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Archive for the ‘RKO movies’ Category

Young, Mitchum and Ryan

Like my previously discussed Arthur Kennedy obsession, my love for Robert Ryan is just as great. It’s odd to think that less than a year ago, I barely knew who he was. But seeing The Wild Bunch (1969) changed all that. Ryan captivated me as the reluctant bounty hunter, Deke Thorton. to the point where I lit up every time he appeared on screen. While I love everyone in that film, I found myself concerned about his character the most. He intrigued me like you wouldn’t believe (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also really handsome) and therefore, my newfound obsession with Robert Ryan was born.

Besides his involvement in The Wild Bunch, Ryan is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the murderous anti-Semite, Montgomery, in Edward Dmytryk’s excellent 1947 film-noir, Crossfire (showing Saturday March 22nd at 8:15 am on TCM). Take one look at his filmography and you’ll see that more often than not, Ryan played psychotic heavies in about 80% of the films he was cast. This is probably due to Crossfire, in which he plays Montgomery as a man brimming with anger and hate, but in measured doses. He doesn’t, as they say, chew the scenery. Monty seems to be good-natured, until someone pushes the right buttons and his psychotic side comes forth. One of Ryan’s strengths was playing villains. No matter what the part, Ryan brought an intelligence to them. His villains were never over the top–instead, Ryan characterized them as thoughtful and quiet, never one dimensional cardboard cutouts. They thought before they spoke or lashed out. And while you hated them, you also felt a bit of sympathy towards them for being so evil. In movies such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) or House of Bamboo (1955), Ryan always stole every scene he was in. His mere presence was enough to capture your attention.

Robert Young as FinlayThe plot of Crossfire deals with the murder of Samuels (Sam Levene), who also happens to be Jewish. Investigating it is Captain Finlay (Robert Young), who suspects Mitchell (George Cooper) of committing the act, while another GI, Keely (Robert Mitchum), goes out on a limb to prove his friend’s innocence. Others getting tangled up in the mess are Mitchell’s wife, Mary (Jacqueline White), “nightclub hostess”, Ginny (the always sexy Gloria Grahame) and her dishonorably discharged husband (Paul Kelly). The missing piece of the puzzle is Montgomery, who not only killed Samuels at the beginning of the film, but also murders another GI, Floyd (Steve Brodie), the only witness at hand.

Crossfire first emerged as a novel entitled, The Brick Foxhole. It was written in 1945 by Richard Brooks, who would go on in later years to direct such classics as Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my personal favorite, Elmer Gantry. In the book, Conversations With the Great Moviemakers, Brooks, an ex-marine, explains that his novel was inspired by the group of men he was stationed with: “In my outfit, marines didn’t like black people, didn’t like Jews, didn’t like homosexuals, didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like anybody except marines, Protestant marines, especially if they came from Texas or Atlanta.” In The Brick Foxhole, the character of Samuels was a homosexual and since the Hayes code disallowed “sex perversions”, he became Jewish. However, it turned out to be a timely change, especially with the horrors of the concentration camps beginning to surface.

Robert RyanLike other actors of the era, Ryan enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, and while he never saw combat, he did become a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. It was during these years that Ryan read The Brick Foxhole. Afterwards, he got into contact with Brooks and told him that he would like to be considered for the role of Montgomery if it were ever made into a film. Brooks agreed. At that point, Ryan’s film career was rather short. He had been signed to Paramount for a brief period in 1940, but was dropped by the studio when they claimed that he was unsuitable for films. Now he was signed to RKO, where he appeared in second billed parts of a general nature. Perhaps Ryan saw Montgomery as a huge step forward–and it was. It not only garnered him rave reviews, but nabbed him the only Oscar nomination in his entire career. Ironically enough, Ryan would look back at the part with mixed feelings. While it did bring him to the public’s attention, it also lead to his being typecast as a villain. The public’s enthusiasm for Montgomery always mystified him, as he failed to see “the bone chilling evil I presumably projected.” Perhaps because in real life, Ryan was the complete opposite of his crazed characters. To say he was tolerant of other nationalities would be an understatement. Ryan despised racism, and was a supporter of many liberal political causes. He and his wife Jessica also founded a school, Oakwood, as they felt their children weren’t getting a proper education from the public and private systems. Whether through his acting or his social causes, Ryan wanted to make some kind of contribution to the world.

