What a Character – Zeffie Tilbury

This is my contribution to the What a Character blogathon. Please do visit and look at the other contributions.

Zeffie Tilbury 3

Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma in The Grapes of Wrath

Zeffie Tilbury appeared in more than 70 films, came from a famous theatrical family and had a long stage career before making her film debut at the age of 54. So I’ve been surprised to see how hard it is to find much information about this grand old lady of film and theatre. Admittedly, many of her movie parts were small and uncredited – but she also played a number of major roles.

The first time I really noticed her was in Desire (1936), directed by Frank Borzage and starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper.  Tilbury, who was then in her 70s, plays an elderly conwoman going under the name Aunt Olga, and urging on Dietrich’s character to press ahead with her efforts to con Cooper. She makes a memorable entrance, heading for the booze and admitting in her aristocratic English voice that she is just out of jail. There aren’t many actors who can hold their own with Dietrich on camera, let alone steal a scene, but I’d say Tilbury manages to do it on this occasion.

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The Spoilers (Ray Enright, 1942)

Dietrich and Wayne

Dietrich and Wayne

I’ve been enjoying contributing to a few blogathons lately, and this is my contribution to another one – the Universal Blogathon, celebrating the studio’s 100th birthday. Please take a look at the great range of postings.

Universal might be best known for its horror films, but the studio also produced many other types of movie over the years, including Westerns. The Alaskan gold rush is the backdrop for The Spoilers, a lighthearted film with a great cast, headed by Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. I’d remembered all the best bits of this film from a previous viewing, before deciding to revisit it for the blogathon, and, having watched it again, would have to admit there are quite a few flaws which had slipped my mind. So it isn’t a masterpiece – but it does provide a lot of fun and there is loads of chemistry between Dietrich and Wayne, who were an item in real life at this time. It’s also interesting to see Western hero Scott in a less than sympathetic role.

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Thunder Birds (William A. Wellman, 1942)

This is my contribution to the William A. Wellman Blogathon, hosted by the Now Voyaging blog.  Please do visit and read the other postings.

Thunder Birds 4Drawing on his own memories of his days as a pilot, William A. Wellman made aviation films right through his career, from silent masterpiece Wings right through to his deeply personal final film, Lafayette Escadrille.  The Second World War film Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air is one of his lesser-known movies on this theme. This is really a slice of propaganda, looking at the training of young pilots and the close working together of the US and British forces.  However, aside from a long voice-over intro and another voice-over at the end, where the Chinese pilots training at the field are also spotlighted, most of the movie is focused on a buddy story which turns into a love triangle, bringing back memories of Wings.

This film is admittedly far from being one of Wellman’s greatest – but, in purely visual terms, it might just be the most gorgeous spectacle that he ever made. The Technicolor is truly glorious, showing off the locations around Thunderbird Field in Glendale, Arizona, where Allied pilots gained their wings before going to war. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer’s colour footage of aircraft spiralling through a vivid blue sky in a series of daring stunt flights is the film’s most striking element, while  the sweeping shots of desert scenery would grace any Western. Costume designer Dolly Tree also clearly decided to make the most of the opportunities presented by Technicolor. Leading lady Gene Tierney – who gets top billing despite fairly limited screen time – wears a succession of  dazzlingly colourful outfits.

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Angel and the Badman (James Edward Grant, 1947)

John Wayne and Gail Russell

John Wayne and Gail Russell

This is my contribution to the 1947 Blogathon being organised by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. Please take a look at the great range of postings.

A rider gallops through the Western countryside – but falls from his horse, hit by a bullet. He is seen by a pair of passing Quakers, who go to his aid, but he is reluctant to accept their help, wanting to press on with his quest even if it kills him. That’s the starting point for Angel and the Badman, an unusually romantic Western starring John Wayne and Gail Russell as a couple who come from completely different worlds.

Director James Edward Grant also wrote the script, so this was clearly a film which meant a lot to him. It has an atmosphere all of its own, almost taking place at two speeds, with some fast-moving Western segments, such as a bar-room brawl, and some slower and more gently unfolding scenes in the world of the Quakers’ farmhouse.

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Gaslight (1940 and 1944)

This posting is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon. Please take a look at the other postings, which cover an amazing range of films.

gaslight poster 2There’s something peculiarly chilling about a villain stalking you in your own house – especially when it’s the person who is supposed to be your soulmate. A number of films made in the era of noir explored the plight of wives psychologically tortured by their husbands (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Two Mrs Carrolls). The two versions of Gaslight are among the best.

Here are my thoughts on the two films – and gaslight poster 1the two  villains of the piece, played by Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer, with Diana Wynyard and Ingrid Bergman as their terrified wives. Both versions have great lead performances and it’s fascinating to compare them. In particular, Boyer and Walbrook are very different. To my mind the earlier film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, holds its mood better and is more truly frightening than the George Cukor remake, but both are powerful dramas in their own right.

Although there are many changes, in each case the main story is the same, focusing on a wife trapped within a Gothic house amid the darkness of Victorian London. A murder took place in the house years ago, with a woman being killed for her jewels, but her attacker failed to find the gems and went away empty-handed. Now the house is haunted by the memory of that crime. Every evening the gaslight dims – but is it really the wife’s mind which is fading? Her apparently attentive husband claims that she is showing signs of mental illness, yet it becomes increasingly apparent that he is the one driving her to a breakdown.

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Take Five: Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.

A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.

Cavalcade 81. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933.  The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues – even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!

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Anchors Aweigh (George Sidney, 1945)

Anchors Aweigh 5It’s over-sweet and over-long – but should not be overlooked. Anchors Aweigh tends to be regarded as something of a dry run for another film featuring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors on shore leave, On the Town. When the earlier movie does get a mention, usually it’s just the celebrated dance routine with Kelly and Jerry Mouse which comes in for praise. However, Anchors Aweigh has a warmth and charm going beyond that sequence and Sinatra actually gets better solo songs here than he does in the more famous movie. The gorgeous Technicolor also helps to make it all hugely watchable.

Kelly and Sinatra play the two kindest and nicest sailors imaginable.  It comes as a surprise now to realise that Kelly was actually third-billed, because his determined, slightly sarcastic screen personality dominates the film. His character, Joe Brady, blusters about his supposed relationship with a girl about town called Lola, and has several one-sided phone conversations with her – but she never actually puts in an appearance. Sinatra plays a delicate second fiddle as wide-eyed former choirboy, Clarence Doolittle, who hero-worships Joe and, at the start of the film, is seen literally following him around. The actors’ real-life friendship helps to create a convincing warmth and chemistry between them, even if it is hard to believe that any sailors serving in a war could be quite this well-behaved.

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