Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ginger, Reagan, & Doris Day VS the KKK in ‘Storm Warning’ 1951

Wholesome Ginger Rogers, RR, & DD are up against the wicked KKK in this WB melodrama.

Storm Warning is a watchable, well-acted 1951WB melodrama—that could have been so much more. The story of a woman who visits her younger sister and witnesses a Ku Klux Klan killing was inexplicably watered down. Warner Brothers, renowned for their hard-hitting social dramas of the ‘30s, diluted the drama by not calling out the Klan for what they are and setting the story in generic anywhere, USA.
I love the cliche cast arm-in-arm publicity photo, when in most movie dramas, characters are at each others' throats!

Other studios were making pictures dealing with race. Stuart Heisler was a gutsy director and screenwriters Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs had already written about the topic, so the decision must have come from Jack Warner. WB’s Storm Warning, made in ’49, but released in early 1951, depicted the Klan killing of a white reporter, for nosing around their shady financial dealings. Uh, okay, who knew that money laundering was the Klan’s claim to fame? The Ku Klux Klan is only called the Klan, and the fictional town of Rock Point is even vaguer, referred to as “down here!” While the Klan was in many parts of the US, it’s implied the town is southern, despite the lack of accents. The only blacks to be seen are in the crowd scenes at the inquest. The lack of locale and whitewashing the Klan’s true purpose defuses what could have been a powerful social drama.
*Some spoilers ahead!
Travelling dress model Marsha Mitchell (Rogers) stopped in town to visit her kid sister before Christmas.
Is she wondering why the townspeople are wearing white after Labor Day?

Marsha Mitchell, a New York dress model travelling by bus to her next gig, decides to stop over night in Rock Point, where her young married sister Lucy lives with trucker husband Hank Rice. As Marsha attempts to get a cab to the local recreation center where her sister works, the locals seem unusually unfriendly, and are closing everything up early. Marsha the model heads off on foot—in high heels—to the center, she happens upon an outbreak from the local jail. Men in hooded sheets are corralling a bound and gagged man from the building when he breaks away. One of the men shoots him, and Marsha witnesses it all, unseen by the KKK. She sees two men who are unmasked.
"I Saw What You Did"with the KKK. Rogers' visiting sister lets brother-in-law Hank (Steve Cochran) know what's up!
Doris Day is the kid sis and young wife, Lucy. 

Marsha high tails it to the local recreation center and Lucy, spilling her story. She recognizes some of the men (by their shoes?) and points them out to her sister, who knows them. When they get back to Lucy’s house, who has told Marsha that she’s pregnant, her husband Hank arrives. Marsha instantly recognizes him as one of the KKK. Awkward! Let’s just say it’s a helluva icebreaker. When DA Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) finds out that Marsha was in the vicinity of the killing, he wants her on the witness stand at the inquest. Charley Barr (Hugh Sanders), Klan big Kahuna and Hank’s boss, wants Marsha to keep quiet. Though inquest is a success for the Klan, Hank can’t leave well enough alone, namely Marsha, and follows her back to the house to “celebrate” with her. What follows is a near-rape interrupted only by his wife. After he roughs up both women, he drags Marsha off to the KKK meeting as a mystery guest.  Ginger’s Marsha now refuses to keep quiet, which then makes her the evening’s entertainment: getting horsewhipped by a Klan member while the others watch, agog… and so will you. Reagan’s Rainey arrives with Doris’ Lucy and Hank once again makes things worse, by trying to shoot his sister-in-law, which leads to the tragic finale.
The opening scenes of 'Storm Warning' are filmed in unsettling film noir style by director Stuart Heisler.

Director Stuart Heisler, who should have gotten more prestige projects, has a powerful point of view in Storm Warning. The storytelling is strong, especially the opening scenes, where Marsha arrives. Visually striking and eerily foreboding, Rogers’ Marsha gets rebuffed by everyone she meets as the small town seemingly shuts down in unison. And when she stumbles upon the outbreak with the Klan and their victim, hiding in the shadows, is stunning. The direction, cinematography, and score all heighten the tension in the best film noir style.
Heisler’s take on small town life feels authentic, and the supporting cast and extras look like real people from that era, not a glam film version of local life. The viewer feels a part of the crowd scenes in the recreation center, the inquest, and the Klan rally. These scenes are intense and claustrophobic.
The KKK is about to show NYC model Marsha Mitchell what they think about outspoken women!

What director Heisler seemed to have is a knack for getting good performances from actors, especially when the acting style of film’s golden era was often theatrical. Ginger Rogers, while quite versatile as a musical, comedy, and dramatic performer, could often be quite arch and overstated as her stardom went on. Here, Rogers gives one of her best dramatic performances. The scene when she witnesses the murder by the Klan could have been very melodramatic. But it’s all in Rogers’ eyes, with shadows surrounding her face, and the fear, followed by revulsion of what she’s witnessed. Surprisingly for an old movie, after she’s made her escape, she stops to get her bearings, and turns away to vomit.
Ginger Rogers lets rip as the sister-in-law who's had it with her boorish brother-in-law.

