Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Films of Joan Davis - A Slapstick Sensation

Joan Davis was a master of zany comedy. She was the feminine variant of Danny Kaye, Oscar Levant and Billy de Wolfe all rolled into one. But mostly she was uniquely Joan Davis : rubber-faced, loose-limbed and shamelessly outrageous. A lost species from the bygone era of vaudeville.  

It was in vaudeville that Joan got her start. Billed as "The Toy Comedienne" she toured all around the states during the 1920s and by the time she reached her upper teens had performed on virtually every vaudeville circuit in the country. Her broad sense of comedy appealed to the masses and after entering films she quickly became one of the most popular comedians of the 1930s and 40s. Some critics hailed her as "the world's funniest woman". In over 45 motion pictures she exercised her raucous voice and muscle-straining grimaces in wet-your-pants-funny gags.  

Like Eve Arden at Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox often utilized Davis as "comic relief" to their box-office stars, Shirley Temple and Sonja Henie. She played second-fiddle to Alice Faye in several films ( "On the Avenue", "Wake Up and Live", "Tail Spin", "Sally, Irene and Mary" ) and got to take center stage in a number of musical showcases such as "Around the World" and "Sun Valley Serenade" where she performed solo in several short skits.  It was in these vaudevillian style skits that she really excelled. In the 1937 Sonja Henie film "Thin Ice" she performs 'Olga from the Volga' and 'My Swiss Hilly Billy' with adroit burlesque.

"Gee, if I only had your face. You know, when I was born, my father took one look at me, called up the insurance company, and said 'I want to report an accident.'" ( Show Business ) 

It was after leaving Twentieth Century Fox however that Joan Davis got starring roles in films at other studios such as Republic Pictures and RKO. In 1941 she teamed up with Jinx Falkenberg in "Two Latins from Manhattan", a film that proved to be enough of a success that the two were teamed again in "Two Senoritas from Chicago" ( 1943 ). She was paired with Eddie Foy Jr. in "Yokel Boy" ( 1942 ), Jack Haley in "George White's Scandals" ( 1945 ) and Eddie Cantor in the wonderful "Show Business" ( 1940 ) and "If You Knew Susie" ( 1948 ), one of Cantor's last films. 

Although she was a versatile comedian and could perform in any scenario with success, it was in Joan Davis' dance performances that her forte in humor lay. She would enter a dance with such an expression of seriousness and then as the number would continue, and get progressively worse, it would clearly turn into a farce, with Joan usually ending up on her rump by the conclusion of the dance. The "Swan Lake" dance with Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello's "Hold That Ghost" ( 1941 ) was Joan at her matter how many times that scene is watched a gigantic belly-laugh ensues. It remains one of the greatest shticks in any Abbott and Costello film. 

In the mid-1940s she starred in several comedies written especially to suit her unique comedic style - "Kansas City Kitty", a musical about a piano teacher literally falling for her music publisher, played by none other than Bob Crosby, and "Beautiful But Broke" where she plays a secretary who slaps together an all-girls orchestra at short notice. 

Over at Universal Joan Davis made two little gems, "She Gets Her Man" ( 1945 ) , a fast-paced mystery about the daughter of a former police chief having to fill his shoes and catch a mysterious blow-gun killer at large, and "She Wrote the Book" ( 1945 ) , a humorous tale revolving around a college professor who takes the place of a steamy bestselling author to save the real author from embarrassment only to receive a bump on her head and suffered a brief case of amnesia where she believes she is the scandalous author. Oh my.

By the late 1940s, the public's taste in humor was changing and the wild and wacky slapstick of Joan Davis wasn't selling tickets anymore. Yes, it was time to move to television! Anything goes there. Her last film was "Harem Girl" ( 1948 ) and then Miss Davis took the plunge...all the way. She formed her own production company and vigorously plugged herself as America's favorite comedienne starring in the now-obscure I Married Joan television series. The show featured the misadventures of a scatterbrained housewife married to a lawyer, a pre-Magoo Jim Backus. Whilst on-air there was an all-out war between NBC's I Married Joan and CBS's I Love Lucy which premiered one year prior. The stations battled it out and Lucy won, hands down. 

