Feature: Guess that Poster 2013

It’s that time of year again: time for a new banner for the website. Can you figure out from which 1932 movie the poster cross section in the header is derived? This is again not an easy one and is cut from a horizontal poster or perhaps lobby card for the flick. As for hints, it features my favorite actor and an actress who was quite famous on the stage as well as screen. Although I found this movie to be a bit strange in its story of love and prostitution to keep one’s husband alive, the poster is quite captivating.

If you have a guess, click “comments” below or fill in the box. I’ll reveal the answer in a week or two and share the full poster for comparison.

For a reminder of past banner challenges, see the 2012 and 2011 versions. For more movie poster-centric posts and quizzes go HERE.

AND THE ANSWER IS… Continue reading

2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974’s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.

The Unknown

Ring a Ding Ding

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Despite how harsh I came down on circus movies in my last post, I recently enjoyed a very old but very good flick that falls in the sometimes successful circus-as-horror category. The Unknown pairs silent screen great Lon Chaney with a woman with a couple dozen silent movies to her credit: Joan Crawford.

The plot is a great one that scares and upsets the viewer with what is ultimately a very sad story. Chaney is Alonzo, the armless man at the circus. His lack of arms does not hinder him, however, because his feet have become substitutes adroit with such everyday activities as lighting a cigarette.

Also working for the circus is Crawford’s Nanon, who is the pretty girl who has knives hurled at her by thrower Malabar (Norman Kerry). The beautiful Nanon, whose father owns the circus, has had a past filled with the groping hands of men. The occurrences were so disturbing to her that she now fears the hands of all men. Although Malabar is in love with the girl, he sends her running in horror every time he touches her.

It’s no wonder then that Nanon is so fond of Alonzo. There is clearly a stark age difference, but the man has been in love with the girl for years. She seems to cling to him as a sort of fatherly figure, however. One night after Malabar has put his hands on Nanon to her dismay, Alonzo leaves his trailer to teach the man a lesson. We have seen him free his hidden arms from a corset device and now is fully equipped to take on any man. But the person who actually discovers his secret is Nanon’s father Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz). Alonzo strangles him to death, revealing to us why he hides his arms–a genetic defect that has given him a double thumb and can tie him to a variety of thefts.

With the circus disbanded, Alonzo takes Nanon away from the life she has known and tries to start his progression towards a relationship. He ultimately learns, however, she will care for no man with hands. This sparks the idea to have his arms surgically removed. In a very creepy, dramatic scene, Alonzo instructs a surgeon –whom he has coerced into the deed– as to where to remove the limbs. Once he has healed, Alonzo returns to find Nanon has warmed to Malabar and no longer fears his hands. The intertitled dialogue only further drives a stake into Alonzo’s heart as he realizes his grave mistake.

The costuming for The Unknown is magnificent and expertly hides Chaney’s arms from sight while the man is clothed. Chaney plays the part wonderfully, making us feel his anger, his dark side and his anguish. The close of the picture features the actor laughing maniacally as he realizes he has removed his arms for nothing and still has been rejected by the girl he loves. His face is so full of emotion that we can understand without hearing it that his laughter is not driven by joy. Chaney accomplished all of the feet-as-hands action with the help of an actual armless man, who lent his legs for the scenes. Chaney nevertheless is perfectly in synch with the movements so that they do not appear to be coming from two separate bodies.

Crawford really proves herself to be a talented actress in this silent flick. You might not recognize her if you weren’t looking for her, but she makes for a very lovely young woman. Crawford’s character is a sympathetic one, so we hold no malice against her when she opts for the other man.

Source: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary

Grand Hotel

Gasser

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.

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.

The Ice Follies of 1939

Gasser

The Ice Follies of 1939

      If the idea of Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart as ice-skating pros excites you, The Ice Follies of 1939 will disappoint you. Despite their characters’ professed careers, the actors do not really do as much on the ice as their body doubles do, nor as much as the International Ice Follies, members of which are included in the cast.

