This is my contribution to the James Cagney blogathon being organised by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector. Please do visit and read the other postings. There is also the chance to win a two-DVD special set of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – scroll down to the bottom of the Movie Projector blogathon page for details of how to enter.
Both James Cagney and director Raoul Walsh are best-known for their tough-guy dramas – and they made two great ones together, gangster classics The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Yet this pair also teamed up to make one of the sweetest of romantic comedy-dramas, a period piece suffused with charm and nostalgia. With not one but two great leading ladies, Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland, a sparkling script and an irresistible musical soundtrack, The Strawberry Blonde is a film which deserves to be much better known. Sadly this title has never had a full DVD release, and old VHS videos used to change hands at scarily high prices – but now it has been brought out on Warner Archive in region 1, and it has also been shown in a fine print on the UK TCM in the last few years.
Most of the film unfolds in flashback, so we know from the start that young dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) has been disappointed in love and spent time in prison after somehow being framed by a friend. The film then shows how it all happened – before we finally discover whether Biff will be tempted to take his revenge on the friend in question, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), when he finally turns up in his surgery as a patient.
This posting is really a follow-up to the excellent John Garfield centenary blogathon. In the last few days I’ve been lucky enough to see one of Garfield’s rarer films, Saturday’s Children, and was surprised to realise just how many other versions of the same story have been made. The film was reviewed during the blogathon, but I can’t resist giving my own take on it too. Anyway, after talking about the film itself, I’ll then go on to mention the other versions which have been staged or filmed, ranging from the original Broadway stage play – starring a very young Humphrey Bogart! – right through to a stage revival in the last couple of years. I’ll also post some pictures of some of the other versions. Although I do like discussing endings, I’ve resisted the temptation on this occasion, so there are no serious spoilers in this posting – but, if you just want to know about the other versions, scroll down to the bottom!
The 1940 film starring Garfield, directed by Vincent Sherman, was the third screen adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play. It is often described as a romantic comedy – but perhaps a more accurate description is that it’s a tragicomedy. The way it moves from sweet early scenes to increasingly painful/bitter ones, and eventually lurches into near-melodrama, reminded me of one of my favourite James Cagney films, The Strawberry Blonde, made the following year, which I will be writing about soon for the forthcoming James Cagney blogathon. Both films have scripts by Casablanca writers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, reworked from stage plays, and both see Warner Brothers ‘tough guys’ cast somewhat against type, in roles which bring out their more vulnerable qualities.
My Fair Lady has one of the greatest scores of any musical, by Lerner and Loewe, with many songs which have become standards, such as With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and On the Street Where You Live. It is also one of the most gorgeous musicals to look at, making full use of Super Panavision, with its dazzling Cecil Beaton costumes and colourful sets. It wasn’t filmed on location in London, but Covent Garden flower market and the dingy back streets look convincing enough to me, while scenes like the Embassy ball and Ascot have all the visual flamboyance you’d expect from director George Cukor, aided by art director Gene Allen. Yet this celebrated film was allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state and needed full-scale restoration by the mid-1990s. The DVD I have, part of an Audrey Hepburn box set, features the restored print, looking great, plus several special features – and there are also a couple of different two-disc special editions available, as well as a region 1 Blu-ray. But what I’d really like would be to see this on the big screen some day.
This was one of the first musicals that I came to love, as a child of the 1960s. But the version I knew back then was the soundtrack of the Broadway show, starring Julie Andrews as Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose life is transformed when eccentric phonetics expert Henry Higgins decides to teach her to speak “like a lady”. My mother had a copy of the LP which someone had brought back for her from America (it wasn’t allowed to be sold in the UK at that time, presumably for copyright reasons), and we listened to it endlessly. So when I hear anyone else singing those songs, I still always have Julie’s voice in the back of my head somewhere.
Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough… to keep it out of the paper!
This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.