Despite the results for the shows, if Lucille Ball and Joan Davis were to go head-to-head in a battle of the dippy dames, Joan Davis would emerge the victor. She was the batty blonde to top all. 

Today Joan Davis is little known, even among film buffs. Cable channels have neglected to play her films and the I Married Joan series has yet to get an official dvd release. But as is evident in this clip from "Yokel Boy", she is a delight to watch and in our opinion remains one of the greatest film, tv and radio comediennes. 

Joan Davis ( June 29, 1907 - May 22, 1961 )  Happy Birthday Joan! 

This post is our contribution to the Funny Lady Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently where over 35 bloggers shed the spotlight on the greatest funny ladies of the silver screen. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Million Dollar Baby Found!

After months of searching for the elusive Million Dollar Baby we finally found it! We bought it at an auction along with some other goodies and for a mere two dollars we had the bundle delivered right to our doorstep. With anxious fingers we unwrapped our package and behold...the shiny dvd glimmered with glee at being brought to its new home. ( You didn't really think we found a million dollar baby did you? ) There's such a great thrill in finding a rare film. 

Here's the low-down on the plot and cast : 

Wealthy Cornelia Wheelwright ( May Robson ) discovers from her new lawyer ( Jeffrey Lynn ) that her father's fortune was obtained by swindling his former business partner, Fortune McAllister. Feeling guilty for her ancestor's skulduggery she seeks to make restitution by searching out the only living heir to McAllister, a young woman named Pamela ( Priscilla Lane ), and bestowing upon her the sum of one million dollars. Before handing her the sumly amount though, Miss Wheelwright wants to see what kind of a woman she is, and so she takes a room at the girl's boarding house under an assumed name and comes to know Pamela better, quickly becoming her fairy godmother. 

"Million Dollar Baby" was directed by Curtis Bernhardt and released by Warner Brothers in spring of 1941. Apple Annie May Robson is delightful as crotchety Miss Wheelwright and Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn are as lovable as can be but its Ronald Reagan's performance as Peter the pianist that really shines in this Cinderella story. He plays the All-American hero once again here as Pamela's boyfriend, a good-clean lad who wouldn't even think about letting his gal support him, even though it would mean giving him the breaks he needs. 

Although "Million Dollar Baby" was entertaining overall and had some witty dialogue the film lacked the good punch it could have had under a more capable director such as Frank Capra. Leonard Spigelgass' story would of been prime material for him in the 1930s as a feature film for a young Jean Arthur. 

The moral of this story is "money can't buy you happiness" has a familiar ring to it doesn't it? Unlike the Four Daughters series, Jeffrey Lynn does not come away putting a ring on Priscilla Lane's finger and nobody ends up with a million dollar baby....except us, of course. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Films of Ray Harryhausen

Ray Harryhausen was one of Hollywood's most famous stop-motion animators and most influential special effects innovators. Prior to the development of computerized special effects, stop-motion animation played a key role in adventure and sci-fi filmmaking from the 1940s up until the 1980s. Of those that were skilled in this technique there were relatively few. Ray Harryhausen not only mastered the slow and delicate art of animation but he made large strides in what can be done - with a little bit of patience - using simple models and photography. 

When "Jason and the Argonauts" hit the big screen in 1963 audiences were in awe of Jason's fight against the army of skeletons. Harryhausen breathed life into those inanimate objects with bone-clattering violence. A pterodactyl silently swooping down upon a lone cave woman, a goddess taking the form of a ship's figurehead, a giant bronze statue creaking to life to wreak vengeance on the men who stole the sacred treasure of the gods, these were all memorable moments on screen that not only seemed amazing in youth but continues to astound today, even in the midst of mind-boggling CGI effects. 

George Lucas, claimed that "if it hadn't been for Harryhausen there would have never been a Star Wars". Directors Peter Jackson and James Cameron also cite Harryhausen as their inspiration and his films their incentive to pursue film-making as a career. 

This post is called The Films of Ray Harryhausen because, although he was not an auteur filmmaker and his role in the movies that he made could not be confused with that of the director, he did much more than his simple credit of "special visual effects" justified. It was often Harryhausen who proposed the initial story concept, scouted the locations, helped work on the script, the art direction and the design of the film. It's no wonder that these films have a distinguishable style that sets them apart from other adventure films of the era. They all bear the Harryhausen stamp. 

