This is my second contribution to the Sinatra Centennial Blogathon, which I’m hosting together with Emily from The Vintage Cameo. Emily is hosting the last two days of this event, so please head over to her site to see the latest postings. My first contribution was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
It’s not one of Frank Sinatra’s better-known films, and was released as his career was heading for the rocks in the early 1950s. Yet Meet Danny Wilson, an uneven melodrama laced with music and comedy,contains some of his finest singing, and also gives hints of the acting triumphs which were to come. Made in black-and-white, this film was produced on a low budget and is admittedly no masterpiece, but all the same I really enjoyed it and found it a great way to celebrate his centennial.
In particular, he gives an absolutely spellbinding performance of She’s Funny That Way. The film is also interesting to watch because there are quite a few echoes of Sinatra’s real life, something which was commented on at the time. The film is available on DVD in the UK/region 2, from Eureka, but looks as if it is harder to get hold of for those of you in the US. The UK DVD, which I own, has pretty good picture quality, but no extras except for the original trailer.
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.
Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film. So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.
One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start. Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”
Mention Douglas Sirk, and the type of film that immediately comes to mind is a glossy colour melodrama. However, he did also make some black-and-white films – including this early 1950s production. Like his previous film, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, this is a period piece (it’s set in 1910). Also like the earlier film, it again paints a portrait of small-town America which is deeply nostalgic and wistful and yet, at the same time, clearly draws out the narrowness and judgemental attitudes of the community. At its centre is Barbara Stanwyck, giving a powerful and multi-layered performance.
I’ve been planning to review a few Dickens films to mark his bicentenary, and am now beginning at the end of his career – though I do plan to write about adaptations of some of the earlier novels too! I will be discussing the whole plot of Drood in this review, including the ending of the 1935 film and also of the most recent BBC adaptation. As a lifelong Dickens fan, I like all his novels and have read them all many times over the years. But his last, dark masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, holds a special fascination for me, as for many other readers – from its stunning dream opening in the opium den through to its abrupt breaking off when the author died. The book’s real power lies not in the endless controversy over how it would have ended, but in the tortured double character of John Jasper, lay precentor of the cathedral by day and drug addict by night. (I’ve read an article somewhere pointing out the similarity between Jasper and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which had already been adapted for the screen twice when Hollywood turned its attention to Dickens’ novel.)
Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932).The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.
Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.
I’ve just finally got round to seeing the film noir classic Scarlet Street, directed by Fritz Lang – one of the many greats I had somehow managed to miss up to now. I’m not going to write a full review, but will be going off at a tangent about the artist whose work is featured in the film, John Decker. However, on the film itself, I will briefly say that I was struck by the darkness and feeling of menace building up all the way through, and especially by the haunting final scenes, which are justly the most famous. Many copies of the movie around on the web and on budget DVDs are bad public domain prints, but the picture and sound are much better on the remastered version issued by Kino.
As my movie-watching is increasingly outstripping my limited blogging time, I’m going to do a few shorter reviews of films I’ve seen recently, before they completely fade in my memory! This is also an excuse to post the pictures I’ve gathered together. This melodramatic pre-Code directed by the little-known Hobart Henley is no masterpiece, putting it mildly. Based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt, it is very static and soapy, with awkward, stilted dialogue, and has dated far more than many other films from the same era – but it’s interesting mainly because of its cast.
It was Bette Davis’ first film and also stars Humphrey Bogart – both are cast completely against what later became their types, with Davis as the “good” and dowdy sister, Laura, and Bogart as a smooth and charming young conman, Valentine. Looking at him in this you can glimpse why one early review of a stage performance said he was “as handsome as Valentino”. Zasu Pitts, star of silent classic Greed, also features as the family maid, Minnie, an added bonus – while Bert Roach, who plays a kindly, bumbling character in another silent classic, King Vidor’s The Crowd, is similarly kind and bumbling here.