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Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

Wowza!

     I have heard Twentieth Century sometimes referred to as the first screwball comedy. Whether it technically was or not, this flick and its leading lady certainly embody what we have come to associate with the genre. Carole Lombard would reign in such nonsensical films, which make up what I consider the best of her work.

     In this “movie about a train”, as I like to call it, Lombard and John Barrymore are theater actors/director who spend nearly the entire picture making scenes by being as dramatic as any role they might have the chance to play. The latter half of the movie takes place in the small confines of a train, the Twentieth Century.

     John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway director, who takes an unknown Mildred Plotka and turns her into the star Lily Garland (Lombard). Our first encounter with the characters has Jaffe fighting to keep his discovery in the play while battling to get her to perform correctly. He uses chalk to draw the movements she should take during a scene to the point that an undiscernable amount of lines mark the stage floor. He also elicits an appropriate scream from her for one scene by sticking the lady’s rear end with a pin. Lily becomes a hit, however, and on opening night Jaffe showers her with praise and speaks of how above him she is now until the woman begs for his companionship, as was his plan.

     When next we see the couple, Lily is refusing to accept Jaffe’s calls and is throwing a fit in her lavish New York apartment while telling Jaffe press agent Owen O’Malley (Roscoe Karns) she wants to end her relationship with the man. When Jaffe arrives at the home, he solemnly swears he will kill himself by jumping from the window, but the couple reconciles when Jaffe swears not to be possessive.

     After two more successful plays together, Lily finally dumps the director when she discovers he has been tapping her phone line and has hired a P.I. to follow her around. Without the actress who has gone to Hollywood, Jaffe’s stage success falters. He is escaping a failing show and its related debt in Chicago when he boards the Twentieth Century back to New York. At a stop along the way, Lily also boards, with her beau (Ralph Forbes),  and unknowingly takes the room beside Jaffe’s.

    The two are outwardly livid as they learn of each other’s presence and put on big shows of distress. Jaffe plots to lure Lily back to his theater by offering her the role of Mary Magdalene in the passion play. Jaffe wants to make the show and is certain he could gain financing with Lily’s name on a contract, but she is not so easily won over. The movie closes on Jaffe drawing chalk lines on a stage dictating Lily’s movements.

     Twentieth Century is stuffed full of witty lines and little jokes mixed in among the fast-paced dialogue. A number of side characters also color the picture, such as the escaped mental patient (Etienne Girardot) who has been plastering the train with stickers reading “Repent Now” and driving some passengers to tears because of this “outrage.”

     Lombard and Barrymore play their characters so melodramatically that rarely are we able to glimpse Lily and Jaffe’s true nature beneath the dramatic shows they put on for all around them. Lily mourns saying farewell to her boyfriend before becoming instantly annoyed when he refuses to leave and instead travels with her. Lily and Jaffe have no redeeming qualities but we cannot help but love them. Both are too selfish for us to want either to get his or her way, but the ending perhaps gives them what they deserve: each other.

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To Have and Have Not

Ring a Ding Ding

To Have and Have Not (1944)

When Lauren Bacall first appears in Humphrey Bogart‘s hotel doorway in To Have and Have Not, one has to pause and question whether their characters are already familiar with each other. In truth, not even the actors themselves were very well acquainted as the stars started work on a project that would result in their marriage.

After seeing a screen test by Bacall, then 19, for the movie and the scene in which she questions whether the gentleman can whistle, Bogart tells the newcomer, “We’ll have a lot of fun together,” and fun they had. The couple fell in love during the making of the Ernest Hemingway novel-based movie. When Bogart’s wife at the time Mayo Methot would inquire where her husband was, the answer was “the cast”. The actor finally shrugged off the long-failed marriage with a Vegas divorce May 10, 1945. He married Bacall May 21. They would name their son after Bogie’s character in To Have and Have Not, whom Bacall’s character refers to as Steve.

The movie’s familiar plot lines harken back to the 1944 award winner, Casablanca.  In To Have and Have Not, Bogie’s American character does not own a nightclub on a French-ruled exotic locale, but instead lives at one. As a boat owner, he reluctantly agrees to help smuggle a man important to the French resistance during Germany’s occupation of the nation. That man happens to have a woman with him who is more important to have in tow than leave behind, for the mere reason that she helps drive his mission.

