Camille (1937)

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Camille (1937)

     The 1937 release of Camille did not give audiences a new story. The romance originated as an Alexandre Dumas novel that became a Paris play in 1848, the Verdi opera La Traviata, a 1907 Danish short film La Dame aux Camlias, a 1915 Shubert production, a 1917 Fox film, and a 1927 First National production, among many others. What the other adaptations did not have, however, was Greta Garbo.

     Although the past productions also featured some great actresses in the lead role, for audiences in the 1930s, there was no better-suited star than Garbo. She plays Marguerite Gautier –the lady of the camellias because of her love of the flower– who in this film’s case is a society lady whose lifestyle is paid for by the generosity of male suitors. With her debt on the rise, Marguerite is advised by a friend, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), to find a wealthy suitor. The mark is the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), but a case of mistaken identity at the theatre lands Marguerite in acquaintance with long-time admirer Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).

     Although Marguerite carries on a relationship with the Baron, and he keeps her financially sound, she finds herself all at once in love with Armand when the two are alone at a party. She has also been hearing that this man over the years has always been ever attentive when she would fall under one of her illness spells, likely the result of tuberculosis. After some time and growing affection, Marguerite agrees to break off her relationship with the baron in order to spend a summer in the country with Armand, something that would perhaps mend her health. Before she can leave town, however, she must pay off $40,000 francs worth of debt, something no match for Armand’s $7,000 per year salary. The baron foots the bill just before declaring he would never see Marguerite again.

     The couple have a marvelous time in the country despite the discovery that the baron’s mansion is just a hill away. While there, however, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) stops by to beg Marguerite to back off. He says the relationship will ruin the young man’s future success and could bring a certain amount of shame upon him. Marguerite, despite knowing that her health is unlikely to keep her around for many more years, coldly breaks her relationship with Armand and says she is returning to the nearby baron. The couple will reunite, but not under happy circumstances.

     I cannot help but ponder why the story of Camille has time and time again produced movies –as recently as the 2001 Moulin Rouge. The story is that of a love triangle but not one in which the object of the dual affection is emotionally torn between two individuals. Instead, she must weigh passion against her financial needs, needs that have been ever-present in her past up until the introduction of true love. Other incarnations of Camille have painted the woman as a courtesan, and although the Garbo version does not depict her that way ala Production Code restrictions, there is no denying her source of income. So the story also involves a love so strong that it ignores the woman’s seedy past.

     Perhaps the plot is appealing to viewers because the romantic choice is obvious; we will always root for love over money. Yet regardless of the decision, the woman will still meet a fate that neither love nor money could have prevented.

     Garbo and Taylor embody all that the story demands of impassioned love. Although Garbo’s performances can be cold at times, she is convincing in her emotional connection with Taylor, who meanwhile is exhibiting the endearingly obsessive love that seems to exist only in films and classic literature. The couple does the story justice and create a good entre for anyone who has yet to be exposed to the classic romance.

Adam’s Rib

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Adam's Rib (1949)

     No one could have better played a powerful career woman in a devoted marriage better than Katharine Hepburn, and no one could have better held his ground as the spouse opposite that star than Spencer Tracy. Audiences loved seeing Hepburn and Tracy on the screen together, and Adam’s Rib lended what might have been a variation on their true relationship. Although the stars were never married, they maintained a relationship that endured until the end of Tracy’s life. Both meanwhile held down the same career, although one much more artistic than that of their lawyer characters here.

     Tracy plays Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner who is assigned to the case of a woman who has shot and wounded her cheating husband. The attorney is none too keen on being assigned the case as his wife Amanda (Hepburn)  has spent all morning fixated on the related newspaper story and how a man would be treated differently for attacking an unfaithful spouse. Amanda has meanwhile gone out of her way to hunt down this shooter, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), in order to represent her pro bono. Amanda sees the case as a great chance to level the playing field between men and women under the law.

     Adam is immediately unhappy with the circumstances, and the couple and case become hot material for the newspapers and editorial cartoonists. The case becomes increasingly contentious between the two parties and begins to affect their life at home where Adam is unable to forgive Amanda’s ruthless courtroom activity. On top of everything, Amanda is visiting with a flirtatious neighbor friend (David Wayne) when Adam storms in to find the two embracing and threatens to shoot the two under the same circumstances as the case. The couple near divorce but will find a way to reconcile.

