yawn. Played by Edward Everett Horton (one of my favorite character actors from the 30’s), Plunkett is the kind of guy who thinks after dinner games of 20 Questions and “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?” are a good time. He’s the symbol of stodgy monotony, while Tom, George and Gilda represent a more carefree attitude. Plunkett is obsessed with work and while the three want to be successful in life, it shouldn’t come at the loss of their happiness.

Married? Noooooo! - Click for larger imageI know it’s said that Horton was gay in real life, but I never got that kind of over-the-top flamboyancy from him, like I did with Franklin Pangborn. In so many movies, Horton was constantly married to women, who like him, had a sense of asexuality. You could never imagine them having sex–maybe the most you’d see is a chaste kiss, but that’s about it. Horton’s asexuality is what makes Plunkett so great–despite his love for Gilda, you could never, ever imagine him satisfying her like Tom or George could, nor could you imagine Gilda getting all worked up over him. Even his attempts at shopping for a bed are dull–Plunkett pulls out a tape measure to see the width of the bed, before measuring each of their shoulders! Horton puts in a fine dramatic performance here, especially in the post-marriage bedroom scene where he kicks the tulips after having a passionless wedding night.

But what really makes the movie is the character of Gilda (pronounced Jil-da). Miriam Hopkins shines in the role, bringing to life a complex woman who is not only comfortable with her sexuality, but places Tom and George’s friendship above her own happiness. The last thing she wants is for them to hate each other. Throughout the film, Gilda tries many different things in order to restore peace between Tom and George: she becomes “den mother” to their pursuits and then marries Plunkett so that neither man can have her. But in the end, Gilda cannot deny her true happiness anymore and neither can Tom or George. They need her as much as she needs them, jealousy be damned.

Hopkins runs a gamut of emotions throughout the film: she’s flirty and coy, but serious and passionate when she needs to be. It would be hard to like Gilda if Hopkins played her as a stupid, shallow and coarse girl, but she doesn’t. If anything, Gilda is a revelation–she’s a sexually liberated woman in the 1930’s, an idea that wouldn’t be popular until almost 40 years later. Gilda only wants to bring out the best in both of her men. She’s not desperately seeking approval from Tom or George and isn’t afraid tear down their egos and criticize their work (“Rotten!”). But she’s willing to succumb to passion when the time is right. Gilda wears her emotions on her sleeve. In one scene, she tells Tom that he haunted her “like a nasty ghost” and that “on rainy nights, I could hear you moanin’ down the chimney.” She’s open and honest. There’s no false pretenses with her and not only is it refreshing to see, but it’s fun to watch. It makes you root for Gilda and hope that she gets both her men at the end of the story. These characters are too nice and too much fun to be left broken hearted at the end.

A Gentleman’s Agreement - Click for larger imageGary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins - Click for larger imageI’m no Gentleman - Click for larger image
The end of the “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Design For Living also has it’s share of extremely sensual moments, which are sprinkled through the film. The innuendo is hard to miss. For example, take the scene where George and Gilda are alone together in their apartment. After pacing back and forth a few times, George grabs Gilda, proclaims his love and kisses her. In return, Gilda walks over to the dusty couch, lazily stretches the length of her body across it and purrs, “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement–but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.” The scene fades to black. It leaves the power of one’s imagination to figure out what happened next, which is so much sexier than showing the physical act of lovemaking itself.

It still rings! - Click for larger imageIn another scene, Tom visits the apartment of George and Gilda, only to find that Gilda still has his old typewriter. Despite promising to take good care of itwhen he left for London, Tom finds that’s it’s now rusted out. When Gilda enters the room, the sexual tension between them becomes unbearable. They can’t take their eyes off each other and the typewriter becomes a metaphor for their relationship. As Gilda starts fiddling with the machine, she and Tom have the following conversation:

Tom (accusingly): You didn’t keep it oiled.
GIlda: I did for awhile.
Tom: The keys are rusty. The shift is broken
Gilda seductively slides the carriage back and forth, causing the typewriter to ‘ding’. Tom and Gilda look at each other wide-eyed with excitement.
Gilda (excitedly): But it still rings!
March walks over to Gilda, where they meet face-to-face.
Gilda (softly): “It still rings.”
Tom: “Does it?”
Fade to black.

It’s one of the best moments in the entire film and that’s saying a lot, because there are so many high points to begin with. And speaking of which, the closing scene is also fantastic. After Tom, Gilda and George escape Plunkett’s mansion in a taxi, Gilda then declares that she wants to go back to Paris and have some fun–but not before giving each guy a big kiss on the lips. And we know exactly what kind of fun she wants. After all, she’s nestled in between Fredric March and Gary Cooper–who could blame her for wanting to have “fun”?

When I first got into classics, I could never understand what the fuss about pre-codes was all about, but after seeing a few, I do understand. Not only are they fun, but it’s nice to see endings where the main character isn’t severely punished for their actions. You know, if Design For Living had somehow been made after 1934, not only would a good chunk of the snappy dialogue have been eradicated, but one of the main characters would have had to die in order for moral sanity to rule the day. I’m guessing that Gilda would have received the brunt of the Code’s moral abuse. After all, she enjoyed sex and everyone knows that in post-1934 films, any woman who enjoys sex is a harlot. And don’t even get me started on separate beds!

I’ve always wondered what the movies would have been like if the Hays Code hadn’t been enforced in 1934. Would movies have gotten sexier and more violent? Hollywood is not a place where they know how to draw the line. For every good movie that’s released today, there’s another film that’s filled with tons and tons of gore and sex. I know I sound like a prude saying this, but my idea of a good time isn’t watching someone slice off their own arm or kill their beloved puppy for the sake of shock value. You don’t need shock value to enjoy a movie. I like sensical plots and good character development and that’s why classics, pre or post code, had those qualities in spades. Once the hammer of the Hays code came down, Hollywood had to clean up their act. But it’s not as though the quality of the movies went down–if anything, they went up.

Still, I’m thankful that so many pre-code movies still exist and I’m happy whenever I find a really good one, such as Design For Living (which is available in the 5-disc Gary Cooper Collection). I’m looking forward to the pre-codes and new documentary that TCM is offering up tonight because with every new film I watch, I gain new insights into the past and become more appreciative of the present. And in my opinion, that’s what loving Classic Hollywood is all about.

Links:

• A review and more background info on Design For Living via the Lubitsch site.

• The outlines of the Hays Code from Wikipedia

• A very good pre-code article at GreenCine

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