No Orchids For Miss Blandish: a phonological corpus

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No Orchids For Miss Blandish [St John L. Clowes, 1948] is a lurid, action-packed movie, a British imitation of American noirs.  It’s based on the first of dozens and dozens of novels by James Hadley Chase, a specialist in American gangster/crime subjects who never lived in America.  In a 1944 essay George Orwell cited the massive popularity of No Orchids For Miss Blandish, particularly with servicemen, as a disturbing sign about the seemingly robust British character.  Real name Rene Raymond, Chase had various series of books set in New York, Florida, California, London, and the international theme park of Cold War intrigue (see here for more early book covers).  It contains plenty of evil men (and almost no non-violent men), but No Orchids may be unusual among his work in its lack of evil women.

His books have great titles. Seen below: the third Vic Malloy novel, from 1950, and the third Helga Rolfe novel, from 1977.

Director St John L. Clowes had directing experience, but not in features.  If he hadn’t died at 40 shortly after making this movie, he might have had a real impact on British cinema, because in the department of being…let’s say, not staid and subtle…this movie makes Brighton Rock look like Brief Encounter.  The B&W looks great, everything is shiny and crisp, and whatever room a scene is taking place in contains a spare number of background items which set the scene precisely [chairs, paintings, little horse statues, a cigarette-girl, a Schaefer beer sign,  and whatever the thing is on the wall in the early scene in Ted’s bar — a dartboard in a glass-fronted case?].  The calculated exception is in Miss Blandish’s opulent and dull family home, where there are objects everywhere to a smothering degree.  The best shot is around minute 52, when she’s first seen at peace wither her captivity, leaning on the wall with a new hairdo, next to two wall-mounted masks that look a lot like her.  Or maybe the best shot is one of the occasional bird’s-eye-view shots, in which the spotlight on the performers is an absolute perfect circle.  A spotlight’s view of the action…other examples of that device are not springing to mind.

Flyn (Danny Green) and Slim (Jack La Rue)

The most awkward part of the film, as you might expect, is the falling-in-love part, which happens even faster than you might expect.  It’s so abrupt that one presumes she’s pretending to seduce Slim in order to get him off his guard and escape, as captives do in any number of fairy tales and films like Aladdin, Anaconda, The World Is Not Enough,Big Bad Mama, Toy Story 3, and Sleuth, as well as The Grissom Gang, Robert Aldrich’s 1971 adaptation of the same book.  Although it’s the rare kidnapping/hostage story whose victim is rarely in any danger, this movie is just full of brutality and action.  Lyrically romantic wordless interludes with music swelling [one of them just a 15-second close-up of some orchids and what looks like a decanter of port] stand out, because in general this is a snappy thriller that never gets boring.  It’s not up there with Pickup on South Street, but it’s up there with Kansas City Confidential.  Like Chase’s book, it’s the too-rare instance of the Brits going ALL-OUT to emulate an American genre, with results that America looked at with a patronizing “Whoa there, tiger.  You seem so quiet, little buddy, but you might just be more screwed-up than I am.”

It’s hard to add much to this entertaining Slant review and this piece by John Beifuss.  But I don’t think they focus enough on the diverse range of British actors’ American accents, or on the weird nightclub acts, of which there are more and more as the film progresses.  The jazz clarinetist, the unbilled vaudeville comedy duo of Jack Durant doing Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet while his partner looks on, the amazingly acrobatic terp duo of Toy and Wing [billed as the far more British “Toy and Wyng”], and the schmaltzily melodramatic terp duo of Alicja Halama and Czesław Konarski.  And then there’s the two songs by actress Zoë Gail as Margo.  Every review I can find seems to emphasize this song (thanks, Youtube user deneuve1939!) as exemplifying the movie’s oddly cynical [that is, cynical in an odd way] approach to gender relations, so I won’t say anything about it except to tell you to watch out for the clues that Zoë Gail is not American.  She hits the T at the end of words like “but”, “it”, “got”, can’t” too much, and there’s something about the word “through” that sounds wrong.  As far as I can tell this song does not exist anywhere else but in No Orchids For Miss Blandish.  Such a shame that it wasn’t included on Nancy Walker’s I Hate Men.

By far my favorite aspect of this film is what Robert Osborne advised me to watch out for before TCM‘s prime-time showing — the various fake American accents.   My main experience with inexpert American accents by British actors is in sitcoms, and there can’t be too many movies like this, with a dozen or more honest attempts to sound American by Britishers who may have never done so on film before.  Some sound great, some sound appropriate, some sound weird. Many of the actors only had a few other credits and there’s no way to know their true accents, so I’ll try not to assume too much.  Let’s take a tour through the characters of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