Rogers’ character, initially shown to be strong-willed but rather shallow, grows in strength and is not cowed when she recognizes her sleazy brother-in-law as one of the Klan. In fact, in the scenes after the inquest, Rogers’ Marsha shoots down his seduction ploy with ferocity that I didn’t know Ginger possessed. She’s strong and straightforward throughout, with very little posturing. While researching this film, I noticed more than a few film buffs and fans referred to Ginger as “old.” Rogers was 40 at the time. While she didn’t look like the dancing star of the mid ‘30s anymore, Ginger looked like a mature woman with an incredibly slim, toned figure. Clean living Ginger Rogers (a Christian Scientist) certainly looked far better than most of her male contemporaries, who entered the 1950s looking puffy and paunchy, from drugs and/or booze and cigarettes.
Doris Day, in her first dramatic role, is the small town house wife who's about to have her eyes opened.

Doris Day, as the small town wife who wakes up to what’s going on with her husband and community, is incredibly natural. Storm Warning was one of Day’s first films and the only one where she dies. Day wears little makeup, simple clothes, and performs in an unaffected manner, with none of the hysteria that at times marred her few later dramatic performances. Day got some great notices from Storm Warning, but the best one was from Alfred Hitchcock, who complimented her on the performance—and later asked her to star in his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Doris and Ginger make believable sisters and have a nice, no-nonsense rapport.
Doris Day & Ginger Rogers act well together as the two sisters, one young & naive, the other older & street smart.

Ronald Reagan, not an inspired actor in my opinion, is actually very good as DA Rainey. While Reagan fans like to point to Kings Row (“acting” in quotation marks as the town playboy), I think Reagan was competent in the old Hollywood style of posturing, but rarely with any true emotion or heart. But as Rainey, Reagan’s acting is understated and direct, and he is the most natural that I’ve ever seen him on screen.
Ronald Reagan gives a natural, solid performance as the weary but dedicated DA, Burt Rainey.

Steve Cochran, as Rock Point’s Stanley Kowalski, has a field day as the childish brute of a husband, Hank. WB gave Cochran the build up, but buried him by typecasting him as the sexy slime ball. Cochran did have an animal sex appeal that attracted fans, but his version of Streetcar’s Stanley shows that Cochran was to Brando what Mamie Van Doren was to Marilyn Monroe!
While Steve Cochran makes a sexy thug, let's just say he doesn't fill out the role
of the brutish brother-in-law the way Brando does in 'Streetcar."

The supporting cast is great, especially Hugh Sanders as the ominous villain Barr, who frames his evil actions as for the good of the community. Ned Glass is fine as the sympathetic recreation center owner. Sadly, his Hollywood career was sidelined by the Hollywood blacklist.
If the movie pulls the toughest punches, one thing it gets across is the mob mentality from a community that is divided. Many of the stock rationalizations that are bandied about in the film are still heard in today’s political arena. There’s lots of derisive and defensive comments about “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” “we clean up our own messes,” and women being “safe on the street at night.”
Steve Cochran's KKK version of Stanley makes his move on Ginger's infinitely more kick ass version
of a sister-in-law than 'Streetcar's' Blanche!

Many movie critics and fans also noticed the similarity between the visiting older sister Marsha, the naïve younger sister Lucy, and her thug husband Hank, as clones of A Streetcar Named Desire’s legendary Blanche, Stella, and Stanley. Moguls during the studio system were notorious for recycling material. Still, it was shameless of WB to recycle before the original was even released! I wonder if Tennessee Williams realized that he gave WB a two-fer! Just the thought of Williams’ iconic characters tangling with the KKK gives me the giggles.
Steve Cochran's brother-in-law Hank even tries to force the issue with his sister-in-law, like 'Streetcar's' Stanley.

Another amusing thought is that Joan Crawford turned down the Ginger Rogers’ part, reportedly telling Jack Warner that nobody would buy Doris Day as her sister. True, but the thought of Joan getting horse whipped by the KKK would have been high camp.
The bottom line is, as far as Storm Warning goes, it is strong stuff. But by not taking a stronger, direct stand against the Ku Klux Klan, viewers are left with is a melodrama with its convictions undercut.  
Ginger Rogers was a role model for Doris Day when she aspired to go into show business. The two stars
had much in common, starting with that they were Christian Scientists. Both were clean living,
athletic, hard-working, multi-talented,  loved their fans, and sustained long careers in show biz!

Friday, May 3, 2019

‘Lady in the Dark’ is Over the Top Style Over Substance 1944

Ginger Rogers isn't turning green because she's singing 'South Pacific' tunes! Ginger's 'Lady in the Dark'
is about to go into a dream sequence is all...

Once groundbreaking, 1941’s Broadway dramatic musical, Lady in the Dark, was a critical and commercial smash for all involved. Lady was especially lucky for the careers of star Gertrude Lawrence, plus newcomers Danny Kaye and Victor Mature. Lady was a sophisticated mix of psychological drama, and music styles of several genres. Lady in the Dark was daring at the time, with analysis in vogue, and women at work in the war years. Yet, the fine points of these two topics soon became dated, leaving this Lady with a somewhat tarnished reputation.
Gertrude Lawrence had a mid-career triumph on Broadway with 'Lady in the Dark,' playing over
500 performances. However, Hollywood was not going to star a 45 year old actress with no film track record in a big movie musical.

