The Gorgeous Hussy

Dullsville

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

It probably comes as no surprise that the star of a movie called The Gorgeous Hussy is Joan Crawford. I think the term hussy was probably used quite regularly to describe the star’s off-screen behavior, but the movie is not as scandalous as the title might suggest. This work of historical fiction is set in 1823 Washington D.C. and places Crawford’s hussy among several government notables of the time.

Crawford plays Peggy, daughter of an innkeeper in D.C. where several lawmakers stay while in the capitol. She has grown up around the men and so Virginia Sen. John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) has a hard time thinking of the girl as a woman. This reluctance causes him to spurn her when she enters his room late one night to declare her love.

The rejection leads Peggy to accept the advances of a sailor “Bow” Timberlake (Robert Taylor). The couple marries but Bow is called back to duty on the U.S.S. Constitution and dies before ever returning home.

Peggy has been good friends with Andrew (Lionel Barrymore) and Rachel Jackson (Beulah Bondi) for a number of years and begins to hang around with the politician up through a rough campaign for president, which he, of course, wins. The campaign involved a lot of gossip and harsh words against Rachel, who first married Andrew before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. With Jackson as president and Rachel having passed away, Peggy is in classy company but the rumors about her begin to mount.

Randolph returns to D.C. after five years in Russia and has resolved his feelings about Peggy to the point he does want to be with her, but the relationship will not last. Jackson objects to a union between the two and instead convinces Peggy to eventually wed Secretary of War John Eaton, played by Crawford’s one-time husband Franchot Tone. The rumors and “pot house Peg” references culminate in backlash from Jackson who asks his entire cabinet to resign because of their demands Peggy be sent away from Washington for the various scandals she has caused. Being the bigger person, Peggy bows out of the capitol scene.

I think filmmakers run a risk when inserting fictional characters into real historical situations. It is one thing to have fun with history and change aspects of real events for a laugh, but a drama in the same vein is not nearly as fun. If one ignores Crawford’s character in The Gorgeous Hussy, the movie does have some interesting historical aspects, such as the horrible mud that was slung at Rachel Jackson. The movie also becomes a bit predictable in terms of which relationships we know will be unsuccessful for Peggy, given that John Randolph never married someone with her name.

Crawford’s performance is fine, but uninspired. She is a woman with conflicting romantic emotions who is pursued or admired by nearly every man around her. We cannot, however, enjoy the movie as a “what might have been” romance between Peggy and Randolph given the historic requirements. I found it difficult to enjoy any of Peggy’s romantic interludes, which just added junk to what could have been a decent historical recollection of Jackson’s election.

Night Flight

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Night Flight (1933)

I had never heard of 1933′s Night Flight when I stumbled upon it in a sales pile at Barnes & Noble a couple weeks ago. I’ve tried to train myself not to buy movies on a whim without knowing whether they are good, but the cast for this one was enough to secure its purchase. Besides love of my life Robert Montgomery, the cast also features John and Lionel Barrymore, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable, to name a few.

The story starts with a plot element that we will all but forget before the picture is over. A child at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro teeters on the verge of death from a virus, but doctors assure his mother that because of a new night flight schedule, the life-saving serum he needs can be delivered from across the continent by the next morning.

Now move on to the main story: the plight of those pilots tasked with the treacherous duty of flying mail planes across South America. The trip is dangerous enough during the daytime as Auguste (Montgomery) discovers as he flies the serum and other packages from Santiago, Chile ,to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires is the headquarters of the delivery outfit where company president A. Riviere (John Barrymore) stressfully monitors all pilots’ progress. Auguste hits a nasty storm going over the mountains and at one point gets sucked down close to the rough terrain but thankfully makes it to his destination alive.

The package in question and other mail will not leave immediately for Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires because another flight is due just in time to ensure the load will leave by midnight. Flying that plane is Gable’s Jules. We will never see him outside of his vehicle and he has surprisingly little dialogue because he communicates with his radio operator via notepad, sending messages to headquarters. His path takes him from southern Chile to Buenos Aires, but he and his radio man encounter a surprise rain storm en route. They are thrown off course and also must battle a fleeting fuel supply. Jules’ wife, Simone (Helen Hayes), knows her husband’s schedule well and becomes distraught when he is late.

A “Brazilian Pilot” (William Gargan) is aroused from his sleep to take the night flight to Rio de Janeiro, leaving worrying wife (Loy) behind. He thinks the only value of night flight is to allow someone in France to get a post card two days earlier than normal, not realizing he is carrying a life-saving serum.

The bulk of the acting heft in Night Flight comes from the two Barrymores. John is a hard-nosed businessman who defies the company board in insisting on the overnight program. Lionel comes in as an “inspector” of some sort who is there as a counterpoint to Riviere’s tough tactics, trying to draw compassion from the man.