Bad guys

  • Slim Grissom [Jack La Rue]
    The one American movie star in the cast, La Rue lives up to his reputation as the poor man’s George Raft.  It was a nice surprise that in some of the more happy romantic scenes he actually smiles.  Slim’s motivations are unclear and he’s a good example of the leader who leads by fear and doesn’t really come up with the plans.
  • Ma Grissom [Lilli Molnar]
    I’m guessing Lilli Molnar was Hungarian, based on the name.  And she sounds Hungarian, too.  Oddly enough this might be the most accurate New York accent in the movie because she sounds like any number of stereotypical Jewish mothers.  I guess “Grissom” is her married name, so maybe it was established in the book that Ma Grissom is Hungarian herself, but she certainly sounds weird.
  • Doc [MacDonald Parke]
    I cannot tell what role Doc plays in the Grissom crime family.  Ma Grissom’s husband seems to be out of the picture, and she and Doc are both sixtyish, so presumably he’s with her.  Canadian-born MacDonald Parke also played the American general in The Mouse That Roared.  Here he is the absolute embodiment of the word “pompous”, both in speech and in appearance, and I honestly have never seen a character like Doc in a gangster movie before.  He is both erudite and orotund, as well as rotund.  His accent is great to listen to, halfway between W.C. Fields and Harry Lime.  He has exchanges like this:
    Doc: And you, Edward my boy.  Does this rosy prospect, this rich and heartening future, displease you?
    Eddie: I never count my chickens till I’ve wrung their necks.
    Doc: Then we are reproved.
  • Eddie Schultz [Walter Crisham]
    Extremely thin professional dancer Walter Crisham has great posture and great charisma here.  His entirely malevolent but calculating character steals every scene like Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Streetor John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing.  Of all the obscure actors with big roles in this movie, it’s him whose lack of film credits surprised me the most.  Will have to look out for other Crisham films — John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, the intriguing Joe Macbeth, the non-Ealing Alec Guinness comedy The Captain’s Paradise [1953], and The Beachcomber[1954], a Maugham adaptation that also has Donald Sinden, Glynis Johns and in his first movie, Donald Pleasance as a coolie.

    Walter Crisham as Eddie Schultz

    Crisham does an exaggerated flat, Midwestern gangster accent, with kind of a grinding sound to it.  He was born and died in America so I don’t think he had any trouble with it.  They give him a lot of lines like “Anchor your stern, you,” and the R’s all sound American.

  • Bailey [Leslie Bradley]
    This actor is very intense, he does a whiny voice with emphasis on the R’s, and his accent changes based on who he’s talking to.  He’s actually very convincing in the role, since it’s sort of a Fredo Corleone character.  As this OTHER Slant assessment suggests, Clint Howard would be good in this role.
  • Riley [Richard Neilson]
    Now HE is interesting.  This guy is a caricature of James Cagney in hair, in clothing [bow tie], in mannerisms, and especially in his voice.  He takes the nasal and gritty voice also used by Bailey and Eddie Schultz and goes extreme with it, turning every word into a sneer and every vowel into a short “eh”.  As in “A wise guy, eh?”  He also smashes Ted over the head with a large glass object for no reason at all.  There isn’t even anyone watching!
  • Flyn [Danny Green]
    You might recognize Danny Green as the big dumb guy from The Ladykillers.  Befitting a man whose other movie roles include “Steddings’s Henchman”, “Socks, American Henchman”, “Barton, Moriarty’s Henchman”, “Nightclub Bouncer”, “Gangster”, “Smuggler”, “Safecracker”, “Truck driver”, “Lorry Driver”, and “Big Mo”, he here plays an American gangster henchman, alternating between eager, wary, and dumb.  He sounds cartoonish but plenty of American actors sound cartoonish in the same way.

Good guys

  • Miss Blandish [Linden Travers]
    The biggest English star here [The Stars Look DownThe Lady Vanishes], she just sounds English.  Or mid-Atlantic, I guess.  Extremely posh mid-Atlantic.  Like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers, you know.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Blandish [Percy Marmont and ???]
    Mrs. Blandish does the Margaret Dumont accent and looks and sounds the part.  Mr. Blandish combines the posh English accent with Kentucky-colonel touches.  They’re living in Manhattan but he’s supposed to be “the meat king”, so I guess he could be a self-made man from somewhere else in America.
  • Dave Fenner[Hugh McDermott]

    Hugh McDermott

    Probably the most well-known [at the time] British actor here, McDermott plays a real clean-cut middle-American newscaster type who is either a reporter or a private eye.  He’s prominent in the extended early bar scene, then he disappears for about forty minutes, and then he becomes the protagonist after Mr. Blandish is informed that the ransom situation has become a romanceom situation.  I laughed when looking at a synopsis of the novel, in which his character is treated exactly the same way.  In scenes where he’s being friendly and casual [though underhanded], McDermott definitely works as the guy we’re identifying with.  He melodiously overenunciates a few words, but not any more than Thomas Lennon does.  But later on, he starts throwing his weight around, and suddenly his accent is terrible, like one of Joe E. Brown’s hick characters or Goofy.

  • Police Captain Brennan [Jack Lester]
    I refuse to believe that this is the Jack Lester who was a Chicago radio actor at the time, despite what IMDB claims.  I singled his accent out as the worst of anyone who’s onscreen for more than a couple minutes.  Like Andy Brassell, when he tries to sound American he actually sounds Dutch.  Every sibilant sounds too much like a “sh”, and his pronunciation of “jewelry” is just weird.  And would any American actor be comfortable saying “Good morning” to signal that he’s done talking to someone?
  • The other policeman, with the small moustache
    He has a very good Bogart-type gravelly voice.  The one slip-up is that he pronounces “fiancé” way too accurately.
  • The old guy who runs the gas station
    Pretty good Yankee storekeeper accent.
  • His granddaughter
    She sounds about as American as the kids in Mary Poppins, but what do we expect, she’s 7 or 8.  Why is she here at all?