     While watching Adam’s Rib I had a hard time determining whether this was a drama or a comedy. The story is very serious but it is not without moments of humor. Many of those come from Holliday as the sort-of-dumb shooter whose emotions take the form of hunger more than any other state. Her disheveled life makes a great contrast to the once-pristine marriage of the Bonners. Her husband, played by Tom Ewell is plenty despicable and Jean Hagen as his mistress is equally intolerable.

     Tracy and Hepburn meanwhile have probably never been better; although one could say that of a lot of their collaborations. Despite middle age, the two act like lovers 10 or 20 years younger who flirt under the courtroom table or stick their tongues out at each other. The duo are so comfortable on screen, which is to be expected given this was the sixth of their nine MGM pictures together. The morning bedroom scene in which Tracy refuses to waken look like it could be a reflection of actual at-home life for the couple.

  • Adam’s Rib is set for 2:45 p.m. ET April 12 and 6:15 p.m. ET May 12 on TCM.

Cinematic Shorts: Gaslight

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Gaslight (1944)

     Gaslight is one of my favorite movies of all time. I discovered it early in my classic movie foray because I was really into Joseph Cotton. The story is a wonderful mystery full of suspense and intrigue and really has all the markings of a Hitchcock film without actually being one. The director is instead George Cukor, who has more than enough experience to make such a masterpiece.

     The story is about Ingrid Berman‘s Paula and her husband Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, and the woman slow decent into madness. Paula’s aunt/guardian was a famous opera singer who was murdered by a thief hoping to seize some valuable jewels. Ten years later Paula returns to her aunt’s house with a new husband but starts having flashbacks to the terrifying past.

     Gregory presents himself as a creepy character from the start, always patronizing his wife into a submissive role. He pats her and tells her she confused when her items start disappearing. Paula has also been noticing a strange change in the gaslights in their London flat. The flames seem to go down as though someone has turned up the gas in another part of the home, except no one has. This does not help the woman’s mental state any, but she has one ally on her side: Joseph Cotton as a fan of Paula’s aunt who mistakes the young woman for her relative. He starts to gather that something sinister is afoot in Paula’s home and pokes his nose in enough to save the woman.

     The story for Gaslight is really fascinating and creative and the actual gaslights in the home make for such a cool device alluding to the answer to all of our questions. Bergman gave an Academy Award-winning performance as Paula as no one can deny how deftly she conveys a weakening of the mind. Besides Bergman, also nominated for Oscars were  Boyer and Angela Lansbury, who makes her screen debut as the cockney, sassy maid. The picture was also nominated for cinematography, writing, art direction and Best Picture.

     I think I could watch Gaslight every day and never be tired of it. Ryan and I love to imitate Boyer’s chiding utterance of “Paauullaa” in that French accent of his as it is both absurd and creepy. This movie sort of ruined Boyer for me as anything but a sinister actor, however. Watching him in Love Affair was a challenge.

"I told you, there's nothing wrong with the lighting, Paula!"

Apples on the Lilac Tree & Bitter Waters

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     Do you know what 1956 television audiences apparently found funny? A man who is skilled at putting together an organized breakfast. I concede that in the Screen Directors Playhouse episode Apples on the Lilac Tree that a group of wives greeting each other in the hallway of their apartment building while grabbing the morning milk is funny when you add a one husband to the equation. I was a bit surprised, however, when the studio audience supplied laughter to a scene of this man flipping eggs, grabbing toast and pouring coffee in an organized rhythm. Nevertheless, the episode teaches us the hazards of moving into new roles after 10 years of marriage.

     MacDonald Carey plays William Tyler who acts as housewife as his spouse works as an executive assistant at a bathing suit company. He knows all the ins and outs of maintaining the household, but when his schooling is finally complete and he is accepted for an assistant professorship, the couple consider swapping roles. The wife Maggie (Joan Caulfield) is out of her element as cook and housekeeper, however, making life unpleasant for them both. Her boss has additionally begged her to return to work and to assume a more prestigious position. It looks as though neither party will be happy in the new set up, but a pregnancy will apparently solve all ills.

