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

Rage in Heaven

Ring a Ding Ding

Rage in Heaven (1941)

Rage in Heaven (1941)

Rage in Heaven has the distinction of a stellar cast and a clever and enticing plot, but it stops short of being a terrific movie merely by virtue of the time it puts into telling its story. It is not that the film feels rushed by any means, but it could have packed a bigger punch for audience members if it had drawn out the action and put more time into letting the narrative sink in. At around 85 minutes in run time, the picture definitely could have elongated its duration.

The story opens at a French mental asylum where a patient named Ward Andrews –whom we do not see– escapes. He suffers from a personality disorder that makes him emotionally detached and potentially capable of murder. In the next scene, we see one Ward Andrews, played by George Sanders, encounter his childhood and longtime best friend Philip Monrell, played by Robert Montgomery. The two reignite a friendship and Monrell invites his pal to his mother’s English estate where he is returning after some time in Paris, from where Andrews is also returning.

Upon arrival at Mrs. Monrell’s (Lucile Watson) home, Philip first encounters is mother’s new companion/secretary Stella Bergen, played by Ingrid Bergman. He is immediately captivated by her. The scene also alludes that Mrs. Monrell is anything but well. She convinces her son that he must finally take a role in the family-owned steel mill.

During the brief time Ward spends at the Monrell home, Stella becomes quite enthralled by him but declines to indicate any willingness to enter a relationship. When Ward leaves, followed by Mrs. Monrell’s retreat to a better climate, Philip works to convince Stella to marry him.

The couple are quite happy at first, but Philip becomes apparently upset by any creature that siphons away any affection Stella could instead shower upon him. He kills a kitten given to her by Ward, making it look like an accident but flying into a rage at the slightest suggestion by household staff that the circumstances seem odd.

At some point during the story it becomes plain that Philip was in fact the man in the French asylum, who assumed his friend’s name while there. His dispassionate personality and growing jealousy about his wife’s relationships –particularly her fondness for Ward– play out to an increasingly frightening degree. Philip invites Ward to visit and offers him a job as his chief engineer at the steel mill, only to attempt to kill him. The danger escalates for Ward and Stella and the plot takes an unexpected turn that puts Ward on death row.

Rage in Heaven does a great job of gradually revealing Philip’s insanity. What it does not do is draw out the suspense and drama associated with the twist in plot, which I am loathe to discuss here and spoil for those unfamiliar with the story. Suffice it to say, the movie would have been an excellent one if the last quarter of the film had been elongated.

Montgomery does a fantastic job; however, for those unfamiliar with his work, he might come off as a boring actor. Montgomery –who made a plethora of movies in the roll of wealthy playboy– is certainly cast against type here and pulls off his role by playing with a completely flat personality. The upbeat and sometimes zany performances we usually get out of the man are absent here as he works to play the emotionally bereft psychopath. So to the unknowing viewer, Montgomery’s performance might seem lackluster next to the typically stellar Bergman and Sanders.

At the close of Rage in Heaven, I could not help but think it would make an excellent remake. The story could be translated into modern times; however, there is a certain haste about the end of the story and the attempts to save Ward from his death that would be lost given modern technology. Still, a new version set in the 1940s would make for a delightful rendition, given certain changes to heighten the drama.

Blondie of the Follies

Dullsville

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

It is possible I have never seen a movie with more ups and downs in story quality than Blondie of the Follies. At the movie’s opening, it becomes immediately clear that the directorial quality of the flick is on the low side and our characters are hard to immediately relate to.

Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie Dove) live in the same low-rent, uptown Manhattan apartment building and are friends, sort of. Lottie is about to leave with some hot shot men and introduces Blondie, who immediately insults one and storms off. Minutes later the two girls are in an all-out brawl. When Lottie informs her “friend” that she is getting a job in a burlesque joint in midtown, Blondie begs her to stay in touch.

Months later Lottie –now going by the false name Lurlene– is playing the sophisticated socialite, enjoying a swell apartment paid for by a millionaire sweetheart. She is appearing in the follies and opts to deliver a gift to her family on Mother’s Day. While there, Lottie and Blondie reunite in a positive way and the latter joins her friend in an immediate visit of her fancy digs. There she meets the millionaire: Larry Belmont, played by veteran rich cad Robert Montgomery. Larry is immediately interested in the blonde and despite Lottie’s desires to send her home, he insists on taking Blondie to the follies show that night.

Taking Blondie backstage during the show, Larry also secures a job for the girl. Next they drop in at a neighboring speakeasy where Blondie has her first experience with liquor. She is deposited by the millionaire on her parent’s doorstep some time after dawn, much to her ill father’s (James Gleason) chagrin. Blondie immediately flees back to Lottie’s apartment –despite the growing tension/rivalry between them– to pursue her new career.