Minor characters caught up in crime

  • Margo [Zoë Gail]
    The nightclub singer linked above, she sounds very good in the role and I’m surprised this was her only major movie role.  She does a good Midatlantic accent [albeit with a surprising amount of slang] and sounds like Judy Garland when she’s singing.
  • Anna [Frances Marsden]
    A dancer at the nightclub (though we don’t see her perform), she’s the tough working-class Brooklyn girl with a heart of gold.  Given lines like “Get a move on, wise guy” and “I’m a dansah, see?  I got a careeah!”, she’s very convincing.  She must be 80 by now, but I honestly think Frances Marsden, teacher of the Alexander Method to improve poise, posture, breathing and health for the performing arts, is the girl who appeared in this movie and 2 others.
  • Louis [Charles Goldner].
    Born in Vienna, Charles Goldner’s other characters between 1945 and 1953 include Robespierre, Dr. Franz Mesmer, “Colleoni”, “Luigi“, “Ramon”, “Piero”, “Anselmo”, “Paco Espinal”, “General Korsakov”, “Mr. Tsaldouris”, and “Gaston”.  As Louis the French headwaiter, he bulges his eyes, scurries around, sighs watching dancers, and gets top-blowingly agitated when people don’t like his food.  Just think “Manuel” but fluent in English.
  • Ted [Sid James]
    As an American, I’d never heard of Sid James [real name Solomon Joel Cohen], but after this film he starred in several British TV shows and the wildly popular “Carry On” series of movies.  His accent is good here as the friendly bartender.  Known in future decades as a lascivious old man, here he’s a serious youngish man, and having not yet gone gray or bald he kind of looks like Chester Gould’s Flat Top.
  • Johnny [Bill O’Connor]
    Johnny is the young hoodlum who comes up with the whole kidnapping idea.  He sounds American enough, but very upper-class American.  He looks like a college boy, too.
  • Cutie [Annette D. Simmonds]
    Cutie (the nightclub hostess, wearing an absolutely ridiculous outfit — like a cigarette girl but with no responsibilities at all except to be objectified) just sounds English, like your typical Cockney servant-maid girl.  This is also true of Irene Prador as Johnny’s girlfriend, which is odd since she’s from Vienna and mostly played Germanic characters.
  • The guy sweeping the floor when Johnny tries to meet with Slim
    He sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  Australian?  South African?  His only scene is very early in the film and it prepares you for an even more motley onslaught of accents than what comes to pass.

Nobody here uses the Texan-tourist accent we remember from Fawlty Towers or Absolutely Fabulous.  Almost everyone gets a chance to shout or otherwise emphasize their accent, so you can really  analyze their phonemic data if that’s your bag.  Enjoy the nightclub scenes, the isolated barn scenes, the people getting slapped in the face, Lilli Molnar using the word “palookas”, the guy hanging on to a woman’s windowsill while she smashes a wine bottle over his hands, the guy who responds to a woman pounding on his chest by picking her up and dropping her in a full bathtub, and the overall strangeness of the orchids motif.

Five reasons to watch COME AND GET IT (1936)

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North country girl: Frances Farmer wonders whether to slip Edward Arnold a mickey, in COME AND GET IT (Hawks/Wyler, 1936).

1. The first 40 minutes. This is a boisterous depiction of hard-scrabble life in a lumber camp. Drinking, eating, hard-driving bosses, footage (stock, maybe) of trees being cut, logs being rolled around with giant tongs, fifty-foot piles of logs, giant sluice gates opening, rivers of logs being transported down V-shaped wooden channels and natural streams and rivers. Tough lumberman Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold, perhaps the James Gandolfini of his day) works his men hard but treats them to the occasional smorgasbord and all-you-can-drink saloon bash. One ends in an all-out furniture-smashing donnybrook in which Barney, his Swede best pal Swan, and hard-luck torch singer Lotte are overcome by laughter as they whizz copper serving trays around to break all the glass in the house.

Then twenty years pass in a second and we resume in a world where  has become a titan of industry, one of Wisconsin’s most powerful men, complaining about Roosevelt and his damned trust-busting. The writing is good but the things that happen at home and at the office are far from captivating. His ensuing love triangle is half-hearted, and it’s strange how little time by comparison is given to his cutie-pie daughter Ewie and her modern style of socks [Andrea Leeds of Stage Door fame]. I was sure her quips about her rich dud fiance would pay off, but no.

2. Frances Farmer as Lotte Morgan. Her performance here puts flesh on the bones of her legend. I don’t know anything about acting techniques, but for the 20 minutes or so that she’s on screen as Lotta, recipient of a million “How’d a classy lady like you wind up in a place like this?” remarks, she seems more alive than everyone else. Edward Arnold reacts with his face, then he says his line, then he does some physical transition into someone else’s line. Frances Farmer does all those things at once.

Sadly she spends the last 60 minutes as Lotte’s eponymous daughter, gazing prettily and following a basic “1. Resigned to gold-digging. 2. Wait, a happy ending is possible!” character arc. I don’t like the “One actor plays two roles, and other characters are amazed at how similar they look” maneuver under any circumstances; this movie is a damned sight better than The Legend of Lylah Clare, but come on. This isn’t a fairy tale. Identical twins can’t be born 20 years apart.

3. Walter Brennan in a serious, non-Western role as the emotional anchor of the movie, Swan [was “Sven” really americanized as “Swan”?]. Brennan is 41 here and Arnold is 45. Brennan seems 25 years older than Arnold when they’re both young men, and 15 years older than Arnold in the later scenes. It’s a paradoxical performance. By throwing himself fully into the El Brendel yumpin-yiminy accent he gives the yes-man character vitality, and he has a stooped posture that makes him look more dignified. He’s a pathetic figure in the sense that he feels he’d go from a king to a peasant if he leaves rural Wisconsin. He’s strong and sharp but knows he can be taken advantage of.

