What's It All About?

What's It All About?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

From The Vault -- Descending The Spiral Staircase

Out of the past comes an article I did back in 2009 on one of my favorite movies,
The Spiral Staircase.  I had just started my blog and had just a few followers, and
I remember being thrilled with any comment.  I hope that if you were not around
to see it in 2009, you will enjoy it.


The Spiral Staircase

In my part of the country, November shows its unique face with winds moaning and sighing through the trees in the dark of night, sudden storms of lightning and thunder and cold rain –- could there be a more perfect time for a movie of terror and suspense? If you don’t have such weather, you can experience it if you turn off the lights and watch The Spiral Staircase. Released in 1945, it is a story of a mad killer on the loose in turn of the century New England, raging storms and a house with plenty of shadows and fear at every turn. Imagine yourself on a stormy night with no electricity, moving through such a house with only a candle or dim lamp, and imagine making your way down a spiral staircase to a basement where horrors may lurk. Now you are in the mood.

Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) and Helen (Dorothy McGuire
The lovely Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a lonely, vulnerable girl who was rendered mute by a mysterious traumatic experience in her childhood. She is companion to Mrs. Warren, played by Ethel Barrymore, a strong-willed, cranky invalid confined to her bed but sharp and domineering. George Brent and Gordon Oliver play step-brothers Professor Warren (born of the father's first wife) and Steven Warren, (born of the invalid Mrs. Warren). Mrs. Warren believes, to her sorrow, that she has reason not to trust her son Steven, the prodigal son who turns up periodically. Whenever Steven is around, bad things happen. The supporting cast is perfection, with Kent Smith as the sensible Dr. Parry, whose visits to Mrs. Warren fit perfectly with his desire to see Helen, Elsa Lanchester as the amusingly drunken cook, Rhys Williams as her rather sullen caretaker husband, a young Rhonda Fleming as the Professor’s secretary, Blanch, and the redoubtable Sarah Allgood as Mrs. Warren’s long-suffering and often insulted nurse.

Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver)
Professor Warren (George Brent)


This household of complicated relationships, indeed the whole community, is shocked by the murders of young women, all with some kind of handicap. In a wonderful piece of film-making, we are allowed to see only the killer’s eye in extreme close-up as he hides in wait for his victim, and then see the victim through the killer’s eye as he stalks and kills. This perspective is chilling, and the music of composer Roy Webb heightens the chills.

.

As the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that the killer must be someone in the Warren household, with the mute Helen as his next possible victim. A great storm rages without, and fear rules within. The spiral staircase plays its part beautifully, shadowed, with each turn bringing unknown terrors.

Turn off lights, listen to the wind blow, and treat yourself to a suspenseful and frightening piece of film-making that stands the test of time. The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

One Last Kiss -- Errol and Olivia

On Valentine's Day, the talented writer of Second Sight Cinema hosted a blogathon called "A Kiss Is Just A Kiss."  I was not able to participate, but I'd like to offer a belated article about one of the most sensuous and touching kisses in the classic era.  (Don't miss the other wonderful articles in the blogathon by clicking here:  http://secondsightcinema.com/happy-valentines-day-weekend-welcome-to-the-you-must-remember-this-a-kiss-is-just-a-kiss-blogathon/.)


Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland were one of the most famous movie couples.  They were a match made in heaven, and were together in several films.  Of course there was plenty of kissing, but the  sweetest, most genuine kiss was in "They Died With Their Boots On."  This 1941 Warner Brothers production was, as were most of the historical films of the period, full of inaccuracies and made-up Hollywood stories.  We may know more now than at that time, but it doesn't change the excitement of the movie at all.  The relationship between George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Libby Bacon, was pretty close to the truth, at least in the love they had for each other.  The movie portrayed this beautifully.  Toward the end, Custer  prepares for what would be the battle of the Little Big Horn, and the scene of their parting is, to me, their best.  It never fails to bring a tear.  As a woman, it rings true, as it must for men from their point of view. 

Olivia and Errol likely did not know that this would be their last film together.  The scene is all the more poignant to us now.  Enjoy a wonderful piece of film, and a wonderful kiss.





Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thank You, Charlie Chaplin

Could anyone but Chaplin have acted a part, and been able to put
into one expression the sweetness of desire and hope without hope?

Christmas night for me is a time of quiet and a time for quiet thoughts.  It seems to me unexpected that a quote I ran across by the dear Charlie Chaplin has spoken strongly to my mind and heart.  Chaplin was an agnostic and I'm a Catholic.  He believed in a supreme being, but he said he didn't know exactly what He was like.  I believe in God and the ultimate meaning of life, yet I think it wise of him to say, "What do you want meaning for?  Life is a desire, not a meaning."

The great overall divine meaning is one thing to understand ... more difficult is trying to understand the times of travails of this world that leave you battered and buffeted over a lifetime.  I have said "Why?" to many things. I have spent too much time trying to find earthly meaning of things that just happen.  My faith pulls me out of it eventually, but I think it is also my ever-present desire to build the life I reach for.  This is where Chaplin's thought touches me.  I've always been one to plan, to wait for something to happen, to accept the idea of someday, always someday.  It's a particular fault in me. 