     The Ice Follies is essentially the Ziegfeld Follies –you guessed it– on ice. Stewart’s character Larry Hall is a great skater who has the ambition of creating a show that features skits and songs written just for ice skaters. He starts the film working with his long-time partner Eddie Burgess (Lew Ayres) and newly acquired partner/girlfriend Mary McKay (Crawford). That act quickly gets the axe, however. Larry and Mary foolishly get married despite the financial turmoil, but the woman goes out to find a job in Hollywood and gets picked up as a star.

     The third-wheel position has Eddie hit the road, and it is not long before Larry gets the same idea given Mary’s fame has grown beyond his tolerance. As part of the actress’ contract, she must remain single, so their marriage is kept secret.

     Once on his own, Larry reunites with Eddie and the two work up the funding to back the Ice Follies concept. As time goes by, Mary becomes a sensational star on screen while Larry becomes the king producer of the ice show. The couple tries to reunite but finds the career demands on each member too great to overcome, at least until movies and ice skating unite.

     This black and white picture concludes with a lengthy color sequence featuring our stars watching their on-screen collaboration: a movie starring Mary and featuring Larry’s direction of ice skaters. This ending epitomized what the movie was really about: an excuse to feature the International Ice Follies. True, some of theBroadway Melody and other follies-esque movies were mere platforms to feature certain talents, but it was unfortunate this ploy became part of a movie featuring three really great stars. Stewart, Crawford and Ayres could have held their own in a romantic movie without the backdrop of ice skating, yet there the gimmick is.

     The Ice Follies of 1939 sits among the many frivolous romantic movies Joan Crawford made early in her career. The main actors’ performances were just fine despite their inability to ice skate. The picture could have been a really heart-string tugger had it been developed separately from the Follies’ inclusion. The story of a movie star and the estranged husband who pulls himself up to equal social stature while still failing to reinstate their romance has potential. It just was not realized here.

Dancing Lady

Ring a Ding Ding

Dancing Lady (1933)

     I saw Dancing Lady for the first time probably more than a year ago. I distinctly remembered this movie as being sort of an odd role for Clark Gable but utterly loving how romantic he was in it. What I did not remember about the movie was its title and that Joan Crawford was the one receiving those romantic attentions. What does that say about her performance?

      Gable plays Patch Gallagher who is a Broadway musical director. He slaves to get shows put into production, making his cast of dancers labor endlessly, while taking orders from the purse-holding producer Bradley (Grant Mitchell).

      Crawford meanwhile plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who is arrested when her place of employment breaks into a riot. While at night court, she is spotted by bored millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). He bails her out and takes her for a meal but cannot seem to convince Janie to date him. He does, however, help to fulfill her dream of having a legitimate dancing job. He uses his monetary influence to get the gal a meeting with Bradley, who instructs Patch to put the girl in the chorus. Upon seeing her audition, however, the director puts Janie in the lead.

      Janie and Patch on and off butt heads and have their romantic near-misses while Janie is publicly attached to Tod. The boyfriend has arranged for the girl to be compensated during rehearsals and is helping to ensure the financial backing for the show. Janie is stuck on her dream of stardom, however, and agrees with her beau that if the show is a success they will split, but if it is a flop, she will become his wife. Tod therefore takes the steps necessary to close the show.

      In many of the Gable-Jean Harlow (and other) pictures we see the man balancing two women and choosing the one who suits him best. In Dancing Lady, the romantic arrangement is the opposite, with Crawford doing the choosing. Gable also takes a toned down approach to his usual masculine, take-what-I-want attitude and although drawn to Crawford’s lips, always turns away before he can interfere in an established relationship. Perhaps the artistic background for his character in Dancing Lady is what softened his role. Gable really makes the flick worth watching.

      Crawford –and Tone, for that matter– really could have been played by anyone. The two were on the verge of a romantic relationship off-screen, and although Tone is his usual charming self, he proves despicable in his actions. Crawford was ingrained in the flapper/showgirl roles at this point in her career, so she gives her standard fare on screen. This judgement is not to say she put on a poor performance, just one that was not memorable for me, blending into the many others she did at this time.

      I should note that Fred Astaire appears playing himself and dancing opposite Crawford. Also working as stage hands are the Three Stooges, whose presence is amusing in and of itself. To think, Joan Crawford worked with the Three Stooges!

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