Harper

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Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

Following up on the success of his other “H” movies, Paul Newman made Harper in 1966, having requested the name be changed from “The Moving Target” to draw on the box office luck he realized with Hud and The Hustler. The story harkens back to the private eye tales of the 40s, and producers scored Lauren Bacall in a supporting role to cinch that motif.

Newman is Lew Harper, a private eye living out of his office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is in the process of divorcing him. His friend and former DA Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) recommends him for a job with Bacall’s Mrs. Sampson, who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her philandering husband. The wealthy woman has an attractive step daughter –whom Graves wants to marry– also very keen on locating her father. This Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) joins Harper and the Sampson pilot/driver Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) in scoping out the subject’s last known whereabouts –an airport and hotel where Mr. Sampson keeps a “bungalow.”

Harper meets washed up actress and sometimes companion to Mr. Sampson, Fay Estabrook, played by Shelley Winters. He gets her drunk and searches her apartment only to be interrupted at gunpoint by Estabrook’s husband. Harper plays Texan and manages to leave without the man being wise to his real reason for being there.

Harper manages to pick up one clue or one sliver of information at each stop in his investigation that leads him to another place and another clue. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as Harper concludes Mr. Sampson has been kidnapped and ransom sought. Julie Harris plays nightclub singer and heroin addict Betty Fraley, who has a link to another player that we won’t see coming. In fact, when all is said and done, you’ll be wishing William Powell would materialize to give us the end-of-movie run down of who did what and why.

The story at times felt like a scavenger hunt and one that could be easily recreated as a party game. Although Harper is adept at blending into his surroundings, he has perhaps too easy of a time getting information from people and it always manages to be helpful information that never leads to a dead end. How many times have we seen the matchbook in a dead guy’s pocket lead us to the nightclub where all the unsavory sorts mingle? Is that always going to be a foolproof clue into cinematic eternity? Harper is very much a tribute to the old crime movies of decades earlier, but it could perhaps have tried to mix things up.

Where the movie does distinguish itself from its predecessors is in the violence and sex appeal the 1960s could afford. Newman’s character finds himself regularly brutalized while Tiffin shakes her hips and Winters requests Harper not try anything tonight. It’s certainly a grittier drama made all the more modern by being shot in color rather than in the stark black and white we have become accustomed to in this genre.

Harper certainly isn’t Newman’s finest work, and I often get annoyed by mysteries that have too much going on to actually follow the plot. Harper is not a bad flick, though. It’s just not one I’ll likely watch again.

The Anniversary

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The Anniversary (1968)

The Anniversary (1968)

Each time I turn to a movie Bette Davis made late in her career, I expect to see something comically bad. In both of these instances I’ve been wrong. Both movies had been conveyed as horror movies, which is largely what supported my theorem of horridness. In the case of Burnt Offerings, I was amazed to find I’d discovered a great horror movie and one in which Davis is neither ridiculous looking nor acting. In this latter case of The Anniversary, I found neither a horror movie nor a bad show by Davis; however, she does affect a ridiculous eye patch.

The Anniversary rolls out more like a play. It is dialogue heavy, occurs primarily in one place and transpires over the course of one day. To start, Shirley (Elaine Taylor) arrives at a construction site in search of her fiancé, Tom Taggart (Christian Roberts). This revelation that Tom is engaged shocks the man’s brothers and fellow construction site workers Terry (Jack Hedley) and Henry (James Cossins). Their real concern for this news is that it is sure to enrage their mother, who is celebrating her anniversary this day.

Despite her husband being long dead, Mrs. Taggart insists on making a big show of their wedding anniversary each year. The Taggarts own a building construction company with labor run by the sons. Mrs. Taggart’s shrewd business approach has resulted in sloppy and embarrassing construction work that has Terry, his wife, and five children prepared to move to Canada to escape the work –and the mother. This planned move is the other bomb to be dropped on Mrs. Taggart on her anniversary, but the old woman is in the know about both revelations.

The old woman picks at Shirley to try to underhandedly dissuade her from marrying Tom. Meanwhile, the mother is horrid to Terry’s wife, Karen (Sheila Hancock), at one point informing the husband and wife that the car transporting their children and driven by Henry has been in an accident, the children in “critical” condition. This lie is delivered to impress upon Karen what it feels like to lose a son, which is the equivalent of moving Terry to Canada.

Tom makes no bones about his disdain for his mother, playfully with Karen plotting her death when the old bag is out of the room. He’s intent on marrying Shirley, but his mother has scared away two previous fiancées. When Shirley stands up to the missus, Tom starts to feel like his chosen spouse is too like his mother. Shirley is pregnant, however, and when the fright of finding Mrs. Taggart’s glass eye in bed sends her into what might be a miscarriage, Tom opts to leave his mother forever. Terry follows suit while Henry retires to bed. The story allows no defeat of Mrs. Taggart, however, and her final actions on screen are thoroughly devilish against her sons.