Mitchell’s flashbackCrossfire succeeds because of Ryan’s psychotic portrayal. When Keely (Mitchum) finds Mitchell (Cooper) and drags him into a darkened theater, Mitchell recalls a flashback from earlier in the night. Since he was drunk, his memory is hazy–yet, we see Montgomery and Samuels standing together, drinking. There’s a bit of an argument between the two and suddenly, Montgomery snarls, “No Jew is going to tell me how to two drink his stinking liquor!” It takes just the slightest word to set him off and expose the ugly hatred that lurks beneath. This is in contrast to the public persona of Montgomery that we see at the beginning of the film. When talking to Capt. Finlay, Monty has an almost wide-eyed and earnest innocence about him. But as the story progresses, more and more of Monty’s true nature is revealed. Right before the pivotal scene where Monty kills Floyd, he lashes out at him, yelling, “I don’t like Jews and I don’t like anyone who likes Jews!” For him, guilt by association is just as bad as being Jewish. But the one point that Crossfire lacks is the reason of why Monty hates the Jews so much. The most we ever get about his background is courtesy of Keely (Mitchum), who mentions that not much is known about him, except that Monty was a loner from all the way back. Did a Jewish person do something to him in the past? Or was he brought up to hate them? We’ll never know. Perhaps the book expounds on his character more, but for the film, it’s a pretty big flaw.

Gloria Grahame as Ginny

Besides Ryan’s standout performance, also of note is Gloria Grahame. Like Ryan, she was dumped by her old studio (MGM) and picked up by RKO. As Ginny (because she’s from Virginia–a fact that will be proven false later in the film), she’s both tough and vulnerable. As the “nightclub hostess” who gets involved with Mitchell, she lets her guard down when he offers to dance with her in the garden of the club where she works, The Red Dragon. Grahame is not only perfect for the role, but she’s also the perfect noir femme fatale. She’s sexy and seductive, with a bit of innocence thrown in for good measure. I absolutely love her in every movie of hers I’ve seen and her role in Crossfire is no exception.

Ginny and Mitchell share a danceFour’s a Crowd - Grahame, White, Young and KellyGinny’s husband
3 Scenes of Trouble: the innocent dance, the investigation and Ginny’s husband

One of my favorite scenes in the whole film occurs when Capt. Finlay and Mitchell’s wife, Mary, arrive at Ginny’s apartment to question her. Taking Ginny out of her nightclub element brings out her defensive side, only softening to admit that she did like Mitchell because she felt sorry for him. Finlay’s questioning is further complicated by the sudden appearance of Ginny’s husband, who admits that he had a conversation with Mitchell earlier in the evening. While he’s a slight character and their relationship is only a subplot, I find Ginny and her husband (I don’t think he was given a first name in the film)the staircase scene to be fascinating, a perfect example of how pre-war marriages failed when the men came home. It’s a subject examined more thoroughly in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives (the failing marriage between Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo), but here it’s sort of a postscript, albeit an interesting one. In one of the most disconcerting scenes, Ginny’s husband continues to talk about his failing marriage while Capt. Finlay and Mary walk away, leaving him alone. He admits that he still loves Ginny, although she despises him. But no one cares about his words or him. It’s as though the war has turned him into a lost soul.

Robert Mitchum as KeelyWhich brings me to the other air of sadness that pervades Crossfire: the adjustment to normal civilian life that the returning soldiers faced. In the beginning of the film, when Keely tells Capt. Finlay about Mitchell, he explains that his current occupation is that of a printer and mentions that instead of the Purple Heart, he now works with purple ink. It’s a good example of how heroic men who once fought for our country are now reduced to menial jobs, since they received no formal job training afterwards. It really depresses the entire film. No matter what the “happy” ending is for Mitchell and his wife, their future is still going to be bleak. Not only is there his involvement with Ginny (as innocent as their relationship is, I would hate to find out my husband went to a “nightclub hostess”!) but he’s just a lowly painter as well. I’m sure his salary is hardly enough to support a wife on. It’s for these reasons that I find post-war movies to be interesting, since I think all the disillusionments really shaped the nation for the years ahead, finally culminating rebellious spirt of the 1960’s.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery

When it was released, Crossfire was a hit. Not only did it win Best Social Film at the Cannes Film Festival and the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Picture, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ryan and Grahame, Best Director for Dmytryk, Best Picture for Adrian Scott (producer) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Grahame, Dmytryk and the film itself lost out to the year’s other “social” picture, Gentleman’s Agreement (Celeste Holm won the Best Supporting Actress statue and Elia Kazan won for Best Director), while Ryan lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street. A snarling killer is no match for a lovable man masquerading as Santa Claus!