All scenes with John take place in his office, a dark room that is literally only lighted by “moonlight” from outside and a desk lamp. The darkness of most scenes in the picture leaves the audience feeling the weight of the night as much as the pilots do. We yearn for the dawn to bring with it safety in the same way they do. The office scenes are also often shot from waist height across the room or closeup low angles. This leaves the viewer feeling less like he is in the scene with the characters and more as an unwelcome spectator.

As with all movies featuring flight, Night Flight contains impressive footage of aerial maneuvering. Day for night shooting was apparently used for the flick, but unlike most picture that take this approach, the fakeness of night was unnoticeable.

The movie was apparently one of Gable’s lowest-grossing pictures. Interestingly, he is scarcely in it. He utters only a few lines of actual dialogue and is never seen outside his plane. A surprisingly small role for such a big star, but given the magnitude of the remainder of the cast, it might be understandable.

Sadie McKee

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She goes from rags to riches, but not in the way you'd expect.

Sadie McKee (1934)

     When you have watched enough movies from the ’30s and/or ’40s, you start to notice a lot of trends, especially in the romantic genre, and the plots start to blur together. You could also say the same of some Joan Crawford movies as she went through phases of characters: the flapper, the rags to riches, the bitch, etc. In watching Sadie McKee, however, I had the second of my recent experiences of thinking I had a plot pegged only to be wildly surprised (The other was Something to Sing About).

     We are introduced to Crawford’s titular character as she strolls toward a mansion. Some gents in a car comment that one can tell she has class, while another notes she is the daughter of his cook. It has been some time since servant Sadie has seen the son of her masters, Michael, with whom she grew up. Played by Franchot Tone, Michael Alderson is thrilled to see Sadie has grown up so beautifully, so it is easy to assume the two will soon wind up together.

     Sadie has a boyfriend, however, who has been fired for stealing from the company run by the Aldersons. Sadie believes he is innocent and so throws a fit as she is serving the family dinner and overhears how they wish to make an example of him, with Michael leading the attack. She holds a grudge against Michael as she hops a train from upstate New York to the big city with this boyfriend Tommy (Gene Raymond).

     After an awkward unmarried, yet consummated night at a boarding house, Sadie and Tommy make plans to meet at city hall after going to separate job interviews. The man never shows, however, because he has met the sexy performer across the hall (Esther Ralston), has joined her act as a singer and left town. Sadie soon takes a job as a dancer at a club and attracts the attention of millionaire Jack Brennan, played by Edward Arnold. His attorney who has joined him at the club happens to be Michael. The old friends have a tense reunion as Sadie is still angry with him and as revenge spends the entire night in the drunken arms of Brennan while at the club.

     Brennan, who is a perpetually drunk alcoholic, proposes to Sadie that night and the two are indeed married despite Michael’s objections surrounding Sadie’s gold-digger intentions. The feud continues up through a negative diagnosis that Brennan will die unless he quits drinking. Sadie makes it her mission to keep the man sober and succeeds, and in so doing restores a friendship with Michael.

     The marriage hits a breaking point, however, when Sadie learns Tommy is unemployed and possibly sick. She still loves him and explains to Brennan why she needs a divorce.

     My prediction within the first five minutes of Sadie McKee was that the protagonist and Michael would end up together. Crawford and Tone became off-screen lovers on this picture and eventually married, although the size of her fame would eventually squash their relationship. As they interact on screen at the movie’s start, the two get along so swimmingly, and Tone gazes at her so lovingly, that their courtship seems easy to predict. When Sadie goes to NYC, however, my prediction changed to her bumping into Michael and an instant relationship starting from there. Again wrong.

     The plot element that has Sadie unendingly in love with Tommy, despite his having done her wrong, seems to create a hurdle for the story to get over. By the time we reach the point that Sadie can leave Brennan, the picture has gone on for so long that it has little time to wrap everything up and presumably throw the woman in Michael’s arms. SPOILER Even in killing Tommy, the story cannot erase Sadie’s feelings for the man, and so the picture closes on she, her friend, her mother and Michael enjoying the man’s birthday at the woman’s apartment. Although we can guess what his candle-blowing wish is about, the screen goes dark and we are left with no final kiss to seal the deal. (Time to put on The Bride Wore Red). END SPOILER

      Both Crawford and Tone give splendid performances. Tone especially will grab you with his powerful emotional displays as he fights tooth and nail against Sadie’s desire to make herself into an unsavory sort. Crawford matches him well in her fighting scenes, and the couple have always been delightful to watch on screen together. Backing Crawford up is Jean Dixon, playing Opal, the hardened night club performer who finds Sadie a job and then revels in her wealth. She acts as a bit of comic relief while encouraging the woman to take Brennan for all he is worth, although her intentions are not sinister.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

