Friday, May 30, 2008

September 2008: Kay Francis month on TCM

Kay Francis movies every Thursday evening through Friday morning on Turner Classic Movies in September 2008.

Eighteen (18) pre-Codes. Forty-two (42) films in all!

September 4–5
8:00 PM Raffles (1930)
9:15 PM Jewel Robbery (1932)
10:30 PM One-Way Passage (1932)
11:45 PM Divorce (1945)
1:00 AM Man Wanted (1932)
2:15 AM Women Are Like That (1938)
3:45 AM Comet Over Broadway (1938)
5:00 AM I Loved a Woman (1933)
6:45 AM Living on Velvet (1935)

September 11–12
8:00 PM Trouble in Paradise (1932)
9:30 PM Cynara (1932)
11:00 PM A Notorious Affair (1930)
12:15 AM The Feminine Touch (1941)
2:00 AM Street of Women (1932)
3:00 AM Give Me Your Heart (1936)
4:30 AM Stolen Holiday (1937)
6:00 AM Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)
7:15 AM Passion Flower (1930)
8:45 AM Another Dawn (1937)
10:00 AM The Goose and the Gander (1935)
11:15 AM The House on 56th Street (1933)

September 18–19
8:00 PM Transgression (1931)
9:15 PM Secrets of an Actress (1938)
10:30 PM Women in the Wind (1939)
11:45 PM King of the Underworld (1939)
1:00 AM It's a Date (1940)
2:45 AM Play Girl (1940)
4:15 AM Little Men (1940)
5:45 AM My Bill (1938)
7:00 AM In Name Only (1939)
8:45 AM The Keyhole (1933)
10:00 AM I Found Stella Parish (1935)

September 25–26
8:00 PM Mandalay (1934)
9:15 PM Doctor Monica (1934)
10:15 PM Confession (1937)
12:00 AM First Lady (1937)
1:30 AM Always in My Heart (1942)
3:15 AM Stranded (1935)
4:30 AM Storm At Daybreak (1933)
6:00 AM Guilty Hands (1931)
7:15 AM Allotment Wives (1945)
8:45 AM The White Angel (1936)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kay Francis news: Four Jills in a Jeep coming to DVD in August 2008

Fans of actress (Kay Francis know how rare it is to find any of her movies on video, let alone DVD, so this new release of Four Jills in a Jeep (also included in the Alice Faye Collection due to an appearance by Faye in the film) is great news. This is from the back:

This star studded musical is a cinematic tribute to the successful USO tour of Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, and Carole Landis, who entertained soldiers from England to North Africa. Embellished with some fictional romance, striking choreography, and plenty of laughs, this patriotic film salutes all the entertainers who did their part for "the boys." Includes special appearances by Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, George Jessel, and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.

I'll have to look further into this, but I believe one of the extras on Four Jills in a Jeep is an interview with Lynn Kear and John Rossman, authors of two books about Kay: The Complete Kay Francis Career Record: All Film, Stage, Radio and Television Appearances and Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks (starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee)

The Crowd Roars (1932). Screenplay ("Dialogue and Screen Adaptation") by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Seton I. Miller, and Niven Busch (credited as "Nevin") from a story by Howard Hawks.

Joe Greer (James Cagney) is a famous race car driver coming home to visit his kid brother, Eddie (Eric Linden). Joe knows exactly how dangerous a profession racing is and balks when Eddie wants to get involved because he idolizes Joe. Joe's feelings on the subject even extend to not marrying his best girl, Lee (Ann Dvorak), though it's pretty plain they are married in every other sense.

When Joe realizes Eddie is determined, however, he promises to show him the ropes while trying to shield him from the darker side of life — like his relationship with Lee, which he calls off when he finds Eddie drinking with Lee and her friend Anne (Joan Blondell). Anne responds to the blow to Lee by seducing Eddie, but they fall in love instead.

Soon, Eddie becomes Joe's rival on the racetrack, and the ultracompetitive Joe's impulsivity leads to a confrontation on the track. Joe's relief driver, "Spud" Connors (Frank McHugh, who had a small but important role as the drunk in Union Depot), puts himself between the brothers and gets killed for his trouble. (Reportedly, Cagney and McHugh began a conversation on the first day of filming that would lead to a life-long friendship.)