4. Mady Christians’ owl hat.

5. It’s a good sign when a formulaic-looking movie is based on a popular novel [in this case by Looney Tunes favorite Edna Ferber]. This is a standard titan-of-industry family melodrama, but individual scenes are just a little more unpredictable for being adapted from idiosyncratic source material. [Of course I haven’t read the book and this might just be what Wikipedia means by “cluttered with Hawks-like improvised bits of business”.]

One crucial conversation is interrupted by a boiling candy spill and resumes during a comforting, semi-erotic bout of taffy pulling. Another major conversation takes place while two people are playing with one of those proto-yo-yo toys where a wooden doorknob-spool-thing spins on an outstretched cat’s-cradle. One of the few things we know about Barney Glasgow’s inner life is that he really enjoys the behaviour of his daughter Ewie. A real firebrand, she calls him by his first name even though her mother doesn’t, she wants to marry a Bohunk machine operator, she abhors all silence. He has three children and this is the one he likes. But still he’s an autocrat. His son is just another employee to be manipulated and ignored. (Joel McCrea bounds around like a young Dick Van Dyke in the role but has little to do other than the candy-making scene and a little bit where he invents the disposable paper cup, in an eerie presage of Sturges’s The Great Moment.)

However, the second part of Come And Get It really rushes to its climax. Scenes at the family house, either Barney’s mansion or Swan’s comfortable cabin, proceed thoughtfully and carefully at the risk of claustrophobia. Then they finally get to an aristocratic social gathering with fancy outfits, in other words a ball, there’s a brief glimpse of dancing and dining, and then confrontation after confrontation in the space of minutes 91 to 99, then sudden forgiveness and the banging of the great dinner gong.

Some stark differences in emphasis between scenes set in different places make evident the film’s tortuous construction process. There’s one exhange in which Lotte Jr. tears into her cheerfully provincial aunt, giving in the whole “I’m too ambitious for this two-horse town, you and Pop can stay here but I’m headed for better things, this 50-year-old millionaire is my ticket out of here and he’s already wrapped around my finger, just you wait.” In every subsequent scene, including another private dialogue with he aunt, Lotte Jr. is wide-eyed and either conflicted or simply naive about the nature of Barney Glasgow’s interest in her. Either she’s under very deep cover, such that she’s actively trying to dispute the aunt’s recollection of their earlier argument, or the earlier scene was some hideous miscommunication between writers, directors and actors, left in because otherwise the emotional pitch of the last 60 minutes would be barely a whisper compared to the first 40.

The archetypal noir conversation

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Four minutes into Suspense [Frank Tuttle, 1946]. A tough guy has just charged upstairs through a crowd of chorus-girls and busted into an office he’s never seen before, ignoring the guard.

Thuggish lackey: Don’t you believe in knocking?
Tough guy: [pause] Leonard?
Boss: [wearing bow tie, starched collar, casual blazer, pencil moustache, smoking meerschaum pipe, holding black cat] Speaking.
Tough guy: I’m Joe Morgan. Max from the shootin’ gallery across the street said you could use me.
Boss: We can always use a good man.
Tough guy: What do I do?
Boss: What can you do?
Tough guy: Anything.
Boss: Could be. [significant glances with lackey]
Tough guy: Meanin’ what?
Boss: You’re hired.

* * *

Cinematography by Karl Struss. Set decoration by George James Hopkins. Bursting through a paper skull, about to toe-loop through a ring of knives: Belita.

The job in question … turns out to be as a peanut vendor at an ice-dancing arena. This is a movie whose first shot is of a bleached-blonde woman, stone-faced, aiming a pistol while flanked by two tough guys in hats. It then cuts to a smaller man looking very nervous. It cuts back to the woman, who unloads the weapon into … a fairground shooting gallery.

You hope it’s going to be a whole 100 minutes of fakeouts, perpetually just about to become a noir of great grit and seediness. But it settles into a stock story of the ambitious interloper, somehow fascinating through being both distant and hotheaded, who tries to steal his boss’s wife, leading to the boss going mad with jealousy, leading to the boss trying to kill the interloper and then vanishing, leading to the interloper taking over the wife and the business empire [in this case an empire of ice-dancing arenas], leading to the new power couple going mad with guilt. The script is by Philip Yordan, who wrote several comparatively sordid movies around the same time [The Chase; Whistle Stop; Dillinger for which he was Oscar-nominated].

* * *

A film called Suspense, whose entire TCM program-guide listing consists of “Barry Sullivan stops at nothing on his rise to the top”. It sounded too generic to be real, so I had to check it out. The ice-dancing elements are not exactly downplayed — top-billed as the boss’s wife/star attraction is Belita “Belita” Jepson-Turner, ex-Olympic skater and presumptive heir to Sonja Henie’s fame. A brilliant, potentially deadly ice-dancing move plays a critical role in our antihero’s rise as well as his fall.

So why the anodyne synopsis? It must be the aura of Barry Sullivan. He’s quite a forceful presence, eclipsing Belita, Bonita Granville [his underwritten ex-flame who keeps pesterering him], and particularly Albert Dekker as the impresario. Many actors of the late ’40s brought charisma to the role of the not-so-masculine powerful man whose wife is destined for our antihero. Dekker doesn’t have the deliberate cool of Zachary Scott in Whiplash, or the insouciance of George Macready in Gilda, or the pathetic cheeriness of Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice. The cat, the pipe, the moustache, all the props distract only momentarily from his blandness.