     Apples on the Lilac Tree sets up a great premise and conflict, but the resolution is not a sufficient one. Although William is very happy to become breadwinner and make use of his advanced degrees, albeit at a lower household income than his wife hauls in, Maggie is miserable at home. She cannot get a grasp on cooking or cleaning and misses the importance her position at the bathing suit company had. She was “unhappy” in that job because she was taken for granted and often required to work late, but the new position offered her would have meant an even greater salary and a title of prestige. Her having a baby does not resolve her issues in being stuck at home but does give her a better purpose in life.

     Another Screen Director’s Playhouse with an unsatisfactory conclusion involves romance around the turn of the 20th century, entitled The Bitter Waters. George Sanders plays middle-aged man Charles who never married because he was scorned by the woman he loved who sought riches instead. He is vacationing with his nephew Archie (Robert Vaughn), who is attracted to a young woman across the casino. She is Linda (Cynthia Baxter), who happens to be the daughter of that heart-breaker Louise (Constance Cummings) who dumped Charles ages ago.

     The young people want to get married, and Archie has money, but Louise is inexplicably opposed to the possibility. The women leave town to avoid progressing the romance, but the men find them and are as intent as ever to have the man and woman engaged. Louise finally reveals to Charles that her aversion to the courtship is that Linda has become a woman colder and harder than she who seeks only money and will make the young man miserable. The families move on, but at the episode’s close we see Linda moving in on another wealthy suitor.

     The Bitter Waters‘ conclusion caught me off guard and seemed rather abrupt as I perhaps thought I was watching a movie and that we would see Linda’s further efforts to land a mate. The secret about Louise’ opposition to the marriage was a surprise, although I was expecting something more scandalous, such as that Linda was in fact Charles’ daughter conceived out of wedlock. The Bitter Waters was certainly a dark story bereft of any real romance, but I was dissatisfied in the end.

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

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Romeo and Juliet (1936)

     I have been avoiding the various incarnations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for a number of years based on the conclusion that the story is far too compelling and therefore horribly depressing. My aversion, to put it simply, is that I can find no way to not be crying and frustrated by the conclusion. Nevertheless, I opted to delve into the much proclaimed MGM take on the tale of star-crossed lovers and found that perhaps my emotional curse with this story is lifted; although, that is not a compliment to the picture.

     Unlike the most recent adaptation of the play directed and artfully reimagined by Baz Lurhman, the Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard keeps much of the dialogue that the newer version found unnecessary. I do not count this as a virtue, however. Mercutio, who is well played by John Barrymore, spends many a minute rambling through fanciful descriptions of dreams and fantasy, the words from which fly by so quickly that one would mentally exhaust himself if he tried to understand what the hell that man was rambling about. I find it hard to believe that audiences in 1936, the majority of which were less educated than we are now especially with the likes of Shakespeare, were able to find enjoyment in this style of English that in some of the relays of dialogue is utterly impossible to understand even by me. Count me stupid, I suppose.

     What perhaps did appeal to audiences was the grand spectacle the picture was. MGM pulled out all the stops in putting this film together. A Verona church was constructed in Hollywood, three different replicas of Juliet’s balcony were used so as to avoid the use of a camera on crane, and exotic animals such as peacocks and monkeys lurk in the backdrop in some scenes. More than 2,000 extras were used on set. Also of interest is that the movie was filmed twice: once on set and again with actors in rehearsal against a screen. The latter technique is particularly obvious during the party scene when our lovers are dancing together but in front of a back projection screen where the remainder of the party guests dance in time.

     This was the last picture that MGM Producer and “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg produced before dying in 1936. His involvement and push to have this movie made were why audiences got the leading lady they did. Shearer was his wife, and he instantly marked Romeo and Juliet as a great vehicle for the then-queen of MGM. Shearer’s star power would lose clout at the studio after her husband’s death. As far as the gal’s performance, I found it agreeable but not stunning. She is quite different from the roles she had become known for in playing sexually liberated women before the Production Code cut back on such characters. Shearer is young-spirited and air headed at times as the dreamy-eyed Juliet. Her leading counterpart Howard does a better job, I think, but neither seemed to bring strong enough emotion to their parts to get me weeping or feeling sorry for their plight by the end. When Mercutio dies, we get nearly no emotion from Romeo before he dashes off to kill Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), but perhaps that was the way of men in those days.