Paramount paid nearly $300 thousand dollars for the movie rights to Lady in the Dark. Perplexingly, the studio missed the boat—or specifically, ship—by eliminating what was most memorable about Lady, the instant classic score, including its most famous tune, “My Ship.”
The source material, with the book by Moss Hart, plus words and music by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, dealt with two timely topics: psychoanalysis and career women. Then, Paramount’s film adaptation added its own interpretation. The Hollywood studio system was at its zenith as the entertainment choice of the mainstream public. Hollywood studio heads deemed themselves as the patriarchs of the American way of life. Of course, the bottom line was to appeal to the masses and keep those movie tickets selling! So, the psychiatry of Lady in the Dark was further simplified for filmgoers. More damning was Lady’s message that it was more important to be a “real woman” than a career woman, which was constantly drummed throughout Lady, and through decades of filmmaking, as well.
Ginger Rogers' Liza Elliot is constantly called "boss lady" by her male co-worker and told by
her shrink that she "cares little for feminine adornment! Because...pinstripes?!

What the studio did keep was the story of Liza Elliot, editor of “Allure” fashion magazine. Liza (Ginger Rogers) is stricken with anxiety, depression, and disturbing dreams. Her professional and personal life only exacerbates Elliot’s issues. At work, advertising hot shot Charley Johnson (Ray Milland) has his eye on her job and badmouths her femininity. On the home front, Liza has a safe harbor relationship with a wealthy married man old enough to be her father (Warner Baxter.) Then movie heartthrob Randy Curtis (Jon Hall) arrives at “Allure” for a photo shoot. Randy is taken with Liza because she’s “not one of those glamour girls.” Gee, thanks, Randy! Then, there is also a hint of attraction amidst the hateful zingers from Charley. This dull lot is just Liza’s current personal baggage.
Ray Milland's good time Charley Johnson and Rogers 'boss lady' duke it out in pinstripes over a circus
versus Easter themed fashion mag issue. Imagine the results when Liza has a dream sequence mixing both. Their looks sum it up!

I consider myself pretty clear-eyed while watching films from past eras, when dated conventions, situations, or dialogue come up. After all, it was the past. And as we seem to forget the past fairly quickly, I don’t think it hurts to be reminded of outdated past attitudes. But some movie material is beyond the pale, and Lady in the Dark comes pretty close. The barrage of sexist insults to Liza from Charley (him telling a co-worker that all Liza needs is a night out and a good…), or the patronizing, prehistoric advice from Liza’s shrink (that she needs a man to dominate her), had me wincing or rolling my eyes.  
Liza takes the advice from her doctor that she needs a shrink as if she had a fatal disease! Aside: I never
realized what big blue eyes Ginger Rogers had until I saw 'Lady in the Dark.'

As a talent, Ginger Rogers was always a game girl. She started off as a dancer, but always tried to broaden her range. At her best, Rogers was a graceful, energetic dancer, a decent singer, an engaging comic performer who was great with wisecracks, and a solid dramatic actress. And Ginger was all about glamour, which was worshiped in studio era Hollywood. However, biographer David Chierichetti wrote that director Mitchell Leisen said that Rogers could not relate to the psychiatric profession, which he felt hindered her performance in Lady in the Dark. This seems odd, since Ginger wanted to make this film. Also, Ginger’s doubt should have suited the role, as Liza takes the advice from her family doctor to seek therapy as if she was ordered to get a lobotomy.
Perhaps Liza Elliot is thinking about the size of her shrink bill after checking out the doc's stylish office digs!
That's a very young Barry Sullivan as Dr. Brooks.

Wouldn’t it have been ironic if Paramount had borrowed Rosalind Russell from MGM to play Lady’s Liza Elliot? Russell made her career in comedies playing strong career women—who usually gave up work by the last reel! Roz was able to play brittle while retaining her likeability. I also couldn’t help but wonder what Joan Crawford might have brought to this role. Even in her heyday, everyone knew that Joan’s career was all to her, and Crawford could have given an intriguing portrayal.
Ray Milland is a shithead with a whip and Ginger Rogers is the lady in a cage in the circus dream.

Though engaging performers, neither Ginger Rogers nor Ray Milland, as Liza the “boss lady” and her office adversary, Charley Johnson, come off well. This isn’t their fault, since their roles and especially the dialogue, are impossibly slanted. Rogers comes across as a peevish pill and Milland as a horse’s ass. One wonders what Cary Grant, who played a charming but needling jerk in Hitchcock’s Notorious, might have done as Charley. Cary’s comedic persona was infinitely more charismatic than Milland’s.
As often the case, movie posters finesse the facts. Ginger's Liza Elliot is more lost
than in love, and isn't that keen on any of the three rather dull leading men.

Rogers’ Liza receives constant criticism for not looking feminine enough. You see, she wears—gasp!—tailored dresses. But the work wear is always accessorized with towering hairdos, lacquered makeup, jungle red nails, high heels, and furs! This was classic Hollywood’s idea of austerity style—wearing pinstripes. Edith Head designed the modern clothes.  It’s amusing that the other characters chide Liza for her dress, because Edith’s streamlined clothes for Rogers’ character remain timeless and chic, while everything else looks like campy costumes.
Before there was Lady Gaga's "meat" dress, there was Ginger Rogers' "mink" dress!