Cagney's star was still rising during the time of The Crowd Roars, and he displays the usual angry hothead persona he specialized in during this period — throwing men and women around equally. Blondell also offers few surprises, playing to type in her usual tough-talking, no-nonsense guise. But both actors are comfortable in their typecasting and give solid performances.

The real surprise was the fantastic acting of Ann Dvorak. I'd never seen her in anything before this, and she steals the movie away from Cagney and Blondell. Her performance is heartbreaking, going from indignant to desperate to loving in an instant, but always with a good heart, making us feel Lee's pain at the way Joe treats her. Eric Linden is forgettable as Eddie, his main contribution being an enthusiastic "I'll say!" Also watch for ubiquitous character actor Guy Kibbee in a small role (I'm not even sure if he had any lines) as Joe and Eddie's father, "Pop" Greer.

The story is thin, the characters two-dimensionally drawn, but the dialogue is entertaining and Blondell in particular has some great lines. Unfortunately, the ending tends toward the ridiculous, as it tries its best to take the melodramatic events and make a happy ending out of them by quickly forcing the characters through a series of unbelievable situations and coincidences.

But it remains a lot of fun even then, with redemption just around the corner and a quick chuckle before the end titles — and seeing racing in this era, with no visible protection for the drivers, was an eye-opener especially during the crash scenes. The Crowd Roars is not a classic by any means, but fans of director Howard Hawks will likely want to see this early venture (released just two weeks after his legendary Scarface, also with Dvorak).

Interesting trivia: A French version called La foule hurle was being filmed concurrently with director Jean Daumery and star Jean Gabin. In 1939, The Crowd Roars was remade as Indianapolis Speedway. Rumor has it that all of the racing footage was taken from the original and used in the remake, and when the attempt was made to replace the footage back into the original, some of the remake's footage was included by mistake, and so both films are practically indistinguishable during their racing scenes. Conveniently, Frank McHugh played Spud in the remake, too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pre-Code films based on Dashiell Hammett novels

Author Dashiell Hammett wrote some of the great novels of the 1930s. These, in turn, were made into some of the classic films of the era. Below are reviews of two of these films, both made in what is now termed the "pre-Code" era.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1931) — The main difference in tone between this and the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart comes from Ricardo Cortez's portrayal of Sam Spade. Cortez's Spade is much more of a ladies man than Bogart's.... He goes throughout the movie with a huge smirk on his face, as if everything going on around him is endlessly entertaining. And I can imagine why. When Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) comes into his office, he probably already knows she'll end up naked in his bath, in his bed, and in his kitchen....

    Read my entire review of The Maltese Falcon.
  • The Thin Man (1934) — William Powell and Myrna Loy are the best things on the screen. Their banter floats the film from being a normal sleuth picture to another level. This is my idea of the perfect married couple. The wordplay gives a welcome break from the detection....

    Read my entire review of The Thin Man.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rain directed by Lewis Milestone (starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, Guy Kibbee)

Rain (1932). Screenplay/adaptation by Maxwell Anderson from the play Rain by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, based on the story "Miss Thompson" (reprinted in Collected Short Stories as "Rain") by W. Somerset Maugham.

It's obvious that the filming of Rain was inspired by a popular play because the direction by Lewis Milestone is purely point-and-shoot, with only a few shots of rain falling on different areas of the island to break the monotony. Also, the actors project their voices far too much. Sound was still in its relative infancy in 1932, but other films of the period managed to produce natural-sounding dialogue. (Maybe they just wanted to be heard over all that water.)

The direction of the actors appears to have been gleaned from the stage version, as well — and an amateur production, at that: No one's back ever is to the camera. People walk during their lines and not at other times. (To appreciate Milestone's true ability, see All Quiet on the Western Front [Academy Award winner for Best Director] or Of Mice and Men.)

The acting is also less than remarkable. Joan Crawford is very good as Sadie Thompson (probably literature's most famous prostitute) — she inhabits the character as if she was born to play her. But Walter Huston as Alfred Davidson appears to be playing a one-note character, the religious zealot, until the point when his attempt at "redeeming" Sadie fails and he falls prey to his baser instincts. He uses dramatic facial expressions to show this change, but it just looks like he is turning into Mr. Hyde.