Ray Harryhausen ( June 29, 1920 - May 7, 2013 )

Mighty Joe Young ( 1949 )

A young girl in Africa raises a gorilla and must decide whether to expose him to the "jungle" of New York when a promoter decides to exhibit the creature. Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong. Directed by Ernest Schoedsack. 

The stop-motion Pioneer Willis O'Brien, was approached by a teenage Ray Harryhausen in the early 1940s and asked if he could study under him, O'Brien told him to go to art school and practice his craft all he can. He did, and later, in 1948, O'Brien asked him if he would like to work with him on his upcoming picture "Mr. Joseph Young of Africa". Did he! "Mighty Joe Young" was essentially a remake of Willis O'Brien's own classic "King Kong" ( 1933 ), but it became the launching pad into a world of feature film animation for Ray Harryhausen. 

The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms ( 1953 ) 

Scientists discover that a prehistoric dinosaur was reawakened to life during an Arctic atomic bomb test. Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway, Kenneth Tobey. 

"The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms" was Harryhausen's first solo project and the film where he developed the split-screen animation technique which was later to be known as Dynamation. "Beast" was a great commercial succcess and opened the doors to greater projects for Harryhausen. 

It Came From Beneath the Sea ( 1955 ) 

Radiation from bomb tests conducted in California change the feeding habits of an octopus by creating a ferocious appetite! Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis, Ian Keith. 

Following the success of "The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms", came this creature flick from out of the primordial depths of Charles Schneer's imagination. The young producer from Columbia Pictures was introduced to the budding animator and together they created this monster classic - as well as a partnership that spanned over three decades. 

Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers ( 1956 ) 

A scientist is contacted by alien beings who secretly plan to enslave all inhabitants of Earth. Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis, Grandon Rhodes. 

What better way to follow up a monster movie than to make a sci-fi film? And no sci-fi film would be complete without retro UFOs. "Earth Vs the Flying Saucers" contains an excellent sequence of the alien flying discs attacking the nation's capital, Washington D.C. 

20 Million Miles to Earth ( 1957 ) 

A giant reptilian-like creature from Venus stows away on the return flight of a US spaceship and wreaks havoc in Europe. William Hopper, Joan Taylor, Frank Puglia. 

The death of the giant prehistoric Ymir - part dinosaur, part fish - at the close of this film was reminiscent of Willis O'Brien's classic "King Kong". Harryhausen always wished to create his own legendary figure that would move an audience to feel pathos at the creature's demise, much like Kong did, and with "20 Million Miles to Earth" he succeeded in doing just that. 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad ( 1958 ) 

Sinbad undertakes a quest to a mysterious island to obtain the ingredients to cure a princess of a curse she received by a wicked magician. Kerwin Matthews, Kathryn Grant, Richard Eyer, Torin Thatcher. 

"The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" was Harryhausen's first foray into the realm of color filmmaking. Although he had done a number of short stop-motion animation films in color this was the first time he would experiment with Dynamation in color. Within his studio confines he had the added hassle of matching the lighting and coloring of his filming with that used in the live-action sequences. The result was stunning. "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" remains one of Harryhausen's most memorable movies. 

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver ( 1960 ) 

A man is washed away during a storm at sea and lands on an island inhabited by little people...Lilliputians. Kerwin Matthews, June Thorburn, Jo Morrow, Lee Paterson. 

"The 3 Worlds of Gulliver" is one of the least known films of Harryhausen, notably because of the lack of any large beastly creature. It has, however, some really great special effects and was the first of his films to be billed as using the "Superdynamation" process. 

Mysterious Island ( 1961 ) 

A group of prisoners of war during the Civil War escape in an air balloon and are washed ashore on an island inhabited by strange beasts and a mysterious visitor. Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill. 

After Ray Harryhausen's modifications to Jules Verne's 1874 novel, "Mysterious Island" did not bear much resemblance to its source, which is just as well. Verne's sequel to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" did not contain much excitement in itself, but with Harryhausen's additions of a giant man-eating crab, an underwater city, a prehistoric baby bird attack, a 15ft. tall bee, and pirates, it was a beaut. 