Not much distinguishes Sullivan from other tall humorless actors who look good in a fedora, but he’s clearly the star here. Just like in Cause for Alarm! he’s convincing as a man who starts out likeable [albeit jealous] and becomes a villain as soon as it’s narratively plausible. Scenes alternate between him being cruel and ruthless now that he’s the boss, and him being haunted by the ghost [or is it?] of the husband. Interestingly there’s little suggestion that the guilt has driven him mad — he’d be a moody bastard no matter what had happened, and now he’s a moody bastard bedeviled by shadows.

Go to DVDBeaver to get the background behind Suspense, and see more great stills. Mark at Where Danger Lives enjoyed it as well.

Good Blonde

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 Good Girls Go to Paris [Alexander Hall, 1939]

This movie ends way, way afield of where it begins.

I tend to like it when filmmakers put out a lot of work and move on, rather than spending ages fine-tuning their product. But when the art-making process is industrialized, it ends up with projects that don’t make any sense when you think about them, and don’t involve anybody making a real investment of time or creativity, but get completed and released because they can fit a certain niche. Good Girls Go to Paris occupied the role of Columbia Pictures Mid-Summer 1939 Romantic Comedy. When we watch it, what does it seem like it might become?

Academic satire? I can’t overstate how superficial the academic satire is. Much less nuanced than A Chump at Oxford. Interestingly, it’s set at a mediocre college that was founded less than 30 years before the events of the film, and part of the plot involves the college’s founder trying to one-up his business rivals by further endowing Brand University. But the students are the same all-male aristocratic wastrels you’d expect from a movie about Princeton. Melvyn Douglas’s character is a world-ranking expert on Greek mythology, an Oxbridge visitor in residence, but the film’s knowledge consists of a few references to Aesop’s fables, and one mention of “Cytherea, a rather high-spirited wench”.

This poster's suggestion of a Paris setting is très misleading.

Contrast of British and American mores? Douglas’s utter distaste for tea in bag form is interesting. But after the early cafeteria-driven instances of cultural clash, he’s just another bland male adult.

  • Professor Brooke: [confused by teabag] What’s this, a surgical dressing?
  • Waitress Jenny: You dunk it in the water.
  • Brooke: You what?
  • Jenny: Dunk. As in doughnut. Haven’t you ever dunked a doughnut?
  • Brooke: Should I have?
  • Jenny: Oh, if you haven’t, you’ve missed a lot of fun.

Movie about Paris? Not so! Paris exists only as a mythical construct representing honeymooning. We learn that you don’t have to trick a man into marrying you to go to Paris. Good girls may go there as well.

Study of Joan Blondell’s adorability? Now there’s something it does well. We’re introduced to a group of waitresses in the college cafeteria, and it looks like it’ll be a Harvey Girls scenario in which each has a little romantic subplot. No, the only one who matters is Blondell’s character Jenny, as becomes clear when they line up in front of the waitress drill instructor and she’s deemed excessively adorable.

  • Did you shorten that skirt?
  • No, ma’am. [bashfully] I starched it.

Top R: Walter Connolly. Middle (L-R): Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas. Bottom R: Joan Blondell.

Study of gold-digging? The script is pretty self-contradictory on this subject. Jenny Swanson is written as a weird combination of innocence and cynicism, in the tradition that gave us characters like Lolita, Susan Vance, and June Gudmundsdottir. She straightforwardly commits blackmail to get money from a college boy she’s beguiled. But she does it with a blank look on her face, as if baffled by what she’s doing, like she needs us to see her as a dewy-eyed innocent who’s being possessed by the devil. Maybe it was hard to construct a consistent character of this sort in 1939, when the Depression wasn’t raging as it had when the economically disadvantaged plucky gold-digger became a potential heroine.

Blondell doesn’t look her age here [32], but she seems bored with the role of someone who can plausibly be dazzled by 19-year-old college boys, and uninterested in being a femme fatale.

In the final scenes Jenny’s quick thinking and small-town common sense solves everyone’s problems, not in a way compatible at all with the gold-digging ethos. She had a happy family, the only thing she’s trying to escape is boredom. But she seems so wholesome. She gives her conscience a nickname. She wears humongous dewy flowers on her dresses and hats. She orders crackers and milk at El Morocco.

Clockwork-precise farce? In this way the movie is fun, once we leave college and end up in the Brand family’s New York mansion. As more and more men fall for Jenny, the comedy kicks into gear. Isabel Jeans is great as the overbearing society matron. Alexander D’Arcy puts on what I believe is an early example of the horribly attempted Cajun accent, as a driven lothario incongruously named “Paul Kingston”. I loved the scene where he gets hit with a flowerpot.

Descent into madness? Walter Connolly was near the end of his career here. IMDB: “The name may have been forgotten, especially today (seven decades later), but the portly, apoplectic, exasperated figure on the 1930s screen wasn’t.” Those three adjectives are an understatement of his performance here. Introduced as a whining invalid, his character Olaf Brand is quickly revived by Jenny’s kicky updates of folkSwedish nostrums. And the tantrums begin as the farce begins. He literally tears his hair. He literally seizes his chest. He staggers and collapses into armchairs. He literally pounds the table when asking what on earth is going on. Nathan Lane would struggle to do this broad a depiction of the cranky man of sedate habits driven to distraction by escalating wackiness. And I don’t see why the story requires Connolly to transcend their mere 22-year age difference and play Alan Curtis’s grandfather. He could have been his uncle. Or father.