An eye patch to match her outfit.

An eye patch to match her outfit.

Bette Davis, despite having a silly haircut and confusingly fashionable eye patch, is splendid in such a sinister role. She draws on much of the “bitch” training she had in many roles in her younger days, exacting control over her sons and their families. The other players, none of whom I am familiar with, also embody their parts swimmingly. Taylor plays both vulnerable and determined with the right balance as she tries to endure and go to war with her future mother in law. Hancock also is fun to watch as she spars with the matriarch and tries to make up for her meek husband. The men play their roles more timidly but portray the men we would expect to have developed under Mrs. Taggart’s hand.

The Anniversary was a good drama, but at only 95 minutes in duration, it felt incredibly long. This is probably because of the degree to which the drama relies on dialogue rather than action. It nevertheless is a good sit for those who want to see Davis still kicking it in 1968, when she was 60.

High Voltage

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High Voltage (1929)

High Voltage (1929)

In one of her first talking roles, Carole Lombard steals the show as a sassy convict in High Voltage. Not quite in tune with the comedienne she would be known as, Lombard uses her looks and attitude to create a character desired by two men: her police escort and another criminal.

Lombard’s Billie with Detective Dan Egan (Owen Moore) are two of four passengers on a bus traversing the snowy wilderness. The jolly yet overly confident stage driver Gus (Billy Bevan) gets the vehicle stuck in several feet of snow just ahead of a storm. Seeing no other option, the party trudges through the white terrain to a small church house spotted in the distance.

The travellers discover upon arrival that they are not alone. Another man, Bill (William Boyd) has been hiding out in the building as he avoids a warrant for arrest. To the new arrivals, however, he is merely some hobo. Bill has a stash of food he is reluctant to share with the new tenants, but agrees to ration the food out for them over what is presumed to be at least a 10-day stint.

It does not take long for Billie to become friendly with Bill, much to the chagrin of Egan, who not only wants to ensure he can deliver the escaped prisoner but seems to have romantic ideas of his own. Billie also takes a liking to the other woman in the group, Diane (Diane Ellis). Also in the church is a banker, Milton (Phillips Smalley). Cabin fever often gets the best of the male characters, some of whose brash personalities are an existing obstacle to harmony.

As the days go on and the food and firewood becomes scarce, Billie and Bill decide to make a run for a ranger station while the others sleep, thus allowing both to escape their raps and be together. Diane falls ill, however, and Billie struggles with her sense of loyalty to the young woman. As the couple steps outside to make their escape –which Detective Egan has noticed– they spot a plane circling overhead attempting to find the lost bus party. The criminals return to their companions to help flag down the plane. The aircraft drops a food parcel and a note saying tractors are on their way to free the group from the snow.

The lovers realize their doomed fate, but Detective Egan attempts to throw away Billie’s warrant and Bill’s “wanted” poster. Bill retrieves the papers and returns them to the officer, thus securing the duo’s imprisonment but with the intention of a future reunion.

High Voltage is not a bad movie. The DVD quality on sound and picture was a low, but the story and both Boyd and Lombard’s performances were worth watching. The poor picture makes it difficult at times to discern the difference among the male actors at times, but one only needs to keep Egan and Bill straight to be able to follow the plot. Unlike the male actors, Lombard pops from the screen with her white blonde hair and dark makeup. She’s sexy and sassy and relatively likeable in the low-class role.

One disappointing story element involves both Diane and Gus falling through the ice while the group is outside getting some fresh air and exercise. The individuals are retrieved and act as though they have endured nothing more than a cold swim. As we know today, the circumstances were likely to spell death given the lack of dry clothes or adequate heating.

The Broadway Melody

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Looking again to a movie that earned Hollywood’s top award but fails to shine against most flicks given that prestige, I bring you The Broadway Melody. Taking one of the early Oscars for Best Picture, the musical contended with a handful of movies that for the most part have failed to maintain their place in history. Had 1929 been a year with a better stock of movies to choose from, The Broadway Melody would not have stood a chance to win.

The movie tells a story that became too common a plot in the years that followed. We meet a performing team who come to New York hoping to make it big on Broadway. One of the set does make a splash but more so with wealthy members of the audience than with general stardom. Falling into the role of a showgirl mistress drives concern and conflict with the remaining member(s) of the troop.