Chaplin inspires me with the thought of life where a well-disposed desire is equal to meaning.  Anyway, that's the way it hit me.  I want to bring this intention to life, even with my blog.  I changed its description to utilize Chaplin's words, as well as a favorite picture of him in a favorite movie.  Does my blog have meaning?  Charlie would say, what's the difference?  I want to do it, I desire to make it an even better place to write and share with others, and someday should just be now.  Thanks, little tramp....

There was so much more to the Little Tramp
than most people ever knew of.


Silent Night, Holy Night






 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The House Of Usher -- Vincent Price At His Best

ClassicBecky's Brain Food turned 6 years old in September (as I usually end up doing with friends, this a belated birthday card)!  It's hard for me to believe I've been around that long.  I started out with a small group of wonderful people, guided by our Fearless Leader of the Classic Movie Blog Association, Rick Armstrong, and eventually branched off to my own blog.  To celebrate my birthday, I'd like to spotlight a post I did back in 2011, one of my personal favorites, about the fabulous Vincent Price in one of the best Edgar Allan Poe movies done by director Roger Corman.   (*Alert -- It’s just about impossible to write about this movie without spoilers*)



I would love to seat Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe together at a dinner party. The grim and tragic Poe is certainly not known for a great sense of humor, and Corman’s respect for literature usually takes a back seat to the chance to use any story as he sees fit to make good box office. Many of Corman’s Poe Cycle films take enormous liberties with Poe’s work, often add campy humor, and some practically ignore everything but the title. That doesn’t make me love them any less, but then I didn’t slave over the originals like Poe. Yet, I think both men would agree that The House of Usher (1960) is just fantastic.  (The movie was also released as The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe's original title.)  I have always considered it the best of the Corman Poe films, and it definitely ranked high with the National Film Registry -- in 2006, the Registry chose The House of Usher as 1 of 25 films of significance to be preserved by the Library of Congress.


Home sweet home!

The House of Usher was the first of Corman’s series based on Poe. Corman was asked by American International Pictures to make 2 black and white cheapies to be released as a double bill. He countered with his desire to make one bigger budget movie using color and Cinemascope. This movie was The House of Usher. Now, Corman’s idea of a bigger budget was probably $500 dollars instead of $250, but boy could he do a lot with a tight purse! Corman was famous for using whatever was available and practically free – he filmed a burning barn that had been slated to be burned down anyway, and that footage was so good he used it in several other films. For his scene of the bleak, lifeless landscape around the Usher castle, Corman heard of a wildfire that had burned out nearby land. He took his camera crew to the site the very next day, and filmed the ashen area. I wish I could make my budget stretch so creatively.

Vincent with white-blonde hair, no moustache--  love the dressing gown!
Corman took with him cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller, both of whom worked on all of Corman’s Poe movies. The marvelous look of these movies, the wonderful sets, eerie lighting, particularly the dominant, atmospheric black, blues and greens with jarring splashes of wine red costuming for The House of Usher, are due to the talents of these men.

Price and Myrna Fahey -- American Gothic (without the pitchfork) German style
Roderick Usher (Price) is a man beset by horrors. He and his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) are the last of the Usher line, an old family rotten with insanity and sordidly cruel lives, and Roderick is determined that the line end with them. He sees in himself and Madeline certain developing traits of the Ushers. Both brother and sister are plagued by a strange malady:

     “Madeline and I are like figures of fine glass. The slightest touch and we may shatter.
       Both of us suffer from a morbid acuteness of the senses.”

Somehow, Madeline had managed to visit London and have some fun, although how she did it with those problems is a mystery, and she even became engaged to dashing Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). When Philip makes an unannounced visit to the Usher castle, he finds a crumbling monstrosity with a fissure opening up in the stones, built on top of a swamp to boot (doesn’t sound up to code, does it?). He finds Roderick to be a less-than-welcoming, chillingly morbid man who insists that his sister Madeline is too ill to be disturbed.

Philip refuses to leave, and Roderick gives him a tour of the castle, probably hoping that this alone will send Philip packing. The house was brought to its present location stone by stone from the old country, bringing its evil within the very walls. He points out paintings of the Usher ancestors, downright hair-raising, particularly with Roderick’s description of each one (Aunt Bertha, prostitute and poisoner -- Uncle Bob, pirate and murderer – you get the drift). The wonderful paintings were done by artist Burt Schoenberg, and frankly they are excellent works of impressionist art.

"Uncle Arthur"


"Mom!"

Roderick insists that Madeline cannot marry or have children, and that she is dying. Despite Roderick’s constant croakings of doom, Philip doesn’t believe him. For a girl who is supposed to be a figure of fine glass and at death’s door, Fahey is much too buxom and healthy, a bit of miscasting on Corman’s part. She does walk around with a rather tired, worried look on her face, but most people look like that every day after work.

