Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Made Man: Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS (Warner Brothers 1973)

Let’s talk about Martin Scorsese a bit, shall we? The much-lauded, Oscar-winning director/producer/film historian has rightly been recognized as one of out greatest living filmmakers, with classics like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE DEPARTED on his resume. Yet Scorsese started small, directing shorts and the low-budget WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR? as a film student. He got work as an editor (UNHOLY ROLLERS) and assistant director (WOODSTOCK) before directing a feature for Roger Corman called BOXCAR BERTHA, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine. When Scorsese and Mardik Martin cowrote a screenplay based on Martin’s experiences growing up in New York’s Little Italy, Corman wanted to produce, but only if the film could be turned into a Blaxploitation movie! Fortunately, Warner Brothers picked it up, and the result was MEAN STREETS, which put Scorsese on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.

MEAN STREETS follows Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel), a young man with ambitions to move up in his insular neighborhood. Charlie’s Uncle Giovanni (Cesare Danova) is a loan shark, a ‘man of respect’, and Charlie works for him as a debt collector. His uncle wants to grace him with the ownership of a restaurant currently in dire financial straights, but Charlie’s got problems. One of those problems is his best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a loose cannon who owes money to everybody. Charlie vouched for Johnny Boy with their pal, fellow shark Michael (Richard Romanus), but the wild child hasn’t paid up.

Charlie’s also hampered by his Catholic guilt, torn between religious convictions and life on the streets. He’s got another issue: he’s been having an affair with Johnny’s cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), whose epilepsy makes her a neighborhood pariah. All this spells trouble for Charlie’s ambitions on these mean streets, where everybody’s on the hustle, respect is valued above all, and violence is a way of life…

This is the film where Scorsese first developed his distinctive style, freed from the constraints of working for someone else’s vision, albeit on a much smaller scale and budget than in films to come. First, there’s the violence; it comes swiftly, without warning, and is brutal and uncompromising. Scorsese brought screen violence to new artistic heights, aided here by the lightning-quick editing of Sidney Levin, who like Scorsese had cut his teeth on AIP Exploitation fare (THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, THE YOUNG ANIMALS), and would later edit more mainstream films (NORMA RAE, MURPHY’S ROMANCE).

Being an unrepentant film buff, Scorsese peppers his film with homages to some of his favorites. Most noticeable is when his characters go to the movies, and scenes from John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS and Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA play onscreen; posters and marquees from other movies dot the landscape. The characters of MEAN STREETS are constantly at war, with themselves as well as those who dwell in their world, and Scorsese references several war films during the course of the action. There are plenty of other examples, but I’ll leave that for you to discover… Happy Hunting!

Most importantly is the way Scorsese incorporates contemporary rock music into MEAN STREETS; the soundtrack of the character’s lives almost becomes a character itself. The film uses songs by The Rolling Stones (‘Tell Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’), Derek and the Dominoes (‘I Looked Away’), Smokey Robinson (‘Mickey’s Monkey’), The Ronettes (‘Be My Baby’), Cream (‘Steppin’/Out’), Betty Everett (‘It’s in His Kiss’), Johnny Ace (‘Pledging My Love’), and others, as well as traditional Italian tunes from his childhood. All these musical cues have meaning to the scene at hand, and Scorsese was one of the first to utilize pop music as a film score, a device that’s de rigueur in films today.

Martin Scorsese would go on to further explore crime and it’s consequences, but MEAN STREETS was his first attempt at making a personal statement, and it holds up well today. When his newest film THE IRISHMAN is released later this year, a direct lineage to MEAN STREETS can be traced – both DeNiro and Keitel will appear in the film. Scorsese is still going strong at age 76, one of The Greatest Living American Filmmakers, and MEAN STREETS remains essential viewing for all film buffs.

Yukon Gold: THE SPOILERS (Universal 1942)

What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly,  a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!

Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story, which would be used time and time again unofficially (that is, stolen!) in lesser Klondike films, THE SPOILERS was a big hit, raking in over a million dollars at the box office (a hefty sum at the time!).

Prospector’s claims are being jumped by unscrupulous officials, chief among them new Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott). Big Roy Glennister (Wayne), co-owner of the Midas Mining Company, returns from Seattle, smitten with pretty young Helen Chester, niece of new law’n’order Judge Stillman, who’s secretly in cahoots with McNamara. Cherry Malotte (Marlene), operator of The Northern Saloon and Roy’s gal pal, is jealous of the attention her man’s giving Helen, and flirts with McNamara. The two crooked officials make an attempt to wrest The Midas from Roy and his partner, crusty old Al Dextry, through legal chicanery, resulting in Roy jailed on a trumped-up murder charge. Cherry discovers the truth and assists in freeing Roy before the crooks can set him up to be killed, and the entire thing winds up with a knock-down, drag-out, four-minute saloon brawl (yes, I timed it!) between Wayne and Scott (and their stunt doubles Eddie Parker, Allen Pomeroy, Gil Perkins, and Jack Parker, to give credit where credit is due!).

Duke only gets third billing behind Marlene and Scott, even though he’s really the star of the show, mainly because he was on loan from Republic Pictures, while Randolph was under a Universal contract, and Marlene was… well, Marlene! Wayne and Dietrich were in the midst of a torrid affair begun while shooting 1940’s SEVEN SINNERS together, and you can practically feel the heat between them rising from the screen, giving the sexual innuendos they throw at each other (courtesy of screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed) a little extra zip! When Duke tells Marlene (use your inner John Wayne voice here), “I imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well, if it is, it isn’t working – cause you’d look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag”, his eyes tell you he means it!

