Cry Justice & Affair in Sumatra

Dullsville

     The two Screen Directors Playhouse episodes I watched this week were the first disappointing ones among those I have seen, one moreso than the other. One of the greatest compliments I have given to these half-hour TV movies are that they somehow fit a whole film plot into a short timeframe and do it without feeling rushed. That was not the case for Affair in Sumatra.

     You might have also noticed me questioning whether Ralph Bellamy is capable of playing a romantic lead. To that I got my answer: no. The older Bellamy in Affair in Sumatra is a doctor who travels to a jungle land to act as physician/surgeon and also conduct research on jungle diseases. When driving into the village where he will be stationed, the man’s Jeep splashes mud onto a native-looking woman who refuses to answer him as he tries to apologize. Not long after he re-meets this Lotti (Rita Gam) who is the owner/director of the hospital. Bellamy’s Dr. Kelog convinces the woman to invest more money into the dreadful supply and sanitation conditions of the hospital –it seems the hospital director played by Basil Rathbone has been siphoning off excess money– but does not give her enough romantic attention.

     The romance between Bellamy and Gam feels abrupt and rushed if not utterly unnatural. The woman lures him into kissing her the first time and follows up with a slap before allowing the second kiss to proceed. When their relationship hits the rocks, Bellamy’s expressionless face and eyes show how uncommitted he is to the role’s romantic requirements. Also, being half white, half Sumatran, Lotti for some reason opted to return to Sumatra to start the hospital but is utterly unhappy because the natives do not like her, which raises the question of why she remains there. Affair in Sumatra Director Byron Haskins fails to connect the audience with both the love affair and the moral obligations of the story.

     Director George Sherman‘s Cry Justice is mildly better but clearly would have been improved if offered as a full-length feature. Gil Foster (Macdonald Carey) and Jim Wheeler (Dick Haymes) are attorneys in a western town who have a brief spat at the open of the movie over Jim being jealous of his colleague. Later the sheriff (James Dunn) approaches Gil to say Jim is afraid of him because of an alleged threat on his life Gil made during their fight. The next day, Gil visits his friend’s house to find it torn apart with pools of blood evident, some of which gets on his jacket. Bringing this matter to the sheriff, Gil is eventually put to trial for Jim’s murder when officials find bones and boots burned up in the victim’s fireplace.

     Newlywed Gil goes to jail for 10 years on the circumstantial evidence and spends that time petitioning the Supreme Court to rule on whether the “double jeopardy” constitutional amendment applies to all crimes. Gil suspects that Jim faked his death, so after his release from prison, the convict goes looking for the man who wronged him, eventually finding him.

     Cry Justice was not bad but could have been better if more time was put into the plot and if it were not so obvious that the victim was still alive. The portion pertaining to the young fiancée, played by June Vincent, who loses her husband first to prison then to the man hunt could also have been finessed to heighten the emotional pull of the story.

Fools for Scandal

Fools for Scandal (1938)

Gasser

I have to wonder what attracts actors to playing the role of a fictional movie star. Do they say, “Hey, that will be easy. I’m fully qualified for that part.” Whatever the case may be, you can nearly forget that Carole Lombard‘s character in Fools for Scandal is an actress because besides the attention the press gives her, she has no other characteristics of a screen star, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Movie star Kay Winters is visiting France while on break from shooting her latest picture in London. When she pauses to watch the joyous outflow of people from a wedding reception, she is kissed by a member of the crowd whom she thinks mistook her for a member of the wedding party. That man, however, also had just sauntered up to the crowd and spying Kay, thought he could make a seemingly innocent move on her. Rene (Fernand Gravet) is an out-of-work cook who hasn’t a dime to his name and has only just exchanged his day suit for his tuxedo at a pawn shop. He finagles his way into sharing a cab ride with Kay and shows her his native city, slowly winning the brunette over.

The two take dinner together and plan a next-day rendezvous, but when Rene over-sleeps, he is stuck with only a tuxedo for clothing. After sending his friend out to retrieve his regular suit proves too time-consuming, he dons a couple oriental rugs and rushes down to Kay, whom he informs he will be with shortly. In his haste to leave, now in his underwear, Rene grabs Kay’s jacket and with it two diamond clips. Kay bails on their date but Rene goes after her all the way to London on the pretense of returning the clips, which his pal has incidentally pawned to bankroll their travel. Once there, he shows off his culinary bravado while at a party and decides to take over as chef once the cook quits.

