Monday, October 17, 2011

"I think it would be fun to run a newspaper..."

I'm no Charles Foster Kane, nor do I own a newspaper, but I come bearing blog-relevant news. The weather may be getting colder, but it looks like the blogosphere will be heating up in the next few months with some promising new events. Orson Welles is almost as excited as I am. (P.S. It did take me a few extra minutes to realize he's brandishing a pipe in that still, not a gun.)

The Great Citizen Kane Debate (November 2011), Hosted by Brandie, Carrie, and Nikki at True Classics
"Here’s your chance to either defend Kane’s position as King of the Cinematic Mountain, or to knock it off its storied pedestal. At some point during the next month (until November 13th), put up a post on your blog either explaining why Kane deserves to be numero uno, or lay out your reasons why it is overrated. And if you are among those who feel that Kane is not the best movie of all time, tell us which film really IS, in your opinion, and defend your choice!
The entries will be judged by Carrie, Nikki, myself, and a couple of guest judges whom we haven’t determined yet. We’ll be looking at several factors, but first and foremost, we’re looking for enthusiastic, informative, and entertaining entries that will engage us–and your readers–in lively discussion. And we will award prizes to our top three favorites entries!"
I knew I was committed to this contest before I even finished reading the rules. It's a debate about Citizen Kane! The film for which my blog was named! It's going to be a challenge to come up with something intelligent to say about one of the most discussed films of all time, but that's what makes it so fun. Judging by all the creative and talented folks I've met hanging out at the True Classics blog, I know that my fellow bloggers are going to meet this challenge and then some.

The For the Boys Blogathon (November 19th-20th, 2011), Hosted by Katie and Hilary at The Scarlett Olive Podcast
"There’s a staggering amount of estrogen in our blogs and podcasts. We’d like to shake the content up a bit and expand our masculine audience. Many classic films fall under the manly umbrella: shoot-‘em-up westerns, shadowy noir, timeless war tales, and action-filled gangster ploys. Females are capable of enjoying these types of films, but we feel they were primarily geared towards men. So, here is what we ask of you:
  • Think about the quintessential films in these genres
  • Reflect upon why these films appeal to men
Write a blog (or podcast) regarding the masculine gender in film, genres that appeal to men, films in these genres*, or a combination of any of the above. If you are male or female and disagree with this completely … write about that!"
This is probably the opportune moment to admit that The Magnificent Seven is my holiday film of choice. Something about that thumping Elmer Bernstein score just gets me in the right shopping/decorating/snuggling mood. So I'm really looking forward to this manly blogathon. I have the feeling that this one's going to generate a lot of conversation and debate.

The Dueling Divas Marathon (December 20th-23rd, 2011), Hosted by Lara at Backlots
"I am hosting the Dueling Divas Blogathon, which I have scheduled to take place between December 20-23. It’s a ways off, so as to leave enough time to plan your blogging schedules accordingly. Participants may blog about any of the following types of Dueling Divas:
  • Those who had a rivalry in real life, either over a particular film role or over a personality clash, ie Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
  • Those who had a rivalry on the screen, ie Mildred and Veda from Mildred Pierce
  • Any dual role (see what I did there? Duel? Dual? Be proud.) played by an actor or actress in a classic film, ie Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap.
It’s totally free reign, you can write about the divas themselves, compare and contrast one of each of their films, and if you’re going to write about dual roles, you can talk about the differences in their characters or the actor’s technique in portraying them…you get the idea."
I think this wins my vote for the Best Blogathon Name this year; it just rolls off the tongue. There's a lot of exciting possibilities for this one: evil twins, backstage feuds, hair-pulling fights. How can you resist?

The Humphrey Bogart Blogathon (December 23rd-25th, 2011), Hosted by Meredith at Forever Classics
"As most of you probably know by now, Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor. In honor of his 112th birthday on December 25th, I've decided to host my first blogathon, which will run from December 23-December 25th. I realize that's it's three months away, but if you'd like to participate, I ask that you let me know by December 22nd. Your post can be about his films, his life or anything else Bogie-related."
Bogie really is the best medicine for those holiday blues and chills. What better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than to re-watch Bogart pistol-whipping a few bad guys? Is there a better hymn to brotherly love than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? I don't think so.  Let's set aside some time this holiday season to celebrate one of cinema's greatest actors.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Great Screen Teams That Never Were

Today, I'm going to jump into my What If Machine and ask the Matchmaker's Question: What are the great screen teams that never happened? Two talented actors who never paired up, two great tastes that seem like they would have tasted great together, but were never given a real chance. I know that acting chemistry is hard to predict (Who would have guessed that a nervous nineteen-year-old model would become Humphrey Bogart's perfect match?), but it's still fun to speculate. And so, I present to you, a list of Eight Great What Ifs.