The other characters are really just spouting dialogue, and we aren't told much about them other than Joe Horn, the proprietor of the General Store on the island of Pago Pago (where the action takes place). As played by prolific character actor Guy Kibbee, he is the most interesting character in the film.

The movie was very slow going, but after the first half-hour, I began to follow and was entertained. (I was not previously familiar with the storyline, and only watched this because of an appreciation of other Maugham tales.) Despite these flaws, Rain is on the whole a powerful experience. At the very least, it offers a good look at cinema history: to see Joan Crawford's early work from when she was a sex symbol, and to catch Walter Huston before son John Huston directed him to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Crawford reportedly bad-mouthed Rain for the rest of her life — very likely due to bad reviews and numerous letters from fans outraged that she had played a prostitute — saying "I hope they burn every print of this turkey in existence."

The story was previously filmed as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson and was later turned into a musical, Miss Sadie Thompson starring Rita Hayworth.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Kay Francis cocktail?

Reportedly invented by Señor F. Garcia Bode, this is "a time-tested favorite from Venezuela" — at least according to The Gentleman's Companion author Charles H. Baker, Jr.

For the curious, the recipe (along with a commentary on the results of its mixing) is at Paul Clarke's (no relation) weblog, The Cocktail Chronicles.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle

Subtitled "Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," author Mick LaSalle's eye-opening book Complicated Women casts a loving eye on the films and actresses in the time before Will Hays's Production Code was enforced, and shows how movies that many people think of as painfully outdated actually contain some of the most modern-thinking females seen on celluloid to date.

(Comparisons are even made to films of the 1990s, with the newer films showcasing much more "old-fashioned" beliefs, which just goes to show that the Production Code pretty much destroyed how women are portrayed in movies.)

Though many actresses are covered, LaSalle's focus is mainly on two: Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. These two women (Shearer in particular, and with much more concerted effort on her part) made great leaps in women's roles in a very short period, and were trailblazers, allowing the women that came after the ability to do the same.

Only a few pages of Complicated Women are devoted to Kay Francis (the original focus of this weblog, she was the reason I picked up the book in the first place), but LaSalle recognizes her for her portrayals of unmarried professional women who, in a few of her films, became mothers with no negative repercussions. He later proposes a theory regarding why many pre-Code stars, Francis among them, were labeled "box office poison" in 1938, only a few years mid-Code. "Actresses lost their edge" under the censorship of the Code, LaSalle states, and thus their "social relevance. After all, what is the point of a Kay Francis movie in which Kay Francis is less sophisticated than the viewer?"

The most eye-opening part of Complicated Women is that Will Hays was hardly involved at all in the enforcement of the Code that bears his name. The man truly responsible was Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic and director of studio public relations — certainly an individual with far too much power.

Another surprise was the sheer number of actresses that were active in the period. Along with Shearer (of whom I was mostly unaware until now) and Garbo (of whom I was unappreciative), there are several more women whose movies I feel compelled to seek out — or at least watch for on Turner Classic Movies. A partial list includes Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Madge Evans, Ruth Chatterton, Glenda Farrell, Ann Dvorak, and Constance Bennett — as well as films from the period by such big stars as Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck

Complicated Women also takes time to mention LaSalle's thoughts regarding the actresses of the modern day who are best carrying on the pre-Code legacy. Some of his choices may be surprising, but he backs them all up with substantial cinematic evidence.

LaSalle deftly rides the line between passion and scholarship. It's obvious he feels strongly about the films and women he chronicles, but he hasn't let that get in the way of telling the facts accurately (there's a bibliography of his sources in the back for further reading).

(In 2003, LaSalle was interviewed for a documentary based on his book also called Complicated Women. Featuring clips of films from the period, the documentary is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Watch TCM also for the films mentioned in the text, or check out the DVD collections Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1 and Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2 for eight of the most prominently covered.)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Kay Francis Photo of the Day

"Kay Francis 1941 The Man Who Lost Himself" from Legendary Classic
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