Though Edith Head is generally given kudos for all the costumes, the film credits cite three designers, who created the garish glamour for Lady in the Dark. Raoul Pene Du Bois created designs for the dream sequences and Madame Barbara Karinska lent her skills to make the fur fly for the film’s much-publicized “mink dress.” Yes, before Lady Gaga’s “meat dress,” there was Ginger’s “mink dress!” The mink portions of the heavily sequined dress had to be redesigned, requiring Karinska’s services. The first attempt was so heavy, that Ginger couldn’t even walk, much less dance, in the gown. IMO, the debated mink gown sure looks like an Edith Head number, but I’m no costume expert. 
The mink reveals a gown with more sequins than Bob Mackie or Cher could ever imagine!

The dress was highly publicized as costing $35,000—for a fur gown to dance in—which truly symbolizes the wrongheaded approach by Paramount to Lady in the Dark. Frankly, some of the “wow” costumes remind me of the designs that Mae West wore in her final films (by Edith Head) or Lucille Ball’s heavy, clunky clothes from Mame.
The $35,000 mink gown opens to reveal sequins and Ginger's famous legs!

The dream sequences are something out of The Wizard of Oz—in fact, Liza’s work confidante refers to her shrink as such. Also, in Liza’s wedding dream sequence, Rogers is so laden down with a huge platinum pageboy wig, a towering bridal veil, and a kewpie doll painted face, that she looks like Billie Burke’s Glinda the Good Witch. There are so many singers, dancers, scenery, exaggerated costumes, and apparently every smoke machine that Paramount could muster, that Lady looks like Oz—or a mammoth, melting Technicolor cake. Paramount star Mae West once commented that too much of a good thing is wonderful, but I’d use these dream sequences as proof that it isn’t!
Here's Ginger looking like Glinda the Good Witch in one of 'Lady in the Dark's' demented dream sequences.

The one sequence where Ginger gets to show off some of her fabled spice is in “The Saga of Jenny” number. Rogers’ in great form here and gets to work that mink dress like nobody’s business.
There are subtle, delightful touches scattered throughout the film amongst the overkill. Lady’s opening titles are clever, mimicking “Allure” magazine. And the dream sequences’ segues are smoothly skillful. It’s a sad commentary that the scenes depicting Liza’s daily life are more visually pleasing than the near-nauseating fantasy dream sequences.
Interestingly, the introductions to the dream sequences are clever and creative.

Mitchell Leisen’s skills have been criticized by some film historians as style over substance. Or that Leisen lucked out in having Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Preston Sturges work for him when they were screen writers. There is truth to this, but he had his gifts—with actors, comic material, and visual style. But with such tricky material as Lady in the Dark, perhaps a stronger director would have fought the unfortunate material cuts, the over the top taste level, and the negative emphasis on the leads’ characters. Leisen’s Lady in the Dark and Frenchman’s Creek, while big commercial successes in 1944, were expensive and problematic to make, badly reviewed, and ultimately, not well-remembered. Leisen’s work without such talented up and comers just didn’t compare.
Here's a perfect example of how Paramount killed 'Lady' with overkill: Ginger and Don Loper dancing around
what looks like neon candy canes and "fog" that looks like they're being exterminated!

Among the rest of the cast, there are some interesting performers. Young Barry Sullivan, whose voice sounds like it hadn’t changed yet, plays Liza’s shrink, Dr. Brooks. Mischa Auer has a field day as Russell, the flaming fashion photographer. Mary Gilbert is great fun as Rogers’ wise sidekick, Maggie. She was also Humphrey Bogart’s first wife! Gorgeous Gail Russell appears in an early role as Rogers’ high school love rival in a flashback. The difference here Gail was actually a teenager when this was filmed. And yes, we are treated once again to Ginger playing a pre-teen in a pinafore during the circus dream scene. At least Rogers doesn’t play little Liza in the flashbacks with her parents!
Yet another movie where 30 and over Ginger plays a juvenile in a pinafore.

There have been surprisingly few theatrical revivals or filmed versions of Lady in the Dark, due to the lavish story and its problematic take on women.
Interestingly, Judy Garland played in a one hour radio version of Lady in the Dark in 1953 that showcased the music and utilized just enough dialogue from the show’s book to frame the piece. It’s lovely to listen to. Ann Sothern did a 90 minute television version in 1954 that, judging from the audio clips, imbues Liza with more humor than Ginger and a surprisingly strong voice.
Julie Andrews as Helen Lawson, oops, Gertrude Lawrence performing 'The Saga of Jenny' in the bio flick 'Star!'
In 1968, Julie Andrews played Gertrude Lawrence in the biopic Star, recreating elements of Lady in the Dark. Andrews’ version of “The Saga of Jenny,” though well-sung, looks like a ‘60s TV special starring Valley of the Dolls’ Helen Lawson!

Coincidentally, while I was researching this essay, I saw that a one-weekend Master Voices’ staging of Lady in the Dark was performed at The New York Center April 25-27, 2019. The reviews I saw were fine, and interviews I read with the creators involved said that they addressed the dated scenes between the analyst and Liza. One way was by casting Amy Irving as Doctor Brooks, who performed in a more empathetic manner than past male counterparts. The lines from the shrink, who tells Liza where her emotional problems lie, are now spoken by Liza, giving her self-realization. And some of the more dated, inflammatory lines were just deleted altogether.
So, there just might be a brighter future for further productions of Lady in the Dark. As for the 1944 version, it’s all subjective, depending on why you watch older films. I found this Lady to be fascinating, as in “What were they thinking?”