Jason and the Argonauts ( 1963 ) 

The Greek hero, Jason, sets off on a voyage, along with a hand-picked crew, to the land of Carcus to capture the golden fleece. Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith. 

Undoubtedly Harryhausen's most famous film ( it is his personal favorite as well ). This mythological classic featured the stunning skeleton sword fight, Talos the giant guardian of the god's treasures, and the six-headed hydra. Although it was not a box-office success upon its release it gained momentous popularity in the decades since and is now regarded as one of the greatest adventure films of the 1960s. 

One Million Years B.C ( 1966 ) 

The life of a lone caveman and his mate in a land inhabited by dinosaurs and hostile neighbors. John Richardson, Raquel Welch, Percy Herbert.

Harryhausen had a chance to return to creating dinosaurs in Hammer Studio's production of "One Million Years B.C". It was a loose remake of "One Million B.C" ( 1940 ) which featured very poorly done special effects. With the addition of Raquel Welch's own special eye-popping effects "One Million Years B.C" became a huge international success. 

The Valley of Gwangi ( 1969 ) 

In the Forbidden Valley in Mexico resides a Tyrannosaurus Rex whom a cowboy captures to gain fame by exhibiting in a circus. James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson. 

Back in 1941 Willis O'Brien conceived of a dramatic dinosaur western and called it "Gwangi". His pet project was never realized until Ray Harryhausen pitched the idea to Charles Schneer in 1967. "Gwangi" contains one of Ray's most elaborate animation sequences - the roping of Gwangi by cowboys. 

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad ( 1973 ) 

Sinbad meets a vizier who has part of a golden map, one of the which parts matches Sinbad's own, and together they voyage out to solve the riddle of the map, with an evil sorcerer on their tail. John Phillip Law, Caroline Munro, Philip Baker.

After the completion of "Jason and the Argonauts" in 1963, Ray Harryhausen wanted to develop another Sinbad adventure, intending on calling this feature "Sinbad's 8th Voyage". The idea was placed on the back-burner however until 1969 when it was put to simmer once more and developed into what became "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad". The dancing statue of six-armed Kali and the one-eyed centaur are just some of the highlights of this rousing adventure. 

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger ( 1977 ) 

Sinbad helps a cursed prince by sailing on a voyage to a dangerous island to seek a cure, whereupon a witch attempts to thwart their plans. Patrick Wayne, Taryn Power, Margaret Whiting.

Sinbad returned to the screen once more in this thrilling installment which included the classic baboon prince and the evil sorceress Zenobia. Harryhausen developed a plot treatment of the story back in 1974 but it was not until 1976 that filming began. 

Clash of the Titans ( 1981 ) 

Perseus goes on a journey to save the Princess Andromeda and encounters Kraken, a sea monster and Medusa along the way. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Harry Hamlin, Claire Bloom.

"Clash of the Titans" was given an enormous budget of $16 million by MGM to make ( Columbia had turned down the project ) but it went on to become a worldwide success raking in $41 million in the U.S alone. Beverley Cross, the screenwriter who worked on almost all of Harryhausen's films, developed the premise for this story, which was billed as "An Epic Entertainment Spectacular".

The dynamic threesome of Charles Schneer, Ray Harryhausen and Beverley Cross teamed up once more to create another classic legend epic, this time to be called "Force of the Trojans", a story about the journey of Aeneas from Troy to found Rome. MGM once again agreed to finance the project but over the years it languished. 

Hence, "Clash of the Titans" became the final film in Harryhausen's fantastic filmography. Perhaps in the future one of his ardent fans, such as Peter Jackson, may resurrect "Force of the Trojans" and make it the classic it would have undoubtedly become. Although, they must be careful how they go about it for as Harryhausen once said " If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to mundane "

Bibliography : 

Ray Harryhausen's Fantasy Scrapbook : Models, Artwork and Memories from 65 Years of Filmmaking - Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Aurum Press. 

