So long, Mickey Rooney

For we classic movie fans, it is impossible not to know and appreciate Mickey Rooney, who we lost yesterday at age 93. I sometimes lament that none of the big stars from Hollywood’s golden age that I like are still alive –only the ones I tend to very much dislike. But Rooney did not fall on the list of disliked stars.

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

I cannot say I have ever been a big Rooney fan, but it is impossible not to respect him. I’ve been exposed to a good number of his work –though a comparatively small portion of the list of 200+ flicks he made–because of the other people he starred with. I think I’ve seen all of the Andy Hardy and other movies he made with Judy Garland, and those films are a good representation of the lighthearted work he did. Then there’s Boys Town and Captains Courageous, which were among those that proved Rooney’s talent for serious performances. Even before he became a box office draw, Rooney made small appearances in comedic and dramatic spots in movies such as Riffraff and Manhattan Melodramarespectively.

His acting preparation backs up his talent. He was not just some cute kid who was cast in movies because he seemed to have a knack for it. Although his family had a vaudeville background and put him on stage reportedly before he could talk, Rooney also attended the Hollywood Professional School, which was also responsible for training Judy Garland and other future stars.

Even as he aged and stopped playing the lovable teenager trying to catch a girl, Rooney made us laugh. Everyone remembers his unrecognizable role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’sHis career in the later years went up and down but he kept on working in films and on stage.

History will never forget Mickey Rooney, though it will probably remember him best for those films of his youth. But I think in some ways those movies have a universal appeal and can continue to entertain future generations of children, just ask I enjoyed National Velvet as a kid.

Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Tribute to a Bad Man

Dullsville

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)

     James Cagney would never be my first pick to act in a western. The star who made his name playing gangsters and later returned to his native song-and-dance genre did not exude “cowboy”, at least not at this point in his career. In Tribute to a Bad Man, Cagney is 57 but still a tough guy. The title of the film is confusing at first, as we wonder who this “bad man” might be. Cagney starts off the picture seeming rather congenial, but we gradually see just how deep seated his “badness” is.

     The story is narrated by Steve Miller (Don Dubbins) who comes across a gun fight in a valley belonging to Jeremy Rodock, although the young man has not yet heard this name. Steve scares away the aggressors and attends to a man shot in the back who is this Rodock (Cagney). The two develop a simple friendship overnight on their way back to Rodock’s farm where Steve will get work.

     Rodock is a horse wrangler and has the largest and most successful enterprise for raising and selling the animal anywhere in the area. His expanses of land on which the horses graze, however, leave plenty of opportunity for theft, which Rodock strictly punishes by hanging. At home, Rodock has a young ethnic woman (probably meant to be Latina but played by Greek Irene Papas) who appears to be his mistress. Upon meeting her, Steve is immediately struck by Jocasta’s beauty –as are others who work and live on the ranch– but respects Rodock too much to do anything about it.

     Through Jocasta’s pleading that Rodock not go around killing the people who have wronged him, and Steve’s passive approach to justice, we come to understand just how bad this Rodock is. In a final display of his meanness, the man punishes the three thieves who have temporarily crippled his mares by cutting their hooves too closely by having the men walk barefoot to the nearest town. Steve at first seems pleased by the equitable punishment and Rodocks’ abstention from killing, but as the torture takes a toll on the men, he gets fed up and decides the man is cruel. Steve attempts to leave the ranch with Jocasta, but the woman cannot shake her man, not matter how brutal he is.

     Tribute to a Bad Man is tragically absent of any likeable characters. Although Steve is tolerable, he wanes on the pathetic side in strong contrast to the abject meanness Cagney brings to Rodock. The part was originally planned for Spencer Tracy, who I think would have brought some logic to his cruelty rather than acting on pure animal instinct as Cagney seems to do. The latter’s approach makes it impossible for us to believe the man can ever change to someone soft enough for the woman he loves.

     Dubbins’ performance is adequate as the looker on who relates the story of Jeremy Rodock through his own experiences. The plot is really meant to convey Steve becoming a man through the influence of Rodock and Jocasta, but one has to dig past the story’s muck to find that conclusion.

Riffraff

Gasser

Riffraff (1936)

     I would not necessarily think of Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy as a logical couple. Although he played notable lower-class parts, I generally think of Tracy as a gentleman, something Harlow’s characters do not often find themselves with. In Riffraff, however, Tracy creates a character just low enough for a slightly more conservative Harlow to love.

