Just editing this posting to say that the Summer Under the Stars blogathon is currently running all through August, and today (August 23) is Gene Kelly’s special day. Please visit to read lots of great postings on his films.
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starred together in three movies. The best-known is undoubtedly The Pirate, a lavish Technicolor production which I’ll admit leaves me cold. For Me and My Gal, made by Arthur Freed’s famous production unit at MGM, is in black and white and on a much smaller scale altogether, despite having Berkeley as director. Its tightly-constructed musical numbers bear little resemblance to those in his breathtaking pre-Code extravaganzas. The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero. It is set during the First World War, but clearly the scriptwriters were thinking of the Second, and there are scenes urging characters to buy war bonds, echoed in the final frame with an appeal to moviegoers. The fashions also look contemporary for the 1940s. I saw the film on TCM in the UK (it is also due for a showing on the US TCM at 6am (ET) on August 23, 2012), but it is available on DVD in both regions 1 and 2.
Even if it doesn’t always completely hang together and is occasionally corny, I found the film riveting to watch and enjoyed the chemistry between Garland and Kelly, as well as the array of great songs – highlights include the title song and the song-and-dance dance number Ballin’ the Jack – many of which date from the First World War or earlier. It’s just a pity that, in a film with Berkeley as director and starring Kelly, there is relatively little dancing overall – co-star George Murphy, in particular, gets very few scenes where he is able to show his tap-dancing prowess. According to TCM’s article on the movie, 40-year-old Murphy was originally intended as the male lead, but the part was instead given to Kelly, who was 10 years younger and making his movie debut fresh from his success in Pal Joey on Broadway. A disappointed Murphy was demoted to a support role. Another change was that originally the film was supposed to have two leading ladies, a singer and a dancer – but both these roles were combined to give Garland, who was only 19, her first fully grown-up role, with her name as the only one above the title. Looking at the posters for the film, Garland’s name and image dominate and it was clearly seen as her movie all the way. However, Kelly certainly shows his power and charm as both dancer and actor, in a role which made him a film star – while Murphy is also impressive in the few scenes he does get.
As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.
So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.
Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!
The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.
The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:
Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.
The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.
The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.
The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.
All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.
One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past. I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.
The title sounds reminiscent of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang – and the posters for this John Garfield movie tried to give that impression too, oozing toughness and desperation. However, as so often in movies of the 1930s and 40s, the advertising is misleading, and this tale of a troubled young boxer wanted for murder is a very different film from the image Warner Brothers was trying to sell here.
Admittedly, the first few minutes are dark and powerful, almost giving an early foretaste of film noir. But the rest of the film has a more hopeful flavour than this moody opening. The intensity falls off - although the film as a whole, surprisingly directed by Busby Berkeley between musicals, is still very enjoyable. This was Garfield’s second movie and his first starring role – and it feels quite similar to Cagney movies like the previous year’s Angels With Dirty Faces, especially as it co-stars the Dead End Kids.
The film’s biggest flaw is that it also co-stars Claude Rains, wildly miscast as a New York cop. I don’t suppose this great actor ever looked or felt more uncomfortable in a role. Rains doesn’t seem even to attempt an American accent, except that he talks faster than normal, and it just sounds ridiculous when, in his clipped English voice, he has to say lines like: “That was one swell-looking dame.” Rains’ character is a frustrated detective who has been stuck on “morgue duty” for years as a punishment – something which might have felt all too close to home for Rains himself, who was reportedly forced to take this part or face a suspension by Warner.
The noirish opening minutes see Garfield’s character, New York boxer Johnnie Bradfield, win a world title fight and soulfully dedicate his win to his dear old mother – also informing the press that he doesn’t waste his time on drink and women. Unfortunately, within minutes of making this announcement, he is busy knocking back large quantities of booze and in the arms of his girlfriend, Goldie (a tiny part for Ann Sheridan – whose two-dimensional character might just as well be called “gold digger”.)