Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie Review: Stingaree

 Stingaree (1934)
directed by William Wellman, starring Irene Dunne, Richard Dix

Back in 1876, the Australian gentility lived in fear of the dashing criminal rogue known as Stingaree (Richard Dix). Stingaree and his sidekick Howie (Andy Devine) cause mayhem wherever they go. One day, they encounter Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle), a famous composer on his way to hear the singing talents of Mrs. Clarkson (Mary Boland), the richest woman around. Stingaree briefly takes on Julian's identity and when he goes to the Clarksons, he discovers that the real singer is not Mrs. Clarkson, but her lovely servant Hilda Bouverie (Irene Dunne). Hilda dreams of being a famous opera singer, but the jealousy of her employer threatens that dream. Charmed by Hilda's voice, Stingaree abducts the girl and vows to make her dream come true, no matter what. It doesn't take long before Hilda and Stingaree are kissing in the moonlight, vowing eternal love. But Hilda will have to choose between her love for the outlaw and her opera career.

Stingaree is one of those movies that promises wackiness. You don't go into a story about the forbidden love of an outlaw and an opera singer expecting restraint or taste. The problem, however, is that Stingaree never seems to be having any fun. It doesn't take itself seriously enough to be unintentionally funny, but the actors and director never cut loose enough to make it intentionally funny either. The only one that seems to be enjoying himself is Walter Plunkett, whose dress designs for Mary Boland defy any laws of beauty, style, or sanity.

In spite of its thunderous title song during the opening credits, it's debatable whether Stingaree is really about Stingaree at all. The movie starts out as an outlaw story, swings into Cinderella territory, lurches into romance, veers in and out of being an Irene Dunne musical, before a climactic dilemma that seems straight out of a traditional "women's picture." It's like a swashbuckler that borrows a little from everything except other swashbucklers.  The messiness of this film is one of its more endearing qualities, but it isn't enough to recommend it.

Part of the problem must rest on the shoulders of Richard Dix, an actor whose dubious fame rests on the 1931 Best Picture winner Cimarron. Whenever critics try to sum up Dix's appeal, the adjectives "sturdy," "masculine," and "dependable" crop up at an alarming rate. Give him credit for being a leading man who survived the crossover from silents to talkies, but there was a heaviness to his acting that never goes away. Here, he telegraphs everything. In a scene where Stingaree waltzes into the local bar disguised as a humble music box salesman, his eyes dart to the side whenever someone questions him. When he tries a disarming grin, it's like a man trying to forget how constipated he is. This is the kind of performance that makes you realize the necessity of an Errol Flynn (and he was Australian dammit, he would have been perfect for this material if he'd been around at the time).  It isn't all Dix's fault since the screenplay shows an astonishing lack of interest in its titular character, letting him cool his heels in prison for a good part of the movie so it can focus on Irene Dunne's opera career.

This movie could also stand as a demonstration of why Irene Dunne's popularity has survived and Dix's hasn't. Her role is ridiculous, a servant who never seems to provide much service and has the voice of a trained opera singer, a woman who spends the first half of the movie pining for a career and the second half pining for Richard Dix. Yet, Dunne does convey a kind of sparkle and intelligence in Hilda's earlier scenes that make it plausible (movie-plausible at any rate) why Stingaree would elect himself her manager. There's a nice, short scene where Dunne, fed up with Mary Boland's bad singing, vents her frustration in private by singing a mocking rendition of Boland's song and throwing the sheet music at the wall. Her character might be a Cinderella, but Dunne conveys the weariness of someone who knows she's smarter than her competition and doesn't want to be coy about it. 

However, once Dunne has to make the switch into Stingaree's lady love, her performance and the film, turn into a soggy mess. Because the movie doesn't make any attempt to involve us in Stingaree and Hilda's passion (there have been parking tickets more passionate than their mid-movie clinch), Hilda's mooning over her lost love feels pointless. To make matters worse, the movie keeps throwing up misty flashbacks every few minutes to make sure we understand that Hilda misses her beau. 