Further Reading : 

The Art of Ray Harryhausen - Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Aurum Press 

Ray Harryhausen : An Animated Life - Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton. Billboard Books.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ray Harryhausen and the Creation of Dynamation

Ray Harryhausen was the stop-motion animator extraordinaire behind such fantasmagorical creatures as the fighting skeletons, the cyclops, Medusa, Kraken, and the beast from 20,000 fanthoms in such classics as "Jason and the Argonauts" ( 1963 ), "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" ( 1958 ), and "Clash of the Titans" ( 1981 ). 

As part of our tribute to the late Ray Harryhausen we thought we'd include a brief introduction to the process he created known commercially as DynamationIt can also be called the "split-screen" process because of the way the screen appears to be split while the animation is being enacted in the middle layer.  

Prior to Harryhausen's development of this technique most animation was created for sequences that did not require "live" actor interaction within the scene. For instance, in an adventure film a group of archaeologists may come across a dinosaur grazing on grass in the distance. The director of the movie would film the actors expression of surprise upon seeing the dinosaur and an animator would film the stop-motion sequence of the dinosaur but when completed these scenes would remain separate...actors in one scene, animation in another. However, with the split-screen process, viewers were able to see the actors directly interacting with the animation..e.g a dinosaur with a man struggling to get free from his grasp.

In three-dimensional stop-motion animation, an object, or a poseable model, is photographed one frame at a time using a traditional film camera. In between each frame the animator moves the arms or legs of the model a fraction of an inch before photographing the object again. When these still shots are run through a projector the rapid succession of images creates the illusion of movement. A standard 35mm film projector runs the film at 24 frames per second, and so 24 separate photographed frames have to be taken to make each second of animation on screen. Hence, a 2-minute sequence of a giant cyclops eyeing a tasty morsel for dinner would take 2,880 separate frames to compose. Quite a time-consuming task! 

Stop-motion animation can be traced back to the beginning of movie-making, in the late 1800s.  Some of the earliest animated films include Vitagraph's "The Humpty Dumpty Circus" ( 1897 ) by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, featuring a circus of acrobats and animals coming to life, and "The Haunted Hotel" by J. Stuart Blackton ( 1907 ). 

Willis O'Brien was the resounding king of animation during the early days of talking pictures. He brought to life the prehistoric creatures of yor in First National Pictures adaption of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" ( 1925 ) and later, in one of the most iconic films of the century, "King Kong" ( 1933 ), where he created a creature so lifelike in appearance and emotion that many viewers were brought to tears at his demise at the end of the film. 

It was Willis O'Brien's work on "King Kong" that instilled in Ray Harryhausen the desire to make stop-motion animation his career. The Eighth Wonder of the World inspired the young 14-year-old Ray to attempt creating his own model Kong, which led to his discovery of the stop-motion animation process. 

Under O'Brien's tutelage, Harryhausen learned the filmmaker's craft from the ground up and by 1948 was working alongside O'Brien on his first feature film, "Mighty Joe Young" ( 1948 ). O'Brien had utilized the multi-dimensional process of interacting animation with the actors through the means of sandwiching his models between two glass paintings, one of which was painted foreground, and shooting "through" them with the camera.

It was while working solo on his second feature film ,"The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms", that Harryhausen realized what a tiresome and time-consuming process painting foreground could be and knew that it would never work for that particular film due to the low budget the production had. He had been experimenting with using mattes as far back as 1938 to create a "split-screen" and so on "The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms" he put those tests to use. 

The split-screen was a simple process that used mattes to block out portions of the film. Since film only develops from the light that escapes through the eye of a camera, any portion that is blackened out remains undeveloped. If the film is rewound the portion that was blackened can then be used again. This technique was used as far back as the early 1900s.

Dynamation however, used a model in between the matte and the background image to create a three layered image. The first step in the Dynamation process was to plan out in detail the movements the model, or creature, was to make and then to film the live-action scene with the actors and usually a stick or stand-in crew members to represent the movements and position of the creature. 

This film was developed and rear-projected on a screen. Harryhausen would place his model on an animation stand in front of this screen and then place a large pane of glass in front of that. On this glass he painted in black the foreground that he wished to block out. After filming the animated sequence so that the creature interacted with the actors as planned, he then rewound the film and filmed through the glass again, this time with the image he had previously filmed blackened out. 

Although it sounds like a very tiresome process, it was actually much easier to utilize mattes then to build and film miniature sets for the models to move in.