"I'm feeling much better."

Well, guess not!
Suddenly one night, we hear Madeline scream and die for some vague reason. Heartbroken, Philip goes with Roderick and the lone family servant (Harry Ellerbe) to the family crypt (no castle is complete without dead relatives in the basement), and place Madeline in her coffin. After the grieving men go upstairs, we hear a gasp from the coffin, then a bloodcurdling scream. I don’t know why they didn’t hear it. They weren’t that far away, and it was really loud.

"Are you DEAF?!!  Look at my  nails!"
Although it’s kind of hard to tell considering his usual demeanor, Roderick does act strangely, and Philip has a terrible dream of the Usher family. This dream sequence is beautifully done and scared me silly as a kid. Roderick eventually admits to Philip that Madeline suffers from cataleptic fits, and he knowingly buried her alive during one of these episodes to keep her from leaving to marry and propagate the Usher genes. His acute sense of hearing has made him suffer for many days because he could hear her screams and scratching on the inside lid of the coffin. He suffered?!!  (I personally think my brother loves me, but I’m a little reluctant now to let him plan my funeral.) Finding the coffin empty, Roderick informs Philip that Madeline has now inherited the family madness (Oh really? I think she earned it!). There are some very frightening scenes as we see glimpses of Madeline in her white burial dress, scuttling around doorways, leaving bloody drops from her mangled fingernails.
"Welcome to your dream...come and meet the folks..."


"Mom always liked you better!"
Finally, the now-insane Madeline corners her brother and with the strength of a mad woman, strangles him as a fallen candle lights the room on fire, and soon the ceiling crashes down on brother and sister. Philip escapes the castle, and looks back to see it blazing against the grim landscape and sinking into the swamp. The last line of Poe’s story appears on the screen:

     “…and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently
           over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

Corman’s Poe period (well, Picasso had a blue period and Van Gogh had a dark period!) was also Vincent Price’s heyday as a movie star. Price was already an accomplished actor, having ventured into the horror genre, particularly with a favorite of mine, The House of Wax (1953), followed by the always entertaining movies of William Castle, such as The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill. With Corman, Price found the niche that made him the undisputed master of the macabre. His very presence lent a valuable dignity to Corman’s films. Price was tall and imposing, handsome, with his marvelous voice and expressive face, and most of all his unique talent for blending true fright with sly humor and just the right touch of hammy acting. For instance, at one point in this ghastly story, Roderick turns to the butler and says with a little wave “See to the crypt, will you?” – (he might have been saying “Pick up a six-pack at the store, will you?” in the same manner).

Price, Corman, and an unidentified man who may be Schoenberg
Corman always struck me as two men in one body. One personality excelled at scandalous, roughly filmed exploitation movies like The Wild Angels and G-a-s-s-s, as well as some of the best really terrible scifi movies like my personal favorite, Wasp Woman, featuring some of the cheesiest monsters in B movie history. The other Corman persona created the Poe Cycle, beautiful to look at, eerie, scary, and with a crafty dark humor that makes you snicker as you look at the screen through your fingers. Many Corman fans love both sides of the legendary producer/director. Others choose sides and have very definite preferences for one or the other. Personally, I am a Poe/Corman groupie

Fun Fact: Three in One!
*The Haunted Palace is a Corman movie that has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe except the title.
*Poe wrote a poem titled The Haunted Palace, and infers in The House of Usher that Roderick is the author.
*The famous last stanza of the same poem appears on screen at the end of another Corman/Poe movie,
  The Masque of the Red Death:

     “…And travelers now within that valley,
      Through the red-litten windows, see
      Vast forms that move fantastically
      To a discordant melody;
      While, like a rapid ghastly river,
      Through the pale door,
      A hideous throng rush out forever,
      And laugh – but smile no more.”

(Wow, shivery good stuff!)

Crafty Corman! Maybe at that dinner party, Edgar would have been justified in slapping Corman with a glove and calling him out for a duel at dawn!

The man himself...

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Airplane! ...and don't call me Shirley!


This article is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Blogathon, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."  Click here to find all the wonderful bloggers and their articles!  http://clamba.blogspot.com/2015/10/its-time-for-cmba-fall-blogathon-trains.html


Sitting in the audience for the 1980 premiere of Airplane, waves of laughter began with the first few seconds and continued throughout the whole movie.



(I didn't realize until my second viewing that the jet airliner was making propeller noises!)

Airplane is one of the best comedy films ever made -- every one of us at that premiere laughed so hard we all had sore throats at the end ... those of us who stayed through the credits got even more laughs, particularly with the ending threats of penalites of prison and all that, which ends with "So There!"

Airplane was a first of its kind -- the types of jokes and slapstick comedy it created have been copied many times over the years.  I wonder if it isn't rather difficult for generations of kids since that time to understand just how funny this movie was.  A great deal of it is dated with references to politics and culture of the time, which subsequent generations would probably not understand unless they had a mother like me who raised my kids with the classics and the best of the modern.  Another huge part of the film's comedy which younger audiences would not understand, was seeing previously famous leading men and women, none of whom had ever done comedy, appear in these roles.  A particular favorite of mine is Robert Stack, one of the most straight-backed, monotonal, stiff upper lip actors ever.  I loved him as Eliot Ness on TV, and he was always a straight drama man.  It took just a few seconds to change his persona forever with one of the biggest laughs for me....