Sadly, the success of Crossfire brought negative attention to the people involved: Dmytryk, RKO producers Paul Jarrico and Scott, and Robert Ryan. The head of RKO at the time, Dore Schary, quickly dismissed any claims against Ryan by using his Marine Corps background to get him off the hook. The others weren’t so lucky–while Dmytryk rebounded after his inclusion on the Hollywood Ten list and Jarrico went on to make the only blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, Scott found himself completely ruined.

Robert Ryan as MontgomeryGloria Grahame as Ginny
Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame make Crossfire a classic

Despite this, Crossfire is still a movie that manages to hold up today. While many people say that it’s a bit heavy-handed in it’s handling of racism, I tend to think of it as an excellent film noir murder mystery first and an anti-racism film second. As with many films, it’s the fantastic performances by the entire cast that make Crossfire worth watching. But it’s especially due to Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, who were so rightly nominated for Oscars. They’re what gives the film it’s punch, creating two characters who try to suppress their true feelings, only to wind up wearing them on their sleeves. I’m not sure if any other actors/actresses could be good in those roles–both Ryan and Grahame give their characters that extra something that elevates them above the rest. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Ryan’s Montgomery, since he’s such a hateful person, but it’s countered by knowing that he was the complete opposite of that persona in real life. That’s the mark of a great actor–to take yourself out of your element and make it completely believable.

In a curious side note, that brings this article together in a really roundabout way, The Brick Foxhole was reprinted and reissued in 1952 as a cheap paperback. However, the actor that graced the cover was not Robert Ryan, but…Arthur Kennedy. How about that?

Link: Another vintage magazine advertisement for Crossfire (large, good quality)

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Okay, so the title is a little misleading because in every interview I’ve read or seen, people have nothing but glowing words for Fred Astaire. He was a gentleman through and through. The worst thing I’ve ever read was that he was a…perfectionist.

I figured now would be a good time to profess my love for Mr. Astaire since he’s one of the stars in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach–which is showing February 27 at 8 pm on TCM. Nuclear war has broken out across the nation and Australia is one of the last places where people are still alive. Before we go any further, I should warn you that it’s an extremely depressing movie. It’s not good to watch if:

1. You’ve had a terrible day. You’ve lost your job. Your dog or cat died.
2. You are a woman who’s currently going through PMS.
3. You spent the entire afternoon searching through myspace, checking out your old classmates profiles, only to find out that a good majority of them are all married with kids and now you realize that yes, you are going to die alone. If you were cast in a classic movie, you’d be the “Spinster.” And since you’re terrified of cats, even the title of ‘crazy cat lady’ is now out of your future.

Ahem.

Not only is On the Beach depressing, but it’s a bit draggy at times. It’s a good solid story though, which should be more than enough reason to tune in and at least give it a chance. The other members of the cast include Gregory Peck as Towers, the commander of the USS Sawfish and Ava Gardner as Moria Davidson, who (of course) fall in love with each other. Rounding out the cast are Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins (when he could still be viewed as a sweet and innocent actor instead of a nutjob) as a young married couple.

And of course there’s Fred Astaire. Legend has it that Astaire got the part of the scientist, Julian Osborne, because of Mrs. Stanley Kramer. She happened to be watching an Astaire movie on the late show and knowing her husband’s search for an actor to play the scientist, she turned to him, pointed at the tv and said, “There’s your scientist.” Kramer was dismissive at first, but he soon realized that she was right. When they met, Astaire was curious to why he was chosen for such a role. Kramer answered, “You’ve got something most actors don’t have, Fred. Integrity. It shines out of you.” And Astaire accepted the part.

Fred, Ava and Greg
In a wink-wink moment, Ava coyly remarks: “I could sing and dance.” 