Stingaree is one of the RKO Six, one of the famously lost films of the RKO studios, the rights of which went to King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper. After a legal battle far more exciting than anything that happens in this movie, TCM acquired the films and they are currently available in a DVD collection. If for no other reason, Stingaree has value as a piece of movie history and the loving attention given to it and the five other films in the Lost and Found RKO Collection is enough to warm the most jaded old-movie lover's heart.

In the end, this film is less than the sum of its parts. Those who go into it without any expectations can take some pleasure in its more deranged aspects. If you ever had a burning desire to hear Andy Devine attempt a Scottish accent, if you ever wanted to see a Movie Outlaw whose true passion was songwriting, if you ever wanted to see Walter Plunkett dress up Mary Boland in costumes that look like an overexcited first-grade arts and crafts lesson, then Stingaree is the movie for you. But be warned. This is the kind of film you clean the house to, rather than the kind for which you stay up an extra hour.

Favorite Quote:

"Well after all, my dear, you can't expect a man to be always risking his neck for you."

Favorite Scene:

Mary Boland's "audition" scene for Sir Julian Kent. She goes to such Herculean efforts to make her dubbed singing look as bad as possible, in order to contrast with Dunne's, that you have to love the actress for being the only one to provide some much needed fun. In fact all of her scenes stand out as the best parts of the film.

Final Six Words:

Confused, half-hearted swashbuckler musical mess

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Actress Spotlight: Veronica Lake

Actress Spotlight: Veronica Lake

So I was watching I Married a Witch last weekend and trying unsuccessfully for the past few days to write a review before I realized that what I really wanted to do was talk about Veronica Lake. 

I have a fondness for Veronica Lake that goes well beyond her merits as an actress.  It's always a pleasure to see her. Even when you know that offscreen her costars were gnashing their teeth over working with "Moronica Lake," as Raymond Chandler called her, Lake always seems to be having a lot of fun, playing hide-and-seek behind her famous hair, smiling knowingly, and pouting when things don't go her way.

In my Hollywood alternate universe, Howard Hawks takes Lake on as he did that other husky-voiced blonde Lauren Bacall and injects a little more wit and maturity into the Veronica Lake persona. The difference between Bacall and Lake is that Bacall, given the right role, seemed like someone who'd been round the block and had the smarts to prove it. Lake didn't; there was always something a little unreal about her vamping. 

In Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, in a role that was purportedly intended for Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake's pose of being the street-smart girl, far more experienced than Joel McCrea's pretentious director, is obviously just that, a pose. In Stanwyck's case, we would have believed it. It doesn't hurt the film, though; it just shifts the dimensions. Sturges seems to take a mischievous pleasure in pitting the 4'11'' Lake against the 6'3" McCrea; she's perpetually clambering into his lap or leaning into him or pushing him into pools. McCrea's grumpiness is in fine contrast to her girlishness. His attraction to her is played like a guy falling for a friend's annoying kid sister.

Veronica Lake's pairing with Alan Ladd was famously because she was the only actress on the Paramount lot that could make him look tall. But their personas matched well too. Ladd, the gruff and rough guy with the face of an "aging choirboy," was like a teenage boy playing at being the tough guy and the sulky Lake was a teenage girl's idea of the femme fatale. She strikes the poses, she looks and talks like a bad girl, but she never feels truly dangerous.

Veronica Lake has earned a legacy as a style icon, but her popularity as an actress burned itself out at an amazing rate. Lake couldn't even last out her decade; she was truly "in" by 1941, skidding by 1944 (after a disastrous turn as a Nazi spy in The Hour Before the Dawn), and completely totaled by 1949, at the ripe old age of 27.  Time is rarely kind to "It Girls" and Lake's particular brand of pouty, girlish charm probably wouldn't have aged very well even if her career had been better handled and her personal problems not gotten in the way. 