     Harlow as Hattie lives in a cramped shack of a home with her father, brother, sister, brother-in-law and their kids. She still manages to keep her hair curled and her face fresh despite working in a tuna cannery, where most women in this sea-side town are employed. The same cannot be said of sister, Lil (Una Merkel), who has let her looks go as she endeavors to keep up with her children.

     Tracy as Dutch, meanwhile, is one of many men in the fishermen’s union working under Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia), who has gotten rich from his tuna business. Dutch starts the film brushing off affections from Hattie, who has been in a love-hate state with the man for some time.

     Dutch’s affections warm toward Hattie when she starts going around with and accepting furs from Nick. Dutch and Hattie, therefore, get married, and the groom buys a house full of fine furnishings purchased on the installment plan. Dutch soon becomes the union president and calls for a strike, which is eventually resolved to the union’s detriment and Dutch is replaced at the helm. Penniless, debt collectors come calling and take all of the couple’s furniture. Ashamed, the man leaves for another city and says he will send for Hattie when he has made his fortune.

     Months later, Hattie discovers her husband is living in a homeless camp and steals money from Nick to help him. The crime lands her in jail, however, and to make matters worse, she’s pregnant. The baby is taken away from her in prison and no one in the family tells Dutch as Lil looks after him. The disgraced fisherman returns to town and discovers the union will not take him back, but he manages to land a security job on the docks. In that role he saves the whole town from being blown up and is thrown a hero’s party.

     Hattie has meanwhile escaped for prison and is waiting for Dutch to rescue her and take her to Mexico. The couple, celebrating the revelation of Dutch’s child, opt not to run.

     There is not much to be said about Riffraff. It is a moderately amusing movie with a plot that seems to make things continually worse as the story goes on. There are few moments of happiness between the couple –when they move into their house and the ending– but their passion for one another is evident. The fact that they stand on the precipice of again being separated at the film’s conclusion and yet are their most happy is what embodies their relationship. Unfortunately, the love and passion between the two lovers is not portrayed in such a way that we ache for their reunion. This is no Wuthering Heights or Splendor in the Grass in terms of gut-wrenching performances. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable picture. I should mention a young Mickey Rooney also adds some humor as Hattie’s brother. His performance is fun, but one wouldn’t watch Riffraff just for him.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Wowza!

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

A reporter character in Judgement at Nuremberg says he could not give away a story about the Nuremberg Nazi war crime trials in 1948 because America had moved on from the war and was no longer interested. If Americans were not interested in the trials then, they certainly had no choice but to be in 1961 with the release of this overwhelming movie.

What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so important? Take your pick: the award recognition, the acting or the story. Despite its more than three-hour run time, I was hooked and invested in the story from the start.

The plot follows one specific trial held in Nuremberg, Germany, that sought to determine the guilt of four court judges during the Third Reich and whether they could be held accountable for the atrocities carried out as a result of their sentences. Spencer Tracy plays “backwoods” American Judge Haywood picked to sit on the tribunal with two others and pass judgement on the men. He is put up in a mansion formerly occupied by Marlene Dietrich‘s Madam Bertholt, whose husband was executed at an earlier war crimes trial.

In court, where most of the drama takes place, Hans Rolfe, played by Maximilian Schell, defend the judges on the grounds that they merely delivered on the laws of the country they loved regardless of whether they were morally sound.  Richard Widmark‘s Col. Tad Lawson meanwhile prosecutes the men on the assertion that they perverted justice in enacting the will of Adolph Hitler and subjecting those who came before them to death and sexual sterilization.

Three of the four judges on trial are immediately unlikable, while a fourth, Burt Lancaster‘s Ernst Janning, refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal and becomes the subject of the majority of testimony we witness through the camera’s lens. We notice early on that Judge Haywood is sympathetic toward Janning and will require undeniable proof that he should be held accountable for the sentences he delivered. The chips seem to be stacked in this man’s favor until a last-minute statement declares his guilt.

The drama in Judgment at Nuremberg is electric. From the moment Max Schell starts to speak in German –hair and spittle flying– one cannot help but be hooked. Director Stanley Kramer used a unique device in allowing audiences to hear the majority of the dialogue in English. The court uses interpreters who translate through headsets worn by whomever in the room does not understand the language being spoken at a given time. During one of Schell’s wild opening lines, his dialogue switches into English as we view him from the interpreter’s booth. Nevertheless, the characters maintain the pretense of relying on the headsets whenever a person of the opposite language is speaking.

Although a number of American actors play German roles, they all do so amazingly. Lancaster is stoic but sympathetic while Judy Garland is a tormented soul on the stand. Montgomery Clift, meanwhile, is spellbinding to watch as the prosecution has him explain the trial leading up to his sexual sterilization and the defense forces a near admission of mental insufficiency. Dietrich is her usual brilliant, German self and has grown even more beautiful with age. Try as she might, she cannot turn off the sex appeal.