* * *

Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

Good Girls Go To Paris has a pervasive forced air, like the characters aren’t quite convinced of why they should be interacting. Blonde Crazy has none of that. Scene after scene showcase Blondell’s rapport/repartee with frequent co-star James Cagney. Her character Anne Roberts is eager for everything she experiences, though she strictly limits the extent of her indulgence – far nicer to identify with than the ingenuous pseudo-amoral character Blondell tries to hold together in GGGTP.

Though very sweet, without the unashamed premarital sex of Illicit [Archie Mayo] or the disturbing violence of Night Nurse [William A. Wellman] [two other 1931 Blondell movies], this is a pre-Code film with a spirit of cheerful venality compelled by economic necessity (described beautifully here by Imogen Sara Smith), as well as frank depictions of ablution.

  • [Anne is sitting in a bathtub brushing and beribboning her hair]
  • [Bert sticks his head around the door]

    In the actual scene, there's water in the tub.

  • Anne: Hey, what’ya mean, crashin’ in like that? Can’t you see I’m taking a bath?
  • Bert [Cagney]: Yeah? Move over.
  • Anne: [squeals]

Then he suggests a dubious short-term investment.

  • Well, it don’t sound good to me, but if I don’t give you the money you’ll probably steal it. So take it, my friend.
  • All right, where is it?
  • In my brassiere.
  • Where?
  • In my brassiere!
  • You got pockets in that? [rummaging around her clothes]

Cagney dances all around the set, making her crack up with lines like “Little girl likem nice mans?”, making fun of Robert Browning, and turning “Honey” into a catchphrase [I counted eight “ho-o-o-o-o-ney”s]. When Helen (Noel Francis), main squeeze of Bert’s huge-top-hat-wearing criminal role model Dapper Dan Barker, tries to distract him with the old “Dan and I … have an understanding” bit, he doesn’t just blow her off, he flits into a throaty European stage voice to say “How nice for you”. All of this is to show us the effect Anne’s effervescence has on him – because when she settles down with cowardly businessman Ray Milland [not yet in control of the American accent] he loses all his vigor.

"What is it the disappointed suitor always says? Oh yes. Name the first one after me."

Trying to sell good-luck swastika charms to bachelor loners, living on principal from their last glorious Southern colonel horse race car delay con, Bert has even stopped reading Success: The Human Magazine. Out of the blue, Anne pleads with him to help Milland’s character evade sanction for a string of naive embezzlements. Cagney’s most menacing scene in Blonde Crazy is when he’s forcing Milland to appreciate what a worm he [Milland] is, and what a good plan he [Cagney] has and how imperative it is that he [Milland] follow it to the letter, and what a brave risk he [Cagney] is running no matter how good the plan is.

  • “I’m not doing it for you! I’m doing it for Anne, ya smackoff.”

Once Blonde Crazy heads down maudlin street it’s probably wise to no longer have even a pinch of levity, because we’d start resenting minor characters whose success in low-level extortion we once celebrated. His rueful delivery of the concluding folk-song quote is perfect, and so is the gently sprightly reprise of the love theme, Einar Swan‘s “When Your Lover Has Gone”.

The Leading Hotel of a Small Midwestern City

Two more with Terry Moore

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Beneath the 12-Mile Reef [Robert D. Webb, 1953]

The more I think about Beneath the 12-Mile Reef the better it seems. This may be because the overacting is tiring to watch, but leads to warm memories later. The third movie shot in Cinemascope, it simply looks great. Filmed on location, the setting is convincing [though the characters aren’t], and the scenes onboard the boats convey a good geography: home versus far away versus not so far away, open ocean versus inlets, it’s pretty immersive. There are quite long sequences filmed underwater that use the novel wide-screen technology to its fullest, though these don’t take up much of the running time. Edward Cronjager’s seventh and final Oscar nomation was for Beneath‘s cinematography. Here’s an interesting trailer for the film — you’ll note that it’s basically a trailer for Cinemascope.

This is a story about Greek sponge-divers in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and their rivalry with non-diving WASP sponge fishermen [called “the Englishmen” once, and “the Conches” thereafter] in the Florida Keys. If these topics are as foreign to you as they were to me a week ago, this bit of history is a good introduction. How much did this rivalry existed in real life? The two areas are over 200 miles apart.

An obvious response here is to wonder why this groundbreaking technology was employed for an on-location blockbuster about Greek sponge-divers. It’s not based on a novel. Was there a Life magazine article about Greek sponge-divers that had recently captured the nation’s interest? Greek-Armenian-American screenwriter A.I. Bezzarides [Kiss Me DeadlyThey Drive By Night] certainly was not basing it on his own formative years in the orchards of Northern California. Obviously making your characters Greek indicated that they were emotional, spontaneous, lived life to the fullest and so forth. The WASP family, led by Richard Boone, are pretty emotional themselves, but not devil-may-care like our heros. From an interview with Cineaste editor and modern Greek culture expert Dan Georgiadis:

From the 1930s-1950s well over half the Greek American characters are professional gamblers. There is also a theme of Greeks as wrestlers. Broadly, there are many more male characters than female, and the female characters are almost all stereotypical mothers or sisters. From the mid-1950s onward, there begin to be more and more Greek professionals such as attorneys and architects.The first Greek professional identified so far is from a film of the late 1960s…Also there is a kind of minor genre featuring sponge divers of Florida.