In 1957, Charles Schneer, the producer of many of Harryhausen's films during the late 50s and 1960s, dubbed this split-screen technique Dynamation. He was sitting in his Buick one day while waiting for traffic and noticed the Dynaflow logo written on the dashboard...he thought the prefix dyna would be the perfect marketing term for Harryhausen's animation process. 

Harryhausen used Dynamation in "It Came from Beneath the Sea" ( 1954 ), "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" ( 1956 ), "The Animal World" ( 1956 ) and "20 Million Miles to Earth" ( 1957 ) but it was not until "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" ( 1958 ) that it was exploited as a merchandising feature. 

"Dynamation will be brought to the screen for the first time in COLOR!"

In the short trailer "This is Dynamation!" ( 1957 ) used to promote "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad", the narrator announces the glorious wonders of the technique and how "anything that the mind can conceive can now be brought to the screen". 

Dynamation was utilized on all of the Ray Harryhausen films up until his final feature motion picture, "Clash of the Titans" in 1981. Today, most special effects are created using computer graphic programs ( CGI ) but somehow, in spite of the amazing realism provided by digital graphics there is something very unique, very alive, about Harryhausen's technique. Perhaps the creatures we see created by computer effects have lost their awe because we know the secret behind their existence  The mysterious process of Dynamation was kept from the public during the release of many of his biggest films... and this was one more element that added to the magic of the Harryhausen pictures. 

Cyclops     Gwangi

Thursday, June 20, 2013

George Brent - Stud or Dud?

George Brent confuses me.  He seems to have led a very interesting life, having been chased out of Ireland in the 1920’s after apparent service with the IRA, had a career on Broadway, signed with Warner Brothers in 1930 and then starred in over 80 movies with the cream of the leading ladies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, was a licensed pilot,  married two high-profile actresses and apparently carried on an affair with 13 time co-star Bette Davis as well as many others, but on screen, I find him either extremely wooden, or sort of just mildly amusing.  There is no doubt that he was a dapper gent, and as a Warner Brothers star, he certainly had opportunities in leading roles, with exceptional actresses, but why do I find myself alternatingly sort of enjoying him and then wanting to scream in frustration at his performances?

I’m no expert, but of the 19 or so films I’ve seen featuring Brent, I’ve gotten the impression that he wasn’t much of an actor, but he certainly seemed to be promoted as one.  I read somewhere that Warner Brothers thought they had a rival for Clark Gable in George Brent.  They must have been joking.  Clark and the word "stud" seem to be made for each other, but the only time Clark and the word dud have ever come into contact is when Rhett told Scarlett to pack Bonnie Blue’s “little duds”. 

I decided I had better re-watch the 18 or so movies of his which I have in my possession.  I might add that most of them are not amongst his more well-known films: they include quite a few pre-codes, one comedy with Jean Arthur, several “women’s” films with Kay Francis, one lesser film with Better Davis and one from the 1940’s.   

I sometimes believe that being under contract to a studio must have been something of a curse, because they could force you into a lot of horrible films, with ridiculous scripts and dialogue.  Case in point: Miss Pinkerton, with Joan Blondell.  I found that in this horrible isn’t-it-over-yet? flick, George can make a whole speech without anything but his lips moving - it was bizarre, I felt like I was watching a robot.  Difficult to sit through, it’s almost as if George says his lines, then remembers, “the director told me to smile here”. Material for Miss Pinkerton was abysmal, and he got lots of opportunities to put down the lovely and very blonde Blondell, who could act circles around him.  

Next came Weekend Marriage with George in a small supporting role, all he had to do was chase after Loretta Young, he was quite tolerable, and sort of attractive. Then, in the opening credits of Lily Turner, he already exhibits more personality in the quick shot of him in which he’s smiling, actually smiling and it’s a genuine smile.  Ah, this might be a movie I enjoy him in! (And I did, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he appeared in a singlet, while lifting weights).