It’s seems like a bit of stunt casting at first. Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role! But he’s absolutely wonderful. It’s because of this movie that I became a huge Fred Astaire fan. Kramer was right on the money when he said Astaire had “integrity.” That’s why his characterization of Julian is so terrific. We first see him at a local get together, where he’s downing drinks and feverently discussing the nuclear war with another partygoer. Since he’s a scientist, he feels that people are blaming him for the mass destruction and ends his drunken rant by concluding that everyone is doomed. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you want at your party, but Astaire’s acting ability is a revelation. Anyone thinking that he was strictly a song-and-dance man is proven wrong. There’s none of that lighthearted joy that’s so prevalent in his musicals. Something is seriously bothering Julian Osborne. There’s a bitterness that he’s trying to mask by consuming alcohol. You want to know what’s going on his mind and why he’s like this.

Another pivotal scene for Astaire takes place later in the film. By this time, Cmdr. Towns has asked Julian aboard the USS Sawfish, hoping to find out who (or what) is sending a mysterious morse code signal that’s based in San Francisco. When all the crew members are sitting around and joking with one another, one of them asks Julian who started the war, to which he sarcastically answers, “Albert Einstein.” He then delivers a guilt-ridden monologue which explains where his mind is at: “Everyone had a bomb, an atomic bomb, a counterbomb, countercounterbombs–the devices outgrew us, we couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them. God help me.”

Serious Fred Astaire
A close up on Astaire’s face during his monologue 

During this scene, Kramer closes in on Astaire’s face, allowing us not only to hear the pain in his voice, but see his tortured look as well. And as you watch him, you forget that he ever danced with Ginger, Rita and Cyd. You believe that these thoughts, these terrible guilty thoughts have been weighing on his shoulders for the longest time and after seeing San Francisco, only now is he able to get them out. It’s not really his fault. It’s the fault of the people who chose to use these weapons so carelessly, but Julian doesn’t care. He feels that he’s specifically to blame.

What’s great about Astaire’s delivery of the lines is that he doesn’t over act. Each word is carefully thought out and spoken with such heartfelt sincerity, you see him as Julian Osborne, not Fred Astaire acting as Julian Osborne. He doesn’t just step into the role, he becomes it. And that’s what makes his performance so fresh and interesting. He even holds his own with Peck–and even, dare I say it, surpasses him (And I LOVE Gregory Peck, so this isn’t a putdown).

I always wondered if Astaire’s casting opened the door for Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, which was released the following year. To be honest, I prefer Inherit the Wind to On the Beach, but competing with giants like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March–well, Kelly is outshined. He’s good though, but not as good as Astaire. I know it’s said that comparing them is like comparing Apples and Oranges, but you can trace their acting styles right to their dancing styles. While Kelly was creative in so many wonderful ways, I feel Astaire managed to convey more emotion through his dances. The draw of Kelly’s routines is how unique they’re set up, whereas Astaire conveyed creativity through the grace and fluidity of his movements. That’s why he puts in an outstanding performance in On the Beach. His sensitivity for his character shines through. He’s in touch with Julian’s inner emotions. While it’s mentioned earlier in the movie that he once had a relationship with Moria (Gardner), he left her behind and forged ahead with his work. Now he regrets it. There’s also another scene where Julian and Peter Holmes (Perkins) have a conversation. Holmes is bemoaning his life, worrying about his wife and children and the cyanide pills that he left her with. After giving him a cool look, Julian comments that he feels so sorry for him, being saddled down with a family. He’s a rather sarcastic fellow, but you can understand why–he’s alone in this world. Holmes has his wife and children. Moria and Towers managed to connect amidst all this sadness. And Julian is alone. He gave everything up for a career that’s now to blame for the destruction of the world. It’s another moment into the dark regrets of Julian’s mind that Astaire allows us to see.

I’m surprised that Astaire wasn’t Oscar nominated for this, especially since the Academy loves when actors play against type. Perhaps they couldn’t see past his musical past. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.

astaire_ryan1.jpgIn the final words of his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire mentions that he never used dancing as a way to express himself. He just did it. Maybe he didn’t dance to personally express himself, but he did a hell of a job expressing his character’s emotions. And no better example of this is in the little-known, 1943 RKO musical, The Sky’s the Limit. It’s an odd movie. Not only are there some plot holes, but there’s the casting of RKO contractee Robert Ryan as one of Astaire’s Flying Tiger buddies as well as funnyman, Robert Benchley. And if that weren’t enough, both Astaire and his co-star Joan Leslie (fresh off her success in Yankee Doodle Dandy) keep their real first names: Fred and Joan. It’s an odd choice, especially when Hollywood was so keen on creating illusions.