Judgment at Nurembergis an incredibly emotional story to watch. Toward the end, footage of the English emancipation of one of the concentration camps is brutally painful and it becomes impossible to not side with the bully of a prosecutor in Widmark. The movie otherwise does an objective job of presenting the two sides of the argument, which is no easy feat.

Adam’s Rib

Ring a Ding Ding

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.

Boom Town

Ring a Ding Ding

Boom Town (1940)

     One could potentially maintain a blog focused solely on movies employing the hackneyed plot element that ties financial success with romantic promiscuity. Thankfully this approach is usually a minor aspect of a greater story as is the case of the two very different movies I’ve reviewed so far this week: Monday’s No Other Woman and now Boom Town.

     Where No Other Woman was dull, however, Boom Town was highly entertaining. This two-hour movie crams in a massive storyline that takes its characters around the country and through phases of love and hate. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are John McMasters and John Sand, respectively, who meet on the muddy streets of a Texas town ravaged by oil prospectors. The two become fast friends and steal/borrow some equipment from Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) to get their first well started. That one is a dud but after working in other oil fields, the duo return to drill another section of the land they own. The same day this prospect starts shooting oil, Betsy Bartlett (Claudette Colbert) comes to town looking for Sand, who is keen on marrying the gal. McMasters gets to her first, however, and the two are married that first night before Betsy has a chance to tell her new spouse that she knows his partner.

     Sand can get over losing Betsy, who he knew never really loved him, but he cannot abide McMasters hitting the town and having a drunken dance with another woman. This is how Betsy and Sand find the man as they bring news that the oil field is on fire. After putting out the flames, the two Johns flip a coin for ownership of the land and McMasters and Betsy give up their mansion and hit the road. McMasters travels around the country working at various oil fields and ends up at a secondary plot Sand operates. He refuses to take a job from the ex-friend.

     Sand’s luck will run out at that field and McMasters will make it big again. This time he takes his riches to New York where he gets into the refinery business. There he meets Hedy Lamarr‘s Karen Vanmeer who will work for him as a sort of eavesdropper, picking up tips about what others in the business are up to. She also keeps the businessman away from his home, wife and son. Sand will end up in New York and use his money and influence to try to destroy McMasters company only to save Betsy from the unhappy marriage.

     Stories that introduce the vixen character seem to always end with the man being unable to deny his everlasting feelings for his original love, at least in Hollywood. These plots usually paint us a dutiful wife who either refuses to give up/leave her spouse because of her undying love or releases him only because she wants the man to be happy. Adding a child to the equation works to push the audience toward the wife over the lover even if we might think the protagonist would be happier in those arms. What perhaps is kept off screen in these set-ups is that the man theoretically wants to leave the wife only because the mistress demands marriage or will cut him off sexually. This underlying motivation usually comes across as the man truly not being sure which woman he loves more, even if that might be obvious to us.

     Boom Town was a very entertaining movie. What starts out as a buddy story of struggling to find success becomes a rivalry tale, an adventure for a young married couple, and finally a bitter battle marked by threats and a suicide attempt. One would not have expected the story he is viewing at the start of the picture would progress to the conflict the characters face at the end. The picture is also crafted in a way that keeps us entertained without making it seem as though we are watching a very long movie. It crams a lot of action and drama into a short time span.

  • Boom Town is set for 4:30 a.m. ET Feb. 9 on TCM.

San Francisco

Ring a Ding Ding

San Francisco (1936)

All I really remembered from my past viewing of San Francisco years ago was that it had to do with the San Fran earthquake of 1906, but as I began watching it this week, I started to question that conclusion. Although this Clark Gable movie concludes with the quake and its aftermath as a sort-of climax that will cleanse all the ills between he and his romantic interest in Jeanette MacDonald, the majority of the movie is virtually written to stand alone.

Gable is Blackie Norton, a somewhat notorious owner of the Paradise Cafe, a bar and dance hall. Just after the somewhat inexplicable time of after midnight at the turn of the New Year 1906, MacDonald’s Mary Blake arrives at the joint to ask for a singing job. The man obliges and allows her to sleep on his couch despite her initial preacher’s daughter convictions. Mary desires to be an opera singer and her style has to be brought down to the Paradise’s level, yet she manages to make an impression on the owner of the Tivoli opera house and the theater’s maestro. They want to have her audition for the big time but Blackie holds a newly signed two-year contract over their heads and forces the woman to stay at his bar.