As I plowed onward, through the predictable They Call It Sin and onto the enjoyable Desirable, the remarkable Baby Face, and then on to Stranded and The Goose and the Gander, both with Kay Francis and then 42nd Street, I found myself slowly warming to George’s dubious charms.  He hasn’t really been given much to do in any of these films, to prove himself capable of carrying a film, if he had to.  But I have to admit, there’s something about his two facial expressions, his monotonous, but refined voice, the bland delivery of his lines and his shiny hair.  He’s still dorky, and dud-ish, but in a genial way.  TCM puts it plainly in their bio of Brent, stating that he was there in “deferential support” of his leading ladies, and I will add that in this he does quite well, if only to showcase their superior acting talents and their abilities with facial expressions.  I also realized while watching these films that I chose to view them originally because of their female stars, not for George. It was just secondary that I became intrigued by this man who was so stiff. 

There have always been two films of his which I have enjoyed from first viewing, even finding some value in Brent’s own performance.  In Person, with Ginger Rogers, and More Than a Secretary, with Jean Arthur, find George with some wit, able to play for laughs even.  He seems less formal, more at ease in these films.
 Although he’s anything but a normal guy in More Than a Secretary, his interactions with and reactions to co-star Dorothea Kent are so natural and appropriate, they do add nicely to the film. 

In Person allows him to call Ginger an “ouch-face”, and something about the way Brent nods his head unmusically while Ginger sings to him is endearing.  He’s just a poor Pinnochio, who’s found himself in the movies.  Despite my enthusiasm for these two movies, he hasn’t won me over yet.  At one point in More Than a Secretary, Jean Arthur pretty much sums up my feelings for George, when in a moment of anger, she says to him “you’re nothing but an animated carrot”, and I must say, she’s got something there.  I was thinking pole, or board, but carrot will do nicely as a metaphor for George.  An attractive carrot, with scant animation. 

On to Purchase Price.  Stanwyck is her usual self, and Brent, as her mail-order husband looks good on the farm.  But it is his acting in this one...especially his attempts at acting as though he has a cold by sniffing repeatedly...that exasperates me.  Here’s why I don’t get George Brent.  His voice can sound angry, his clenched fists or stiffly hunched shoulders can marginally back his words, but his facial expressions are one-dimensional.  I often find myself wondering if they couldn’t have found another handsome leading man who could really emote for his roles? 

But once I settled down to watch Female, in which he starred again with wife Ruth Chatterton, I found that George comes alive (well, alive for him anyway) in his role as the engineer who won’t submit to Ruth’s advances.  He seems much more comfortable in his part, his facial expressions seem genuine and he’s not so stiff.  I also noticed this while watching Lily Turner, also with Chatterton.  Was he a better actor when he was in love?   

Housewife, in which he appears with Bette Davis is a silly little movie, but when George is with Bette, his acting improves slightly.   Just as I started to get my hopes up that perhaps he has some talent, while watching The Crash, again with wife Chatterton and Living on Velvet, where he seems genuinely happy playing his role as a pilot, they showed him in a montage sequence, while Kay Francis is sleeping, and we see Brent in various close-ups, saying his lines, his face completely blank.  Argghh.  In The Spiral Staircase, I found him difficult to watch.  He had not aged well, and while he plays a crazy in the film, the lack of any inflection in his voice almost made me crazy too.  The lesser known male co-stars all seemed to be able to put some emotion into their faces and voices...not George.   And in God’s Country and the Woman, I was so distracted by that hideous pencil-thin mustache he grew in the mid-30’s and for some reason was allowed to keep, I had to really concentrate to keep my focus on his acting.  The scenery was stunning in this film, and I wanted to like George, who is sort of sweet when he smiles, but no, I’m thinking it’s all hopeless. 

Am I over-analyzing here?  Maybe, but I’m still confused. What it comes down to is this:  George Brent did the same thing in his movies:  stand straight, deliver his lines, hair mostly neat, sometimes with a mustache and never with much enthusiasm.  Why would a man who could grace the screen quite nicely, but without much vocal inflection, facial expression or body stance to convey any kind of emotion, have such success?  Maybe that was a style of acting popular back then, that I’m not aware of, just as Ruby Keeler’s buck dancing differs from regular tap, and is I think, not as effective.  Or maybe the women in the audience just loved the way he looked.  Either that, or he’s the master of under-stated acting.  I certainly hope he was more animated in his private life, while wooing countless Hollywood lovelies.  He seemed to fare better when he had a larger role.  Was he petulant when not the lead, or did the larger part give him the opportunity to grow into the character?  Or was it that he was better with certain actresses and/or directors?  Or does my affection for certain actresses cloud my perception of his abilities in a film? 