So goes The Broadway Melody. Queenie (Anita Page) is the prettier, bustier and blonder of the sister duo, the remainder of which is occupied by the talented “Hank” (Bessie Love). The sisters have been travelling the country with their song-and-dance show and have landed in New York where Hank’s boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) is prepared to help them make it big with the use of a song he has written: “The Broadway Melody”.

Eddie is immediately spellbound with Queenie even though he is fairly devoted to Hank. He helps the girls get into a show produced by big shot Zanfield (Eddie Zane). As the show opens to audiences, Queenie garners the attention of one of Zanfield’s backers, Jacques Warraner (Kenneth Thomson), who takes her to fancy dinners and gives her expensive gifts. Queenie is moderately resistant to his advances but enjoys the lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, Hank cannot stand to see the life her sister is leading.

Once Jacques sets Queenie up in her own apartment, the tensions get high among the players and both Hank and Eddie argue to keep the blonde from running off to such an unsavory lifestyle. During these arguments, Hank notices how Eddie feels about Queenie and casts him aside so that he feels free to run after the sister. The two wed, leaving Hank glad she has saved her sister but solemn for her own romantic prospects.

Bessie Love gives one hell of a performance, but nothing so kind can be said for the rest of the cast. Although Love gives appropriately dramatic and heartfelt displays, Anita Page leaves us wondering if she is acting at all, or just delivering lines. Charles King make a decent, friendly man to root for, but he offers nothing special. None can be commended for his or her singing talent.

The Broadway Melody really fails to produce a satisfactory conclusion. Love’s performance has us rooting for her to have a happy ending with her man, and her dramatic display upon giving him up makes us think that any other coupling would be cruel. Page equally fails to convince us Queenie deserves Eddie or that she has anything to offer besides her supposedly good looks. She has an upleasant personality and nearly no talent, so it is a wonder why Eddie want to be with her in the first place. Queenie is such a brat throughout the story that one almost wishes she would get what she deserves from her unsavory relationship with Jacques.

Although some of the costuming is splendid in terms of Hank and Queenie’s stage attire, the production crew really dropped the ball on Queenie’s other aesthetic appeal. She is meant to be shades more beautiful than her sister, but she is nothing special. Her hair often looks more like bed head than an attempt at a fashionable finger wave, and her whole character comes off as sloppy.

The future certainly held much better incarnations of the corrupted-then-redeemed Broadway star story, so there is no sense wasting time on The Broadway Melody even if it is a Best Picture winner.

Cimarron

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Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

The Saint’s Double Trouble

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The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)

The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)

RKO had three films based on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint books by 1940 and had found a great leading man for the role of Simon Templar in George Sanders. Charteris had come to Hollywood to help make the movies about the rogue detective, former crook and although he would contribute to the story of The Saint’s Double Trouble it was the first movie to not be based on one of the novels.

Perhaps for that reason, the story seems a bit out of joint with the other eight movies RKO ultimately made about Simon Templar. To its credit, however, the story starts out seeming straight forward, becomes confusing, and then reveals its plot ploy: a Saint look-alike.

Templar is in Philadelphia to pick up an item smuggled to recipient and long-time friend Professor Bitts (Thomas Ross). A pouch of jewels were hidden in a mummy delivered to the scientist that the reformed thief pockets easily enough. While at his friend’s home, he encounters the host’s lovely daughter Anne (Helene Whitney), who returns to Simon a ring he once gave her with his initials: S.T.

Also coincidentally in Philadelphia at the same time is New York’s Inspector Fernak, played by Jonathan Hale who repeatedly reprised this role in the RKO pictures. So when Professor Bitts ends up dead outside his home with the Saint’s ring on his finger and a note with Templar’s caricature on it, Fernack’s resistance to intervene is easily whittled away.

Meanwhile, Simon enters the basement room of a bar that is the secret hangout of a gang of jewel thieves/smugglers. The Saint informs his men he will go meet their guest –The Partner, played by Bela Lugosi– at the airport. Not too much later, the Saint returns and inquires of his mugs about the Partner’s arrival, causing great confusion for the men. It is at this point that we start to realize there is more than one Saint in this picture.

The remainder of the plot is an action-packed back and forth battle of wits and fists between Simon and his double, Boss Duke Bates. Anne naturally comes within harm’s way and is saved by our hero, who is captured and escapes from the gang multiple times.

Putting two George Sanderses on the screen at the same time was not accomplished with the same ease technology allows today. Only a few scenes feature the doubles together and are confined to the basement office of Boss Duke Bates. While Bates sits in the background at his desk, Templar is able to stand in front of it with the other two hoodlums. The latter three actors are performing in front of a screen on which the Boss’s image has been back projected. The trick is an obvious one as the background looks fainter and grainier than the real-life actors in front of it. In other instances, a body double is used to duplicate Sanders’ from behind.