Here's another fugly fashion overstatement from the wedding dream sequence. At first glance,
I thought this was Mae West, not Ginger Rogers!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Stellar Cast Helps ‘Some Came Running’ Go the Distance 1958

Frank Sinatra and James Jones' realism versus MGM and Minnelli's gloss in 'Some Came Running.'

Some Came Running has a critical reputation that has run the gamut over the decades. Running was a big commercial success back in 1958, but received mixed reviews. Critics were kind to the actors and Minnelli’s magnificent finale, but not to the source material and MGM gloss.
Today’s critics, film fans, and TCM have revised this movie into the realm of an “essential” film. I always enjoy Some Came Running as a highly entertaining melodrama, with a strong cast, top-notch production values, and an intriguing look at postwar middle-class American morals, as filtered through Hollywood's studio system era. However, an essential classic? Not quite. Censorship and MGM’s “classy” gloss dilutes Some Came Running’s consideration as a classic.
Look what the Greyhound dragged in! Sinatra as the boozy ex-soldier and MacLaine as the brassy babe.

Some Came Running, James Jones' 1200 –plus page follow up to his breakthrough novel From Here to Eternity, was a critical flop, but reader curiosity made Jones’ soldier homecoming story a commercial success. Then MGM bought the behemoth, boiled it down, which was directed by stylish Vincente Minnelli. Frank Sinatra made one of Hollywood's most famous comebacks as scrappy Maggio in Eternity, and was enthused to star in another James Jones’ saga.
Sinatra's Dave and Martin's Bama in their first film scene together.

The old ‘you can’t go home again’ advice certainly proves true for Sinatra’s Dave Hirsh. The army vet rolls into town on a bus, sleeping off a drunk, though how he could catch any zzz’s with Elmer Bernstein’s bombastic opening score is beyond me. With Shirley MacLaine’s good-time Ginny tagging along, Sinatra decides to stick around Parkman, Illinois, where he proceeds to get into non-stop trouble. His partner in hi-jinks is Dean Martin’s Bama Dillert, a gambler and boozer. Not helping Dave’s homecoming is Ginny’s psycho ex-boyfriend, who won’t take no for an answer. Meanwhile, Dave’s older “respectable” brother Frank has introduced him to an academic daughter and father, Gwen and Professor French. Dave is instantly in love with her, but his bad boy baggage gets in the way, not to mention Gwen’s inhibitions. Things come to a head at Parkman’s Centennial celebration, vividly depicted by director Minnelli’s acclaimed carnival climax.
Minnelli expertly introduces the characters and their stakes in the film’s opening scenes. Mid-way, though, Running begins to stroll, dwelling too long on the cynical soldier’s romance with the respectable writing teacher. Perhaps the several drunken altercations could have been tightened up, too. The 137 minute melodrama could have easily been kept at two hours.
Shirley MacLaine got her first juicy role with 'Running' as tart with a heart Ginny Moorehead.

At first, the female stars of Some Came Running got the lioness’ share of praise. Running is recalled as Shirley MacLaine's big breakthrough and Martha Hyer's career peak. Both got Oscar nominations, so that was the take at the time. 
Shirley MacLaine, looking like Stella Dallas, confronts tasteful teacher Martha Hyer over Sinatra's soldier.

Shirley MacLaine rightly became a star in Some Came Running, after several years of getting miscast or stuck in middling material. As Ginny Moorehead, this became the Shirley MacLaine boilerplate role for many years: the tart with a heart. MacLaine is warm, charismatic, funny, and dramatic as the floozy who follows Frank’s Dave Hirsh to his hometown, and now works at a bra factory. However, the flip side of Shirley's star quality is present as well: over the top and too “on.” A decade later, MacLaine’s mugging would turn to caricature as yet another bimbo in Sweet Charity. At times, Ginny comes off like Lucy Ricardo's trashy sister! Part of this is due to the screenplay. In one scene, Ginny actually calls the library a 'li-berry.' Is anyone really that dumb? Minnelli should have dialed Shirley's shrillness down a notch, but both he and MacLaine had a tendency toward overstatement. Running set Shirley MacLaine off on a long career. While Shirley’s Ginny is great fun and touching, she’s also grating instead of ingratiating, at times.
Martha Hyer as Gwen French, the 'classy' other woman in Frank's Dave Hirsh's life.

Martha Hyer had a rather odd career. Hyer was 30 when her career finally got traction, and was often cast as the bland second lead that lost the leading man to the unique Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren. And while she wins Sinatra at the end of Some Came Running, Shirley stole the show. Somehow, Hyer got a best supporting actress Oscar nom as Gwen, the prudish college teacher who lives with her father. Even more astounding is how Hyer got a nomination over Judith Anderson and Madeleine Sherwood in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also an MGM production. Hyer always reminds me a pod person who gives slightly stilted line readings, as if she’s visiting planet Earth. To be fair, she has some of the movie’s worst lines, not to mention constantly referring to Sinatra’s character by his full name. Hyer was another actress pitched as the next Grace Kelly; let's just say that Martha Hyer was at least more talented than Tippi Hedren. The one scene where Hyer comes to life is when she and Frank get down to business and her Gwen has a hard time warming up. Totally ‘50s, all silhouettes and symbolism, with the uptight teacher letting down her hair, in every way, it is still an effective scene.
When Hyer's frigid Gwen allows Sinatra's Dave to let her hair down, it unleashes her womanly desires!