Anyway, I’m still baffled, and I’m hoping that when I see Jezebel and Dark Victory over the next few months, I will be rewarded with better performances from my man.  Until then, I welcome any instructive comments to help me understand the popularity of this studly-dud.

Written by Georgia Garrett ( originally posted at the TCM Classic Film Union ) 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Nugget Reviews

The Late George Apley ( 1947 ) 18k

A warm and humorous look at the life of one George Apley, a 100% proof Bostonian - during the first decade of the 20th century, and the circumstances leading up to his children's marriages.  Ronald Colman, Peggy Cummins, Edna Best, Richard Haydn, Richard Ney, Mildred Natwick. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. 20th Century Fox. 

This film was absolutely delightful. It tickled me pink....but then I'm a great fan of Richard Haydn and dry humor. This plays out much like an Oscar Wilde comedy. Ronald Colman is excellent in his role as stuff-shirted George Apley, as is the rest of the cast. 

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House ( 1948 ) 14k

Mr. Blandings decides that he is ready to chuck the city life to live in the country, only the house he has purchased needs to be tore down and rebuilt ( and his pockets emptied ) before he can settle in tranquility. Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas, Reginald Denny. Directed by H.C Potter. RKO Pictures. 

"Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" always gets touted as a classic and compared to a lot of other films it does have its charm, but when it comes to the best "lets-fix-up-a-house" film, "George Washington Slept Here" ( 1942 ) is the topper. "Mr. Blandings.." repeats a lot of the same jokes and has the feel of an overextended Joe McDoakes How-to short. Melvyn Douglas is excellent as Bill Cole. 

Merrills Merauders ( 1962 ) 14k

General Frank Merrill takes 3,000 infantry volunteers through some of the thickest jungle of Burma to help relieve the British troops by taking the airstrip at Myitkyina. Jeff Chandler, Ty Hardin, Andrew Duggan, Claude Akins, Peter Brown, John Hoyt. Directed by Samuel Fuller, Warner Brothers. 

This film is full of actors who look like other actors..Jeff Chandler reminded me of Gregory Peck here, Ty Hardin as Jeffrey Hunter, and Peter Brown as Stephen Boyd. John Hoyt was excellent as General Stillwell and the location shots were beautiful but other than that this is a standard war film. It seems to build up to a climax which, disappointingly, never happens.

Two for the Seesaw ( 1962 ) Elct.

A recently divorced lawyer from Nebraska tries to start his life anew in New York with a young dancer, but finds that he is tied to his past more strongly than he realized. Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine. Directed by Robert Wise. United Artists. 

I was expecting another "Apartment", especially with such great talent as Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Wise directing, but this was a very heavy affair instead. Although it was strangely compelling to watch. Mitchum and MacLaine's characters are much too wishy-washy and the overall tone is dark. I couldn't even find a decent photo from the movie to post. 

Blue,  White and Perfect ( 1942 ) 18k

Tough Irish detective Michael Shayne is after diamond smugglers onboard a liner bound for Hawaii in this fourth installment of the Michael Shayne series. Lloyd Nolan, Mary Beth Hughes, Helene Reynolds, George Reeves. Directed by Herbert I. Leeds. 20th Century Fox. 

Lloyd Nolan couldn't be more endearing as Shayne than he is in this film With his mischievous little grin and that twinkle in his eyes, he's a regular Irish leprechaun. Blue, White and Perfect moves along sprightly and takes us on a fun ride. "Perfect" entertainment. 


They Met in Bombay ( 1941 ) 14k

Two jewel thieves attempt to rob the same Dame's diamond necklace and fall in love in the process. Clark Gable, Rosiland Russell, Peter Lorre, Jessie Ralph, and Reginald Owen. Directed by Clarence Brown. MGM

"They Met in Bombay" began like a classic 1960s caper - exotic locations, two beautiful jewel thieves, a perfectly planned scheme - but once the theft was completed and our two thieving heroes were making their getaway the plot took some highly improbably turns. Great entertainment on the whole.