Wife vs. Secretary

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Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

     Based on the title, I was expecting a very different movie starring Clark Gable, a man whose characters are not particularly known for fidelity. I also expected a different battle in Wife vs. Secretary between such disparate actresses as Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

     I am sure you can guess who plays wife to Gable’s Van Stanhope: Myrna Loy as Linda. Van is a bigshot magazine executive who is super devoted and in love with his wife but has an awfully handy and attractive secretary in “Whitey” (Harlow). The latter relationship appears to be plutonic, although Whitey is certainly more devoted to her boss than her weasly boyfriend, played by Jimmy Stewart

     Linda does not think anything of her husband’s working relationship until she is warned by Van’s mother (May Robson) and a business visit by the secretary during a party sparks whispers among the guests. Now everything her husband does seems suspicious, especially a convention trip to Havana at which Whitey arrives the next day and answers Van’s phone at 2 a.m. 

     As toward as this might seem, everything between Van and Whitey is on the level. He had summoned her south to help write up a contract for a last-minute deal to buy a competing magazine. The two stayed up all one night finalizing the papers and partied the next after the sale. Both worse for the wear, we see a moment when the dull-faced boss and subordinate sit on the bed and potentially contemplate something more, but Whitey declares their drunkenness is reason enough for her to leave. Before she can exit, however, the phone rings. Being a secretary, White answers it and all parties soon know what Linda must think.

     Linda pursues a divorce and Whitey tells the woman she has every intention of landing Van once it is finalized. Her motives are not terribly sinister, however, as she essentially encourages a reconciliation.

     Gable was fantastic in Wife vs. Secretary. He displays such passion with Loy, scooping her into his arms and smootching her to death on numerous occasions. That was something I was not expecting from this movie, as the title seemed to suggest a cold wife and a more appealing secretary who perhaps truly battle for the man. Gable’s relationship with Harlow can be described as nothing but cute. He treats her with the respect of a man but does not deny her femininity.

     Harlow is also quite different in this picture compared to the others she made with Gable. Her hair is a duller blonde, which serves to tame her sex appeal/vixen tendencies. She plays the role as a totally fun-loving gal, leaving us no reason to hate her. Loy also is charming and only becomes unsavory after she leaves Van on incorrect presumptions.  Wife vs. Secretary was loads of fun, full of humor and good intentions.

Anna Christie

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Anna Christie (1930)

     With the 1930 release of Anna Christie the world heard Greta Garbo speak for the first time. What was her first line? “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don’ be stingy, baby.” Garbo’s face and performances on the silent screen had already established her as a legend, but when audiences heard that husky voice it only sought to further her appeal.

     The first image we see of Garbo in this film is equally impactful (below). A weary Anna is revealed behind the door to a New York bar, slouching and casting a wounded glance toward the waiter that opened the door. She next surveys the room and her expression shifts to disappointment before she saunters in.

     Anna has traveled from Minnesota and hopes to find her father at the bar, the address at which she has been writing him during the 15 years they have been apart. She was sent to a farm to keep her away from the rough life at sea the father, Chris (George F. Marion), enjoys as a barge captain. Life was not as pleasant in the simple town of St. Paul as Chris would have expected, however, and Anna reveals to a drunken woman with whom Chris has been living (unbeknownst to Anna) that she hates men because of an incident involving her cousin.

     When Chris shows up, Anna hides her alcohol and accepts his offer for a sarsaparilla. She joins him living on a coal barge after expressing much disgust with the idea before his arrival. Anna soon finds she enjoys being at sea, although Chris is still worried she will marry a sailor and be subjected to the unpleasant life a seaman’s wife endures. That fate does seem to be approaching when the barge picks up several men adrift and Anna makes an instant connection with Matt (Charles Bickford) who tries to force a kiss out of her but later softens his approach.

     Matt remains on the barge and he and Anna continue to kindle their romance and for once the young woman thinks she can love a man. Things are inching toward marriage but Anna’s sordid past becomes a hurdle when her man starts talking about how pure she is. She ultimately reveals her former place of employment and Matt dumps her.

     I certainly did not foresee a happy ending in this story about a rather depressed young woman, but the action finds a way. The plot and actors are pretty underwhelming excluding Garbo. The camera clearly loves the gal as somehow she seems to be shot more clearly than her fellow actors. In some scenes the camera remains transfixed on her face while engaged in conversation with others. She brings more telling emotion to her facial presentations than all the other actors combined, making Garbo the only redeeming factor for this flick.

     Anna Christie is based on the Eugene O’Neill play and was also filmed in German, with the latter version being the performance Garbo preferred. The movie was nominated for Best Actress, Director and Cinematography but won none of the awards.

Source: TCM.com

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