Mary finally starts to sweeten to Blackie when that opera house owner Jack Burley (Jack Holt) comes calling yet again. Blackie tells the man he will give him the girl’s contract if she wants to go, but Mary stays loyal to the brute when he says he does not desire for her to leave. The two finally kiss but Mary cannot be with this sinful man and leaves to join the opera company. Blackie attempts to obstruct her debut but is blown away by her talent and the woman “harpoons” him into an engagement not realizing the businessman’s conditions require she chose the opera or he. She chooses the opera and an engagement to Burley.

Mixed into all of this is Blackie’s childhood friend Father Tim (Spencer Tracy) who sides with Mary in her endeavors because he knows Blackie’s ways will not make her happy. Circumstances also come to prove, however, that Burley is not as squeaky clean as Mary thought as the man takes revenge against Blackie despite having already won the prize bride. When the earthquake hits, Blackie is forced to face what truly matters in his life, which is Mary, naturally.

Gable puts on a great performance especially in the last 15 minutes or so when he must scour the rubble of San Francisco in search of his love. Not only his facial expressions but the performances of the distraught around him are incredibly gut wrenching and completely turn the mood of the picture into one of great sorrow.The special effects are also fantastic and horrifying. Curiously, the Mary character is not searching for the man she allegedly loves despite his evil ways but is instead singing to the masses in a refugee camp. True, we are more interested in Blackie confronting what is most important (now that his cafe is gone) than the pure woman, but it makes their resulting reunion not as rewarding for the viewer.

As the audience, we know Mary will choose Blackie in the end, but because of Blackie’s poor decisions along the way he is not quite as desirable match for her as we would like. MacDonald herself if also too innocent for those viewers who might side with Gable as the protagonist as we would rather see him with a more suitable mate. Overall, however, San Francisco is a great picture and worth checking out if only for the last 20 minutes.

Keeper of the Flame

Wowza!

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.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Gasser

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

     The year was 1932. The Production Code was only starting to strangle the contents of films, Bette Davis was still sporting the platinum blonde look and playing sleazy roles, and Spencer Tracy was kind of young-looking. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was one of those films that like many of those to come under the iron fist of the Code would have no choice but to punish the criminal, no matter how likeable he was.

     I learned about this code restriction from reading about the struggles Alfred Hitchcock had with several of his films. He often wanted villains or anti-heroes to get of scott free, but the big wigs in the Hayes Office required those who commit a serious crime to be punished for it, whether through the penal system or via suicide. For that reason, several Hitchcock bad guys kill themselves or get a comeuppance the director would rather have avoided.

     In 20,000 Years in Sing Sing we have a criminal serving his time, but he ultimately pays a mortal price for another crime he did not commit. As Tommy Connors, Tracy is some sort of hoodlum with pull in New York, but when he moves into Sing Sing for armed robbery, he is surprised to find his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) is unable to secure either a release or at least a comfy stay. When issued an oversized uniform, Connors gets riled and starts throwing his fists around. The warden (Arthur Byron) agrees to let him off on the uniform requirement, allows him to wander around in long underwear, then assigns him to the ice house.

     When a small group of inmates plan an escape, Connors is all for it until he realizes the bust will go down on a Saturday –his jinx. He backs out at the last minute and the plan goes awry, resulting in two dead inmates and one who eventually gets the chair. The warden knows Connors had the option of trying for the escape and their relationship improves knowing he opted not to.

     Throughout his time in prison –a stint of five to 30 years– Connors has been visited by his girlfriend Fay, played by Davis. She has been allowing the lawyer to flirt with her in the hopes she can motivate him to get Connors set free. Fay and lawyer Finn get into a bad car accident and the girl thinks she is going to die. The warden learns of this and allows Connors to go see her provided he return to the prison that night. Connors has every intention of doing so until he runs into Finn at Fay’s place and the two get into a tussle. Fay shoots Finn from her bed but Connors absconds with the weapon. The incident might not have been a problem had not a curious cop been following Connors and heard the whole thing. It takes a couple weeks, but Connors does return to prison, stands trial and is convicted of the crime.

     Tracy gives a great performance. He had a wide range of personalities he could play and did a great job of presenting the tough guy with enough sense to know when to stop fighting. His character undergoes a bit of a transformation away from the arrogance the outside world laid upon him and toward the humble status of an every man no better than the next. Davis, too, gives a swell portrayal of a loyal girlfriend truly in love with her inmate beau. Never have I seen so much smooching in a film from this era. The character was not one we would see Davis play starting a few years hence, but she certainly proves there was no role she could not master.

  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is set for 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

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