Kay is unaware this man she sort of loves is hiding out in her house the night following the party and will serve her breakfast in the morning. The party-goers are far more savvy, however, and have noticed Rene did not leave the party. The next morning as the gossip mill has churned, hordes of female friends come pouring into Kay’s bedroom wanting to know about the new cook. Kay is continually furious with Rene, but a horde of reporters on her porch blocks his exit. Complicating matters is Kay’s real boyfriend Phillip (Ralph Bellamy), who is hanging on hoping for an engagement agreement from the star.

When I first saw Lombard on the screen in Fools for Scandal, I gasped at her brown hair. I couldn’t believe such a sight, but as it turned out, the hairdo was a wig meant to disguise her identity as a famous actress. Lombard is beautiful in her expensive gowns and lavish lifestyle and lends the film plenty of humor. The story does contain an arbitrary song, “Fools for Scandal” written by Rogers and Hart. The sing-talk performance mostly by Gravet is uncomfortable in the story to say the least.

Poor Ralph Bellamy once again plays the second-fiddle boyfriend as the leading man swoops in for the kill. He is particularly pathetic in Fools for Scandal, however, as every demand he makes is conceded. He tells Kay she must make up her mind on whether to marry him tonight “or else!” What’s the “or else”, she asks. “Or else tomorrow.” When Philip declares Kay’s behavior is the last straw, he mumbles a “probably” as he storms out the door. This is not a unique role for Bellamy as he often played the less desirable lover, but he was armed with plenty of humorous dialogue that made him fun to watch, if not a bit likeable.

Finally, Gravet is entertaining as our French love interest. He is plenty amiable and can drive a laugh with the help of the ever-comedic Allen Jenkins as his roommate. In one scene he dons an antique uniform and white wig to serve a special dinner for Kay and Phillip. His obnoxious behavior makes the scene wonderfully funny while also frustrating as we empathize with Phillip.

The Wolf Man

Dullsville

The Wolf Man (1941)

     I realize now I had higher hopes for what I perceived as among the great classic horror stories than I should have. I think the downfall of The Wolf Man might lie in its script. Silly, contrived and dumb dialogue make for many a hokey moment in this tale of the beast within all men.

     Lon Chaney (Jr.) plays Larry Talbot who returns home to his father’s English estate after 18 years away. He buys from a pretty girl a silver topped cane whose handle is a wolf with a pentagram on its side. When on a date with this girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the couple and their chaperone Jenny (Fay Helm) visit some gypsies to have their fortune told. Unfortunately, one of the gypsies –the one played by Bela Lugosi— is a werewolf and soon thereafter shifts into his beastly form and kills Jenny. During the scuffle, however, Larry comes to the rescue, beats the dog dead with his silver cane and is bitten on the chest.

     The next morning the wound has disappeared and the gypsy is found dead in the spot where Larry had killed the wolf. The man’s journey into the life of a werewolf is facilitated by an old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) while his father, played by Claude Rains, a local doctor and others insist that lycanthropy is merely a condition of the mind through which a man imagines he is a wolf. We are entreated to some fancy effects in the morphing of Chaney from man to beast and back using both lapsed and continuous dissolves. The first two transformations are of the feet only but the film’s close shows the man’s face change.

     The concept of a werewolf has been at the root of many horror films, the later of which depict a much more gruesome creature than the one Chaney played here. His wolf man is merely hairy with feet and hands resembling more canine-like anatomy and some enhanced teeth to boot. It is hard for me to know given my upbringing in an increasingly gory entertainment society whether or not this facade was terrifying to the public of the time, although it was a highly popular endeavor for Universal Studios. As I said, however, the poorly written dialogue makes it difficult for even actors of talent, such as Ralph Bellamy as the constable, to give a genuine go of it. Rains’ was the only solid performance, which alongside all the others seems out of place.

  •  The Wolf Man is set for 8 p.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.

Picture Snatcher

Ring a Ding Ding

Picture Snatcher (1933)

     In an era of tough guy, gangster James Cagney characters, the actor took a reprieve from his criminal work that became a signature for Warner Bros. during the 1930s and played a legitimate working man in Picture Snatcher, at least partially.

     Cagney manages to live a life only a stone’s throw away from the hoodlum audiences knew him as when playing Danny Kean (although WB would also release Footlight Parade this same year that showed off Cagney’s song and dance background). At the film’s opening, Danny is released from prison, picked up by his gangster pals, offered a woman, fitted for new duds, and given his “salary” for the three years he spent “in stir”. Danny no longer desires to live the criminal life, however, and tells his boys he will be taking a job as a reporter, having been offered a position by a gent while in prison.

