Frisco Jenny (1932)

Ruth Chatterton and James Murray

For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.

However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again.  Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great  Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

When you look at the list of Robert Wise’s movies, it seems amazing that he isn’t better-known – which is why it is so good that Joshua over at Octopus Cinema has organised a blog-a-thon about his work, to which this is a contribution.

somebodyposterSomebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli, is one of my favourites out of his movies that I’ve seen so far, and if anything it seems to get better with repeated viewings. I hesitated before watching  because, on the face of it, it’s a boxing movie – a biopic of world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography –  and I’m not a fan of the sport. However, it’s really far more than that,  showing how Graziano, originally called Barbella, grew up in poverty and dabbled in crime before turning his life around,  and the fight scenes, powerful though they are, take up only a relatively small part of this movie.

After first seeing the film on TV, I’m very glad I got hold of the DVD, since it has a good commentary track with detailed reminiscences by Wise himself as well as contributions from Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese. Film historian Richard Schickel mentions in the commentary that one reason Wise is sometimes overlooked might be that he isn’t identified with any particular genre, but worked in just about  all of them.  Bearing this out, it strikes me that this film alone touches on many genres in the space of under two hours – starting out as a cross between a gangster movie and a film about juvenile delinquents, then turning into a prison movie and briefly an army one before it really gets into the boxing story, which is also a romance.  The film focuses just as much on Rocky’s relationships with his mother (Eileen Heckart) and his girlfriend and later wife, Norma (Angeli) as it does on the boxing.  Indeed, the posters and lobby cards I’ve seen, possibly designed to persuade women to go to a boxing picture,  seem to go more on the romance than on the fighting.

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Suddenly (1954)

I already knew Frank Sinatra was a good actor, after seeing his impressive supporting performance in From Here to Eternity. However, I didn’t realise quite how good until seeing him in this little-known noir thriller, directed by Lewis Allen, where he just burns up the screen as a hired assassin out to kill the US President.

Suddenly2I’ve read on various websites that Sinatra had the movie withdrawn from circulation after the assassination of JFK because it was reported that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film just days before carrying out the killing. However, there’s a comment at the imdb saying that Sinatra in fact had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the movie. In any case, there are one or two chilling similarities, especially in the scenes with a sniper standing at a window – and it’s easy to see why there might have been little appetite for watching the movie  after the real-life tragedy.

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Dante’s Inferno (1935)

I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless  more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.

However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made.   Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.

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Barbary Coast (1935)

I’ve decided I’m going to try to write slightly shorter blog postings, as I’m so short of time these days due to my work situation. But I still want to try to record some of my thoughts on the classic movies I keep watching – so my mid-year resolution is to use more pictures and fewer words!

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge

This is one of the early Howard Hawks films I didn’t manage to see during the blogathon organised by Ed Howard earlier this year. But I’ve now caught up with it after spotting the VHS video in a local secondhand shop (it hasn’t been released on DVD in the UK) and have also read Ed’s excellent review at his Only the Cinema blog. It’s definitely a lesser Hawks offering and doesn’t really have his stamp about it, but I’m still glad to have seen it.

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Black Legion (1936)

I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.

BlackLegionsleeveIn this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.

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Great Guy (1936)

First of all, I’m sorry not to have posted here for ages – my working life has been busy and I’ve let blogging slip as a result. I’ll try to do better!

GreatGuy2

James Cagney and Mae Clarke

James Cagney walked out on Warner Brothers in the mid-1930s partly because he was fed up with being typecast as a tough guy. So it comes as a surprise that his starring role in Great Guy  – the first of two movies he made with Grand National, a poverty row studio – seems such a typical role for him.

Typical at first glance, anyway. His character, Johnnie Cave (the hero of stories by James Edward Grant published in the Saturday Evening Post) is an ex-boxer, now fearlessly enforcing the law for New York’s Department of Weights and Measures. However, the very fact that he is working for such an unglamorous department suggests a certain distance between this character and the gangsters, G-Men and dashing pilots Cagney had played in his recent films.

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