Robert Stack





The handsome, straight-laced, Leslie Nielsen found a new and prolific career simply by appearing in Airplane.  He went on to do Naked Gun, Dracula Dead and Loving It, and many more comedies.....









Peter Graves, another actor who had never done comedy, had made his mark also hosting TV series.  It was such a fabulously funny shock to see him play the role of Captain Oveur....




Lloyd Bridges, father of Beau and Jeff, known to TV audiences from Sea Hunt, with a prolific film career behind him, all drama, was another wonderful pick....





The jive guys and Barbara Billingsley--June Cleaver, the Beaver's mother!  Who knew?  Another huge laugh...





Kareem Abdul Jabbar -- sports fans everywhere still know about this one!





And a very, very special appearance by the fabulous Ethel Merman!  What a treat!




To end this tribute to a wonderful movie, here's a shout-out to the relatively unknown young stars, Julie Hagerty and Roberts Hays, performing one of the best known scenes -- disco love in a sleazy waterfront bar!










Monday, October 5, 2015

Bride of Frankenstein ... 'Til Death Do Us Part

To kick off the month of Halloween ghosties and ghoulies, I want to re-introduce my take on Bride of Frankenstein.  It was originally posted in 2010, when I had about 4 followers.  I'm pretty sure I have a few more now, and I hope you enjoy it.
   
Elsa Lanchester of t he big eyes, cupid's bow mouth
and the ultimate bouffant hairdo.
Since 1931, when director James Whale brought his own unique film-making vision to Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein has spawned many, many remakes, sequels, mini-series and comedies.  Everyone wants to put their own personal stamp on this seminal horror story, some quite good, a lot just plain awful.  Bride of Frankenstein is different. There has only been one attempt of which I am aware at re-making it, a really dreadful movie called The Bride, with Sting and Jennifer Beals. (Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have had a hey-day with that one!)

Lanchester with her iconic highlights, and Boris Karloff as the monster.
I think it would be impossible to re-capture in a remake the wonderful dark humor infused into the original bride story that was mostly responsible, in my opinion, for its unique nature. Bride of Frankenstein was born in the mind of director James Whale and his brand of side-glancing, off-beat humor which was his personal stamp. When I was a kid, I thought the story was deadly serious, and believed I should see it that way. After I had a few years under my belt, I realized how really funny this movie is. It still has the pathos of the poor monster’s loneliness and solitude, it has the wonderful eerie atmosphere of light and shadow, that fabulous laboratory, and lots of lightning. But it also has Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorious with his little human menagerie, the violin-playing blind hermit, and of course Elsa Lanchester with the hair!

O.P. Heggie as the Hermit
As for the storyline, the monster is back on the rampage, frightening people everywhere, being misunderstood in his intentions, and longing for someone like himself to be his friend. He comes upon a hut in the woods and hears the music of a violin. The hut is inhabited by a blind man who welcomes the monster without fear since he can’t see him. The monster has learned to talk in rudimentary language, and the two men sit down together to eat dinner. When the blind man strikes a match to light a cigar, the monster screams because of his fear of fire. The blind man explains to him that fire is good, and offers him a cigar. “Smoke is good!” the blind man says, and the monster inhales and says “Smoke….good.” (In these days of political correctness, we may yet see this scene cut out, although the rampaging and killing will of course be left in.) The two are happy to be friends, but of course the villagers that populate every Frankenstein movie break up the friendship.  Some men stop by the hut and since they are not blind, they panic and attack the monster.  To the hermit's dismay, his new friend leaves and the villagers burn his house down accidentally.  Oh yes, they were a big help.

The wonderful Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorius
Meanwhile, Praetorius is insinuating himself into Dr. Frankenstein’s life (Colin Clive reprises his role, looking a bit the worse for wear since the original Frankenstein). Ernest Thesiger is wonderful as the mad Praetorius, with his long, skeletal face and clipped British accent. He plays Praetorious in a threatening but gleeful way, prancing at times and clapping his hands together. Dr. Frankenstein is not interested in trying to re-animate dead tissue anymore, but Praetorius piques his interest by showing him his new brand of re-animation, or rather, creation of life. Praetorius displays his collection of tiny people kept in glass jars, a king, a queen, a bishop, a ballerina, alive and well and playing pranks. When the tiny people speak, it is with tiny squeaks like cartoon mice. Dr. Frankenstein is horrified, but interested. At one point, the monster finds Praetorius sitting in what looks like an open-air crypt, drinking gin and relaxing. When the monster realizes that it would be possible for Dr. Frankenstein to create a female, he hounds and threatens, with the help of Praetorius, until the doctor agrees.

