Rendezvous

Gasser

Rendezvous (1935)

It seems no matter what role he plays, William Powell has a hard time avoiding crime-solving. He played a detective in a variety of movies and film series and apparently just had the cool, suited sleuth thing pegged. In Rendezvous, Powell’s character is a want-to-be front-line soldier who instead is ordered to work in code cracking. Although this sounds like a miserable desk job to the character, it will nevertheless have Powell collecting evidence in the field, just not the field he wanted to be on.

Two days before boarding a train from England to France to fight in WWII, Powell’s Lt. Gordon meets the lovely Joel Carter (Rosalind Russell) and tricks her into kissing him goodbye. Joel has an uncle in the cryptology sect of the military, but Gordon does not know that when he reveals that he wrote a very popular code-cracking book under a pseudonym and has been sought by the military ever since. Just as he is about to board the train, he is given orders to report to this Assistant Secretary of War John Carter (Samuel S. Hinds).

Gordon is miserable spending his days and nights trying to solve complex codes intercepted from the Germans and knows Joel is the one who put him there. Once he breaks a code, however, he is promoted to a fancier desk. By this point, Major Brennan (Lionel Atwill) has been murdered by his mistress (a spy), and Gordon casually interrogates this Olivia, played by Binnie Barnes. His work leads him to have dinner with the young woman, making Joel frivolously jealous. During his dinner, another American soldier and Joel’s ex-beau, Col. Nieterstein (Cesar Romero), is “given up” by the gang of spies to which Olivia belongs.

Gordon will eventually nail all the spies to the wall and save a U.S. battleship from enemy destruction, but not before Joel is kidnapped and he fends off flying bullets. He might also get a chance to finally go the battlefield, but not if his love interest can help it.

Rendezvous was an amusing flick that at least diversified Powell’s detective character from others he has played. He naturally, however, plays the same man we always see in these movies: too cool to admit he loves the woman, too cool to really let that villainous lady get the best of him, and too cool to let “being nabbed” by the enemy take him off guard.

Russell, however, brings all sorts of zany fun to the story. She makes an utter fool of herself once she has fallen for Powell’s character, but it is always fun to see her comedic side. This was her first star billing in a film in a part that was originally intended for Powell’s often partner Myrna Loy. The ending of the film was also tinkered with during production to come up with a satisfying end, and Russell’s great work led to one that more prominently featured her part. I cannot imagine Loy in this role as her performance could not have been as goofy as Russell’s. It was certainly a great cast in the end.

Source: TCM.com

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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 Women

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The Women (1939)

     It is possible that never a film so remarkably cast or flush with estrogen has been presented to audiences as 1939’s The Women. Based on a play of the same name and remade many times over the years, the story of a slew of gossiping, man-stealing society dames is probably too female-powered to appeal to the stronger sex, but not being a man, myself, I found it quite enjoyable.

     The stars of the picture are really the reason to watch The Women. With a lot of power-grabbing games and spats going on off-screen, it is a wonder the film got made without more than a scar on Paulette Goddard’s leg. Despite five or more big name stars occupying the majority of the screen time, the story is really about Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, wife to Stephen.

     The story starts with super gossip and outright bitch Sylvia Fowler, played by Rosalind Russell, learning from her manicurist that Mr. Haines has been “stepping out” on his wife with a perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen, embodied by Joan Crawford. She spreads word to a friend before the two head to lunch with Mary Haines, and all through the meal Sylvia drops hints about her new-found knowledge. Mary is preparing to go on a Canadian trip with her hubby, but he calls while the woman is entertaining her guests to say he cannot get away. Mary, too, starts to wonder why he has been working late so often. The following day, Mary gets her nails done by that same loud-mouthed manicurist after Sylvia’s insistence and hears some news about herself. She is set on telling her husband off, but her mother persuades the woman, who has a daughter, to keep quiet for a while.

     Meanwhile, Sylvia and Joan Fontaine‘s all-too-innocent Peggy scope out Crystal on the job where we first meet her and discover she is quite the two-faced lady –capable of speaking in a refined, flirty manner one moment and calling Sylvia Fowler “Mrs. Prowler” the next.  Mary and Crystal ultimately run into each other at a fashion show where Crystal is putting the expensive duds on Mr. Haines’ account. The very sweet and rather passive Mary opts to confront Crystal in her dressing room and the two exchange nasty words, but the papers decide –on a front page spread– that Mary in fact socked her sexual rival. Mary now has it out behind closed doors with her husband and we hear the whole affair recounted as gossip among the house servants. Mary heads for Reno, accompanied by a mixed up Peggy, to wait out a divorce. On the way she meets a countess (Mary Boland) and another woman, Miriam (Paulette Goddard) both taking the journey towards divorce.

