It must be a daunting prospect to step into a role which another actor has already made his own. But Frank Sinatra did it at least twice, in musical remakes of much-loved movies. In High Society he took on the role which had won James Stewart an Oscar in The Philadelphia Story, and a couple of years earlier he stepped into the shoes of another legend, John Garfield. In Young at Heart, starring opposite Doris Day, Sinatra plays the character who turned Garfield into a star – a bitter, mixed-up young musician who believes the fates are out to get him.
I’m a big fan of Garfield and of the original 1938 film, Four Daughters, also starring Priscilla Lane, which I hope to return to here in the New Year, as part of a series about films focused on groups of sisters or female friends. However, I also really like the remake, directed by Gordon Douglas, who worked with Sinatra on several other films. This version keeps a lot of the same witty dialogue by Julius Epstein and Lenore J Coffee – and Sinatra burns up the screen as Barney Sloan. (His name has been changed from Garfield’s Mickey Borden.) Day is also perfectly cast as Laurie Tuttle, the golden girl who tries to break through Barney’s defences, but sadly she doesn’t get any musical numbers to equal the three great torch songs which Sinatra performs in the course of the film. Sitting at the piano nursing a cigarette and wearing a battered Fedora, he looks as if he has materialised from the sleeve of one of his albums of sad songs, such as In the Wee Small Hours, released the following year.
I’ll be writing about a few Frank Sinatra films between now and the end of the year – I can’t promise to update very frequently, but hope to cover a few movies. After having seen little-known biopic The Joker Is Wild on TV recently, I just can’t understand why it isn’t available on DVD. For my money, this is a great movie of its kind, and Sinatra gives a compelling performance which is up there with his roles in The Man with the Golden Arm and From Here to Eternity. The difference here is that he has a chance to sing – and he expresses the character’s suffering through his voice. Sadly, I get the impression that biopics are somewhat out of fashion at the moment. This one is even more overlooked because it is the story of a largely forgotten comedian, Joe E. Lewis – who was actually a friend of Sinatra.
The film was directed by Charles Vidor, who also made a better-remembered biopic, Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney, a couple of years earlier. This one has the same bitter-sweet quality, and similarly showcases musical numbers within a dramatic context. However, unlike the Doris Day film, The Joker Is Wild is in black and white, and it has a rather more downbeat feel to it. The early scenes are set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and it feels very like a Warner film from that era, with the same kind of gritty atmosphere. (Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp was a camera operator on many such films in the pre-Code era.)
I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.
Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.
Just came across this amazing rarity on Youtube – a screen test for Laurette Luez for A Lion is in the Streets, playing opposite James Cagney as his character’s much younger mistress. In the film, the part went to Anne Francis, who is good – at 23, she was a couple of years younger than Luez and looked younger still, so maybe the studio wanted to emphasise the age gap between her and Cagney, who was 53, although he looks much younger here in black and white. (The film’s Technicolor is less forgiving.) But I think Luez is very good in this clip, anyway. Cagney really goes for it, too, although he is largely standing with his back to the camera. I’ve seen all of Cagney’s films except for a few TV productions, so it was a thrill suddenly to spot this piece of footage.
Today I happened to see a mention of Johnny Weissmuller – and that reminded me that the Tarzan films were the very first black-and-white movies I saw, as a youngster, when they were shown on TV. This meant champion swimmer Johnny was one of my first crushes – I found him very handsome, even in the later films where he became rather overweight.
This got me wondering whether other people remember who their first classic movie loves were – not necessarily actors you swooned over, as I’ll admit I did over Mr Weissmuller, but just those who first interested you in older movies. I had a harder job thinking who my first favourite actress was, but decided it was probably Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz – she is still one of my favourites after all these years. ( I did also like Maureen O’Sullivan in the Tarzan films, but it is mainly Johnny I remember.)
I’d love to hear about other people’s first favourites – and whether they stand up to your early love when you see them again. I should really give Johnny W another look, maybe in Tarzan and His Mate, which is said to be his best pre-Code.
I wasn’t actually called after Judy Garland, but I’d be very happy if that had been the case
This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.
The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.
Many 1930s films about journalists are set in big city newsrooms, with multiple editions hitting the streets all through the day. Some even feature several rival newspapers battling for stories, and whole packs of reporters jostling to be first with the news. Pre-Code romantic melodrama I Cover the Waterfront is rather different. Ben Lyon stars as Joe Miller, a young journalist with a lonely and unglamorous job covering the ships which arrive and depart on an unnamed Californian waterfront. As author Max Miller wrote in the book of real-life stories which inspired the movie: “I have been here so long that even the seagulls recognise me.”
Inevitably, the apparently sleepy backwater soon turns out to be anything but, as Joe manages to dig out a sensational story, and finds himself caught in a moral dilemma to rival any in those big-city films. He deliberately sets out to romance Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert) in order to get the dirt on her criminal father, fisherman Eli, who is smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country… but soon realises he is in danger of breaking her heart, along with his own. The result is a powerful drama where the investigative reporter is a hero, but his determination to nail his scoop at any cost also has its dark side.