     The MGM 1936 Romeo and Juliet is a high-rated film by critics and contemporary viewers, so I’m likely to be chastised when I say that I was not thrilled by it. Frankly, I was falling asleep trying to endure the dialogue, which I think at times obscured emotional acting from the players, that runs on for more than two hours. I have mentioned before my slight lack of appreciation for Shakespeare, which I am sure had some play here, but the actors gave me little to cling to otherwise. Barrymore is the only actor I think was perfectly cast. Howard does fine but he is not the most manly of men. The part was offered to Clark Gable, who turned it down by famously saying, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” I think it is best he was not hired for the part, and I am not sure who would have done better. Cagney? Kidding.

Sources: Ben Manckiewicz, TCM.com

Keeper of the Flame

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Keeper of the Flame (1942)

     In 1942, audiences going to see a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie surely expected to encounter some on-screen romance, but although Keeper of the Flame denied movie-goers of those light-hearted dramatics, it did pack a wallop otherwise. The movie had traces of the previous year’s stand-out film Citizen Kane but in large park harkened back to story elements found in 1939’s Rebecca.

     The film opens on a car speeding down a rainy forest road and ultimately taking a dive off a broken bridge. Next we are entreated to a slew of newspaper headlines shouting the death of the world’s most loved man, Robert Forrest. Reporters are in town for the funeral and among them is Tracy’s war correspondent Stephen O’Malley, who has returned to the U.S. especially for this story. He is not, however, interested in shooting out a quick piece on the funeral like his fellow reporters, but is instead after material for a book on the man’s life. To achieve this, however, he must interview Forrest’s wife, Christine (Hepburn), who has refused to take any visitors. Stephen sneaks onto the Forrest estate with the help of the gatekeeper’s boy (Darryl Hickman), who is distraught thinking he had caused his hero’s death by not being able to warn him the bridge was out. It is from here that we begin to suspect there is more to this story than a car accident.

     After walking into the house uninvited, Stephen gains a surprise audience of Christine, who throws him out. She is counseled by Forrest’s secretary, however, to talk to the man or else raise suspicion. Christine does invite the man back and promises to help him but is rather guarded and restricted in the information she provides. When Stephen notices an old armory on the property, the woman sneaks off to destroy all papers found therein.

     As the story progresses we are presented with more and more questions with no answers rising to the surface about any of them. This perfect man seems to have some dark secret –a MacGuffin of sorts– and the question of whether his death was murder floats about as we try to find motivation for such an act. Thankfully, Christine reveals the horrible secret that answers all questions at the film’s end, and it is a doozy.

     As I mentioned, I could not help but draw comparisons to Rebecca and Citizen Kane while enjoying Keeper of the Flame. Like the latter, it features the death of a public figure and the search into his life by a reporter. Like Rebecca, Forrest was an adored figure, the accident of whose death (in a storm) is somewhat in question. The story also offers a devoted spouse and staff and possible cousin-lovers, not to mention a small, mysterious building on the property.

     Despite its similarities to other great films, Keeper of the Flame stands on its own as a fantastic mystery. One finds it hard to keep track of all the questions that arise and so simply must go with the flow and have faith the answers will be spelled out plainly at the end. The compounding mysteries also make it difficult to even suspect who might have wanted Forrest dead and by what means made that happen. Even when Stephen finds what he knows to be the damning evidence that the accident was murder of a sort, we still do not fully know what it means. I cannot rave about Keeper of the Flame enough. It is a masterpiece, to be sure.

The MacGuffin: The motivation for Robert Forrest’s death/his secret. It is a MacGuffin because it does not really matter what it is, but it drives the entire plot of the movie.

The Women

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The Women (1939)

     It is possible that never a film so remarkably cast or flush with estrogen has been presented to audiences as 1939’s The Women. Based on a play of the same name and remade many times over the years, the story of a slew of gossiping, man-stealing society dames is probably too female-powered to appeal to the stronger sex, but not being a man, myself, I found it quite enjoyable.

     The stars of the picture are really the reason to watch The Women. With a lot of power-grabbing games and spats going on off-screen, it is a wonder the film got made without more than a scar on Paulette Goddard’s leg. Despite five or more big name stars occupying the majority of the screen time, the story is really about Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, wife to Stephen.