     Jump ahead to the day Mary’s divorce decree comes through and we learn that a) Peggy is pregnant and will stay with her husband; b) Miriam is having an affair with Sylvia’s husband; and c) Sylvia’s husband has thrown her out and she too is in Reno for a divorce. Once Sylvia discovers via gossip column that the woman she just met is in line to marry her soon-to-be ex, the two get into a physical fight and the bitch bites Miriam in the leg. Miriam, whom we come to like greatly, counsels Mary and convinces her to tell her husband she will rip up the divorce papers. Receiving a call from Stephen, however, she learns he has just wed Crystal.

     A year and a half later, Crystal is conducting an affair while Stephen is miserable in the relationship and the Haines’ daughter is busy loathing “Auntie Crystal”. When Mary hears how unhappy her ex-husband is and that the new bride is anything but faithful, she hits the town out to expose the whole matter, ultimately breaking up that union and getting her man back.

      Shearer’s Mary is continuously noted throughout the movie as being an overwhelmingly kind and sweet woman, thus driving the audience’s sympathy for her. What she does in the end, however, is realize she must drop her pride and essentially become just like the horrible gossips of her friends and drive a scandal to the surface. The act is utterly out of character for the woman, but she finds she must do what is necessary to get the love of her life back. I found this role a different one for Shearer. I am accustomed to her pre-Production Code parts in which she was often the floozy more akin to Crawford’s Crystal. Shearer still offers the same bubbly personality we always see with her. She is almost nauseatingly happy in her life at the film’s start, being superbly in love with her husband 10 years into their marriage.

     For a movie with the tagline “It’s all about men!”, The Women allows none of that sex to walk in front of the camera. With something like 130 cast members, all were female including the dogs and horses also seen on screen. The tagline is not inaccurate, however, as men ultimately drive the entire plot. I am not one terribly in love with gossip, so the whole blithering mouth-running in this movie gets a bit tiring. It is amazing how quickly Russell can talk, but boy does she rock that part.

     Despite being chock full of women, I can see little in this movie that would appeal to men. All dressed in the high fashion of Adrian, the women are not really sexy, nor is there any actual romance happening on screen. Perhaps the only draw contained in The Women for male audiences is a cat fight between Russell and Goddard’s characters. That bite on the leg left a scar on Goddard but the two actresses allegedly remained friends.

      Although filmed mostly in black and white, a fashion show in the middle of the film is done in Technicolor. The start and close of that scene combines a monochrome frame around a small section in the middle of the screen in color. This was a novel technique at the time.

  • The Women is set for 2:15 a.m. ET Aug. 2 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

Fast and Loose

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Fast and Loose (1939)

      The success of The Thin Man movies clearly proved that audiences did not need a blossoming romance tacked onto their mystery thrillers and that a devoted husband-wife set up was just as appealing. A trilogy of “Fast” movies were the result in 1938 and 1939 as MGM sought to capitalize on the complaint that too much time elapsed between the release of each Thin Man picture. 

     Fast and Loose starring Robert Mongtomery and Rosalind Russell was the second of three films featuring mystery-solving booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane; however, each film featured different stars in those roles. For the first, Fast Company, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice filled the parts. The last, Fast and Furious, featured Franchot Tone and Ann Southern as our married sleuths. I have not seen the other two flicks, and while I think the leading men in all three would be great as Joel, I do believe I picked the best actress to play the devoted wife.

     Montgomery’s Joel is very much like Nick Charles in his reluctance to engage in crime solving using his extensive powers of rare book knowledge. In Fast and Loose he is unaware he will be engaged in such crime-solving until he is knee-deep in trouble. The Sloanes visit rare book collector Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) to broker a deal for a absent-minded grocer who seeks to purchase a rare Shakespeare manuscript from the cash-strapped man. The couple stay in the house overnight when Joel is alerted to a crash that turns out to be someone knocking out family friend Vincent Charlton (Reginald Owen), who was examining the manuscript in the dark at the house safe. The manuscript is found nearby but the question of forgery starts to surface as we learn the Torrent librarian has a prison record related to forgery. Next, Nicholas Torrent is murdered at his desk and Joel finds himself an on-and-off suspect in the case all while trying to solve it himself.

      The difficulty comes in the mass amount of suspicious characters. Joel’s friend Phil (Anthony Allan) who is secretly dating the Torrent daughter, seems rather shady and possibly in cahoots with the Torrent son Gerald, played by Tom Collins. Meanwhile, Gerald makes contact with a “hussy” –as Garda calls her– and the gambling joint owner with whom she pals around. The librarian with a felony record, who has disappeared, looks like the sure culprit, but he is later found stuffed into a suit of armor, dead. Joel’s meddling also earns him a nudge off the roadway by another car, driven by goons of the gambling heavy, and he begins to worry about his wife’s safety. In true Nora Charles fashion, however, Garda is a tough broad who talks big and enjoys watching her husband sock the bad guys.

