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Archive for the ‘Warner Bros. movies’ Category

Since I’ve been busy for the past few days (not to mention that my brain feels like it’s completely fried out from work), I’ve become semi-obsessed with movies that run from about 60-75 minutes in length. I think they’re what the studios used to call “programmers”: b-movies that were the second feature on the bill, usually made in a short amount of time and with stock members of the studio’s acting stable. I’ve seen quite a few in the last couple of days–I find they fill in the space quite nicely between eating dinner and getting caught up on the latest Governor sex scandal.

One of my favorites is 1932’s Union Depot, a Warner Brothers’ effort that stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell. Since it’s a depression era pre-code, you get all the trimmings: there’s Ruth (Blondell), a chorus girl who’s down on her luck, bums (Fairbanks and Guy Kibbee), a drunk (the lovable Frank McHugh), a counterfeiter on the lam (Alan Hale) and not one, but two sleazy sub-plots! Hurray!

Fairbanks and McHughThe beautiful Joan Blondellkibbee.jpg
Fairbanks and McHugh, Blondell and Kibbee. The latter three are standard in any early 30’s WB movie.

Union Depot is reminiscent of 1932’s Grand Hotel, except that it’s set in a train station and we’re treated to the exploits of the poor, instead of the rich. What I particularly enjoyed were the many subplots that managed to weave together by the end of the film. Since it’s a pre-code, the amount of sex is fairly shocking: when Ruth needs money, she’s willing to prostitute herself out to Chick (Fairbanks), a bum who’s posing as a rich guy thanks to the contents of a suitcase that the drunken McHugh left behind. However, Ruth can’t bring herself to do it and after having a change of heart, Chick decides to play “Sant-y Claus” and help her out. Ruth also has a deliciously twisted back story, which involves a perverted old man that she used to read dirty books too. She thought he was blind–he wasn’t, and when he whipped off his glasses and revealed a pair of evil eyes, Ruth ran for her life. Now, the pervert is hot on her trail and unbeknownst to Ruth, has followed her to Union Depot.

One of the scenes I got the biggest kick out of was in the diner where Chick orders a meal. When he places an order for “a nice tomato salad, a thick sirloin steak smothered in onions, some browned potatoes in creamed gravy, a flock(?) of hot biscuits and some honey, coffee and raisin pie a la mode”, you can only imagine what a meal that sumptuous would cost in 1932. Ready to find out? Here it is:

The grand total of $1.75!

Using this calculator, that meal would now cost a person $26.56. So back in those days, $2 was equivalent to $30 today. Talk about inflation! I’m always fascinated by the price of food in classic movies. It’s shocking to see a grocery store sign touting that a loaf of bread costs ten cents, while in today’s world, a loaf of bread is fifteen to twenty times that much! It insane.

Ellen Drew and Dick Powell on the rooftopMoney is also a huge factor in Preston Sturges little known comedy, Christmas in July (1940). Like Union Depot, it’s also another “programmer”, this time starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, as well as Franklin Pangborn and Sturges’ favorites, William Demarest and Frank Moran. Jimmy (Powell) and Betty (Drew) are a working class couple who spend their evenings sitting on the rooftop of their tenement, listening to the radio. Jimmy is obsessed with winning a coffee slogan contest that he entered, and while Betty doesn’t exactly get his entry (“If You Can’t Sleep at Night, it isn’t the Coffee–It’s the Bunk!”), they both dream about the $25,000 prize money that would change their lives. When Jimmy’s co-workers trick him into thinking he’s won the contest via fake telegram, he and Betty go on a huge shopping spree where Jimmy finally buys Betty an engagement ring, as well as gifts for all their neighbors and a state-of-the-art davenport for his mother.

The self airing davenola!
Push button technology that includes a reading lamp, a radio and a self-fluffing mattress–
all for the low, low price of $198.50! Try getting a couch for that now.