To my amazement, there is indeed a minor genre featuring sponge divers, including Greek and Greek-set movies, and others about the Florida gulf coast [Harbor of Missing Men, 16 Fathoms Deep, and at least one “Flipper” episode]. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef certainly limits its female characters to stereotypical mothers and sisters [the father addresses his wife as “wife”, that sort of thing]. The male characters are diverse in their accents if not in their personalities. Future TV star Robert Wagner is cocky young Tony who sounds like any other American. As his father Mike, Mexican-born Gilbert Roland plays Big Chief Red Indian. The ovoid moneylender [Jacques Aubuchon] sounds like Shylock. And as for Uncle Soak [Socrates], the vocal resemblance to Speedy Gonzales is enhanced by his lack of height. I looked up Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish to see if he specialized in the Speedy Gonzales thing. His roles include “Chico” and “Papa Rico Molina”, but also “Rabbi Arnold Fishel”, “Dr. Igor Markoff”, “Signor Michel O’Sullivan”, Charlie Chan, about a dozen Native Americans, and five years as star of CBS radio’s Life with Luigi, in which he sounds like any other Italian stereotype.

A promotional shot of Robert Wagner for this movie. I swear, it's not a musical.

The opening credits are scored by an overbearing Bernard Herrmann soundtrack including some of the most forceful harp glissandos ever recorded. The music is fun, using weird themes for the underwater scenes including a terrifying trombone for the terrifying octopus. Some might say there’s too much music, like when Uncle Soak is telling everyone to be quiet as a mouse [“every word like bullet!”] as the soundtrack almost drowns him out. More than once I was shocked when the characters didn’t burst into song. Possibly because Robert Wagner looks like a professional dancer straight off the set of West Side Story, and possibly because of the enthusiastic-Greek gesticulating and leaping around. Maybe the startling physical chemistry between Wagner and Terry “Hollywood’s Sexy Tomboy” Moore would be…let’s say, classier…if their flirtation was in the form of song lyrics rather than dialogue. It certainly would make their initial courtship less ridiculous [she runs away from her family with a guy who has a sustained and violent grudge against all of them, literally two minutes after meeting him] if it were in a musical, where everything is heightened and stylized.

Terry Moore’s character is named “Gwyneth Rhys”. She shows the romantic impulsiveness of her Welsh mythic predecessor Blodeuwedd in turning against the all-male family that has dominated her life. I think it’s an intentional Romeo-Juliet parallel that she seems particularly juvenile here, always with either a huge smile or a huge look of concern. Tony seems like the older and experienced guy who sweeps her off her feet, outshining her boring, even-older presumed fiance Arnold Dix [Peter Graves]. Terry Moore was born in 1929, Robert Wagner in 1930, and Graves in 1926, so the dynamic is a bit weird. Richard Boone’s father figure is written very well as he seeks to pacify this situation and the feud with the whole Greek family.

Not only is that Terry Moore, it's her character from "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef".

So, yes, Peter Graves. That’s the only name I recognized from the cast. He’s introduced as if he’s the hero. He’s trying to get her to marry him, she loves him as a brother, he’s boring. His jealousy after she meets Tony leads to violence. Thinking about his character, I think it’s one that would be extremely hard for actors to play nowadays. Arnold is prejudiced against Greeks, as is the Rhys family with whom he spends all his time. He’s the villain. But his racism, even though he directs it toward the hero, is not one of his character flaws [those would be jealousy and short temper].

The whole family thrives within a racist system. The Greeks can dive for sponges in the dangerous waters near Tarpon Springs and Tampa Bay, including the eponymous reef. The Anglos use hook-boats to find sponges more easily in shallow waters [“the glades” here]. Sometimes the Greeks get desperate and fish in the glades, and are met with violent reprisals, death threats, and the theft of their catch, delivered from smiling faces who aren’t so much bullying as restoring order. Arnold has respect for Greeks in theory, he allots them a place in society, but when they aspire to his place in society, he can’t believe what he’s seeing. And then, only after he thinks other people see him as weak, does he respond with violence.

58 years later, and 44 years after In the Heat of the Night, isn’t it rare to see a depiction of a racist character where the very fact of his racism doesn’t mark him as some sort of sociopath?

Come Back, Little Sheba [Daniel Mann, 1952]

I think this is more a staged tableau representing the movie than an actual still from the movie.

The inveterate TCM viewer and DVR recorder will have often seen films in the listings of the sort that would not be appealing on the basis of its stars and story, but becomes intriguing on the basis of being adapted from a prize-winning stage play. “At least there’ll be good dialogue”, you think. Then you start watching, and the arms of sleep beckon when it turns out to all be set in three rooms, and contain 25-minute scenes of people in armchairs talking, and be filmed in uninspiring black-and-white because filming in color would signify lack of maturity. Or it may be a naturalistic story that comes across super-depressing on film — enjoyable on stage because you can take breaks and suspend your belief by noting that these are clearly actors and this is clearly a set, but hard to take in what looks like a real house in a real town.

Come Back, Little Sheba is one of those adaptations, adapted extremely well. The b&w is shiny and crisp and the camera angles are well-chosen, which I wouldn’t say about Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Male Animal. Warren Low’s editing was Oscar-nominated, when that category was less dominated by epics and thrillers. It has a variety of moods. And having heard Robert Osborne discuss how the original plan was to have Sidney Blackmer reprise his Broadway performance as Doc but get a well-known actress to play Lola [the opposite was done, when no suitable female star was found], I could spend the film wondering what it would be like without Shirley Booth’s iconic mannerisms and Burt Lancaster’s anti-theatrical underplaying.

