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Love on the Run

Love on the Run (1936)

Gasser

     If one were to pit Franchot Tone against Clark Gable in vying for a woman’s affections on screen who would win? One might say the answer depends on the woman. In the case of Love on the Run, Joan Crawford is our leading lady, but although she was married to Tone offscreen at the time of the film, that man does not get the slightest chance to woo her in this picture.

     Tone and Gable are dueling reporters of sorts as Barney Pells and Mike Anthony, respectively. They are London roommates and foreign correspondents for rival New York newspapers. Mike is consistently vowing to share any scoops with his pal, but always leaves him in the lurch. On the first day of our story, the two flip a coin to see who will cover the wedding of a socialite to a prince and who will attend the takeoff of a baron and baroness who are pilots. When Mike arrives at the church, he finds Crawford as socialite Sally Parker fleeing from the premises and tracks her down.

     The reporter wins over the girl’s trust and conceals his profession. To sneak her out of her hotel, however, he borrows the aviation outfits of the baron and his wife, and the two take off in that couple’s plane using Mike’s moderate flying skills. To get away with this, however, Mike tied up the baron, baroness and his pal Barney who was interviewing them at the time. The two crash land in France and begin an adventure of hiding from the public, secretly reporting news stories back home and avoiding the baron and baroness, who turn out to be frauds/spies.

     Tone intercepts the couple repeatedly throughout their journey and is rewarded by being tossed from a train and tied up again and again to allow Mike to continue getting the scoop. When Mike’s profession is uncovered, it creates turmoil in the romance blossoming between he and Sally, but nothing that a movie plot cannot overcome.

     Love on the Run is not the love triangle I expected it to be. If anything Sally and Mike band together to thwart Barney. It was Mike’s treatment of his roommate that particularly turned me off to the protagonist. He is so brutal in his treatment of the man –at one point forcing Barney, who is rescuing Mike, to switch places with him and become a hostage to the spies– that I found it difficult to laugh at.

     The romantic plot is not particularly enthralling. It is a slow-growing love between Sally and Mike as the two initially annoy each other, as is often the case in movies, but it is nothing if not predictable. Crawford, as you might have gathered from my lack of mention of her thus far, offers nothing novel to the story. Any woman could have played this part and the picture would have remained the same.

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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.

Forsaking All Others

Gasser

Forsaking All Others (1934)

     I think we all remember Joan Crawford for the roles in which she played commanding women, perhaps because she was one off screen, but when she was still fiddling about with basic romantic comedies, she was not foreign to the lovesick-gal-chasing-after-a-lover-type roles, as was her part in a well cast Forsaking All Others. Here we also find Clark Gable in a role we will not remember him for because he takes the part of a man regimented to best friend status as he pines for the girl set to marry the third member of the trio. In that third role, Robert Montgomery does shine forth in his standard a-cad-that-one-can’t-help-but-love character.

     Crawford as Mary is readying herself for tomorrow’s wedding ceremony with childhood friend Dillon (Montgomery). Making the occasion complete is the return of Jeff (Gable) –another childhood friend– from Spain who arrives ready to propose to the young woman until he learns the “joyous” news of the impending marriage. During what should have been a bachelor dinner, Dill instead gets held up by his last girlfriend Connie (Frances Drake) and the man never shows. Dill also fails to show at the church the next day, and Jeff eventually receives a cable indicating the groom has instead married his ex.

     To get away from the embarrassment, Mary heads off to a cabin in the New York wilderness. When Jeff visits with her mail, she finds she is invited to a party hosted by Dill and Connie –an attempt by the latter to upset the jilted bride. To prove her recovery from her last relationship, Mary attends, with Jeff on her arm. It is at the party that Dill discovers ashamedly his wife’s evil plot and confesses his enduring love for Mary. The two attempt to take up an affair and head out on a fun-filled adventure into the country to what would have been their honeymoon house. The trip is marked by comedic disasters and the couple are rained into the house for the night, but Mary refuses to go to bed with the man. Connie seeks a divorce because of the seeming infidelity and the story comes full circle to the wedding of Mary and Dill, at least momentarily.