Out of all the Sturges films I’ve seen, I have to say that Christmas in July has become one of my favorites. Clocking in at under 67 minutes, it’s not only funny and witty, but Sturges shows how the sudden accumulation of money changes the opinions of others who would have treated the couple like a bunch of nobodies beforehand. In that respect, Christmas in July is pretty depressing: money changes you in the eyes of others. It’s a sad, but true realization. Jimmy and Betty are the same people, only richer and yet, everyone fawns over them as though they’re newfound royalty. That is–until it’s revealed that Jimmy’s winning was a joke and suddenly, Jimmy is a “criminal” to those that had just fawned over him. It’s quite hypocritical.

Like Christmas in July…
Living the Good Life: Ellen Drew and Dick Powell in Christmas in July

I didn’t realize it until the other day, but Union Depot and Christmas in July are quite similar in tone. What makes them work is the ability for the audiences to identify with their characters: Ruth and Chick or Jimmy and Betty. Both stories are representative of their eras. With Ruth and Chick, they’re just struggling to make it through the depression like everyone else. And with Jimmy and Betty, they’re both working just to make ends meet, in hopes that one day they’ll be able to afford a better life. When both couples come into money, the first thing they do is splurge: a big meal for Chick and some new clothes for Ruth, while Jimmy and Betty run down to the local department store and buy an engagement ring. But despite their wealth, the one thing that really draws you into both stories is love. You get the feeling that each couple could wind up poor and still find a way to make it. Love is stronger than money and the tense situations that test each couple afterwards, prove it.

And that’s the beauty of the one hour movie: a big plot and good acting packed into half the time that a regular movie would take. Sure there are some clunkers, but there are hidden gems as well. The studios cranked these movies out like clockwork out only to fill out double bill features and to meet quotas that theaters set. But what the studios didn’t realize is that in some of these little films, such as Union Depot and Christmas in July, were just as uplifting and entertaining as an top-billed movie, maybe even more so. By the time the 60’s rolled around, the “programmer” was pretty much obsolete and that’s a shame. Thank goodness they’re still around for us to watch today. Although times have changed, good films haven’t and sometimes, you just need a little cinematic pick-me-up that only a well-crafted b-movie programmer can provide.

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the movie poster for “I Confess” - Click for larger image

In the confessional boothMany people who have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953) say that it’s one his most underrated films. After seeing it last week, I have to agree with them although I wouldn’t be quick to say that it’s a great movie. It’s flawed, that’s for sure, but it’s also a good, solid film. I Confess is unlike any of Hitchcock’s movies since it lacks the mysterious glamour that’s found in his most famous works. The plot centers around a priest named Father Logan (played beautifully by Montgomery Clift), who is unable to tell the police about a murder since he is bound by the vow of confessional secrecy. Also complicating matters is the involvement of an old flame, Ruth (Anne Baxter) and a police inspector, Laurrue (Karl Malden), who is intent on finding out the truth.

There are two things that keep I Confess from being a great Hitchcock movie: the flashback romance between Father Logan and Ruth as well as the fact that we immediately know who the murderer is. While both ideas are necessary to the plot, their execution bogs the story down a bit.

Confessing to the wifeSince Hitchcock wastes no time in getting to the “who” and “why” of the story, you find out that Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) is the murderer. Otto is an employee of the church as well as gardener for the man he killed, local lawyer, Villette. After confessing his sin to Father Logan in the confessional, Otto then tells his wife, Alma (Dolly Hass) why he killed Villette–he stole $2,000 because he was sick of watching her work so hard. During the confession, Father Logan told Otto that he must give the money back–an idea that terrifies him since he doesn’t want to be caught. Grief-stricken, Alma fears that Father Logan will go to the authorities and report the crime and suddenly Otto realizes that he is bound to his Catholic vow. He must keep the confession secret.

What’s interesting about this scene is watching Otto’s manner change from panicked and fearful to annoyingly confident. He is no longer frightened. You can literally see the weight of his guilt lift off his shoulders. Otto has gained a tremendous amount of power, knowing he can commit murder and get away with it. His eyes become wide and the expression on his face turns manic with an almost sick kind of glee. There are no doubts in his mind that Father Logan will not go to the police. Otto has faith in his strength as a man of the cloth, but what he doesn’t realize is that his actions will end up hurting the person he loves the most: Alma.