Fred Astaire and Joan LeslieThe premise of The Sky’s the Limit could have been lifted from any old Astaire/Rogers script: Fred is a decorated Flying Tiger who’s about to go on leave, but instead of enjoying it, he’s forced to make personal appearances. Fed up with the situation, Fred rebels, jumps off a train and heads to a New York nightclub where he meets and instantly falls in love with Joan. He never tells her that he’s part of the Air Force. Instead, he allows her to think he’s a bum who can’t keep a job. There are some scenes where you could say he’s stalking her (moving into her apartment building about an hour after he meets her, making her breakfast, visiting her in the darkroom at work), but since it’s the 40’s, that behavior is fine. It’s a little annoying, but it’s sweet, I guess. I’d have a guy following me around like that and you bet I’d be calling the cops or arming myself with a gun.

But what’s really weird is that there’s no reason given to why Fred doesn’t tell Joan who he really is. “Because the script says so!” isn’t an adequate response. Is it because he wants Joan to love him for who is he and not as a celebrated war hero? Or perhaps he doesn’t want become too attached, knowing there’s a chance he may die in the war. Or is Fred just nuts? It’s never discussed. Were the bosses at RKO afraid to inject too much psychological drama into a Fred Astaire movie, thinking that moviegoers wouldn’t want to see him grappling with dark thoughts? Even Astaire knew there were weak points in the movie, yet it wasn’t in his nature to argue and fight with studio executives or directors. He listened to them. Except for an incident on The Band Wagon (where tensions ran high throughout the entire cast), Astaire was a total professional with the cast and crews he worked with. When you read about all the spoiled brats in today’s Hollywood, you have to love a story like that.

Despite these complaints, The Sky’s the Limit is one of my favorite Astaire movies. It’s fun to watch Fred and Joan sing and dance together. Robert Ryan gives the movie a bit of an edge, especially in the scene where he forces Fred to dance on a table, while he pounds on it. It’s a strange, yet hilarious moment, almost as though it were taken out of a western.

table dancesnake dance
Images from the “Snake Dance” scene

But the real kicker of the film comes near the end when Fred thinks he lost Joan forever. In the number, “One For My Baby”, Fred sits at a bar and drinks and then suddenly begins a routine where he winds up kicking glasses in anger. He combines physical violence with an edgy dance routine and it works. It’s nothing like his comical drunk dance routine in Holiday Inn. No, he wants us to know that he’s disgusted with himself for losing a woman he’s just fallen head over heels in love with and if that weren’t bad enough, he has to go back and fight in the war. He may die and never even see her again. It’s a serious plot turn in a lighthearted movie. There was never a routine like this in an Astaire/Rogers vehicle because his characters never had to express such extreme anger or depression. Sure, Ginger might have rejected him, but it was always done with a knowing wink. Here Astaire is so angry, he caps off the number by hurling a bar stool through a mirror. He’s dejected, broken-down and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s also interesting to note that Astaire choreographed his own routines in The Sky’s the Limit, so this number was all his own idea. One wonders how other future dance numbers would have been if Astaire choreographed them by himself.

Drinkingbartop.jpgsmashingglasses.jpg
barstool.jpgsmash.jpg
Images from the “One For My Baby” Number. In order: Fred drinks, dance, kicks glasses and then hurls the barstool into the mirrored backdrop. Hooliganism! 

As I read this over, I’m still awed by the fact that it took a movie like On the Beach to make me realize that Fred Astaire was a great actor and entertainer. I used to think “He just a dancer!” Thankfully, he put in that splendid performance in On the Beach and managed to change my opinion. Yes, he dances, but that was his method of acting and how he conveyed emotion to the audience. Whenever I watch him now, I can’t take my eyes off the screen and when he finishes a number, I find myself smiling like crazy. He’s just so good.

It’s a shame that Astaire was never cast in a role like Julian Osborne again. I think he could have had a great career as a serious actor, but deep down his number one love was dancing. Even as styles changed, Astaire stayed true to himself and the public continued to adore him. I think a lot of it has to do with that integrity Stanley Kramer was talking about. It’s one thing to just go through the motions of acting, but when you put your heart and soul into it, everyone knows. And that’s what Astaire did. He loved what he did and we loved him for it.

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