This is my contribution to the Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon, being hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Please take a look at the other postings, which all focus on collaborations between a director and star.
Both Raoul Walsh and James Cagney are known for their quality of toughness, so it’s no surprise that two of the four movies they made together are famous gangster films. But both director and actor were also interested in focusing on character and, beyond the action sequences, their films also contain equally powerful scenes bringing out the vulnerability of the heroes/villains played by Cagney. I can’t look at every aspect of all four films here, so am concentrating on this theme. I’ve also put a separate bit about some of the films’ endings at the end, including pictures.
The shadow of Casablanca hangs heavy over Tokyo Joe, as Bogart attempts to recapture the mood of his most famous romance in a drama made by his own production company, Santana. Once again, Bogart plays an expat nightclub owner, this time wandering through the battered landscape of post-war Tokyo. And once again he rekindles his love for a glamorous old flame (Florence Marly) who is now married to someone else. There is even a song running through the film, this time the standard These Foolish Things.
Inevitably, the film, directed by Stuart Heisler, loses by the comparison with its celebrated predecessor, and I’d have to say it is relatively minor Bogart – but then, even minor Bogart is so watchable. He brings his unique blend of dry wit and underlying passion to the role of Joe Barrett, and is so compelling that at the start of the film I was really excited and thought it was a little-known masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t – the pacing falls away in the middle and there are too many unlikely plot twists, as well as a stereotyped Japanese villain.
Nearly two decades before M.A.S.H., the Korean War romantic drama Battle Circus, starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson as a surgeon and nurse, covered much of the same territory. Indeed, the opening shots of a helicopter hovering above a landscape of tents looks uncannily familiar to any fan of the later film and TV series. This film was made while the war was still going on, and doesn’t quite have the sharp irreverence of the later takes on the conflict, but there are flashes of the same kind of black humour. (The wounded here are ‘incoming mail’.) It is also a lot more downbeat than some of the Second World War flag-wavers, which is perhaps inevitable in a film focusing not on soldiers, but on the army medics called to patch up the wounded and dying. I found the medical and military scenes powerful, but felt it a shame that so much screen time is spent on the rather unconvincing romance between Bogart and Allyson.
Bogart stars as Major Jed Webbe, a hard-bitten, weary surgeon with a gift for sarcastic one-liners, who shows the way forward to Hawkeye Pierce in M.A.S.H. Like Hawkeye, Jed is starting to show the strain of his daily struggle to save lives, and at one point is tempted to drown his sorrows with an illicit bottle of whisky. However, he is soon in trouble for this, even though he is off-duty at the time, as his commanding officer (Robert Keith) tersely points out that he must be sober and ready to work 24 hours a day, if required.
In another scene, after a young soldier has died on the operating table, Webbe briefly walks out of the room to cope with his emotions, and is followed by Lt Ruth McGara (Allyson), who tells him: “Don’t blame yourself for that man dying.” “It’s not just him,” he replies. “It’s all the others – all the young men, the futility of it all.” At another point he suggests that the Korean war will become the third world war in one lifetime – bringing out the fears of those living through it.
Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
Carrying on with my series where I pick five films which have some kind of loose thematic connection – not necessarily the best or even my favourites, but five which interest me. Anyway, films about films seem to be my theme of the moment, as I’ve recently written postings about The Artist and My Week with Marilyn. So here are another five self-regarding movies. Be warned, there are spoilers in my first choice for anyone who doesn’t know what happens in the various versions of A Star Is Born.
Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman
What Price Hollywood (1932): This melodrama directed by George Cukor was the first version of the A Star Is Born story (as far as I know, anyway). It gives a very bitter picture of a Hollywood which chews people up and casts them aside. Lowell Sherman is absolutely stunning as the washed-up drunken film director Max Carey, dominating the film and drawing on his own real-life drink problem. Constance Bennett is also excellent as ambitious waitress turned rising star Mary Evans, but her romance with millionaire Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) doesn’t really ring true and is a weak spot in a powerful film. I also love William A Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which is very much a reworking of the same story, with great performances by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and the George Cukor remake, with Judy Garland and James Mason – just a shame that the complete version of that one is lost. But, anyway, Cukor’s pre-Code version has a witty toughness all of its own. And the suicide scene is unforgettable, focusing on the agony of the man whose life is over, and not seen as some kind of noble gesture to the rising star he loves, as in the remakes.
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 been meaning to post briefly about an early Humphrey Bogart movie I saw recently. The pre-Code romantic drama Love Affair is in fact his first lead role, although he gets second billing to Dorothy Mackaill. Bogart is one of my all-time favourites, and I’d also count myself as a fan of Mackaill after being impressed by her in Wellman’s Safe In Hell, although I still need to catch up on her silent roles. I quite enjoyed this film, because I love the period, but, although it is only just over an hour long, it feels quite slow and stilted, as with many early 1930s movies. Watching films made by lesser-known directors such as Thornton Freeland, who was at the helm for this one, makes me realise once again just how good the likes of William Wellman, John Ford, William Dieterle and Howard Hawks really were.