1. William Powell and Claudette Colbert

When you think about it, these two had a lot in common. Both of them hit their peak in 1934 (Colbert with It Happened One Night, Powell with The Thin Man). They had two of the most knowing glances in all of '30s cinema, Powell with his arched brows, and Colbert with her sidelong smile. They wore their elegance like it was some grand joke on themselves and the audience. They were clever, they were amazingly classy, but nobody could ever resent them for it; it was just too much fun to be around them. While it's impossible to beat the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy, it's a real shame that Claudette Colbert never got the chance to try.

2. James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck

These were two of the toughest customers in cinema. While Cagney was pumping his enemies full of lead, Stanwyck was lying and cheating her way to the top. Watch the moment in Baby Face when Stanwyck hits a guy with a beer bottle before casually taking a swig from it; no way would Cagney get away with pushing grapefruit into her face. But Stanwyck and Cagney had more in common than onscreen violence. Both of them had made their way into show business as vaudeville hoofers, dancing in clubs and revues. They were sharp, strong New Yorkers who'd been working their whole lives. And yet Hollywood ignored this potential partnering right up until 1956. Cagney and Stanwyck were finally teamed up for These Wilder Years, which was...a sentimental drama about a millionaire and an adoption agency worker. Way to miss your big chance, casting directors. For what it's worth, Stanwyck and Cagney got along well offscreen and even entertained the film crew with an impromptu dance number.

3. Clifton Webb and Thelma Ritter

Like the previous pair, Ritter and Webb did share time in one film, the 1953 version of Titanic.  But their interaction wasn't played for its full comic potential and I think that's a crying shame. I've always wanted to see these two square off. Could Webb's talent for the poisonous one-liner compete with Ritter's homespun put downs? I don't know, but I think it would be one hell of a match. A true collision of matter and antimatter.

4. Lena Horne and Paul Robeson

It's always a shock to me to look back and realize just how few films Paul Robeson and Lena Horne made. The extreme racial strictures of Hollywood meant that these two enormously talented performers had to find most of their applause off, rather than on, the screen. But just imagine if these two had ever gotten a chance to be together in a film. Their star power, their confidence, and their tremendous musical gifts would have made them into one hell of a pairing. Unfortunately for us, it never happened. In real life though, the two were great friends and Lena Horne credited Paul Robeson with being a mentor to her. In an interview, she said, "Paul taught me about being proud because I was Negro ... he sat down for hours, and he told me about Negro people…. And he didn’t talk to me as a symbol of a pretty Negro chick singing in a club. He talked to me about my heritage. And that’s why I always loved him."

5. Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy

Hollywood has a painfully long history of ignoring female friendship. The very fact that Thelma and Louise is still cited as the female buddy movie, twenty years after its release...yeah, that pretty much sums it up. But let's ignore Hollywood's bad record on this subject and imagine an alternate universe where Loy and Lombard were paired together.  Loy had the dry-humored poise, Lombard had the dizzy energy; together they would have been unstoppable. They would have been like Redford and Newman, except in satin gowns and heels. We may have missed our chance to see these ladies together, but I'm sure they're up there in Heaven, making the joint a whole lot more fun.

6. Robert Mitchum and Veronica Lake

Ladd and Lake may be tops but the temptation to pair the sleepy talents of Lake and Mitchum is just irresistible. It would be like a contest to see who could act more unconcerned and detached (Mitchum would win of course, Lake never could stay on her pedestal for long).  They were like the two opposing sides of film noir. Mitchum embodied the rough-hewn masculinity and stoic silence of the noir genre, while Lake was the most playful and stylized of femme fatales. Neither of them seemed very real. But when they were onscreen, it was hard to look away.

7. Laird Cregar and Dan Duryea

I love villainous team-ups. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- these were men who combined vile deeds with effortless panache. I thought for a while about pairing Laird Cregar with Vincent Price but quickly decided those two were too similar. What better match for the looming, beautifully-spoken Cregar than the rail-bodied, nasally Duryea? Cregar had the courtly manners, Duryea had the streetwise sneer. Their unusual looks and sinister talents relegated them to the ranks of villainy (Cregar would eventually destroy himself in his quest to become a romantic leading man), but few actors could make it all look so enjoyable.

8. Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart

As I've said before on this site, Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress and Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor. They were two of the most talented and versatile performers of all time and anyone who wants to argue with me on that point can just go home and collect their dueling pistols. So why oh why didn't these two ever make a movie together? Barbara Stanwyck spent half her career seducing good guys (Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda seemed particularly susceptible) so the omission of Stewart is really baffling. They could have done a comedy, they could have done drama, they could have done romance. In the end, they did it all but not together.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Movie Review: The Princess Comes Across

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
directed by William K. Howard, starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurrray

(Note: This is my entry for the Carole-tennial (+3) Blogathon, hosted by Vincent at Carole and Co.)