The last fifteen years of her life were one slow decline into alcoholism, mental illness, and poverty and she died at age fifty, looking (based on her appearance in the 1970 exploitation film Flesh Feast) twenty years older. Lake was self-deprecating in interviews ("You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision"), but she still had her pride. During Lake's latter-day stint as a cocktail waitress, her former lover Marlon Brando sent her a check for one thousand dollars. Lake had it framed.

Part of my fascination with Veronica Lake comes from hearing story after story by her frustrated costars; she seemed to have an incredible ability to spark the dislike of even the most easygoing costars. After Sullivan's Travels, McCrea refused to work with her again, saying that "Life is too short for two films with Veronica Lake." During the filming of I Married a Witch, she and March openly despised each other. March on Lake: "a brainless little blonde sexpot." Lake on March: "a pompous poseur." Lake would play pranks against her costar like hiding a weight under her dress for a scene where March had to carry her. She would also take revenge on Brian Donlevy, another disparager of her talent, in The Glass Key. When it came time for her to punch him in one scene, she almost knocked him out. In her autobiography, Lake would attribute this burst of pugilism to growing up in Brooklyn.  Eddie Bracken, her costar for Star-Spangled Rhythm, said once that "She was known as 'The Bitch' and she deserved the title." Even her screen partner Ladd reportedly never warmed up to her, though I can't find any quotes from him on the subject. 

It's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone so miserably unpopular. Marilyn Monroe drove her costars up the wall too, but they forgave her because well, she was Marilyn Monroe. Maybe Lake was as bitchy as her costars gave her credit for; it's difficult to tell where bitchiness left off and real mental illness began. Unlike other stars who died the slow, painful death of the addict, like Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, Veronica Lake didn't seem to inspire the same feelings of protectiveness and affection. It's a fair bet to say that she made others as miserable as she made herself. However, she did not deserve her eventual fate: alcoholic, forgotten, estranged from her children and loved only by her nurses. 

Whatever she was offscreen, onscreen she radiated warmth and charm. There was an iciness to her beauty and to the world-weariness her characters often affected, but Lake herself didn't play it cold. Some femme fatales could maneuver men via lust or manipulation. Lake melted them. One of the pleasures of her movies with Alan Ladd is waiting for the moment when the grim Ladd suddenly breaks out in a boyish smile, dropping his cool persona under the influence of Lake. Fredric March may have hated Lake on the set of I Married a Witch, but it sure doesn't show in the film. The more his character, the stuffy Wallace Wooley, tries to tell Lake's witch that he doesn't love her, the more he finds himself stroking her hair and gazing into her eyes. In the aforementioned Sullivan's Travels, McCrea learns affection for her as he learns tolerance for other people. The image of McCrea's arm stealing around Lake is as tender as anything ever directed by Preston Sturges.

Back in 1998, Kim Basinger won her only Oscar for her supporting turn as Lynn Bracken, the Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute in Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential. I saw that film for the first time only a few months ago and I liked it, but not nearly as much as others liked it. Some parts were great, some parts felt silly to me. Basinger's role was one of the lesser parts to me. Her entrance is great, an extended tease of the mysterious woman under the hood, like a true homage to old-style Hollywood glamor. But the character disappoints. In spite of Basinger's attempts to give Lynn Bracken some depth, she doesn't really rise beyond the hooker with the heart of gold type."You're better than Veronica Lake," her lover Bud White tells her at one point, trying to assure of her own worth. She is a real woman, not fantasy, not Hollywood.

In retrospect though, it's Basinger and Bracken that feel fake to me and Veronica Lake, stealing aboard a train, casting spells over Fredric March, kissing Alan Ladd before he goes off to risk death, the same Veronica Lake that would die young and alone, that haunts me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Sartorial Mystery

A good costume is worth five pages of dialogue in film. It can give you the key to a character's personality, to the mood of the scene, or to a shift in the plot. It can inform the actors' own performances, like Kim Novak's stiff, binding gray suit from Vertigo or Louise Brooks' ruined blouse and skirt in Pandora's Box. With that in mind, I'd love to know the meaning behind these two hats:

So, above we have Katharine Hepburn in 1940's The Philadelphia Story and below, we have Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's The Lady Eve. In both scenes, we have a leading lady in a daytime scene where she is supposed to be charming and confident. And yet each time I see these films, I am always thrown out of the moment by those (to my eyes) silly-looking hats. Adrian designed for Philadelphia and Edith Head was behind Eve so at least two geniuses of fashion were throwing their weight behind the idea that a woman could look enticing in the Wee Willie Winkie hat. Was it just a brief fashion trend of the early 1940s, here and gone? And yet it's only in these two classic films that I see it. At any rate, I'm keeping an eye out for any more of those hats. 