     Ralph Bellamy is that gracious fellow, city editor of the Graphic News Mr. McClean. The paper is considered a gossip rag and poorly regarded, and McClean is not sure the ex-con is cut out for the work, but gives him a chance on a tough assignment. No photographer has been able to get a picture of a firefighter whose wife and her lover burned to death in their home while he was out. Danny, unafraid of the gun the rescue worker is pointing at reporters, sneaks into the building and poses as an insurance claims adjuster. He manages to snatch a photo of the couple off the wall and make a clean getaway. Danny now has the job and is earning an ever-increasing salary as he proves capable of getting photos others cannot. He is also courting Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who is the daughter of the copper who put Danny in prison to begin with. Once proving himself on the level and managing to get the man promoted through positive press, Officer Nolan (Robert E. O’Connor) permits the relationship.

     Danny is preparing to propose to Patricia once he earns a decent enough salary and he thinks he has the assignment to do it: He must photograph the execution of a woman. Although the Graphic News has not been invited to the execution, Danny gets himself in anyway and snaps a shot from a camera hidden at his ankle. The other reporters find out, however, and a chase to stop print of the insensitive material is underway by both police and reporters –who do not want their prison news privileges revoked. The incident also risks Officer Nolan’s demotion because he was in charge of reporters at the event. Later, Danny tries to redeem himself by tracking down his former criminal crony who has shot two police officers.

     I found Picture Snatcher to be quite riveting. Although he’s gone legit, Cagney’s character still has the rough edges of a criminal as he gruffly maneuvers through the sleazy subjects his paper covers. Cagney also follows up on the grapefruit-in-the-face incident in 1931’s The Public Enemy by smacking/pushing a sexually aggressive dame in the face, knocking her into a chair. Later he dumps a brandy down a woman’s plunging neckline.

     The movie is flush with sexually aggressive females. A fellow reporter makes eyes at Danny from their first encounter and despite being involved with McClean, very strongly smooches a reclining Danny while the man physically struggle to remove her. Another woman who was angling to get with Danny on his release from prison talks much about going to bed, so Danny eventually scoops her up, puts her on the bed and locks her in her room. For a moment there, we are all convinced the protagonist will go to bed with the gal for the cause. These are clearly pre-Production Code aspects of the film that would never have flown in the coming years.

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

Hands Across the Table

Gasser

Hands Across the Table (1935)

     Marriage for money. This was a typical theme of many classic romantic movies, which seems to suggest the practice was a common one back in the day. Typically a good-looking girl is angling to move herself out of the chorus and into a mansion, or individuals from once-wealthy families need to land rich spouses to maintain their way of life. Hands Across the Table has both.

     Carole Lombard is manicurist Regi Allen who dislikes a life of scraping to get by and wants to marry for money, not love. Working in a salon on the ground floor of a hotel, Regi is called to the suite of a wealthy, but wheel-chair bound gentleman Allen (Ralph Bellamy), whose mood is lifted for the first time in a long stretch by the girl’s mere presence. The two start a close friendship as she does his nails every day. She explains her desire for a profitable marriage, and Allen is clearly in love with her, but she does not seem to notice.

     Upon leaving his room one day, Regi runs into some dope playing hopscotch on the checkered floor tiles. She thinks him a buffoon, but he is immediately interested in the dame. The bloke turns out to be Theodore Drew III, played by Fred MacMurray, part of a wealthy family. He next requests a manicure from Regi in her shop, but she is so nervous upon learning who he is, that he leaves with half his fingers bandaged, this after securing a date with Regi for that night.

     While on the date, Regi learns Teddy is engaged to a wealthy pineapple heiress, a marriage he must secure because his family fortune has been lost. When a drunk Teddy passes out in their cab on the ride home, Regi is stuck storing him on a cot in her apartment for the night. When she returns home from work the next day, Teddy is still there (he had no cab fare) and because he missed his boat to Bermuda, persuades Regi to board him at her apartment until he is expected home to his fiancée. There is no chemistry between the two as both are in the same marriage-for-money boat, that is, until their last night together when the feelings rise to the surface and both try to get their head around whether to take the leap into a relationship doomed to working-class status.

     MacMurray was fairly young in Hands Across the Table as it was his second film. I’ve always found the actor to be a great comedian, but here he was funny at times but awkward the most. In the scene when Regi does Teddy’s nails, MacMurray whispers all kinds of funny lines, but watching I felt as uncomfortable as Lombard’s character shakily scrubbing away at his cuticles. His delivery improves as the film goes on, but I frankly was rooting more for Allen to land Regi rather than Teddy. Regi says multiple times that a union between the two would only end in them hating and resenting each other, which I think is unfortunately true. Like many movies, however, the action ends before we can see the unhappily ever after scenario that is more likely than the happy one. Still, this is far from a bad film. It is fun and romantic, if not unsatisfying in some terms.

  • Hands Across the Table is set for 10 p.m. ET Aug. 28 on TCM.
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