While it’s interesting to start off the movie with a bang, it lessens the suspense throughout. Even though Ruth (Baxter) gets involved halfway through and you find out that Villette was blackmailing her, you still know that Keller is the murderer. Part of the fun of a Hitchcock movie is the big reveal or a murder committed either halfway through or at the end: Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train or the “two” Kim Novaks in Vertigo. And while the ending of I Confess is definitely exciting, the middle of the film has a tendency to lag.

Flashback romance - Anne Baxter and Montgomery CliftPart of the problem with the Ruth subplot is that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. Anne Baxter is perfect for the part of Ruth. She does well with the material and she and Clift are well matched. But it’s the part itself that seems as though it was transported out of another movie, almost as though Hitchcock was trying to inject his brand of romance for the sake of adding it. For the most part, I Confess has a sharpness to it. The cinematography is fantastic and crisp, but with Ruth’s subplot it suddenly takes on a dream-like quality to reflect her obsessive love for Father Logan. Compared to the tightness of the rest of the script, it’s jarring, to say the least. Yet, Ruth flashback is essential to the plot since in trying to help him clear his name, she winds up doing more damage to his case.

Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift, an actor I’ve always liked, is beyond amazing in I Confess. I noticed that he doesn’t say much. Instead of dialogue, Hitchcock uses close-ups on Clift’s face to convey the emotions he’s going through. What’s amazing about his performance is that he expresses so much through his eyes. You see the agony that he’s going through, the internal struggle of wanting to tell the police even though he knows he can’t. Father Logan’s love for God and his devotion to the church is stronger than his own need.  As the story progresses and Otto becomes more and more aggressive, taunting Father Logan and lying about his own involvement, Clift does an amazing job at expressing his character’s fear of being arrested and hung for a crime he didn’t commit. I’ve seen quite a few of Clift’s films and I Confess is certainly one of his best. So much of the movie succeeds because of his performance. Clift’s Father Logan carries himself with a quiet dignity. There’s no doubt that he will honor the sacred vows he made when he became a Priest, no matter what the cost.

The heart of I Confess is rooted in the “C” word: Catholicism. After watching this and looking up various articles, I wasn’t very surprised to find out that Hitchcock was a Catholic throughout most of his life. If one is brought up in another denomination, the vow of Confessional secrecy that sets the plot into motion might not be familiar to some. Hitchcock uses various Catholic themes throughout, mainly religious fear, not to mention guilt, suffering and forgiveness. All the characters go through some sort of suffering throughout the film, but it’s Father Logan who receives the brunt of it. Here’s a man who devotes his life to God and winds up suffering for the sins of others (Otto’s murder and Ruth’s obsessive love for him despite being married) because he’s unwilling to break the promises he made to God. Hitchcock makes it quite clear that Father Logan is a Christ-like figure, most notably during the scene where he goes walking through the streets of Quebec. Clift is presented in a long shot, with a statue of Christ carrying the cross while being flanked by two guards in the foreground. It’s not subtle at all. This image is repeated later in the movie, during Father Logan’s trial. When you see him, he’s surrounded by two guards, while a large crucifix hangs on the wall across from his seat. It’s as though Hitchcock is setting up Logan by showing him what will happen if the jury finds him guilty: he will hang. Not only will he die for Otto’s sin, but Ruth’s as well.

Carrying the CrossModern symbolismDelievering the verdict
The religious symbolism throughout I Confess 

The tension between Father Logan and Otto is really what elevates the premise of I Confess. It’s almost unbelievable how brazen Otto becomes in taunting Father Logan, reminding him of his confessional vow as well as lying to the authorities and basically selling out the man who is protecting him. At first his faith in Father Logan is solid. At the beginning of the story, Otto tells Logan, “I have abused your kindness…you gave my wife and me a home–even friendship, so wonderful a thing for a refugee, a German, a man without a home.” But it becomes easier and easier for Otto to transfer his own guilt to the priest, therefore making him less and less sure of Father Logan in the process.