The Philadelphia Story picture is credited to Style Matters; Alison's  got a nice fashion post on Katharine Hepburn.

Farewell, Elisabeth Sladen

You really don't know my Sarah Jane, do you? 
She gave me the strength.

Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011)

In an odd twist of fate, I was Googling her when I found out. 
Goodbye, Elisabeth. I like to think the Doctor took you on one last joyride.

Tom Baker has posted.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movie Review: There's Always Tomorrow

There's Always Tomorrow (1956)
directed by Douglas Sirk, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck

Ah, the fifties. Cozy suburbs, white picket fences, Father Knows Best, happy housewives with pearls and vacuum cleaners, blinkered optimism, conformity, and the worship of the bland.

God, can we put that stereotype to rest? A casual glance at the movies of the time shows that the men and women of the fifties were restless, questioning, and sophisticated. Off the top of my head: Rebel Without a Cause, Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All that Heaven Allows, Peyton Place, Picnic, Bigger than Life, A Place in the Sun. And that's just a handful of the films of that time that take a microscope and tweezers to the American Dream. Including of course, today's film, There's Always Tomorrow.

Cliff Groves (Fred MacMurray) is a successful toy manufacturer, married to the lovely Marion (Joan Bennett), and living in a big California home with their three children: teenagers Vinnie and Ellen (William Reynolds and Gigi Perreau) and little Frankie (Judy Nugent). Cliff is a genial man, fond of his family, but feels that he has become stuck in a rut. However, it is impossible to communicate this to his family. His children are uninterested in him, except as a source of money, and his wife doesn't understand why her husband feels the need to take her out on her birthday or to get away from the house. Then suddenly one night, as Cliff is eating dinner alone, wearing an apron and sitting in darkness, a woman from his past (Barbara Stanwyck) appears in the doorway.

Stanwyck plays Norma Vale, once Cliff's co-worker in the toy business, now a proud and independent fashion designer in New York. She's arrived in town and is eager to catch up with her old friend (and the former object of her unrequited love). They spend an evening reminiscing about old times and roaming around Cliff's factory. Cliff is energized by Norma's interest and their shared fondness for the past and when he runs into her again at a resort out of town, he takes the opportunity to do all the things he hasn't done in years: swimming, horseback riding, and just generally having a good time. However, by chance, his square-jawed, scowling son Vinnie happens to see them together at the resort and instantly concludes that his father is having an affair. He enlists the help of his girlfriend Ann (Pat Crowley) and sister Ellen to do battle against what he fears is his father's mid-life crisis. Meanwhile, Cliff is beginning to realize the emptiness of his life and turns more and more to Norma for solace.

One look at the movie still above gives you a fair idea on what kind of movie There's Always Tomorrow is supposed to be: the happily married couple allied against the homewrecker. In Douglas Sirk's hands, however, the film becomes a bitter, achingly sad story about a man trapped in a life that is suffocating him to death. The reviews of the time summed it up as a "sudser" and  "soap opera" which puzzles me a little since most soap operas have a lot more plot than this film, where most of the action takes place within the character's minds, within their changing views of each other. In comparison to Sirk's other films, this one is more like a chamber piece, shot in beautiful, gloomy black-and-white that turns a large suburban house into a Xanadu-like prison.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had been teamed three times before (Remember the Night in 1940, Double Indemnity in 1944, and The Moonlighter in 1953), so when Stanwyck appears suddenly in the doorway, the history between them is palpable. I can't speak for The Moonlighter, but the other MacMurray/Stanwyck films have a weird kind of continuity between them, despite all being of wildly different genres. Remember the Night is straight romance, Double Indemnity is noir, and There's Always Tomorrow is melodrama, but in each film, there's a push and pull with Stanwyck as MacMurray's corrupting influence, tempting him away from the straight and narrow but at the same time, freeing him to do things he's always wanted to do.