     All characters in Forsaking All Others are likeable, even Montgomery whose Dill cannot seem to synch his physical and emotional impulses with his own logic. The story does a great job of convincing us that Mary wants no one but Dill and so should we root for their reunion even if Jeff has stood by as the more sympathetic male lead. Gable wears his emotions on his face for the camera while concealing them from the other characters, which is not something we often see with him. The Jeff character is also joined by comedic sidekick Shep (Charles Butterworth) who lends much of the comic relief and witty dialogue. Billie Burke is also on hand as a woman who considers Mary her daughter and is intertwined in all the rumblings.

     Forsaking All Others is nothing special in the realm of romantic comedies, nor in the careers of its players, but it is a delightfully enchanting love story that will give one the warm fuzzies, if that’s what is sought in a movie.

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Gasser 

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

The Misfits

Wowza!

The Misfits (1961)

     I have never been sold on Marilyn Monroe as anything but a ditz with an outrageous body. In the handful of pictures I have seen, she always comes off as ignorant and naive so that I feel no option but to assume this is how she was off-screen. In her last work, however, Monroe gives us an entirely different person to consider and one that had me a bit baffled.

     The Misfits was a movie outwardly surrounded by tragedy. Not only was it Monroe’s last completed film before her mysterious death, but it also marked the last appearance of Clark Gable, who suffered a heart attack the day after shooting wrapped and died 11 days later. Ironically, he was quoted as saying on the last day on set, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She [Monroe] damn near gave me a heart attack.” Some did blame Monroe for that heart attack because her unreliability on the set –showing up late, etc.– left the older actor in the desert heat for extended periods of time and even prompted him to do his own stunts to fight the boredom. Besides those two, the movie also co-starred Montgomery Clift, who after being somewhat disfigured in a car accident during the filming of Raintree County had become an alcoholic and would make only two more films before dying in 1966 of heart disease. A doctor was on set at all times for both Monroe and Clift.

     Directed by John Huston, The Misfits is a tale of the random adventures of five individuals thrown together somewhat by chance. Monroe’s Roslyn is in Reno to secure a divorce from a man who was emotionally absent from their relationship. She rooms with Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), a middle-aged divorcee who has made a life of standing witness at divorce trials. The film commences with mechanic Guido, expertly played by Eli Wallach, examining Roslyn’s beat up but brand new car –a divorce gift from her husband. When he spots the attractive Roslyn he offers to drive the two to the courthouse. The three later reunite in a bar where Guido is drinking with friend and cowboy Gay (Gable). The four hit it off and the men escort the women out of town to Guido’s incomplete house in the desert.

     Despite Guido’s clear romantic interest in Roslyn from the get-go, Gay is the one who manages to coax the young woman into a relationship of sorts despite their considerable age difference. The quartet later picks up bull rider Perce (Clift) to help them go “mustanging” and this man also takes a shine to Roslyn. We learn quickly that Roslyn is made hysterical by the idea of harm to defenseless creatures. She objects to Gay’s desire to shoot rabbits nibbling at their vegetable garden, is horrified that the capture of mustangs is so they may be sold to a dog-food manufacturer, and takes to tears when she sees Perce thrown from a bronco and then a bull. The movie closes on Gay and Roslyn driving away from the remote mountain scene where the gang had wrangled six horses with us uncertain whether the two will reconcile their differences and the gal will stay on in Nevada.

