“The most glamorous production of all time,” proclaims the original trailer to Dinner at Eight. Well, Jean Harlow’s astonishing dresses, made by Adrian, are certainly glamorous – and so is the whole central idea, of a businessman’s wife arranging a grand society dinner. But, like the previous year’s great portmanteau drama featuring some of the same stars, Grand Hotel, this is very much a Depression era film, with a desperation underlying the glamour.
The film has an astonishing cast even by the standards of MGM – it must be one of the most star-studded ensembles of all time, featuring both John and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Harlow, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and Edmund Lowe. Names like Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell and May Robson have to make do with bit parts.
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.
There’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 Gaslightare among the best.
Here are my thoughts on the two films – and the 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.
This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.
Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website
She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.
Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.
Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.
Director Vincente Minnelli created one of the warmest portrayals of American family life on film in the great musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944). But he gives a very different, darker take on families in Some Came Running, a 1950s melodrama which tackles the type of subject matter that Douglas Sirk made his own. The colour is gorgeous (or at least I assume it was originally – the DVD I have in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years collection looks a little faded at times), and there are many Cinemascope set pieces, including a glossy dance scene. However, the town’s idyllic appearance is constantly undercut by suggestions of the backbiting and nastiness just beneath the surface of life in the fictional Parktown.
I was given the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years DVD box set for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to watching all the films in the collection. The UK/region 2 set contains four films, rather than five as in the US/region 1 set, with the missing title sadly being the most famous one – The Man with the Golden Arm. However, I have recently acquired this classic on a German Blu-ray and do intend to write about it too, although I’d like to read the book first.
It’s quite amazing to realise that Frank Sinatra made The Tender Trap in the same year as The Man with the Golden Arm. There’s not a hint of the noir film’s white-hot intensity in this glossy MGM battle-of-the-sexes comedy, with its gorgeous blend of Cinemascope and Eastman Color. The mood is set by the opening, where Sinatra is seen against a wide-open sky, stepping forward as he sings the great title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.
It’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.
This great comedy really is a film that has its wedding cake and eats it. James Stewart sums it all up beautifully in two caustic lines – on the one hand: “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” That’s certainly a big selling point for a movie set in an impossibly luxurious mansion on the eve of a grand wedding, amid a whirl of champagne and gowns by Adrian. But, on the other hand, as Stewart snarls on the phone: “This is the Voice of Doom calling. Your days are numbered, to the seventh son of the seventh son.” The Philadelphia Story, one of the greatest of screwball comedies, celebrates the quirkiness of rich society families, as epitomised in Katharine Hepburn’s haughty, upper-crust heroine, Tracy Samantha Lord. But it also suggests that their days are indeed numbered, and shows this American aristocrat having to change and bend with the times.
The opening scene is a brief silent drama which shows Tracy’s violent break-up with her husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), as she contemptuously breaks his golf clubs and he retaliates by pushing her through a door, deciding against hitting her. From this dramatic break-up, it’s a case of going full circle and getting back to the point where the couple fall in love. Just as Tracy is about to marry a safe but boring businessman, George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter turns up at the eleventh hour and starts turning everything upside down. He brings in a reporter and photographer from a gossip magazine, Spy, (he has been blackmailed into doing so) and things are soon becoming more complicated, and comic, by the minute. It turns out that the reporter, Macaulay/Mike Connor (Stewart) is really a poetic short story writer, and Tracy starts to fall under his spell, threatening her forthcoming marriage – while the rest of her eccentric family are busy causing their own brand of mayhem.