On the Caribbean isle of Martinique, Bogie’s Harry Morgan rents out his fishing boat and captain skills to anyone buying. We open on him, his alcoholic crew member Eddie (Walter Brennan) and the man (Walter Sande) who loses his fishing pole overboard and cancels the rest of the excursion. This Johnson now owes Harry for the rod and the week’s trip, some $800. The man says he must go to the bank the next morning to retrieve the cash.

Before that can happen, Harry is approached by the owner of the hotel/bar where he resides and is asked about aiding the French resistance effort by helping to move an important man between locales in the ocean. Harry refuses to get involved with such a politics. In walks Marie Browning (Bacall) looking for a match. This husky voiced gal whom Harry names Slim, later picks Johnson’s pocket. Not only did the man have the money to pay Harry but he also has a plane ticket that would have had him out of the country before the bank opened.

During a shootout that kills several members of the underground resistance, Johnson also catches a stray bullet. Harry takes what is owed from the wallet, but this prompts the authorities to question his connection to the rebels. The man’s passport and money are confiscated for the time being. Now looking to start a life with Slim, and annoyed at the police, Harry agrees to take up the well-paying, one-night voyage and manages to pick up and drop off Paul (Walter Molnar) and Helene De Bursac (Dolores Moran), but not before Paul is shot. The wounded man ends up in the hotel basement where Harry continues to help the rebels while conversations with Helene spark Slim’s jealousy. An end-of-the-movie gunpoint holdup will help the De Bursac’s free a man from Devil’s Island and allow Harry and Slim to take off to some other destination.

Unlike Casablanca, To Have and Have Not offers too easy an ending for my tastes. It sets up a scene that could lead to a shoot out, but fades to close leaving us to assume all works out well. Otherwise the story is intriguing and sexy, especially with the unique look of young Bacall at the helm. Part way through the picture, Slim picks up a job singing at the hotel bar and does so in the deepest, husky voice you will ever hear. It is far from an attractive singing voice, but it suits her sultry look. Some say the voice was dubbed by Andy Williams, but Bacall maintained it was her own.

Director Howard Hawks insisted that without Bogart’s help he could not have elicited the performance from Bacall that he did. He had the part created in a Marlene Dietrich-esque way because he thought the young model could become a new version of the seductress. “Not many actors would sit around and wait while a girl steals a scene,” Hawks said after filming. “But he fell in love with the girl and the girl with him, and that made it easy.”

  • To Have and Have Not is set for 8 p.m. ET July 21 on TCM.

Source: The Ultimate Bogart by Ernest W. Cunningham, TCM.com

His Girl Friday

Wowza!

His Girl Friday (1940)

     I am not sure what went wrong six years ago when watching His Girl Friday for the first time had me conclude: Blech, that was lousy. As you can tell from the rating I now give this crazy comedy, I have changed my tune. As a journalist who seems to be surrounded by reporters who love this movie, I knew some years ago I was needing to give this flick another chance. Last night was it.

     The bygone eras of moviemaking are not without a plethora of stories surrounding reporters. I am sure I have before mentioned how hip and relevant reporters were in old movies, which is quite the opposite of how they are today in both media and reality. His Girl Friday not only illustrates the tough racket in which these writers worked but also how different the newspaper publishing business was at the time – with multiple editions, half a dozen competitors and nearly nonexistent morals when a scoop was at stake.

     His Girl Friday might be more about reporting than any other successful classic comedy. It pits paper publisher Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, against ex-wife and ex-reporter Hildy Johnson, acted by Rosalind Russell. Hildy has arrived at the newsroom to tell Walter she is getting married to an insurance salesman named Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) only a handful of months after divorcing the man who left his bride to take her honeymoon alone so he could pursue a story. It is a while before the reunion with Hildy ceases Walter’s reminiscing long enough for her to break the news. Immediately upon hearing about this wedding to take place the next day, we can see the gears turning in Walter’s head as he tries to quickly devise the means to prevent this union.

     After making a fool of Bruce, Walter forces the trio to go to lunch. There he, after much negotiating and guilt-driving, convinces Hildy to spend her last two hours in town interviewing and writing a story on a man set to be hanged the next day for shooting a police officer. The man had lost his job and the paper had insisted he was insane, but all feared the last psychiatric exam would prove otherwise. Hildy hits the press room at the criminal courts building before bribing her way in to see the accused: Earl Williams (John Qualen). Without jotting down a single note, Hildy develops her story by convincing the man that speeches he heard in the park about production for use had him fire the gun only because it was meant to be used. She writes up the story in the press room but tears it up when she learns Walter has slyly had her fiancée arrested for stealing a watch –from a crook of all people.