As skillful as the supporting actresses are, they’re working against the stereotypical female roles that they're given to play—and this is true of stars MacLaine and Hyer, as well. The women are typecast as whores, virgins, bitches or saints. That the actresses breathe any humanity and life into the roles is to their credit, as well as Minnelli, an empathetic woman's director of the highest order. Leora Dana bristles as Agnes, Frank Hirsh’s frustrated country club wife. As rigid as Dana is, she gives you a feel for how trapped Agnes is in her life. Betty Lou Kiem is bright and likable as Dawn, the good daughter, and not insufferable like so many ‘50s movie ingénues. Nancy Gates is genuinely touching as Frank’s secretary, Edith Barclay, who lets her guard down and goes for a romantic drive with the boss. When discovered, she’s the one who must pay. Nancy Gates had a sympathetic and sensual quality that should have led to bigger opportunities. Connie Gilchrist is a warm presence as working class local, Jane Barclay, Edith’s mother. She runs into Sinatra’s Dave at Smitty’s, the local watering hole, and Gilchrist is a breath of fresh air, as always.
Nancy Gates' secretary takes boss Arthur Kennedy out for an after work drive.

I think the male performances are the real standouts in Some Came Running, as they are more naturalistic and hold up better. This is partly because the women's roles were archetypes that are more aptly stereotypes today. The other is the way the actresses played them, when female stars' performances were still more "elevated" than their male co-stars, during the last gasp of studio era “star” acting.
After praise in several post-Eternity roles, Frank Sinatra's persona was rapidly overshadowing his acting roles, and critics began to downplay his abilities. Some non-Sinatra fans claim that he just walked through his movies. The fact that he was famous for doing one or two takes only didn't help.
Frank Sinatra at his naturalistic best, a mostly complementary contrast to Shirley MacLaine's splashy performance.

I think Frank Sinatra's terrific in Some Came Running. As Dave Kirsh, he's the prodigal son who comes back home after 16 years. Aside from a wanderer and carouser, Dave’s been a writer, a soldier, and he's now back where he started. Sinatra is a natural actor, his wry, sarcastic humor is terrific, but he's not afraid to show his tender side, either. His scenes with MacLaine’s tart are alternately sweet or volatile. Dave’s sarcasm toward his phony brother is funny, as are his bantering scenes with Dean’s Bama. Frank’s scenes with love interest Martha Hyer, as Gwen French, become increasingly tender, after his character’s initial bad boy come-ons. Aside from his famed vocals, Frank had a very distinctive and expressive speaking voice, no surprise, for a singer famed for his phrasing.
Like The Manchurian Candidate, Frank is depicted as a deep thinker who loves books, when he's not boozing or chasing broads. Sinatra always came across as street smart, so it's believable that his character is a rough and tumble writer. 
On the flip side, this is yet another movie where Sinatra is at least a decade too old for his role. Honestly, he was even long in the tooth at 38, as Private Maggio, in From Here to Eternity. But Frank's 'bad boy' rep lasted decades. So, Sinatra was 43 in Running, yet his character left boarding school before he was 18 and gone for 16 years as the film begins... Another familiar Frank trope is there's a fight scene where Sinatra is super unconvincing. He still sports the famed scrawny physique here, and the fights feel “stylized,” and it’s about as convincing as Elvis' karate moves!
Frankie's rep as a lover boy is a bit pandered to here, where he's all over Martha Hyer like white on rice. It looks worse by today's standards, but even for '58, 40-something Sinatra acting like he's never seen a woman before is a bit much.
Especially amusing is when Martha's Gwen, the frigid writing teacher who maintains she's only interested in Dave the writer, not the frisky bad boy. After reading a story that the struggling novelist had given up on, Gwen summons him and announces with a straight face: "Dave, you have a very exciting talent!" Any Sinatra fan worth their salt knows that Frank was famous for an exciting talent, other than his singing pipes. And he proceeds to apply that talent to Gwen’s own analysis paralysis!
'Some Came Running' introduces Dean Martin as a strong dramatic and comedic actor.

The real surprise was how good Dean Martin was as Bama Dillert, the seemingly sanguine gambler who never takes his hat off. Martin, one of the most laid back show biz personalities ever, is another actor easy to underrate. But Martin just about steals the show and that's saying something with MacLaine turned loose here. Martin is likeable and great with the one-liners and double takes, but he's also a bit melancholy and fatalistic. 
As the gambler who gloms on to Frank’s new guy in town, Martin is at first his genial self. But as time goes by, you realize Dillert's willful obliviousness that life is just one long party is a defense mechanism. Later, when Sinatra’s Dave decides to marry MacLaine's Ginny, Martin’s Bama lets him have it, and he's pretty harsh about it. And Dean plays those not-so-genial moments well, too.
'Kid' brother Frank Sinatra to Arthur Kennedy in 'Some Came Running.' Arthur was a year older than Frank!