It’s been a while since I did any full reviews of William A Wellman movies here, but I have been watching more of his work in the meantime and have updated my Wellman page with brief details of all the films of his I’ve seen so far (40-plus.) I do also have a couple more of his films which I haven’t got round to watching yet, and there are a few more available which I haven’t bought yet, so I will carry on updating, and hopefully review some more of them too.
Anyway, I’m delighted to say that my page is already getting out of date, because Warner Archive has just announced that it is releasing three more of his titles on DVD. I’m especially excited at the release of his great pre-Code Safe In Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill in a brilliant performance as an ex-prostitute who runs away to a Caribbean island after killing an ex-boyfriend.
The other two are later titles, which I haven’t seen as yet. One is My Man and I (1953), starring Shelley Winters as an alcoholic bar girl befriended by Mexican farmhand Ricardo Montalban. The other is Wellman’s very last film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958), starring Tab Hunter and David Janssen, and with a small part for Clint Eastwood. This returns to the theme of the director’s first big success, Wings, by focusing on First World War flyers. I have seen an interview with Wellman where he talks about this film and about how upset he was by the studio changing his ending and also imposing a title – he had already had a lot of interference with many other films, but you get the impression this one broke his heart. (He himself didn’t fly with the Lafayette Escadrille, as usually stated, but with the Lafayette Flying Corps.) Anyway, this film is already available on a French DVD from Warner, but this is said to be a remastered edition, so I’m not sure which would be the better buy. The French DVD is probably a pressed one rather than a DVR, but maybe this is a better print?
It’s also good to hear that classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March, is being released by Kino on both DVD and Blu-ray on December 20 in a new “authorised edition from the estate of David O Selznick and the collection of George Eastman House). Should be much better than all the faded public domain copies on the market!
I’ve been meaning to write about one or two more obscure pre-Codes that I’ve seen in the last few weeks, but haven’t got round to it and my memory of some of them is already starting to fade. So here is a short posting on one of these, Big City Blues, starring Joan Blondell and with an all-too brief, though memorably violent, appearance by an uncredited Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, this movie isn’t on DVD as yet, though it is yet another one that we can hope Warner Archive may release. This posting is mainly an excuse to post the pictures and posters I’ve gathered together of this film.
This film, a predictable tale of a young man from the country who finds New York life too much for him, is really a very slight offering, at only 65 minutes. However, having said that, anything featuring Bogart or Blondell surely has an interest, while director LeRoy also has a following, and went on to do a great job on the better-known Three on a Match and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Big City Blues is also worth looking out for its typically gritty Warner Brothers’ portrayal of New York City life in the Great Depression. I saw this around the same time as Alfred E Green’s Parachute Jumper, an early Bette Davis film made the following year, and the two have slightly blurred together in my mind. Between them, the two give a picture of rootless young people wandering round the big city in search of a living, a good time, or just a meal.
I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).
I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.
As a Brit who isn’t a great sport fan, I’ll admit I’m in difficulties when watching any movie about American football – since, as soon as the players head for the pitch, I can’t really work out what on earth is going on. Nevertheless, I was pleased to track down a copy of this William A Wellman pre-Code starring Pat O’Brien as a college football coach – and featuring a 23-second appearance by a very young and uncredited John Wayne! I’m just editing this posting (on October 6) to say that this title is now out on Warner Archive. (This was actually his second football-themed film – the first, Eleven Men and a Girl (1930), a comedy starring Joe E Brown, was also issued on Warner Archive recently.)
Anyway, back to the rules of American football, and my failure to understand them. I know that a touchdown is similar to a try in rugby, but that’s about as far as I’ve managed to get. I did try looking up the Wikipedia page about the rules but found it impenetrable. Therefore, I’m afraid my review of this satirical comedy-drama will be lacking – but, even though I found the action on the pitch bewildering, there was plenty to enjoy regarding the politics and corruption behind the scenes, much of which seems all too relevant to modern-day sport too. There is also some enjoyably sharp hard-boiled dialogue - as well as some startlingly amoral pre-Code plot twists.
Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.
Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version) who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long. Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.