When Lottie informs the girl, however, that she is in love with Larry, Blondie agrees to back off. She instead goes along with an older, oil tycoon, who establishes a posh residence for the girl. Larry, meanwhile, is stuck on Blondie and breaks it off with Lottie. Months later, Blondie orchestrates a reunion between the former lovers in the hopes of reuniting them. It is then Larry hints he has only fallen for one girl, and it wasn’t Lottie. Blondie refuses to see Larry, and the dames continue their extravagant lives in and out of the follies.

When Larry prepares to leave for France, he insists on seeing Blondie before his departure. Lottie catches word of this and tries to flirt her way into a boat ticket of her own. Seeing Blondie with the man, however, sends Lottie into a rage thinking her friend has not kept her word about staying away from the gent. The fight plays out on stage when Blondie goes flying into the orchestra pit, breaking her leg.

Now ready to head home and forget the glamorous life, Blondie bids adieu to Lottie, Larry and others at a party. Her leg is disfigured from the break and she is now fit to be no man’s wife, she thinks. Days later, Larry turns up at the low-income flat with a slew of doctors who insist they can rebreak and properly mend the leg. Only now does Blondie concede to marry her millionaire.

The first portion of Blondie of the Follies, during which our two frienemies, to coin a term, have multiple ups and downs and Blondie gets her job, is lousy. Montgomery stands out as the worst ass of his career roles as it becomes apparent he knows all of the girls in the follies and cares for none of them. Only around the time he breaks up with Lottie does Larry become something more genuine to the audience. From here he even goes through periods of endearing romance that make the picture feel like it is on track for a great romantic ending. The writers let us down, however, with Blondie’s pathetic about-face on her anti-Larry stance. She never particularly convinces us she pines for the man, and her reason for agreeing to the union –that the man will fix her bum leg and make her marriage-worthy– is regrettable.

The one thing that does not vary throughout the movie is the acting quality. Montgomery makes no false move, and Davies is as fun and humorous as ever. Dove plays a marvelous snobby bitch and is purely contemptible in nearly every moment of the film, even when she is repeating, “I like you Blondie; I always have.” The relationship between the girls is obnoxious. We feel Lottie never truly likes Blondie, yet the other is constantly moving between love and hate and assuming the same of her pal. Whereas Lottie never has Blondie’s best interest at heart, the latter does mostly maintain her promises to Lottie.

I might have given Blondie of the Follies a better grade if not for that disappointing ending. There is nothing more irritating than a romantic movie that falters at the end of the emotional crescendo. The couple does not even kiss to seal the deal.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Wowza!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock is most popularly known today as the “master of suspense”, and rightfully so. Most people remember him for the drama of his thrillers and some find his pictures terrifying. What is perhaps ignored by the average viewer, however, is the man’s astute sense of humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith was the only movie Hitchcock made in America that was strictly a comedy with no suspense whatever. This was not his only venture into the genre, however, as many of his early English films were suspense-free. In all Hitchcock flicks, however, the viewer can find evidence of “Hitchcockian humor”, many times slipped in under the nose of the Hayes Office. Much of the master’s humor related to sexual innuendo, and the director was constantly pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with under the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one movie that is all about what consists of proper behavior for an unmarried couple, even if they’ve been married before.

Perfectly paired are Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as Ann and David Smith. The flick opens with the servants wondering what is going on in the couple’s bedroom, where they have been holed up for three days. The duo has a policy of never leaving their bedroom until an argument has been resolved, David’s job as a lawyer be damned. We come in just in time to see the couple rekindle their affection, but over breakfast, Ann insists on another of their traditions: asking a question to which David must give a totally honest answer. The question is: If you could do it over again, would you marry me. The answer: no.

This answer becomes particularly important when later that day David learns that his marriage to Ann is not legal because of a mix up with the way the county and state in which they were married provided the paperwork. The man who delivers the news, Mr. Deever (Charles Halton), knew Ann when she was a girl and so drops by the home to give her the information. Ann is convinced David will marry her right away, but in trying to make a big surprise of the situation, he does not. That leads to Ann furiously throwing her non-husband out of their apartment and returning to her maiden name and life.

The remainder of the story involves David fighting to get Ann back while each tries to make the other jealous. Ann does this by dating David’s law practice partner (Gene Raymond). Both are too stubborn and too conniving to relinquish control until finally their games land each in the other’s arms.

The fun in Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not just the almost screwball-style of acting our stars bring to the screen –I’ll get to that momentarily– but the moral questions it raises. Hitchcock loved to create circumstances in his movies when an unmarried couple find themselves forced to share a bedroom (see The 39 Steps and Spellbound). In this case the viewer cannot help but wonder about just how wrong it was that the two have been sharing a bed for three years and whether they can continue to do so without redoing their vows. This movie could obviously never be made today and make any sort of sense.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is pure gold for me. With my two favorite actors in the lead paired with my favorite director, the movie cannot go wrong. Lombard is as zany as she is in My Man Godfrey, although, her character is more on the sane side in this case. Montgomery really brings out his comedic side as well, both in dialogue and physically. The lines are so well written with such subtle humor and innuendo that the more you pay attention the funnier the movie is. I could watch it everyday.

