Saturday, March 28, 2015


(Post 10 of 50)

I'm not sure Gentleman's Agreement is held in as high esteem as it once was. Despite winning Best Picture and Director for Elia Kazan at the 1947 Academy Awards, it really isn't on a lot of people's short list of great Kazan films. It also didn't make the 1001 book of movies you must see before you die. Perhaps this story of a gentile who goes undercover as a Jew to experience firsthand antisemitism may seem a little tame by modern movie standards, but I don't think that is being fair. We can learn a lot by subtle prejudice. Our hero (played by Gregory Peck) falls in love with a woman (Dorothy McGuire) who seems to be on his side as far as antisemitism goes. But there are problems lurking beneath the surface. Her dealings with her not-so-subtle family is one. They seem like nice folks, but a Jew moving into their neighborhood? Are you kidding? And her not willing to stand up to them for the sake of her relationship or her inability to tell someone who made an anti-semitic joke she didn't appreciate it is another. I think prejudice is something we fight every day. It's not just from the guys who say it to your face (like the scene above) it's the ones we don't expect. Sometimes it's ourselves. Sometimes we don't even know it.

Here's to a long life!:The five leading ladies of Gentleman's Agreement:

Dorothy McGuire as Peck's love interest died at the age of 85 in 2001.
Anne Revere, as Peck's mother, died at the age of 87 in 1990.
Celeste Holm, who won the Oscar for her supporting role died at the age of 95 in 2012.
Jane Wyatt, who plays McGuire's sister died at the age of 96 in 2006.
And June Havoc, who plays Peck's secretary died at the age of 97 in 2010.
Not sure what my point is here. I just found the consistent longevity of the cast kind of interesting.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to Anne Revere. I thought that Anne was only so-so in Secret Beyond the Door, but I like her very much here as Gregory Peck's mother. She conveys strength, determination and a great deal of maternal love. You can see where Peck's character gets his resolve. Also, let's give a nod to usual leading man John Garfield who took a nice supporting role here as Peck's Jewish military buddy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


(Post 9 of 50)

I had the good fortune to meet both of director William Wyler's daughters (Melanie and Cathy) at our library as part of the Southern Literary Trail film series. We showed Cathy's 80's documentary about her father as well as the William Wyler/Bette Davis collaborations Jezebel and The Little Foxes.

Jezebel is a story set in 1850's New Orleans featuring a cast of thousands, a look at pre-Civil War plantation life, Southern chivalry and traditions, some catchy Negro spirituals, an unfortunate red dress, a case of Yellow Jack and of course Bette Davis. Davis's role may remind some viewers of Scarlet O'Hara, but Davis really makes this her own and it is hard to argue with her receiving the Academy Award for her role.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...George Brent. I was browsing through David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of American Film when I came across his piece on George Brent.

Bette Davis and George Brent in Jezebel
Brent was typed as a romantic lead despite his somewhat porcine face and his sticklike acting--his performances divide neatly between those in which he's wearing and mustache and those in which he isn't; not much else distinguishes them.

Ouch!...That may be a bit harsh! He's no Henry Fonda and is certainly outclassed by Ms. Davis in this picture, but he does a decent enough job as Bette's alternate love interest, Buck Cantrell. You know, somebody's go to be the second tier leading man, David!

Bette Davis in The Little Foxes
The Little Foxes is a drama based on a play by Lillian Hellman set in Demopolis, Alabama, 1900. It is a dialogue heavy story of shady business dealings and unethical characters in the deep south. The film doesn't really hits its stride for me until the second half when we really get an idea of the characters (mostly bad) true motivations. And Bette Davis plays an evil dame unlike anyone else of her time.

Teresa Wright in The Little Foxes
And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Teresa Wright. A lot of unlikable characters in this film, but that description certainly doesn't apply to Teresa Wright, whose nice girl daughter is a marked contrast to mother Bette Davis's manipulative opportunist. Teresa truly had success with her appearances in Wyler films. She received an Academy Award nomination for her role as the daughter in Little Foxes. The following year, she won the supporting actress Academy Award for Wyler's Mrs. Miniver. And after the war, she had a nice role in Wyler's classic The Best Years of Our Lives. Teresa was also in Pride of the Yankees and had a rare lead role in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.

And thanks again to the Wyler daughters!

Sunday, March 22, 2015


The Golden Age of Hollywood
(Post 8 of 50)

Twelve Angry Men has the dramatically simple setting of a jury room where there are twelve jurors about to decide on a seemingly open and shut case until one juror (Henry Fonda) isn't quite so sure of the defendant's guilt. Classic story, expertly directed, wonderfully acted-what more could you ask for? Would also love to see this on stage some day.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…An eleven way tie between Martin Balsam, John Fiedler,  Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeny, Ed Begley, George Voskevec and Robert Webber. Co-stars like Fonda has in this film are one of the reasons I like to give away my imaginary award in the first place. All the supporting parts are significant and all are performed by top-notch actors, many who would be seen in movies and television for years to come.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


The Golden Age of Hollywood
(Post 7 of 50)