Arthur Kennedy once specialized in playing sensitive guys. As he grew older, Kennedy also excelled at playing creeps. Now a character actor, he was most memorable as sleazy janitor Lucas Cross in1957’s Peyton Place. Kennedy is great here, too, as Sinatra's “older” brother, Frank Hirsh, who married well and abandoned his kid brother Dave in a boarding school. In real life, Arthur was only a year older than Frankie! Kennedy is a comic bad guy here, the sanctimonious ass who is actually a sad case. Frank Hirsh reminded me of Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. Kennedy's scenes tangling with Sinatra are alternately dramatic or offer comic relief. Still, the scene when Kennedy's restless Frank takes his secretary out for a drive captures that small town desperation well. 
Vincente Minnelli, who gets downgraded by some critics for his non-musical films, does a great job giving Some Came Running in-depth characters, dramatic situations, and some Douglas Sirk-like subtle digs at American social mores. Yet, his love of MGM gloss gets the better of him, especially with the French father/daughter characters, who are pure drivel.
The home of the phony French family, complete with kitchen/library combo, perfectly sums up intrusive MGM gloss.

The extensive location scenery in Madison, Indiana as the fictional Parkman, Illinois gives authenticity against the MGM gloss. Elmer Bernstein’s score starts sonorously, like a Bible epic, but once Running gets going, his usual trademark jazzy and bombastic style kicks in.
As someone who grew up in a middle-America small town, Some Came Running has a real feel for that life. However the duality of that authenticity versus the genteel MGM version of upper middle class life keeps Some Came Running from being a true classic. The post war era feels right, though I often forgot the movie was set just after WWII. Except for Frank’s uniform and a marquee playing Elizabeth Taylor’s 1946 Courage of Lassie, the movie feels like 1958. Still, the post war era of celebrating peace and prosperity with smoking, drinking, gambling, and hanky panky was a party that lasted a mighty long time! Frank has more fun doing all of the above with Martin’s gambler and MacLaine’s bimbo, than engaging in stilted banter with the collegiate French family—who can blame him?
Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in the brilliant Minnelli finale of 'Some Came Running.'
Watch Some Came Running for its stellar cast and James Jone’s recognizably human characters in this mid-west version of Peyton Place.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Reynolds & Deneuve Do the ‘Hustle’ 1975

We'll always have Paris... or Rome. The lead characters of 'Hustle' long for an escape from life in LA.

I'm sticking up for Hustle, because the 1975 neo-film noir has a by-rote reputation as one of Burt Reynolds’ lesser efforts and a box office bomb. The Robert Aldrich directed precursor to Lethal Weapon is better than that. Hustle has a solid dramatic performance by Burt Reynolds and, while no classic, is one of the action star’s better movies. Word of mouth about this downbeat flick kept it from raking in the really big bucks, like The Longest Yard, the first Reynolds-Aldrich collaboration. But Hustle is still one of Burt’s top ranking hits.
Lethal what?! Burt Reynolds and Paul Winfield as the cocky and the by-the-book cops, respectively.

Hustle may offend the PC Police and by today's standards, there are situations that are indeed sexist and racist. But it also feels realistic, in an era that was just adjusting to both the women’s and racial equality movement. Just remember that this film is almost 45 years old, as of this writing.
The story is '70s gritty, with the only relief a glamorized duo of the weary cop and high class call girl, as played by Reynolds and Deneuve. Their characters, Lt. Phil Gaines and Nicole Britton, are tired of their professions and looking for a way out. She longs to go back to Paris, and he to Rome, where he apparently made wonderful memories. Both are in "agreement" about their current no-strings situation, but it is beginning to fray.
Burt's depressed cop doesn't like that call girl Deneuve brings her work home with her!

This movie has a feeling of a modern day Chinatown, though Hustle is obviously not in the same league. The story is adapted by screenwriter Steve Shagan’s own novel, City of Angels. There are essentially two stories going on. One is the cautionary tale of a young woman from an unhappy upbringing, a dicey adult life, and now a washed up corpse on the beach. The other is crime story of deadly corruption by a high powered lawyer, who is linked to the girl.
Ben Johnson, as the dead girl's father, seeks justice. That's Catherine Bach, pre-Daisy Duke, as the girl's roommate.

Frankly, I found the girl’s tragic trajectory more interesting, because it is a more timely topic than ever, of young women who are exploited by powerful men. Also, the characters surrounding her are more realistic and compelling. The story of the tangled web of the crooked lawyer, while entertaining, is nothing new and panders to the sleazy side of this film.
While Hustle sometimes feels like an elevated TV movie, the situations and language quickly demonstrate that this isn’t just a big screen episode of Reynolds' previous cop series, Dan August. What doesn't help the movie is Robert Aldrich's longstanding weakness for longwinded storytelling and sensationalism. The movie clocks in at two hours. And while not as rambling as say, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, this cop with character flick should have clocked in at the standard 1 hour and 45 minute mark. For instance, the scene at the airport bar serves no purpose, yet meanders on. The bigger issue is with Aldrich’s pushing the taste envelope too far. On the one hand, the cops' world of the cesspool of criminals feels authentic, as does the dead girl's descent into stripping, porn, and prostitution. However, there is a lingering, lascivious quality at each stop that adds to this movie's exploitive reputation. Shock value was an Aldrich trademark, from The Big Knife to Baby Jane to Sweet Charlotte to The Killing of Sister George to The Legend of Lylah Clare and in his later cop movie, The Choirboys
Ernest Borgnine's broad performance as the chief of police is about as authentic as that B&W window view!