It's become standard to say that Fred MacMurray was never better than when he was playing a heel, and it's hard for me to argue with that since both Double Indemnity and The Apartment are two of my all-time favorite movies. In this movie however, he does an excellent job portraying a more shaded good guy, a man who works so hard to conceal his own bitterness that he himself is blind to it until Stanwyck shows up. In order for the film to work, Cliff has to be sympathetic enough that his children's suspicions of his adultery seem outrageous and later, when he really does start to fall for Norma, he must still retain that sympathy. Yet MacMurray manages it. His best moments are in the details, as in a scene at the beginning where Norma asks him if he is happy and Cliff, a beat too late, breaks into a smile and says, "Sure, I'm happy." Or in a later scene where the restless Cliff irritably snaps out his newspaper to cover up the sight of a family portrait where he is conspicuously absent.

Barbara Stanwyck's character is a little more ambiguous in that we never quite learn the depth of her feelings for Cliff. Norma starts out as the fond old friend, gushing over Cliff's achievements and encouraging him to have a little fun. Then, as Cliff's suspicious children begin to circle around them and Cliff begins to ask for more and more time with her, Norma starts to vacillate. She admits that she loved Cliff twenty years ago and the intensity of his response to her now seems to touch her. But does she really share his longing? We see Norma at her own busy store (unlike Cliff's nearly empty warehouse, she's surrounded by people), fully in her element in a way that Cliff never is. Cliff's wife Marion at one point suggests to him that Norma is obviously very lonely, but Stanwyck's performance has an intelligence and impatience with sentiment that defies any cliches about love-deprived career women. "You have a wonderful life with Marion and the children," Norma tells Cliff, as if trying to convince herself as well as him. Then suddenly she straightens and the old, Stanwyck-style snap comes into her voice. "And I too have a life."

The other third of this triangle is Cliff's wife Marion, played by Joan Bennett, and let me get one thing out of the way right now. I will never forgive 1950s Hollywood for turning Joan Bennett from this:

into this.

Gorgeous, sexy Joan, why on earth did they start putting you in mother roles? There's a moment in this film that hurts me, when Norma tries to persuade Marion to take home a stylish dress, one of Norma's designs. Marion comes out in a black and white number that suddenly reveals Joan Bennett's slim shoulders and tiny waist and then Marion smiles and says, "I'm afraid it's much too youthful for me."

Her character in this film is a miracle of smiling, maternal equanimity. Nothing can shake this woman from her state of torpor. Whenever she says something, she oozes understanding. After a passionate speech from her husband about how he feels just like a wind-up robot, working only to pay the bills, Marion says, "I know it's expensive, with the children, but I do try." Whenever Cliff does seem on the verge of getting through to her, one of her children calls and she rushes off to soothe them. Unlike the energetic, wide-awake Norma, Marion is constantly shown snuggling into bed or saying how sleepy she is. I kept hoping those invitations to sleep (delivered in Bennett's still sexy, knowing voice) might turn into something else but no dice. Marion is a puzzle. What is her inner life?

Movies that strike out against the rules and regulations of the comfortable suburban life usually have a Greek chorus of naysayers and society watchdogs that try to herd the rebels right back into respectability. It was a surprise for me to look back at this film and realize that said chorus is entirely absent from this movie. There are no snooty friends with teacups, no businessmen with briefcases, no outsiders at all. The voice of repression comes not from the outside but from the inside, as Cliff's children come to the conclusion that Norma is a threat that must be neutralized.