William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives showed what it was like for veterans coming home after the war. His earlier film, Mrs. Miniver, showed what is what like before and after the war began for a family and a community. I think it's interesting that both of Wyler's films ended up winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. Mrs. Miniver isn't all that exciting in the beginning, but these people are just living their lives. As the call to war begins, they try to keep a stiff upper lift (they're British, after all) and do what they can for the war effort when they aren't desperately trying to survive. I can see why Mrs. Miniver got the reputation as a movie you'll need a box of tissues for during the second half. It's pretty effective in that way. I can only imagine how audiences were emotionally effected by it in 1942.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Henry Travers. I'm sure many vintage film watchers see Henry Travers and think mostly of his portrayal of Clarence Oddbody, Angel second class in It's a Wonderful Life. I know I do. But he did appear in other movies! In Mrs. Miniver, he plays a working class station attendant who grows a prize rose that he names after the title character. He is charming and likable and you really root for him and his special flower. Travers received his only Academy Award nomination for Mrs. Miniver.

Monday, March 16, 2015


The Golden Age of Hollywood
(Post 6 of 50)

The Bigamist is the story of a married traveling salesman who grows apart from his wife and ends up marrying a second woman during his travels. This is the 50's, so you know he's not going to get away with it.I guess that's the basic synopsis here

The Bigamist has likable leads, especially Edmond O'Brien as the poor sap who decides marrying a second woman is truly the smart thing to do. I admit it's easy to get roped into things that seem like a good idea at the time but makes you ask yourself "What the hell was I thinking?"I guess that's the basic synopsis here.

I'm glad I saw it, but I'm a little hazy on why it's in the 1001 movie book. The subject matter was definitely controversial for the time, but I'm guessing they wanted to sneak a movie directed by female maverick Ida Lupino in there somewhere. The book calls it an "out of nowhere masterpiece." I believe that's overstating it more than a bit, but it's worth your time.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Edmond Gwenn. Gwenn is the conscious of the film in the form of an adoption agent who discovers the truth about our bigamist hero and tries to persuade him to give himself up. But to me Gwenn will always be Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street whenever I see him. I'm certainly not alone. Even the movie itself has problems seeing past this! Couple #1 O'Brien and Joan Fontaine even joke about how much he resembles Santa Claus. And if that isn't referential enough, during a tour of the stars homes, couple #2 O'Brien and Lupino come across the home of Edmond Gwenn, despite the fact that Gwenn is playing a supporting part in the movie in which he is being referenced!

Okay, he's Santa Claus already!

Friday, March 13, 2015


(Post 5 of 50)

Though not in the 1001 book, I do think I needed to either see this film or if I was feeling really motivated I might even read the book. Since my Maugham reader wasn't handy, I decided to see the film. It is the story of a a club-footed artist named Phillip who is still trying to decide between being an the arts or a becoming a doctor. He realizes medial school is the best fit for him and falls in love with a crass waitress who seems to not care a thing about him. But he's hooked. Despite other viable romantic options, Mildred is who he wants. He finally gets her and she proceeds to abuse him and treats him like dirt throughout the length of the picture. She does indeed have him in "bondage" and only towards the end does Phillip break his ties and wind up with a more suitable mate. 

You may want to see this to acquaint yourself with the works of W. Sommerset Maugham, but as far as movie history goes, the main reason to see this is that it's when Bette Davis first becomes Bette Davis. She absolutely devours the screen (as well as poor Phillip) in every scene she's in. She is evil, manipulative, and initially appealing. You can see why Phillip is drawn to her. The scene where Mildred blows up at Phillip and tells him how she never loved him is as clear a star-making scene as you'll ever want to see. 

And the Elisha Cook supporting performer award goes to...Leslie Howard. This is a controversial choice in that technically Leslie Howard as Phillip is the star of the movie. Unfortunately, in this one, everyone plays second banana to Bette Davis. But I like Leslie. I've liked him in most everything I've seen him in, even as the Southerner with the inexplicable English accent in Gone With the Wind. In Of Human Bondage, you feel sorry for Leslie's Phillip. We know he's being used by Mildred. He even knows it. He just can't help himself. Sometimes you just fall in love with the wrong person.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


(Post 4 of 50)

I have some mixed emotions about Secret Beyond the Door. It's a Fritz Lang movie, so it has a lot of the style that is typical of one of the great directors of his era. It's also a film noir, which is certainly a favorite genre of mine. The problems for me are in the plot. The story of a woman who marries a mysterious man, who may either love her madly or want to kill her tends to be a bit confusing at times. At times this confusion adds to the mystery of the plot, but at other times it makes the whole deal a bit convoluted. The overuse of voice over narration from the main character played by Joan Bennett tends to be way too much after time. I did like when the husband played by Michael Redgrave takes over the voice over narration later in the film. 

Still not the first place to go for one going through the catalog of the films of Fritz Lang.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Natalie Schafer. This film is reminscent of Alfred Hitchock's Reebcca, though not as good. It even comes with its version of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers character in the part of Caroline played by Anne Revere. But I think Revere comes across as kind of a "Mrs. Danvers lite." She even starts a Mrs. Danvers style fire! But in her defense, it's hard to top Judith Anderson's Danvers from Rebecca by anyone playing this type of role.