     Hildy’s reporting days seem over until Earl escapes from prison. Hildy nails down a prison worker to get an exclusive story of what happened –the convict was handed the sheriff’s gun to reenact the incident during his psych evaluation– so she phones that into Walter. Next, Earl shows up in the press room pointing a gun at the gal. She agrees to help him out and stashes him in a rolltop desk. Phoning Walter, she has her boss come to the courthouse so they can figure out how to hide the fugitive long enough so the paper can be the one to “capture” him. In the midst of this, Bruce has again been arrested through Walter’s meddling and the man’s mother is also kidnapped along the same lines.

     Walter’s paper does not get to claim capture of Earl, but he and Hildy get another, scandalous exclusive that finally cinches the woman’s fate. No reporter that good can leave behind her trade.

     Slapstick Grant is at his best in this well-written comedy where the verbal jokes fly faster than the physical ones. It is said to be one of the first films to have characters’ dialogue overlap. Previously, no ones lines were uttered until another player had completed his sentiment. Russell is also perfect in a role that had been played by a man in the stage version, titled “The Front Page.” The character was rewritten for a woman when Director Howard Hawks liked the way the dialogue sounded when his secretary read the part opposite the other actors.

     No trace of romance passes between our leads, and yet we know Hildy must return to Walter. Their passion lies in a common love of the work rather than for each other. Bellamy is great as a slightly slow joe who cannot see through Walter to his conniving ways. In one scene, Grant describes the character to another player as looking like that actor, Ralph Bellamy. Grant even pokes fun at himself later on when he says the last person to cross him was Archie Leach, which happens to be Grant’s real name.

  • His Girl Friday is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

The Big Sleep

Ring a Ding Ding

The Big Sleep (1946)

     Despite sitting on my shelf since 2006, The Big Sleep finally made its move to the DVD player. My failure to watch the flick is no knock to the story or Bogie and Bacall, but more a reflection of my tendency to prioritize the less-permanent DVR-saved movies than those in DVD form.

     Being the second pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the one during the long production of which the two would wed, The Big Sleep drips with couple’s fiery chemistry. The two first met in early 1944 as they prepared to co-star in To Have and Have Not. At age 44, Bogart was 25 years Bacall’s senior and married to a rather destructive Mayo Methot. The two fell in love over the fewer than three months spent on the set of their first film, but it is not until later that year that Bogart would leave Methot, coinciding with the start of shooting on The Big Sleep.

     The film originally wrapped production in January 1945, at which point Bogart is already telling the press he will marry Bacall, but the divorce does not go through until May. Eleven days later, Bacall becomes the next Mrs. Bogart and Warner Bros. decides to shoot additional footage for The Big Sleep in January 1946 that would play up the romance between the two characters. At last, the film releases to rave reviews in August that year.

      Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, and with a screenplay writing team that includes William Faulkner, The Big Sleep weaves a menacingly complex yarn that follows private detective Phillip Marlowe. What begins as a look at a blackmail attempt against the daughter of an old millionaire results in a far deeper mess of trouble and at least three murders. The story line is impossibly complex, and the primary hurdle for me was keeping all the character names straight. Try as I did to follow what was occurring, I ultimately gave up and just enjoyed the ride, which is precisely as The Big Sleep is meant to be approached. The addition of Bogie-Bacall reshoots resulted in the subtraction of other footage that supposedly helps to better explain the plot.

     When watching The Big Sleep, what is important is not who killed whom but rather the style, the drama, the feel and, of course, the relationship between Bogart and Bacall. Playing her typical tough-woman role, Bacall provides a gritty and easy match to Bogart’s grizzly private dick. Curiously, women throughout this film are emphasized as being wildly attracted to the Marlowe character, which seems contrary to Bogart’s actual looks. I’m not sure I understand the emphasis here unless it came from the novel.

     The Big Sleep is one of those standby classics that everyone must see, and is a great example of both Bogart and Bacall’s work. For those who cannot stand not knowing just what went on, I’ll borrow an analysis from author Ernest W. Cunningham (SPOILER):

Soldier-of-fortune Shawn Regan (a major character never seen in the film) is hired by wealthy General… Sternwood (Charles Waldron). Sternwood has two beautiful daughters with “corrupt blood”: sexy, spoiled Carmen (Martha Vickers) and the cool, insolent Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Continue reading

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