The best part of the The Saint’s Double Trouble is the story’s main element, which frankly I did not see coming (despite having watched this movie years ago). Once it hits the viewer that there is more than one Sanders character in the scenario, it forces him to look back at the preceding scenes and try to determine whether the hero or the villain was in play. Perhaps the story is a silly one. The Boss does not realize the Saint is in town even though he is pinning a murder on the man, so it falls to coincidence that Simon is in town at the same time. But there is no coincidence in the stories of the Saint, so we must conclude that Simon has been aware of the smuggling and been following the case all along; however, this story point is not made evident.

Although The Saint’s Double Trouble has no source material in Charteris’ novels, it does tip its hat to one of the books via a newspaper headline reading: The Saint Wanted for Murder. It might not be the best in the Saint cannon of movies, but it is still full of fun with Sanders’ ever astute delivery of the witty dialogue for which Simon Templar is so famous.

Grand Hotel

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Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel has the distinction of being the only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and be nominated for nothing else. The fact that it drew no acting nominations is notable given the star-studded cast, but it is true that none of the actors really stands out. Perhaps they were all too evenly matched.

Grand Hotel endeavors to be a story about the comings and goings in a high-end Berlin hotel, but it belies its own motto –”Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”– in the events depicted for us. We are first introduced to the handful of characters the story follows via a series of edits between their respective phone calls in the hotel lobby. We learn Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) has only a few weeks to live and is blowing his life savings enjoying them in an expensive hotel. The Baron (John Barrymore) telephones an accomplice explaining a need for more funds and referencing a theft he intends to commit. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working to close a merger that will be lucrative for him by relies on his company’s partnership with a French firm. And famed Russian dancer Grusinskaya’s maid telephones to say the ballerina is ill.

The hotel acts as a catalyst to allow the overlapping of these various lives, who infinitely influence one another but then part as they do the hotel. Also entering into the scene is Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer sent for by Preysing. Before he is ready for her to begin working on the merger documents, however, Flemm waits in the hall where she is approached by the Baron with amorous intent. They agree to meet the following evening for dinner and dancing. The Baron has previously met Kringelein and decided him a fine chap, creating a fast friendship. Kringelein approaches the couple in the hall and makes friends of Flemm as well. Also caught by Flemm’s looks is Preysing, once he’s ready for her to begin work.

Before the Baron can meet up with Flemm for a romantic evening, however, he will enter the room of dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) to abscond with her pearls. He sneaks in through a balcony window –two rooms down from his– but finds himself trapped when the depressed ballerina abruptly returns. In the dark room he sees her contemplating suicide and opts to intervene. In the ensuing hours, the two fall in love.

Flemm has by this time fallen in love with the Baron and finds herself disappointed in his new mood. Grusinskaya is leaving for Italy in a day and in order to accompany her, he must come up with money for train fare, a subject making him rather depressed. Flemm occupies herself in looking after the ailing Kringelein and in resisting the advances of Preysing. This businessman happens to own the factory in which Kringelein once worked and proves himself a royal ass by mistreating him in the hotel. Flemm will nevertheless consider leaving town on the arm of Preysing, but ultimately walks out the doors of the Grand Hotel with another man.

Grand Hotel, which was based on a play, is a great film from a technical standpoint as well as the somewhat esoteric relevance of its story. To the average viewer, the movie comes off as rather boring with seemingly no moral or sense of satisfaction at the close. But the point of the plot is about the random meeting of people and the indelible effect they have on one another. Flemm enters the hotel a stenographer and leaves as a mistress of sorts. Grusinskaya enters horribly depressed with her career faltering and leaves on cloud nine after a fantastic performence the night before. Preysing enters on the verge of a profitable deal and leaves in worse than ruin. Only Kringelein enters and exits with equal levels of joy; although, he departs with more money and company than he arrived. If there is any moral center to the story, it is Kringelein.

As I mentioned, the acting is fine, but you could have guessed that by the cast. This is often thought of as a great Garbo movie, but she does not appear in at least half of the action. Her line “I want to be alone” is well remembered, but not particularly meaningful. Garbo was a big star at this point, but audiences were taking a liking to Crawford by this time as well. The two never appear on screen together and had little to do with each other on set especially since Garbo’s scenes were shot on a separate soundstage closed to visitors. Director Edmund Goulding once described the movie as two stories, both centered around women in crisis –Garbo’s depressed dancer and Crawford’s stenographer trying to scrape her way to a better life– with the Baron to connect the plots. I’m not sure I see the movie in that way because I do not view Flemm as a woman in crisis but as a distinctly different type of person bouncing among our main characters.

  • Grand Hotel is set for 9:45 p.m. ET Feb. 15 on TCM.
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