O.E. Hasse and Brian AherneDolly Hass as Alma
In the courtroom: Otto on the stand and Alma in the seats 

Father Logan isn’t the only one suffering at the hands of Otto–his wife, Alma also suffers as well. At first, she’s overly nervous, especially whenever she comes into contact with him. But it’s during Logan’s trial that the guilt of knowing her husband’s secret really begins taking it’s toll. When Otto testifies against Logan, and lies about the events of the night leading up to his confession, the dismay is clear on Alma’s face. With every negative testimony put against him, she grows more and more shaken. She knows the truth, but telling it would result in the death of the man she loves.

the fateful momentDolly Hass is wonderful as Alma. There’s a meekness about her that makes her perfect for the role, although in the penultimate scene, she drops it and shows a boldness in her quest do the right thing. In so many of his films, Hitchcock attempts to show you that every man has good and evil coursing through his veins and I Confess is no exception. After Father Logan receives his “Not Guilty” verdict (which is delivered with a few disparaging remarks by the foreman and judge), the crowd that waits outside the courtroom is hostile. As Alma and Otto watch Father Logan get shoved by the angry mob, Alma can take no more. Her love for Otto is trumped by the torment of wanting to do what’s right: clear an innocent man’s name. When she pushes her way through the crowd and approaches a police officer, Otto’s sense of fear takes over. He has no other choice but to shoot Alma to keep her quiet.

Here is the most interesting twist in the entire film: since Father Logan can no longer die for Otto’s sin, it’s Alma that winds up dying for it instead. She suddenly becomes the Christ-like figure in Hitchcock’s world. After suffering for her husband’s guilt, she winds up paying for it with her life. It’s a rather dark move, made even darker by the fact that this one of of Hitchcock’s only films that’s completely devoid of humor. It’s also important to note that in the original play on which this is based, Father Logan does die at the end, which would have made his Christ-like transformation complete.

Forgiveness - O.E. Hasse and CliftDuring the final moments of I Confess, Otto winds up falling into his own trap and thinking that Father Logan has told the authorities, winds up indicting himself. After shooting at the police, they shoot back and Otto is struck. As he lays dying, he finds out that Alma has died and asks forgiveness from Father Logan. It’s amazing that his love of Alma is what drove him to steal and murder, only to turn around and murder the woman he loved in order to save himself. This realization is what causes Otto to ask forgiveness before he dies, because if one is truly sorry for their actions, then forgiveness is granted. The workings of the Catholic church do come full circle in I Confess, which I thought was nicely done. You’re to believe that Otto, while not a truly bad man, got swept up in his own fear to the point where he became someone else entirely. Under the right circumstances, anyone can change.

a chance encounter between Logan and RuthWatching I Confess in today’s world, I find it interesting that Father Logan is made out to be a good priest and a good man. Even in his darkest hour and after aimlessly walking the streets of Quebec, he makes his way to a church and turns to God for solace and comfort. There’s nothing shifty about Father Logan, although the sudden appearance of Ruth does make you wonder a bit, but only momentarily.  Yet, if I Confess were made today amidst all the church scandals, there would be no doubting that Father Logan is guilty of something, in any way, shape or form. When Ruth and Logan meet at the crime scene and she utters the words, “We’re free!”, you can’t help but think something really tawdry is going on between them. You even doubt Otto’s confession for a moment, thinking that perhaps there was some kind of twist and Father Logan had done something to Villette before Otto arrived and finished him off. It’s amazing how modern thinking and controversies can shape one’s opinion on a movie that was made almost 50 years ago!

Karl Malden and Anne BaxterBut despite all it’s flaws, I Confess is still a good, solid Hitchcock movie. The cinematography by Robert Burks and score by Dimitri Tiomkin (who both worked on several Hitchcock classics) only elevate it above the standards of a normal film. Also worth mentioning are the strong performances of Karl Malden (to be honest, he’s always good) and Brian Aherne as Willy Robertson, a friend to Ruth and her husband and the prosecutor who grills Father Logan during the trial.