The movie has two climactic scenes. One feels false and the second comes out of left field. The first is when Phil tries to right the wrongs of the movie’s prior events—very movie-ish. The last scene, where Burt may be the first movie cop to make that seemingly ordinary yet fateful stop along the way home, ready to start a new life. Don't stop, Burt, keep driving home to lovely Deneuve!
Aldrich brings back some of his favorites here: Cinematographer Joseph Biroc provides no-nonsense photography for the crime story and a more moody look for the stars’ romantic scenes. Music is again by Frank DeVol. And long-time Aldrich actor Ernest Borgnine makes his 6th appearance for the director.
Reynolds’ fondness for nostalgia is utilized. His character Phil loves old time movies, stars, and music. Burt often got classic era stars to appear in his films—here it’s Ben Johnson and Don "Red" Barry, two former cowboy stars. Burt's self-deprecating humor is on full display in Hustle, but there are tell-tale moments when Reynolds southern-style "Rat Pack" mentality started creeping in. Some critics then noted that the nostalgic aspect of Reynolds’ character was a bit much as movie shorthand for sentiment. They were right—way too many classic movies playing in the background and tearjerker old time songs, as well.

Burt Reynolds in his 1975 prime, in a role that requires more than his beefcake good looks.

Ultimately what makes this movie worth watching is the acting, by two great stars and a stellar cast of character actors. 
Burt Reynolds played a cop for about half his career—I'm surprised he wasn't given an honorary badge! Hustle is definitely one of his most straightforward film performances. As Phil Gaines, Burt is charming and blasé as always, but is preoccupied beneath the glib surface, wondering how much longer he can tap dance around the fact he’s burned out. Burt's wry, deadpan humor fits in perfectly with the gallows humor of the movie version of LAPD and the day to day hell Phil deals with. There’s moments when his character steps up and is the kind of man he wants to be, and Reynolds is quietly effective. One scene is when Phil Gaines admits to Ben Johnson's distraught father that they should have covered his daughter's body before showing him the corpse.
True, Deneuve and Reynolds aren't exactly typecast in 'Hustle,' as the weary LA hooker and cop.
But audiences probably wouldn't have flocked to see veteran supporting stars Eileen Brennan and Ben Johnson in the roles!

Reynolds’ scenes with Deneuve’s Nicole Britton feel authentic, that they have a history, and their scenes are alternately romantic, sexy, funny, and also sad.  Critics were quick to point out that there probably weren't too many high class French hookers in LA, much less ones who were devastatingly beautiful like Deneuve. True, but I doubt if there were too many weary veteran cops who looked like Burt Reynolds in his prime, either. The main concession to mainstream movie making is the glamour of Hustle's stars.
Catherine Deneuve in one of her few American films, as Nicole Britton, in 'Hustle.'

Catherine Deneuve is just as effective in her acting style as Nicole. And like many great film actors, Deneuve conveys a great deal with a flicker in the eye or a slight turn of the head. Catherine reminds me a bit of Garbo here. Her cool restraint complements Burt's more brash American style of movie star acting perfectly. Deneuve said much later that she enjoyed Burt’s charm and humor, though she felt the movie didn’t ultimately work. Reynolds’ dark masculine good looks and Deneuve’s picture perfect blonde beauty make them one of the most handsome movie couples ever.
Ben Johnson and Eileen Brennan give 'Hustle's' best performances as the bereaved parents with baggage.

Then there’s that supporting cast: As Sgt. Belgrave, Paul Winfield brings authority to the proceedings, as Burt's partner and the voice of justice for the dead girl. Ben Johnson is intense as the outraged, grieving father. And Eileen Brennan is just as good as the resigned, weary mother. As flawed but decent people, Johnson and Brennan as Marty and Paula Hollinger give the film's two best performances. Johnson’s escalating frustration with the investigation borders on scary. And Brennan has a great scene with Reynolds, her realistic mother opening up to the cop, at a cocktail lounge. Eddie Albert, always so likeable in film and on TV's Green Acres, got to be effectively nasty for Robert Aldrich here and in The Longest Yard, much like Fred MacMurray did for Billy Wilder in Double Indemnity and The Apartment. As evil lawyer Leo Sellers, Albert is a smiling cobra. Likeable Ernest Borgnine is encouraged to play to the broad side of his persona as police chief Santoro, and frankly his scenes are the movie's weakest.
'Green Acres' Eddie Albert enjoys an entirely different type of Hooterville as sleazy lawyer Leo Sellers.

Familiar faces show up for a single scene: Don “Red” Barry is the airport bartender and Queenie Smith is the whiny liquor store customer. Future familiar faces pop up, too: Fred Willard as the baby-faced interrogator; Catherine Bach as the dead girl's roommate; and Freddie Krueger himself, Robert Englund is the liquor store robber who seals Reynolds' fate.
Robert Englund, forever Freddie Krueger shortly after 'Hustle,' plays a hold up guy at the liquor store.

Bonus for baby boomers: If you're looking for a '70s nostalgia fix, look no further, Hustle has it all: Brown is the predominant color throughout; transistor radios, rotary phones, and televisions on stands; and 8-track tapes for the car, with vinyl for the living room! 
Hustle is worth checking out for the fine cast and a look back at mainstream ‘70’s filmmaking style.
A very good copy of Hustle can be found here, as of 4/12/19: 

Deneuve's Nicole gets the bad news, which Catherine admirably underplays at the finale of 'Hustle.'