     The Misfits was the first instance when I witnessed Monroe in a character that was realistic to the physicality she brought to the screen. The men in this movie treat her exactly as she is: a voluptuous, young, beautiful creature distracting enough to lead to traffic accidents. In the other pictures I have seen, Monroe’s extreme body shape always seemed secondary to whatever character she took on as if she was a woman who just happened to have enormous breasts. Her emotional acting was also astonishing. Although Roslyn still has a young personality marked by naiveté, she is also deeply troubled. Much of Monroe’s acting here is conveyed only through her face. She also offers some surprising outbursts of anger at her on-screen contemporaries. The Misfits was written by Arthur Miller for Monroe, his wife at the time, which I think is why it worked out so well for her performance-wise.

     Gable, too, gives a strikingly different performance than those to which audiences were accustomed from his work at the peak of his career. He gives a particularly good show when drunk and screaming atop a car for his adult children who have fled the premises. Some contend he was mirroring the Method acting styles of his costars. The man also was surely at home in the part of a cowboy given he enjoyed farm life off-screen as well.

  • The Misfits is set for 1:30 a.m. ET Sept. 12 and 2:15 a.m. Nov. 19 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

Saratoga

Saratoga (1937)

Gasser

     I had mentioned when reviewing Jean Harlow’s Platinum Blonde that it was odd to see the sexy, sassy gal playing a high-society dame, but in Saratoga that same sort of part fits a bit more comfortably on the star. She is like usual paired opposite Clark Gable in what would be her last picture before dying at age 26.

     Harlow had developed kidney failure, later attributed to scarlet fever in her youth, that slowly broke down the star’s health. Filming was 90% complete on Saratoga when she died much to the surprise of all around her. In order to produce a tribute and profit off the fans that wanted one last view of the blonde, MGM employed separate body and voice doubles to allow Harlow’s character, somewhat noticeably, to hide behind large hats or face away from the camera. Saratoga was top at the box office in 1937.

     The story follows Gable as Duke Bradley who is not just a horse-racing book keeper but a pal to Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale) who owns a horse-breeding farm but is also in debt to the bookie. Frank hands over the deed to his farm as collateral just before dying. Duke naturally plans to give the deed to the daughter, Carol Clayton (Harlow) but when the snooty brat makes plans to pay him for it, he decides to take her for a ride. Carol plans to wed a Wall Street big shot Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) whom Duke knows as a big gambler and the perfect mark. Duke continues to annoy Carol as the two travel to various horse races. Also along is Duke’s friend Fritzi, played by Una Merkel, who has married cosmetic magnate Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan). She loves horses and tricks her hubby into buying one at auction despite his being allergic. Hartley has also been duped into buying Carol’s own horse.

     Duke has offered Carol a cut of whatever he takes her husband-to-be for in horse racing bets, but the girl is offended and the feud between them begins. Once in Florida, Duke is really set to put his plan in motion, but Carol works to send Hartley away so he is not tempted to gamble. In the process, a doctor diagnoses her with nerves related to …uh… eager anticipation of their wedding night. Duke also refuses to leave her hotel room when Harley returns, and so the intruder hides under a couch while Carol smokes his cigar and insists Hartley stay in Florida. Upon leaving, Duke gives the gal a smooch and we see a change in her disposition.

     From here it is clear Carol is working to help Duke make a mighty profit on her fiancée, whose resources are essentially unending. When the blonde tells Duke she loves him and that she is breaking it off with her beau, the man objects because he has yet to get him for a much larger prize. What he does not tell Carol, however, is that he wants to get enough money to leave the book-keeping business and fix up the girl’s farm. So the two are at odds again and Carol connives to have the horse Duke is sure will win a big race –Fritzie’s horse– lose by switching jockeys.

     Harlow and Gable for the last time get their on screen happy ending together. Their characters here are much more subdued than the harsh criminal or tough-guy/slut personas they embodied in the past, but it makes them more every-man. Despite playing a socialite donned in conservative dress and pearls, Harlow’s character still manages to pack a punch with her words and attitude so we get a nice mix of class and lively sass.

Source: TCM.com

The Secret Six

Gasser

The Secret Six (1931)

     Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.

     Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.

     In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.

     Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.

     The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.

     The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.

     The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.

  • The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

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