In my opinion, I Confess is one of Hitchcock’s most personal movies. In later interviews, he felt that I Confess was a disappointment, possibly due to it’s not being well-received at the time of it’s release. During the early 50’s, Catholics were not well liked throughout England and perhaps Hitchcock took their refusal to see I Confess (as well as many of his other films from that era) personally. I will never get the notion of disliking someone because of their personal beliefs, unless that person is trying to shove it down your throat. Perhaps audiences felt that’s what Hitchcock was trying to do with I Confess–which he wasn’t. Hitchcock was merely trying to tell the story a wronged priest and with the exception of the opening scene, not once is Father Logan shown consoling other parishioners on the rights and wrongs of the world. He’s just another wronged man, made guilty in the eyes of others because of uncontrollable circumstances and his devotion to God. He could fit in right next to Cary Grant in North by Northwest or Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. It’s an interesting twist to a standard mystery. Combine that with the outstanding performance put in by Montgomery Clift and that’s exactly why I Confess, despite some weak points, still manages to hold up today.

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Joan in “Today We Live”
A gorgeous, young Joan in Today We Live (1933)

Like most people in my age bracket, if you mention the name “Joan Crawford” two words will come to mind: “Mommie Dearest”. And then five more: “No More Wire Hangers EVER!”

When I was a child, Mommie Dearest was my favorite movie. It came out in 1981, two years after I was born. By the time it made it’s appearance on HBO, I was probably four years old and it quickly became my favorite film. The glamorous opening shots of Joan (Faye Dunaway) getting dressed and ready for the day was how I wanted to live my adult life. A huge shower. Gigantic closets filled with beautiful clothes. Ice water facials. To my four-year old mind, this was the ideal life of a grown woman. I don’t think I really got the main plot of the story though: Joan’s drunken rampages, various affairs and child abuse, although I fondly remember myself grabbing a wire hanger and repeatedly smacking the rear end of my favorite Care Bear with it. Children are highly impressionable creatures.

It would be years later when I would see my first Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce (mainly because of the Sonic Youth song of the same name). I remember it being a good film, but I was a teenager and I was more concerned with collecting 7 inch singles by my favorite indie bands and the guy I worked with, than with classic movies and dead actresses. One day in my high school library, I found a dusty copy of Mommie Dearest tucked away in the back shelves. I tried to read it, but apparently I needed the visual aide of a crazed Faye Dunaway choking her daughter–it an was unbelievably boring book. I put it back and went back to listening to my discman through my messenger bag.

Fast forward to my early 20’s and my newfound obsession with classic movies. My love for music had inexplainably dried up and I found myself obsessively watching TCM, taping movies and researching them on the internet. I’m not sure what my first Joan Crawford movie was, but I remember thinking: “She’s really not as good as Bette Davis.” I had become a film snob after one month of viewing movies!

And now I come to the present. Four years later and suddenly, I’ve become highly interested in the films and life of Joan Crawford–the real Joan Crawford. Not the monster that Christina Crawford wrote about, but the woman who made movie after movie and proved herself as a damned good actress. It was A Woman’s Face that made me realize this. I watched it for Melvyn Douglas and wound up going, “Wow! Joan was great in this!” I’ve been recording her movies ever since then and in each one, I marvel at her beauty (okay, she went way, way overboard with the eyebrows in the 50’s and 60’s) and her talent. I bought a copy of Mildred Pierce just for the documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star and was struck by how bitchy the grown Christina was. If I could have reached through the screen and slapped her, I would have. For someone who despises her mother so much, she was sure eager enough to latch herself onto the gravy train.

A few days ago, I bought a copy of Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler’s biography on Joan and walked away with an entirely different impression of her. It would be nice if this book was packaged with dvd copies of Mommie Dearest, just to let you know that there are two sides to every story. The Joan in Chandler’s book is kind and giving. There are anecdotes from another one of Joan’s children, Cathy. If you only watch Mommie Dearest, you get the impression that Joan only had two children, but she had four: twins named Cathy and Cindy and they were both humiliated after the publication of Mommie Dearest. According to Cathy, there were no wire hangers and no beatings. And yes, she was sent to bed without dinner as well, but that was her punishment for refusing to eat it. Joan taught them to work hard for the things they wanted in life, just as she had and in the end, they were left in her will while Christina and Christopher were left out.

