Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954)

Young at Heart 4It must be a daunting prospect to step into a role which another actor has already made his own. But Frank Sinatra did it at least twice, in musical remakes of much-loved movies. In High Society he took on the role which had won James Stewart an Oscar in The Philadelphia Story, and a couple of years earlier he stepped into the shoes of another legend, John Garfield.  In Young at Heart, starring opposite Doris Day, Sinatra plays the character who turned Garfield into a star – a bitter, mixed-up young musician who believes the fates are out to get him.

I’m a big fan of Garfield and of the original 1938 film, Four Daughters, also starring Priscilla Lane, which I hope to return to here in the New Year, as part of a series about films focused on groups of sisters or female friends. However, I also really like the remake, directed by Gordon Douglas, who worked with Sinatra on several other films. This version keeps a lot of the same witty dialogue by Julius Epstein and Lenore J Coffee – and Sinatra burns up the screen as Barney Sloan. (His name has been changed from Garfield’s Mickey Borden.) Day is also perfectly cast as Laurie Tuttle, the golden girl who tries to break through Barney’s defences, but sadly she doesn’t get any musical numbers to equal the three great torch songs which Sinatra performs in the course of the film. Sitting at the piano nursing a cigarette and wearing a battered Fedora, he looks as if he has materialised from the sleeve of one of his albums of sad songs, such as In the Wee Small Hours, released the following year. 

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Happy Christmas

Just to wish everyone who visits my blog a happy and restful break over the holidays. Here are a couple of Christmas stills from films I like but haven’t written about here yet – The Sisters (1938), directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, and Pride of the Marines (1945), directed by Delmer Daves and starring John Garfield and Eleanor Parker (a lovely still from the Life collection). Both these films feature rather sad Christmas holidays – however, I hope yours will be anything but!

Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in 'The Sisters' (1938)

John Garfield and Eleanor Parker in 'Pride of the Marines' (1945)

They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

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 theymademeacriminal2toughness 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”.)

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Under My Skin (1950)

Looking at still photographs from this movie, set in post-war Paris and loosely adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, I was expecting film noir. The fact that it stars great actor John Garfield, opposite French actress Micheline Presle (billed here as Prelle), added to this expectation.

Micheline Presle and John Garfield

However, although some scenes do have that moody, brooding quality, and the shadowy black-and-white camerawork adds to this, the film as a whole is a strange mixture of noir and sentimentality. Director Jean Negulesco and screenwriter Casey Robinson both made some great films, but in this one they seem to be caught between two stools, with flashes of brilliance in between scenes which unashamedly manipulate the emotions. As many reviews point out, the main plot  is almost like a reworking of The Champ, moved from the boxing ring to the racecourse.

One of the biggest attractions of this film is the footage showing Paris in 1950. By coincidence, I’ve just seen the new film Julie and Julia, which is also set in the city around this period. But the real black-and-white footage of the post-war bars and streets has a battered quality to it which a movie made in 2009 can’t quite recapture, although that is not to say anything against Nora Ephron’s film, which I liked very much.

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Humoresque (1946)

Recently I’ve seen several films starring John Garfield, and been impressed by all of them. After seeing this fine drama where he plays a virtuoso violinist, I’m starting to wonder if he ever made a bad movie.

I was doubly interested by this film because it sees him opposite Joan Crawford, an actress whose work I want to know better. This is said to be one of her finest performances, and she actually gets top billing over Garfield, although he has more screen time, signalling that at heart this is a woman’s emotion picture.

John Garfield and Joan Crawford

John Garfield and Joan Crawford

Despite the title, which might sound as if this is a comedy, in fact it’s an intense melodrama, with a dark, noirish look about it, wreathed in shadows. However, what sets it apart from other melodramas I’ve seen is the sparklingly witty dialogue by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold, with plenty of lines to remember for later.  Director Jean Negulesco, nominated for an Oscar a couple of years later for Johnny Belinda, was at the height of his powers, and, with great classical music on the soundtrack, it all adds up to a winning mixture.

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