These children are just abominable. Cliff's relationship with them can be read in one brilliant sequence where he comes home only to be shushed by the glare of his teenage son, talking on the telephone. Later, as Cliff tries to talk with them, they find various excuses to get out of the house, only pausing to hit him up for money. Of course, if ignoring your parents was a crime, I'm sure most of us would have earned a stretch in the pen. It's when they jump to the conclusion that Cliff is having an affair that they really begin to be horrible. For all their hand-wringing, it's clear that they're actually revelling in their own suspicions. There's a suppressed thrill to their snooping on their father and their whispered conferences on what to do about the situation, like they're playing out a spy game. When Vinnie's girlfriend questions his actions, he snaps that she doesn't know the ways of the world, but it becomes evident that Vinnie himself isn't too clear on just what these ways of the world are.

Without spoiling the ending of this film, let me just say that it is one of the most depressing Code-mandated "happy endings" that I have ever seen. Sirk was a master at subversion and this film is no exception, taking what could have been a simple tale of a middle-aged man's attempt to regain his youth and making it utterly heartbreaking.

Favorite Quote:

"Love is a very reckless thing. Maybe it isn't even a good thing."

Favorite Scene:

Cliff takes Norma into the deserted factory to show her around. This is the only place he has, outside of his home. After some conversation and much oohing and ahhing on Norma's part, they come to his latest toy, Rex the Robot. Rex walks stiffly down the table, with the sing-song chant:

I'm Rex. The robot. 
The mechanical man. 
Push me and steer me wherever you can.
Norma and Cliff laugh and move on to an old toy they designed together twenty years ago, a musical toy based on an old organ grinder they'd seen years ago. It brings back good memories even if they only ever sold two copies. Norma can't remember the song so Cliff turns a crank and the music begins, a tinkly version of "Blue Moon."

Their faces light up and if you know the lyrics to "Blue Moon," you know then exactly what Norma will come to mean to Cliff. And if you glance over at Rex the Robot, his latest toy, you know what his future will be.

Final Six Words:

Haunting, sharp-edged story of discontent

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Farewell, Sidney Lumet

I don't feel I have to be loyal to one side or the other. 
 I'm simply asking questions.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

His obituary at the New York Times

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Top Ten Walk-On Characters

So I was watching The Magnificent Seven yesterday and I realized just how much I love that scene at the beginning where we meet our first two gunmen, partly because it's got such great, whip-fast dialogue, most of it delivered by characters we never see for the rest of the movie. That got me thinking about the glory of walk-on characters, those weird, memorable people who pop in and out of a movie for a few minutes, not enough for a Supporting Oscar, but leave such an impression. So, for today, I chose ten random walk-on characters that I love.

1. Henry the Corset Salesman (Val Avery) from The Magnificent Seven

Well, how do you like that? I want him buried, you want him buried and if he could sit up and talk, he'd second the motion. Now that's as unanimous as you can get.

2. Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), the Hat Check Girl from In a Lonely Place

Oh, I think it'll make a dreamy picture, Mr. Steele. What I call an epic...well, you know, a picture that's real long and has lots of things going on.

3. Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) from The Apartment

Poor Mickey. When I think of him all by himself in that jail in Havana...He's so cute, five foot two, ninety-nine pounds, like a little chihuahua.

4. The "Lovely Ducks" Lady (Joyce Grenfell) from Stage Fright

Would you like to shoot a lovely duck?

5. Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) from The Seventh Victim

I'm not going to wait. I'm going out--laugh, dance--do all the things I used to do.

6. Hysterical Mother (Doreen Lang) from The Birds

I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil. Evil!

7. Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) from It Happened One Night

You know, there's nothing I like better than to meet a high-class mama that can snap 'em back at ya. 'Cause the colder they are, the hotter they get. That's what I always say. Yes, sir, when a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles.

8. Miss Davis (Ellen Corby) from It's a Wonderful Life

Could I have $17.50?

9. Juan the Number One Fan (Alfonso Arau) from Romancing the Stone

Joan Wilder? The Joan Wilder?

10. Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley) from The Haunting

No one could. No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that. In the night. In the dark.