The gang is all here ... Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester,
Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger
The female is created in the same laboratory (that’s pronounced laBORatory) where the monster was brought to life. Her shroud is much more stylish, though, well-fitted and displaying a fine figure. She opens her eyes – the next scene shows her standing, dressed in a widely-shaped, floor-length, long-sleeved white dress. Her hair is done up in a very chic updo, dark with lightning-shaped white hair on either side. She sees Dr. Frankenstein and likes him, sees the monster and hates him, and utters a few creepy, distinctive echoing cries. The monster sees that she refuses his overtures, and decides he has had enough rejection in his life. He grabs a lever. Praetorius cries “Don’t touch that lever. You’ll blow us all to atoms!” Why such a lever would be installed in the first place is never explained. The monster, in an unusual mood of love for his creator, tells him to leave – “You live! We belong dead!” Then of course, he pulls the lever, and Praetorius’ warning comes true.

********************************************************************************

Rosalind Ayres as the Bride and Ian McKellan as Dr. Frankenstein
I cannot write about Bride of Frankenstein without paying tribute to two movies where it plays major roles. The first is Gods and Monsters starring Ian McKellan as James Whale. In a flashback for Whale, we see him shooting the bride's creation scene. The actor who plays Praetorius turns to Whale and says “Are Colin and I supposed to have done her hair?” Gods and Monsters is a tremendous movie and you shouldn’t miss it.


What a fabulous bunch ... Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman,
Terry Garr, Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn.
The second movie is, of course, Young Frankenstein. For any lover of the Frankenstein movies, this is a must. It takes elements from Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. It is one of the greatest comedy films I have ever seen. The wonderful Madeline Kahn plays the woman who becomes the bride, and the scene where she comes out of the bathroom to her new husband, with her hair in that style, is not to be missed. Frankly, I can never watch any of the Frankenstein movies anymore without the hilarious Young Frankenstein always in my mind.  Create a really fun, binge-watching October weekend for yourself – watch the aforementioned original Frankenstein trio. Then watch Young Frankenstein and Gods and Monsters. It will be an experience you won’t forget!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Mockingbird Will Never Die


Dear Readers, it's no secret that I'm an avid classic movie lover as well as an avid reader of great books.  To Kill A Mockingbird, movie and book, have a permanent place in my mind and heart.  I had to make a decision for myself about all the hoopla with the publication of Harper Lee's first draft idea for Mockingbird.  In my opinion, about which I don't really feel humble, is that it was irresponsible and unethical to make money by outing "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's first draft idea.

Mockingbird is a superb book that inspired a superb movie, a treasure for both movie lovers and lovers of literature who know greatness when they see it.  Harper Lee's first story idea was bad, as they so often are. Her publisher suggested something different, as they so often do. So she eventually wrote a great book; maybe then was when she got some help from her friend Truman Capote.  I've never believed the old rumor that he actually wrote it.  It's not his style at all.  He may have given valuable advice, but if I had such a writer for a friend and I was stuck on my writing, I would welcome his help too.

I don't know all the facts about how "Watchman" came to be published; I don't know what Harper Lee had to do with it or what advice she was given.  With the greatest respect, Miss Lee is a very old lady, eccentric in many ways, and someone should have had the heart to squelch the idea of publishing that draft, which was squelched in the first place because it was bad.  I would die if anybody saw some of the first drafts I've written! Most writers would.  

I'm sure many of you know more about the events leading up to the "Watchman" release, and I'm not averse to learning facts.  I guess after I first read some of the articles about it and got a look at the story, I was just suspicious about Miss Lee's involvement and, frankly, just didn't care about the draft.  It was just that ... a draft.  Now so many people are terribly upset, re-thinking the real Mockingbird, and that is very sad.  It's especially sad for the generations of kids who will get to know this novel and book that Oprah Winfrey called our national book.  It is likely that their experience will be tinged by knowing from the start about the backlash against the idea of Atticus Finch being a racist, the most important issue being discussed.  That word, used however carefully or with whatever back-pedaling, is immediate cultural death to anyone or anything involved.  That would indeed be a tragedy, one which is up to us to avert by teaching our children and grandchildren how to understand and what to ignore in the case of Mockingbird.

For us, Atticus Finch will always be a loving father and decent, caring and educated man, in a time and place in which some of those virtues were not prevalent.  That is how Harper Lee offered him to us.  That is who he is.  To Kill A Mockingbird will never disappear as long as we adults make a firm decision to teach our children just as Atticus taught his own.


A decent man and the innocence of children change, for
a moment, their corner of the world.