Every reporter, radio announcer, and columnist in town is talking about only one thing: the arrival of Princess Olga of Sweden (Carole Lombard). The princess is on board the prestigious ocean liner Mammoth, on her way to begin a lucrative Hollywood career. Everyone on the ship is instantly captivated by this elegant Swedish royal. And the most infatuated of them all is King Mantell (Fred MacMurray), a concertina-playing bandleader, who is determined to shake this princess down from her ivory tower. But Olga and Mantell aren't the only notable passengers. Five celebrated detectives are also on board, en route to an international police detectives' conference. But before these gentlemen can even finish introductions, they are informed that an escaped convict has stowed away on the ocean liner. He could be anywhere or anyone.

As if princesses, concertinas, and convicts weren't enough, a fourth complication arrives in the form of Robert Darcy (Porter Hall), a shifty-eyed blackmailer, who says he's got the goods on three people. He knows that Mantell did a stretch in jail. He also knows that Princess Olga is no princess at all--she's Wanda Nash from Brooklyn, trying to pass herself off as royalty in order to get a film career. He puts the squeeze on King and Wanda, but before he can reveal his third victim, Darcy ends up murdered.

Now, it's up to the quintet of detectives, as well as a concertina player and a fake princess, to solve the mystery and find out the killer. But can King and Wanda find the killer, keep their secrets, and manage to avoid falling in love? It's going to be quite a voyage.

To co-opt a line from The Sound of Music, how do you solve a problem like The Princess Comes Across? Here's a film that is mildly funny, mildly romantic, has a very mild murder mystery that takes over the second act, and ends on a note of mild abandon. Trying to review it is like fighting your way through a sea of tapioca. It's never bad and occasionally it's quite good, but that's about all that can be said for it. However, no self-respecting film critic ever let mediocrity stand in the way of verbosity, so I'm going to tackle it anyway.

The Princess Comes Across stands out from the rest of Carole Lombard's Paramount comedies by virtue of not being a pure comedy. It was a deliberate attempt at a genre mash-up: a cross between those giddy Paramount romances and the classics 30s whodunnits. The filmmakers opt for some jarring shifts in tone. The beginning of the film is pure screwball, with Lombard doing a killer Greta Garbo parody as the counterfeit Swedish princess. But halfway through the film, the murder mystery angle takes center stage and Lombard's antics quiet down (her discovery of the dead body is played dead serious, with the camera zooming in on her shadowed, horrified face). Compared to another comedy-mystery like The Thin Man, The Princess Comes Across is much more serious in tone. When Nick and Nora are threatened, they laugh it off. When Lombard and MacMurray are threatened, they are genuinely scared.

I have a weakness for films that combine different genres. When done right, they're exciting in their unpredictability. Unfortunately, The Princess Comes Across never manages to combine its disparate elements and so ultimately it feels like two different films that were hastily stitched together. It might have been a case of too many cooks; the film had at least six screenwriters on board. A strong director could have guided the film to consistency but The Princess Comes Across was left in the hands of William K. Howard, a dependable but hardly illustrious craftsman (his most significant directing credit was The Power and the Glory, often cited as an influence on Citizen Kane). A director like Raoul Walsh would have relished the tonal shifts, a screenwriter like Preston Sturges would have cranked up the screwball insanity, but as it is, the film never jells.

The main reason to see The Princess Comes Across is for Carole Lombard's performance. From the very first moment she appears, swathed in furs, her eyes glazed with her own importance, she owns the movie. The whole "pretend Swedish princess" plotline is merely an excuse for Lombard to parody Greta Garbo and she pulls it off brilliantly,  nailing every far-off stare and trilling laugh. In her first scene, a reporter asks her, "Princess, who is your favorite movie star?" Lombard gazes right through him and answers with regal dignity, "Ve tell you, Mickey Moosey."

The real glory of Carole Lombard's performance isn't the Garbodegook she keeps spouting, but the way she can snap back and forth from elegant Swedish princess to Brooklyn gal in a millisecond. In one scene, she barks at MacMurray to "scram." "What did you say?" he asks. "Oh," she fumbles, "scrom, it means, in Svedish, de interview is ended." In another scene, MacMurray asks her "what a princess fish would do if she ever ran into a concertina player fish" (it makes sense in context). "She would probably svim by him every other time," Lombard answers with a glint in her eye and even through the Swedish mannerisms, you can see her character's sarcasm peeking out.