     The story starts with super gossip and outright bitch Sylvia Fowler, played by Rosalind Russell, learning from her manicurist that Mr. Haines has been “stepping out” on his wife with a perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen, embodied by Joan Crawford. She spreads word to a friend before the two head to lunch with Mary Haines, and all through the meal Sylvia drops hints about her new-found knowledge. Mary is preparing to go on a Canadian trip with her hubby, but he calls while the woman is entertaining her guests to say he cannot get away. Mary, too, starts to wonder why he has been working late so often. The following day, Mary gets her nails done by that same loud-mouthed manicurist after Sylvia’s insistence and hears some news about herself. She is set on telling her husband off, but her mother persuades the woman, who has a daughter, to keep quiet for a while.

     Meanwhile, Sylvia and Joan Fontaine‘s all-too-innocent Peggy scope out Crystal on the job where we first meet her and discover she is quite the two-faced lady –capable of speaking in a refined, flirty manner one moment and calling Sylvia Fowler “Mrs. Prowler” the next.  Mary and Crystal ultimately run into each other at a fashion show where Crystal is putting the expensive duds on Mr. Haines’ account. The very sweet and rather passive Mary opts to confront Crystal in her dressing room and the two exchange nasty words, but the papers decide –on a front page spread– that Mary in fact socked her sexual rival. Mary now has it out behind closed doors with her husband and we hear the whole affair recounted as gossip among the house servants. Mary heads for Reno, accompanied by a mixed up Peggy, to wait out a divorce. On the way she meets a countess (Mary Boland) and another woman, Miriam (Paulette Goddard) both taking the journey towards divorce.

     Jump ahead to the day Mary’s divorce decree comes through and we learn that a) Peggy is pregnant and will stay with her husband; b) Miriam is having an affair with Sylvia’s husband; and c) Sylvia’s husband has thrown her out and she too is in Reno for a divorce. Once Sylvia discovers via gossip column that the woman she just met is in line to marry her soon-to-be ex, the two get into a physical fight and the bitch bites Miriam in the leg. Miriam, whom we come to like greatly, counsels Mary and convinces her to tell her husband she will rip up the divorce papers. Receiving a call from Stephen, however, she learns he has just wed Crystal.

     A year and a half later, Crystal is conducting an affair while Stephen is miserable in the relationship and the Haines’ daughter is busy loathing “Auntie Crystal”. When Mary hears how unhappy her ex-husband is and that the new bride is anything but faithful, she hits the town out to expose the whole matter, ultimately breaking up that union and getting her man back.

      Shearer’s Mary is continuously noted throughout the movie as being an overwhelmingly kind and sweet woman, thus driving the audience’s sympathy for her. What she does in the end, however, is realize she must drop her pride and essentially become just like the horrible gossips of her friends and drive a scandal to the surface. The act is utterly out of character for the woman, but she finds she must do what is necessary to get the love of her life back. I found this role a different one for Shearer. I am accustomed to her pre-Production Code parts in which she was often the floozy more akin to Crawford’s Crystal. Shearer still offers the same bubbly personality we always see with her. She is almost nauseatingly happy in her life at the film’s start, being superbly in love with her husband 10 years into their marriage.

     For a movie with the tagline “It’s all about men!”, The Women allows none of that sex to walk in front of the camera. With something like 130 cast members, all were female including the dogs and horses also seen on screen. The tagline is not inaccurate, however, as men ultimately drive the entire plot. I am not one terribly in love with gossip, so the whole blithering mouth-running in this movie gets a bit tiring. It is amazing how quickly Russell can talk, but boy does she rock that part.

     Despite being chock full of women, I can see little in this movie that would appeal to men. All dressed in the high fashion of Adrian, the women are not really sexy, nor is there any actual romance happening on screen. Perhaps the only draw contained in The Women for male audiences is a cat fight between Russell and Goddard’s characters. That bite on the leg left a scar on Goddard but the two actresses allegedly remained friends.

      Although filmed mostly in black and white, a fashion show in the middle of the film is done in Technicolor. The start and close of that scene combines a monochrome frame around a small section in the middle of the screen in color. This was a novel technique at the time.

  • The Women is set for 2:15 a.m. ET Aug. 2 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

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