This will never be goodbye, Atticus ... it will always be our tribute.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Teresa Wright -- Quietly Unforgettable

Teresa Wright


When I was a teenager, I wanted to be Rita Hayworth or Vivien Leigh.  The sheer beauty of these women was intoxicating, and at that age I thought that was the be all and the end all for a woman.  When I got a little older, I came to realize that even great beauty just wouldn't do.  I began to notice other qualities of women I admired, particularly my mother.  I became acquainted with the movies of Teresa Wright, and ever since then have felt that if I were not myself, I would like to be her.  It wasn't just her looks or talent -- she was certainly lovely and a wonderful actress.  She was not glamorous and did not want to be.  Teresa's prime movie career was set in a time I have always loved.  She was in her 20's during the 1940's.  I had always felt I would been better suited there than in my own time.  The 40's, even though stricken by war, seemed a wonderful time to be a young woman living in a medium-sized town where decent people lived ordinary lives (eg. Shadow of a Doubt); where modesty, love, and the importance of fidelity were desirable virtues (eg. The Best Years of Our Lives); where love of country and responsibility for it were commonplace (eg. Mrs. Miniver). The most famous movies in which Teresa appeared, added to the three already mentioned, were The Little Foxes and Pride of the Yankees.  These films spanned the years of 1941 to 1946.  

Teresa and Dame May Whitty in Mrs. Miniver

Lest I be dismissed as a rose-colored glasses type, I certainly know that those years, the towns portrayed, the stories themselves also held behind closed doors the fear, unhappiness and difficulties with life as in any era.  In fact, each of the five movies has Teresa starting out as an innocent girl, only to be forced to deal with disappointment, sorrow and sometimes just plain evil -- a  beloved, yet murderous, Uncle Charlie in Shadow; post-war mental and social damage, divorce and physical disability in Best Years; the effect of war on an ordinary English family, and death that comes as never expected in Mrs. Miniver; greed and evil in a young girl's mother and uncles in Foxes; and deep sorrow for a wife with her husband's illness in Pride.

Teresa in The Best Years of Our Lives

Teresa's movie career began to decline after 1946, although she made several, none of which ever reached the the level of importance of the first five.  Teresa then became a prolific actress on television, with a few occasional movies, and worked until she was 78 years old.  She died in 2005.

So why do I feel so akin to a decade that ended before I was born?  I like what I've seen and heard about the cultural attitudes, the social aspect of relationships and other heavy issues.  But right now, I'm thinking about the fabulous big band music, the way that men dressed in suits and fedoras, and the women's clothes that looked like ball gowns compared to the way we appear in public these days.  One of the fun things about Teresa for me is her clothes.  In every movie she is dressed in beautiful, simple day wear, tailored just to her.  You can imagine yourself in clothes like that, as opposed to period costumes or mink-laden outfits for the rich.  Teresa always looked great, cool and womanly.  I liked her hair too.

Teresa and Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver

Teresa and detective in Shadow of a Doubt


Teresa,  Joseph Cotton and a cop in Shadow of a Doubt

It's hard to believe that Teresa Wright could fall under the category of forgotten stars, but I bet not many people other than us have any idea who she is.  That's such a shame.  She made important, great movies, and neither she nor they should be forgotten.



Friday, May 15, 2015

National Classic Movie Day -- "Going My Way"

What a movie ... what a cast!
This is my contribution to National Classic Movie Day, arranged by Rick of Classic Film and TV Cafe.  Click here to find all of the contributors.

In May of 1944 the United States was embroiled in the dark days of World War II. After 2 ½ years of war, grief and fear of the future, American audiences chose as their favorite movie a little film which helped them remember what life is ultimately about -- love of God, love of people, humor in the midst of difficulty, ordinary human beings living each day as it comes. Going My Way was a Paramount film directed by Leo McCarey. McCarey was known mostly for his comedies before the 1940’s, working with such greats as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Mae West. During the 40’s, McCarey became increasingly concerned about the needs of people struggling with wartime difficulties, as well as social injustice of the economically disadvantaged.

Going My Way is the story of two Catholic priests at St. Dominic parish in a poor neighborhood. Fr. O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arrives at the parish supposedly to assist the aging pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). In point of fact, the Bishop has plans to eventually replace Fr. Fitzgibbon, who is now in his 70’s and is reluctant to retire. Fr. Fitzgibbon has been a priest for 45 years, and it has been that long since he has seen Ireland or his now extremely elderly mother. Fr. O’Malley’s modern, easy-style personality rubs the fiery old pastor the wrong way, and Fr. O’Malley is kind to him, always careful to show respect and patience in their relationship. Throughout the movie, we meet people who cross paths with Fr. O’Malley – Carol (Jean Heather), a runaway whose future causes no end of concern for the priest; Ted Harris Jr. (James Brown), whose interest in Carol is a further cause for concern; Genevieve (Rise Stevens), whom Fr. O’Malley once loved; and a gang of neighborhood boys led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). (You have to love that name, Tony Scaponi!) A third priest, Fr. O’Dowd (Frank McHugh), the same age and modern outlook as Fr. O’Malley, turns up to be another thorn in the old pastor’s side. Fr. O’Malley deals with each person in the same spiritually dedicated, yet firm feet-on-the-ground attitude which characterizes his moral makeup. There is great humor in this story, sorrow, and an ending that is quiet and intensely moving.

Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald

Going My Way is a slice-of-life movie, simply portraying the life of a church parish day to day. There is no hurry to McCarey’s direction, allowing each scene to unfold with rich personality and character-driven plot. The audience feels as if they know the people in this film, as proven by the fact that this was the highest-grossing film of 1944. In those days, without television or re-runs, that meant that there was a lot of repeat viewing and thus more theatre tickets sold. Going My Way swept the Oscars that year, winning best picture, best director, best actor for Crosby, best supporting actor for Fitzgerald, best screenplay, best song for “Swinging On A Star” written by Van Huesen and Burke. This was in a year where competition was stiff and the movie was up against such films as Cary Grant’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Olivier’s Henry V, Garland’s Meet Me In St. Louis and Ingrid Bergman’s Gaslight. Interestingly, Fitzgerald and Crosby were both nominated for best actor, as well as Fitzgerald’s nomination for best supporting actor, a double-nominee practice that was later disallowed.

Bing and the gang

The cast of Going My Way is one that shines in its individual parts. Bing Crosby is perfection as the younger priest who sings and plays piano, just as comfortable with boogie woogie as spiritual songs. His work with the neighborhood boys in turning them into a choir is beautifully portrayed. (One of the boys is Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer who we remember from Our Gang serials.) They truly sing like angels when they perform the title song with real-life opera great Rise Stevens. But it’s their performance with the song “Swinging On A Star” that audiences really loved. The part of the old pastor, Fr. Fitzgibbon, seemed tailor made for Barry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was 56 at the time, only 15 years older than Crosby, yet he seemed and looked very old, a testament to his acting and good makeup. He is funny and sweet in his part, and you can’t help but love him.

Frank McHugh
Wonderful Frank McHugh as Fr. O’Dowd is the perfect comic relief with his distinctive way of speaking and his famous high breathy laugh. McHugh was a member of the Irish Mafia, a spoof name for a group of actors, mostly Irish, who met fairly regularly which included James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Stanley Clements (Tony Scaponi) eventually replaced Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys last seven movies. You may recognize James Brown as Ted Haines -- he starred in the Rin Tin Tin television series.  The rest of the supporting cast round out this wonderful ensemble with solid performances.

In the following year, 1945, Bing Crosby reprised his role as Fr. O'Malley in The Bells of St. Mary's, starring Ingrid Bergman as the Mother Superior.  It was also a huge hit, and in my opinion, Bergman still holds the gold medal for best and most beautiful nun in films.

Director McCarey and Bing Crosby were both devout Catholics and that shows in their dedication to the film and their love for the ideals of the Church. After the war, Crosby obtained permission to screen the movie for Pope Pius XII and meet with him personally. Some, particularly in our own time, pronounce this movie as saccharine and idealistic. I disagree completely. It set forth ideals and the efforts of ordinary people to live up to them. Now, when scandal has marred the image of the Catholic Church, this little movie is a timely reminder that the same ideals are still there, and that 99.9% of priests are as good and dedicated as Fr. O’Malley (although not many of them sing as well). That is a living legacy from Leo McCarey and Bing Crosby.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Evolution of Tod Browning's Freaks

European poster for Freaks
This article is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon, Fabulous Films of of the 1930's.  Click here to find all the wonderful bloggers who are participating:  http://www.clamba.blogspot.com/2015/04/cmba-spring-blogathon-fabulous-films-of.html

Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks has been analyzed, reviewed, hated, admired, recommended and shunned since its first screening 83 years ago. My interest is in one aspect of this movie's impact upon audiences -- the evolution of its acceptance.  In his production, Browning filmed this fictional story of circus freaks using not actors, but real men and women who had been born with deformities and made their living traveling the sideshow circuit.  In many ways, the movie was a source of pride for most of its stars.  They had lived their lives being stared at and vilified, and made their living in the only way open to them -- as circus attractions.  The idea of being wanted for a mainstream Hollywood movie appealed to most of those who appeared in Freaks.  Browning himself believed not only in the monetary interests of a shock value movie, but also in spotlighting the fact that these are human beings with the same feelings as anyone else, kindness, love, anger, bitterness and rage.  His intentions met with complete failure in 1932.  Stories abounded of people fainting and running screaming up the aisles during the first few minutes of the movie.  Freaks was considered so disgusting that theatres throughout the country pulled it and refused to show it.  It was definitely a box office dud, and only decades later was it met with interest and perceptive observation.

The aspect of Freaks that interests me for the purpose of this article is simple -- we are not as dramatically affected by Freaks now as people were in 1932.  We certainly have a better understanding of medical anomalies.  Deformities are no longer seen as a curse or an evil as in the past.  The development of babies in the womb is an open book because of prenatal imagery, and we have reached a point in medical involvement in which some problems can actually be fixed in utero.  Deformities certainly still occur, but for us in a country rich in medical breakthroughs and treatments, the same anomalies as seen in Freaks are very rare, if not completely eradicated.  Even the crude terms used for deformities have evolved ... pinheads are microcephalics, Siamese twins are conjoined siblings, midgets and dwarves are little people ... names can indeed hurt, and our modern terminology helps to make that a thing of the past.