It's Lombard's intelligence and humor that make Wanda Nash into anything close to a likable character because otherwise, she's a complete twit. Masquerading as a Swedish princess in order to land a Hollywood contract is a spectacularly ludicrous scheme even by romantic comedy standards. Even in the 1930s, it wouldn't have taken more than half an hour for someone to unmask her. In a pure screwball comedy, like the vastly superior Nothing Sacred, Wanda would have been trapped into the deception by a misunderstanding and the lunacy would have spiraled out of her control. Here, we're supposed to accept her as a street-smart gal who apparently never heard of things like "false identity," "lawsuits," or "criminal charges."

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard had been paired before, in Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table and they would be paired for a total of four films. When MacMurray first fell into Lombard's capable hands, he was a very, very green leading man, with no idea of how to play comedy. Both Leisen and Lombard had struggled with getting MacMurray to find his inner comic. According to one account, Lombard actually sat on MacMurray's chest at one point, pounding him with her fists and yelling, "Now Uncle Fred, you be funny or I'll pluck your eyebrows out!" Whatever Carole Lombard's methods were, she succeeded in carrying MacMurray along and for the rest of his life, he credited her with being his favorite leading lady.

In The Princess Comes Across, Fred MacMurray seems more comfortable than he did in Hands Across the Table; his reactions feel more natural and are timed better. As the concertina-playing bandleader King Mantell, MacMurray is anything but kingly. Here, he's a cocky, boyish smart aleck, who sees nothing wrong in trying to proposition a princess. Hell, he's young and she's blonde and they're on a boat together so why not?

Unfortunately, Lombard and MacMurray can't generate enough heat in The Princess Comes Across to offset the no-sugar, no-salt approach of William K. Howard's direction. He puts them into position and lets them banter--that's about it. Without those long, lustrous Mitchell Leisen closeups, the Lombard-MacMurray chemisty suffers. They're still cute together and the way Lombard openly sizes him up as a potential partner is delicious ("Did you notice those shoulders?" she muses to her horrified companion Lady Gertrude), but there's no urgency to their pairing up. It's a pigtail-pulling kind of romance.

Whenever the film switches focus from Lombard and MacMurray to the five famous detectives, my interest level dropped below freezing. Mainly because the five detectives don't do much to distinguish themselves beyond playing into a few national stereotypes (the Japanese one is very polite, the German is professorial etc.). The only one of real interest is Mischa Auer as the Russian detective, whose sardonic, gallows-humor delivery manages to steal scene after scene. In one such moment, Lombard (as Princess Olga) is telling the detectives about her "uncle" Rudolf. "Poor Uncle Rudy, somebody was always shooting at him," Lombard sighs and Auer tops it with, "In my country, they shoot at everybody's uncle." It's Auer's sheer pop-eyed relish of the line that makes it funny.

The only other character actor to note is Alison Skipworth as Lady Gertrude Allwyn, Lombard's worldly-wise partner in crime. She is pure delight as a woman who keeps up a public front as a grande dame (think Margaret Dumont on Casual Friday), but who, in private, shows her true con-artist colors. Whenever King gets within ten feet of her princess protege, she gives him a laser glare so fierce it could fry eggs. She gets nearly all the good lines, too.

"A concertina. And very vulgar. A definite symbol of the lower classes. Put the thing on the floor and it crawls."

 "You enjoyed the cocktails, didn't you?" (Lombard)
"Well the first five or six, but after that I was bored."

"I don't mind people stepping on my feet, but I do object to them lodging there."

Even with this talented cast, The Princess Comes Across is a slow steady slide from glamorous Paramount comedy to a C-grade murder mystery. Watching this movie is like drinking a glass of champagne only to realize, halfway through, that you were really drinking grape juice. And then as you're draining the bottom, you realize you weren't drinking grape juice, you were really drinking tap water. It's a real shame because there are so many moments where you can feel a better, sharper story bubbling under the surface. Or maybe that's just a mirage.

Carole Lombard is the main reason to see this film. It's her humor, her gestures, and her star power that really make The Princess Comes Across into something worth watching. She may not have been a Swedish princess, but she was truly a princess of comedy.  

Favorite Quote: 

"The story is from a novel entitled Lavender and Old Lace, but the name of the cinema has been changed to... um... She Done Him Plenty."

Favorite Scene:

The best moment, in my opinion, would have to be Carole Lombard dining with the five detectives. It's the last place she wants to be, of course, and you can see the wheels in her head turning as she tries to keep pace with her own deceptions. One of the detectives tells her proudly that he had the honor of meeting one of her grandfathers. "But I have two grandfathers!" Lombard says, trying to stall him. "The one I mean, has the beard," he replies. "Oh that one!" she cries out. "And such a looong beard, ven ve vere children, ve used to sving from it!" Somehow, Lombard delivers the line in a way that is both queenly and ridiculous at the same time. Even when she's cornered, she can't resist having a little fun.

Final Six Words:

Lombard floats, but the film fizzles

Here I acknowledge my profound debt to Dr. Macro and his trove of Lombard photos.