Adapted faithfully from William Inge’s play, the story is more about dramatizing concepts than suspense or character arc. It follows turning points in a couple lives, but past and future events are just as important, and nobody has a metamorphosis during the couple months we see them. It’s about nostalgia, and voyeurism, and temptation, and addiction. Characters learn about characters. We learn about them. There are two inevitable confrontations. That’s the story.

In 1952 Terry Moore was no longer typecast as the pal of dumb beasts like the horse in The Return of October, the squirrel in The Great Rupert, the giant ape in Mighty Joe Young, and the orange-picking magician in He’s a Cockeyed Wonderbut at 23 and 5’2″ she wasn’t yet being cast as grown women.

"Sure! What's more interesting than nature? And especially our own bodies. And speaking of bodies, there's my friend Turk."

Her character is not that different from Gwyneth Rhys. A chipper young woman, who can maintain a huge smile throughout long conversations, she is beloved by her elders, pursued by two gorgeous men, and unable to think of a reason why she shouldn’t be the girlfriend of both of them. In Beneath the two guys had similar approaches to life – each working hard and standing up for his family against its rival, despite one being a hot-blooded fun-lover and the other being a stoic glowerer. In Come Back, Little Sheba college student Marie has the typical dilemma of long-distance relationship and planning for the future [with a guy named Bruce whom we barely see] versus a fling with charismatic athlete Turk [Richard Jaeckel]. Robert Wagner’s character was always trying to kiss Gwyneth, but he was about as sexually sophisticated as Max Fischer. Turk has literally one thing on his mind, and Jaeckel is very convincing as a young creature of entitlement. Their carefree coeducational college setting foreshadows the concept of the “teenager” that would arise in the mid-fifties.

However, the main setting is Doc and Lola’s house, where Marie rents a room. As Lola, the personification of the word “dowdy”, Shirley Booth seems instantly familiar to me, probably because Estelle Costanza is a parody of her persona [George even says in The Subway that he used to liken his mother to Hazel]. The actress gives Lola a sing-song form of friendliness which implies that she wants other people to truly be happy but she can only pretend to be happy. Somehow she combines a mischievous smile with a total lack of self-esteem. Doc, played by a pale, sunken-eyed, furrow-browed, though barely greying, Burt Lancaster, is accustomed to this passive-aggressive atmosphere, and tries to overcome alcoholism by immersing himself in the satisfaction of routine, then responds to that routine by regretting past choices, since everything he has is less than what he could have had. He says “Alcoholics are mostly disappointed men.”

The healthier and more realistic he gets, the angrier he gets at himself and Lola. She channels her frustration into the harmless search for the titular lost dog rather than talking about things close to home. This flatters her into sort of a saint, but one who’s lost touch with reality. Meanwhile we realize from the start that Doc has gotten the wrong idea of who Marie is, hoping something ideal has arrived in his world to balance it out, and we wait with apprehension for how he reacts to her being a normal person.

The Marie plot is destined for a conventional happy ending, and we hope Doc’s stability resumes when she leaves his house.

  • Lola: I’m pooped.
  • Doc: Honey, don’t use that word. It sounds vulgar.
  • Lola: Well, I hear Marie say it all the time. I thought it was kinda cute.
  • Doc: You don’t hear Marie saying it. Her language is refined.
  • Lola: Well, Turk then. Somebody! [giggles]

In Hollywood, if I might make a ludicrous analogy for a paragraph or two, The Lost Weekend [Billy Wilder, 1945] was to alcoholism what Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] was to homosexuality. It takes a topic that has been covered many times before in a superficial way, and treats it with as much sincerity as humanly possible, being richly rewarded for the effort. And to us in the audience, it’s the signal that when we see even what might be a stereotypical depiction of a drunkard, we aren’t expected to react with laughter or pity. Nuance is now permitted w.r.t. this inflammatory subject matter!

I don’t know about the theater, but it seems relevant that Eugene O’Neill waited until very late in his career to use his wealth of drug and alcohol life experience as material for drama, and didn’t allow any such plays to be performed until The Iceman Cometh in 1946. The plays Come Back, Little Sheba and Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl both date from 1950. In 1954 you have the film of The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, and Lillian Roth’s massively successful memoir I’ll Cry Tomorrow which shortly became a Susan Hayward movie that introduced harshly realistic alcoholism to the show-business rise-and-fall biopic. Then in 1958 was Days of Wine and Roses, the teleplay that was adapted into another acclaimed film in 1962.

One thing Come Back, Little Sheba has in common with Days of Wine and Roses is the valorization of Alcoholics Anonymous. We see AA as a force more reliable than willpower in saving drunks from their impulses, by providing salt-of-the earth friends for the male lead to rely on [Jack Klugman in DWR; Philip Ober and Edwin Max in CBLS] and by giving him an outlet to help other people. Doc only seems motivated when he’s going out at night with Elmo and Ed to the hospital to assist an AA newcomer. He has a new identity as a volunteer.

Sixty years later, we’re always seeing movie and TV characters go to meetings of twelve-step programs, those unusual social forces that combine bureaucratic rigor with intense human encounters and the seemingly anti-modern idea of accepting one’s limitations. It’s shorthand for telling us a character has a problem, she knows she has a problem, and the tension is whether she can control that problem. But we rarely get as full a picture of how daily life is shaped by AA principles.

"They gave me a part in a thing called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef. They said I’d play with Terry Moore, and I liked that fine. So they made me her father.”

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