We now have television shows that spotlight people who are different.  Little People, Big World is very popular, showing a family who is really like any other family, with the exception of certain special needs.  However, it is my observation that most families require special needs of many types, even though these may be invisible.  The problem of the "dysfunctional family" has become so widespread that functional families seem to be a rarity.  There are a great many TV shows about fat people, strange obsessions, odd-looking people who are that way either by birth or choice of tattooing and piercing.  There isn't a whole lot that we don't see anymore.  The people of under-developed countries particularly suffer from terrible deformities and diseases, and now remarkable doctors, plastic surgeons and nurses give of their time and skill to travel around the world to help them without charge.

We still stare ... there is no denying that ... but most of us try not to and are embarrassed when we do, a far cry from years past.  I remember shopping for groceries and turning the corner of an aisle to be confronted by a man with an advanced case of  neurofibromatosis, which used to be called Elephant Man's disease.  I couldn't help being shocked, but I managed to quell the instinctive gasp we do when surprised in that way.  He just gave me a smile, and I smiled back with a little shake of the head at myself.  It turned out he was the produce man, and I will never forget his gracious behavior and the courage he must have had to just be living a normal life with a normal job.  Would I have screamed and run in 1932?  I am glad I live in a world where an unintentional surprise was all that I experienced and all that this gentleman had to endure.  There are still people who rudely snap pictures on their cell phones of those who are different, but media attention to these insensitive jerks prove them to be undeserving of any respect, an opinion shared by the majority of Americans.

Sometimes it seems that nothing ever really changes, and we see that opinion manifested every day in the news.  Various ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups, all cry out that bigotry is still the same as years past.  I do not believe that.  Certainly there are people who have not changed, who still live by the code of discrimination, but I see that more people have evolved than not.  Such issues are now discussed openly, and people who suffer bigotry have more ways to address and punish the haters than ever before.  That is because there are more of us who want to do what is right than ever before.  Just this one small example shows that ... at least for the cast of Freaks we know things have evolved -- the very word itself, freaks, is no longer tolerated.

Here is a little pictorial of some of the performers we were introduced to in Freaks.  All were very well known in their day.

Schlitze

Johnny Eck, the Half Boy and Prince Randian, the Living Torso


Brother and sister act Harry and Daisy Earles

Actress Rose Dione with Schlitze, Zip and Pip,
and a little person who I believe to be Angeleno

Violet and Daisy Hilton (with actors portraying their husbands)

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Big Blogathon About The Big Picture




You could do a great line-up with Cinemascope!  Roman soldiers everywhere!
(A scene from The Robe, the first movie released in Cinemascope)

It's March 13, the first day of the Cinemascope blogathon ... set aside some time March 13th through 16th to enjoy the bloggers who will be presenting their work on the best movies in Cinemascope as well as the process itself.

Bloggers:  Check your blog link below and let me know if there are any errors.

March 13th

How To Marry A Millionaire:  by www.margaretperry.org

The Long Hot Summer:  by www.thevintagecameo.com

The Innocents / The Lady and the Tramp:  by www.wolffianclassicmoviesdigest.wordpress.com

Gunmans Walk:  by www.caftanwoman.com

Love Me Or Leave Me:  by www.aurorasginjoint.com

Our Man Flint:  by www.widescreenworld.blogspot.com

The Great Locomotive Chase:  by www.silverscenesblog.blogspot.com

Ride the High Country: by http://thestopbutton.com/2015/03/13/ride-high-country-1962


March 14

Move Over Darling:  by www.flickchick1953.blogspot.com

Peyton Place:  by www.debravega.wordpress.com

Three Coins in the Fountain:  by www.movieclassics.wordpress.com

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness:  by www.portraitsbyjenni.wordpress.com

Retrospective of Cinemascope:  by Scenes from the Morgue:    www.scenesfromthemorgue.wordpress.com

A Bad Day at Black Rock:  by http://microbrewreviews.blogspot.com/

Cinerama!  by www.classicfilmtvcafe.com

Tammy and the Bachelor:  by www.phyllislovesclassicmovies.blogspot.com


March 15

My 10 Favorite Cinemascope Films: by www.allthingsKevyn.com

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: by www.moviemovieblogblog.wordpress.com

Silk Stockings:  by www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

Snow White and the Three Stooges:  by forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com

Daddy Long Legs:  by www.puregoldenclassics1951.blogspot.com

The Alligator People:  by www.lifebetweenframes.blogspot.com

Blood Alley:  by www.crystallkalyna.wordpress.com

There's No Business Like Show Business:  by www.girlsdofilm.wordpress.com


March 16

Seven Brides for Seven  Brothers:  by  www.jessycap.wordpress.com

Black Widow:  by www.stars-are-ageless.blogspot.com.au

House of  Bamboo / Lola Montez:  www.randompicturesblog.net

The Girl Can't Help It / Jailhouse Rock / Les Girls:  by www.secondsightcinema.com


The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit:  by http://silverscreenings.org/