Night Flight

Ring a Ding Ding

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.

Feature: Late Summer Reading

I might have a backwards way of selecting my literature. Whereas the modern reader is apt to watch a movie because he liked the book that inspired it, I, on the other hand, am searching out reading material based on movies I enjoy. People often say the books are better than the movies in most of these circumstances, so perhaps my approach will result in the discovery of great books.

The novels I have recently been hunting are based on movies I have here blogged about: Piccadilly Jim and The Saint series. I have been most optimistic about locating the former, as it seems to be available to a degree online. The latter I have held little hope for because the series of stories seems to be out of print, largely, though also sporadically available online.

During this past week and a half while on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped in every bookstore I came across to inquire about these items. All returned negative results except one. Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, might be the largest such retailer in the country. It occupies one square block and at least three stories of retail space. I asked the man at the desk about “Piccadilly Jim” and was told it was not in stock but to otherwise checkout the impressive P.G. Wodehouse collection. I did so, was impressed, and had a last minute impulse to check alphabetically on the chance the title I sought was there. Indeed it was, to my vast excitement!

I then took it upon myself to look up “The Saint” books by Leslie Charteris. The computer said at least one was available, but to my surprise, a whole shelf was lined with a variety in the series. Unable to properly choose where to begin, I selected the four hard covers in stock (to my pocketbook’s dismay). They include the first in the series, “Meet the Tiger”, a version printed in 1940.

I’ve already delved into “Piccadilly Jim” and am finding it wildly different from the movie version starring Robert Montgomery. Some of the changes made for the movie I perceive to be a means to play to the actors’ strengths, such as by altering Eugenia from a strong wife into a ditzy wife-prospect under her sisters thumb, ala Billie Burke. I also recently caught a few moments of a modern movie of the story that had me utterly confused because it differed so much from what I recalled of the Montgomery version. I think in actuality it is more true to the novel.

So my love of Wodehouse is being furthered through this new find and I can’t wait to delicately make my way through the ancient hardcover Saint books. Hunting for a piece of literature history is certainly more thrilling than picking up a readily available classic at Barnes and Noble. Hooray for independently owned bookstores!

Sins of the Children

Gasser

Sins of the Children (1930)

     The advent of sound sent Hollywood producers running to Broadway to find some actors who could actually speak coherently enough for film audiences. During this raid on the stage, MGM found Louis Mann and created a vehicle to movie stardom for him through Sins of the Children, at the time marketed as The Richest Man in the World. Mann, however, would die the next year and never make another film. The project was not without its discoveries, however, as it was among the first pictures in which fellow stage actor Robert Montgomery would appear.

      Mann plays the ultimate father as Adolph, a barber who opens the picture preparing to invest in a start up building and loan operation. Just before heading out the door, however, he learns one of his sons is ill and in need of rest in a dry and high altitude climate. The man thus re-appropriates his investment. His friend Joseph Higgenson (Robert McWade) follows through with the business venture, however, and becomes a powerful man.

      Jump ahead at least a decade and Adolph is still muddling through at his barbershop. The one son died at war, another, Ludwig (Francis X. Bushman Jr.), has just graduated from medical school and would rather spend time with his girlfriend and Americanize his name. Son Johnnie (Elliott Nugent) has a job as a debt collector but is persuaded by Higgenson’s son Nick (Montgomery) to gamble with it. Adolph must then make up the $200 missing dollars to prevent his son from going to jail. Nick is dating daughter Alma (Leila Hyams) even though his his father does not approve of the girl beneath his social rank.

      Next the father mortgages his barbershop to donate $2,000 toward setting up a medical office for Ludwig only to find he has just eloped with that unpleasant girlfriend. He cannot make the payments on the loan, however, and his shop is foreclosed despite the hiring of a manicurist –with whom Johnnie falls in love — to attract customers.

      Despite the disappointments his children have wrought and the loss of his livelihood, the story offers us a happy ending. Johnnie, who had skipped town, returns home with a patent for an automatic shaving cream dispenser that has been put partially in Adolph’s name. Johnnie and the manicurist opt to marry, Nick –after hearing Adolf declare he is a richer man because of his family’s love than the wealthy Joseph Higgenson– marries Alma, and all members of the family celebrate the holidays together.

      Sins of the Children was nothing if not finely acted. One can see why Mann was considered a hot property for Hollywood, and Montgomery shows himself as a seasoned actor in only his second year in California. Mann plays his character as a father teetering between ignorance and over-generosity. The story goes to extremes to prove the value of familial love but does so in a logical manner. All children, despite their flaws, remain as endearing to the audience as they do to the father who continues to care for them.

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