So, I'm going to give the award to Natalie Schafer, who is forever known as Lovey Howell from Gilligan's Island. Schafer plays essentially a younger version of Mrs. Howell here. I mean, could she really play anything buy a society dame? She also gives the movie some much needed laughs as Joan Bennett's gossipy friend.

Saturday, March 7, 2015


(Post 3 of 50)

Disgruntled motion picture director John L. Sullivan decides he wants to make a more social significant film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Despite the studio's objection, Sullivan decides he wants to live among the poor to get a better understanding of their plight.

Sappy? A bit. Corny? Definitely. Improbable? Certainly.

I don't care. Sullivan's Travel's remains one of my favorite movies from Hollywood's golden age. Joel McCrea as Sullivan and Veronica Lake as his love interest are perfect in the lead roles. But this is writer/director Preston Sturges's film. We see Sturges the writer in evidence in the rapid fire opening dialogue between Sullivan and the studio executives. We see Sturges the director in evidence in the silent scenes where Sullivan and his girl soak in through several scenes without dialogue the plight of the poor. But probably the most famous scene  is where chain gang prisoners join members of a black church to watch a Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon. There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Eric Blore.
It seems like all Preston Sturges movies have a plethora of great supporting players. Sullivan's Travels has William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall and Robert Grieg as Sullivan's philosophical valet.

But I'm giving the award to Eric Blore, who plays Sullivan's butler. This role was nothing different for Blore, who Hollywood loved to cast a butler, so he clearly has the buttlin' thing down. He's resourceful, loyal to Sullivan and probably wiser than his boss in a lot of ways. Other films I've seen him in include the Astaire/Rogers classics Swing Time and Top Hat and Laurel and Hardy's Swiss Miss.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


(Post 2 of 50)

"Made it Ma! Top O' the World"

If you are talking about Jimmy Cagney movies, the first one that may come to mind might be his star making vehicle The Public Enemy. Or you may think of his Academy Award winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. A personal favorite of mine is Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. All that aside, I don't think there is any movie that typifies the Cagney screen persona than White Heat.

Cagney was a movie veteran in 1949 and had done a lot of gangster pictures up to that point. But I'm not sure he ever played anyone as evil and crazy as Cody Jarrett. He's got a mother obsession, a history of mental illness running through his family that has clearly come down to him, dramatically ill-timed side-splitting headaches, a beautiful but unfaithful wife who he still has an unfortunate passion for and has to constantly cope with people that betray him. 

And have would-be Cagney impressionists ever have a better line to use than, "A copper! A copper! How do you like that boys? And we went for it. I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. going to split 50-50 with a copper!" Or if you don't like that one, you can always just scream, "Made it Ma! Top of the World!"

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Fred Clark. I could give this to reliable second tier leading man Edmond O'Brien or Virginia Mayo as the Cagney's lovely but devious wife. But I'm going for character actor specialist Fred Clark, who really is playing against type here as Cagney's criminal connection. I just finished watching another Clark role (and a funnier one) as a movie producer in Sunset Boulevard. I've also seen Fred in plenty of other films (sometimes with toupee, sometimes without), but I honestly seem to remember him most from his TV roles, including the doctor on The Beverly Hillbillies and as the neighbor in The Burns and Allen Show.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


(Post 1 of 50)

Sunset Boulevard
Norma descends the stairs

I've watched (and re-watched) a lot of the classics from Hollywood's Golden Age (The period I generously define as starting during the early days of talkies and running until the early 60's) since I've started this blog. However, I find that there are a lot of films from this era that I still haven't gotten around to watching (or re-watching) in that time. So, I'm just going to bite the bullet and try to watch fifty of them in a row. Some will be from the 1001 lists and some won't. And since this was such a golden era for supporting players, I will give my Elisha Cook Jr. award for supporting players for each movie mostly because I enjoy doing it. 

And what better movie to start this these posts than with than the Billy Wilder classic  
Sunset Boulevard?

The story of the over-the-hill movie the star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her kept young man (William Holden) is part film noir, part Hollywood tell-all, part horror movie sprinkled with just a dash of camp. Wilder and Charles Brackett's screenplay is smart and sharp and the casting of the three leads (Erich Von Stoehim being the third) is perfect.

I admit that this film does make me think of the Carol Burnett skits that featured Burnett (as Norma) and Harvey Korman (as Max). Some may also think of Glenn Close's turn as Norma on Broadway in the musical version of the story. Or might make you think of a drag queen performing as Norma Desmond at a club near you. 

Regardless, Sunset Boulevard in its original form is a must see for any movie buff.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to…Erich Von Stroheim. I'm going with the obvious choice for the award on this one. Erich's career follows an interesting trajectory with the fictional Max. Erich was a great silent film director (like Max), even directing Gloria Swanson in a couple of films. Erich's career bottomed out after talkies (also like Max's). Though Erich was relegated to B-films instead of becoming a servant. But Sunset Boulevard was a great role for him and his absolute devotion to Norman Desmond is a chilling yet sad testament to misguided loyalty.

"Madame is the greatest star of them all"