In Chandler’s book, Christopher is described as a problem child, constantly running away from home and Christina was a spoiled brat. I’m sure Joan didn’t help matters by asking them to call her “Mommie, Dearest”, which she soon learned they used as a way of mocking her to her face. Myrna Loy was a good friend of Joan’s and comments that seeing the way Christina and Christopher acted made her glad she didn’t have children(!), adding that Christina was “vicious, ungrateful and jealous”. Ouch.

On the flip side of this are people who also believe that Joan abused the children. In Oscar Levant’s biography, A Talent for Genius, his wife June discusses the time she and Oscar were invited to a party at Joan’s house during the filming of Humoresque. That night, Joan invited the guests upstairs, ushered Christopher out of bed, announced that he was a problematic thumbsucker and forced him to show the big, rubber cap that covered his thumb–humiliation at it’s finest. If my mother had ever done something like that to me, I’m sure I’d come away hating her as well.

One of my favorite stories in Chandler’s book is how Joan always answered her fan mail. She was devoted to her fans. She felt that if they had taken the time out to write her, she surely had enough time to write them back. It was the least she could do. Any movie fan, classic or modern, has to appreciate that. Joan felt that without her fans she would be nowhere. Their letters were like applause and as a movie actress, she never heard the applause that a stage performer did. There’s also another story in the book centering around David Niven and the death of his first wife, Primula, who fell down a flight of stairs during a game of hide-and-go seek at Tyrone Power’s house. Even though she wasn’t at the party, the first thing Joan did was call up and offer to watch their newborn child.

There are so many conflicting stories out there and the problem is that most of the people involved in them are dead. There is no way of finding out the truth, unless you lived in Joan Crawford’s house during the years that Mommie Dearest took place. If one it to believe the movie, you’ll get the impression that Joan Crawford was a crazy, child abusing lush. But honestly, if I chose the right words and built up the right tone, I could make up a fantastic, exaggerated horror story about my parents. I could tell you about the time I got spanked with a spoon, but conveniently leave out the fact that I had just made a huge mess in the family room after my mother slaved for hours by cleaning it. Years later in college, I would be talking with my friends and it somehow came out that we had all gotten spanked with a spoon at some point in our lives. And I’m not even going into the “Joan Crawford is an alcoholic” thing that was played up so succulently in the movie–if you read up on classic Hollywood, a great deal of actors and actresses liked to hit the sauce. It’s not like Joan should have been the only one attending AA meetings, so shut it Christina. I’m not saying that some of the events didn’t happen, because they might have–but it all depends on how one presents the facts and how much they’re willing to fabricate. Money helps.

But what is most important is that Joan Crawford was a great actress, something that is shamefully ignored today. A good part of the problem is that for every movie like The Women or Grand Hotel, there’s a clunker like Above Suspicion or the absolutely dreadful, not even campy-in-a-good-way, Trog. She didn’t make that many great movies like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn did. MGM gave her the scripts and she did them as she was told. She didn’t have the moxie to fight the studio like her rival, Bette Davis. For the most part, Joan was just happy to work.

mommie dearest
Crazy Like a Fox: Faye Dunaway as Joan in the climatic “Wire Hanger Scene”

I still like to watch Mommie Dearest, because let’s face it, who can resist a scenery-chewing Faye Dunaway, crossed eyed and slathered in cold cream while banging around a can of bathroom cleaner? Or swinging an axe while dressed to the nines? But it’s not fact. It’s a great fictional biographical film like They Died With Their Boots On or Night and Day. A one sided look at a great actress written by her money hungry, vindictive daughter. I still long for a huge closet full of designer clothes and a gigantic shower, but I’ve learned that if you want to know the real Joan Crawford, you need sit down and watch her films. If every classic actor or actress were given their own biographical movie, I doubt we’d like them by the end. In fact, Joan Crawford may come out as the tamest of them all.

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