     I typically complain in films like this that there are too many characters to keep track of and remember their names, which can make figuring out the story rather difficult (ala The Big Sleep). Fast and Loose did a fantastic job, however, of making clear the names of each character so when they are referenced later I could understand about whom they were speaking. This is also a nearly impossible mystery to crack, but we thankfully get a summary of the events at the close of the film with the revelation of the murderer, a technique also employed in The Thin Man.

     Montgomery makes a great detective. He would further prove this when he directed his own Lady in the Lake years later, playing a full-blown private eye. The man has never had trouble on the charm front and proceeds through his mystery-solving work with all the ease of a pro. Russell is very enjoyable as the loving sidekick. She is quite down to earth while fitting in with the lofty society in whose company the couple finds itself. The two leads also have good chemistry. They seem like a comfortable married couple and the romantic basis of their relationship comes to the surface each time Garda becomes jealous of the company her husband keeps.

     As long as one does not compare Fast and Loose too closely to The Thin Man, a marvelous time is sure to be had. One would not think the subject of rare books could work as the backdrop for a thrilling murder mystery, but it does. Who knew a person could take a background in manuscript sales and use it to work as a police consultant? Only in the movies, I suppose.

China Seas

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China Seas (1935)

     I love China Seas, and not just because of Jean Harlow‘s “nip slip” (see below). I am hesitant to call it the best Harlow-Clark Gable collaboration because Red Dust is also stellar, but this one really packs a punch. The chemistry between the lead players is the same hot-headed Harlow against equally stubborn Gable the two typically ignited on screen, but I think Harlow really plays that part best in China Seas while maintaining a vulnerable edge that easily wins over the viewer.

     The story is not just a romance set on a voyage between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It also offers pirates, betrayal, heroism and a conflicting love interest for Gable as ship’s captain Alan Gaskell. Alan is surprised to find before shoving off that China Doll (Harlow), a girl he picked up in Hong Kong –a performer of some sort– has booked herself passage on the non-luxury boat because she’s mad for the captain. Also on board is a friend to both China Doll and Alan, James MacCardle, played by Wallace Beery, but we are tipped off early on he has some shady connection to pirates hiding aboard the ship that seek a shipment of gold.

     Alan immediately discovers that also on board is an ex-lover, Sybil, played by Rosalind Russell, who immediately ignites a passion in the captain who is far more gruff than the man she used to know. China Doll notices this right off and voluntarily backs away from her man, although she does a poor job of severing the ties. Alan plans to marry the now-widowed Sybil as soon as they dock and leave his sea life behind, but Russell’s character quickly fades into the background once a typhoon and subsequent pirate takeover come to the forefront.

     China Doll seems to be missing during the storm during which all passengers have headed for the lounge area of the ship. She is partaking in a drinking/gambling game with MacCardle in his cabin when she finds half a 100 pound note in his wallet that is surefire evidence he is a pirate. MacCardle notices the missing money and forces China Doll to join up with him or essentially be killed. The dame runs to the captain after the storm calms down, but he, drunk, refuses to listen to a word because he thinks she is just there to win him back. That pisses the gal off and she steals the key to the armory, delivering it to MacCardle.

      In the midst of the pirate takeover, a crewmate (Lewis Stone) who chickened out during the typhoon and was arrested because of it, is shot, has his foot broken and still manages to save the day by crawling to the captains quarters to gather grenades. Despite a Chinese torture device, Alan never gives up the location of the gold and convinces the criminals and  MacCardle –who is translating with the pirates and pretending to be on Alan’s side– that there is no gold.

     Alan solves the mystery of how the pirates got the key to the armory and sends China Doll to trial, but not before making his decision about what broad he wants to marry.

      Now to touch on that accidental indecent exposure to which I alluded. There is a scene that I have noticed both times I watched this movie when Harlow’s gown slips from her soldier and she flashes a full breast at the camera. I am doing my best to not sound like a pervert here, but I found it pretty amazing that such a mishap could make into a final film print. For those wanting to look for this incident, it occurs in the scene when China Doll is fighting off a drunken MacCardle who wants his half 100-pound bill back. In stumbling around the room on a ship rocked by the storm, Harlow’s dress strap slips off her soldier, the what would now be deemed “nip slip” occurs and she, realizing what happened, throws her shoulder back to force the gown in place. I find it comical that this happened to Harlow, who always wore slinky dresses that seemed poised to slip from her shoulder at any moment. Call it fate.

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