Randolph Scott turns his syrupy Southern charm to The Dark Side, and makes for an oily villain. Scott had played shady characters before, but none as the out-and-out bad guy of the piece, and wouldn’t again until his last film, 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Another actor usually on the right side of the law, Samuel S. Hinds , is the crooked judge. Harry Carey (Sr) plays Wayne’s partner Dextry, mentoring the younger man onscreen much as he did off it. Margaret Lindsay gets the thankless part of Helen – sorry, but she’s no match for Marlene! Former D.W. Griffith star Richard Barthelmess does good work as saloon card dealer The Bronco Kid, who carries a torch for his boss Cherry.

Three Cowboys: Harry Carey, John Wayne, William Farnum

There are other interesting casting choices in THE SPOILERS. William Farnum , who starred in the 1914 original, is on hand as a lawyer on the side of the good guys. Hollywood’s perennial souse Jack Norton plays the town drunk, and gets to perform some heroics for a change! Robert W. Service, a real life poet who wrote about the Yukon Gold Rush days, has a brief bit as (what else?) a poet (you can read his most famous, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, by clicking on this link ). George Cleveland and Russell Simpson are a pair of grizzled old miners, and oh-so-many other Familiar Faces appear: Irving Bacon, Marietta Carey (as Cherry’s maid Idabelle), Willie Fung , weaselly Charles Halton, Bud Osbourne – happy hunting!


Director Ray Enright keeps the pace brisk and the comedy breezy, like when Idabelle runs into Roy wearing blackface – wait, I didn’t tell you The Duke appears in blackface? Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plot, as is when he comes out wearing one of Marlene’s feathery nightgowns. Wait, I didn’t tell you he appears in semi-drag, too? Well, if your appetite isn’t whetted enough by now to watch THE SPOILERS, then I guess there’s no hope for you. If it is, strap yourselves in, because you’re about to go on one hell of an entertaining ride!

Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymore as Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. Barrymore’s star was certainly on the decline at this juncture of his career, yet he gives a magnificently poignant performance as an actor who doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to believe) he’s washed up. His ‘final solution’ scene is heartbreaking and will haunt you long after the final reel.

Lionel Barrymore as Oliver Jordan

Though Lionel’s part of the financially and physically ailing shipping magnate Jordan isn’t as flashy as brother John’s, he’s the film’s moral center, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip for his wife Millicent’s big social bash while suffering inside. Lionel’s been accused of sometimes overacting, but he definitely underplays it here. In fact, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance!

Wallace Beery as Dan Packard

Beery , on the other hand, frequently sliced the ham thick onscreen, and as the crude Packard, he mugs it up with the best of them. Whether berating Jordan’s offices (“Say, who put up this building – Peter Stuyvesant?”) or battling with his peroxide blonde wife Kitty (and we’ll get to HER later), Beery brings an overbearing, obnoxious presence to this dinner… just the way the part was written, and he’s a perfect fit!

Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan

Dithering Millicent is oblivious to everything going on around her except her precious dinner party, and nobody could’ve done justice to the role the way Burke does. The character would have been unsympathetic in lesser hands, but the veteran actress makes one feel sorry for her onscreen plight. Offscreen, Miss Burke’s real-life husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, died before the film was competed, making her performance even more amazing, considering what she was going through.

Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance

Out of all the cast of pros, Marie Dressler unquestionably steals the film as the down-on-her-luck former stage star Vance. Dressler is an absolute delight as the once celebrated Carlotta, now “flat as a mill pond, I haven’t got a sou”. She also gets off the best lines (“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to, it’s been my life’s work”), including that now-classic final exchange with Kitty Packard, which features one of the greatest double-takes in movie history!

Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard

While John Barrymore was on his way down, Jean Harlow’s star was shooting skyward, and DINNER AT EIGHT is the film that put her over the moon. Vulgar Kitty makes her husband, the rough-hewn Dan, look like an English Lord, and she’s a total scream as the social climbing sexpot. Her battles with Beery are more than just acting – the two despised each other, despite MGM costarring them in three films together. Jean sparkles and shines as she bickers with Beery, and their dialog together is priceless. Of course, the final scene, where Kitty tells Carlotta, “I was reading a book the other day”, will live forever in the annals of great movie moments!

Madge Evans as Paula Jordan

She may not have been as big a name as the others, but Madge Evans, who made her film debut as a child way back in 1914, holds her own as the spoiled teenage daughter Paula Jordan, who’s having a clandestine torrid affair with Barrymore’s much older Larry Renault (the two appeared together on Broadway in 1917, when Madge was eight!). Evans played in several Pre-Codes, including THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM, HALLEUJAH I’M A BUM, THE MAYOR OF HELL , and BEAUTY FOR SALE, as well as another all-star film, 1935’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, before retiring in 1939 after marrying playwright Sidney Kingsfield.

Edmund Lowe as Dr. Wayne Talbot 

Paula Jordan’s not the only one fooling around in this picture, as Kitty Packard has taken up with her married physician Dr. Wayne Talbot, played by he-man Edmund Lowe , another veteran of the silent screen. Lowe was still a name in 1933, and though his part is secondary to all the commotion going on, he gives a dynamic performance as the philandering husband of Karen Morley – who’s part is even smaller!

Lee Tracy as Max Kane

Who else for the role of Renault’s fast-taking agent Max Kane than Hollywood’s fastest talker, Lee Tracy ! Tracy’s more subdued than usual as the agent desperately trying to get his has-been client a part in a play, but when he finally breaks down and tells Renault the truth, he lets him have it with both barrels, triggering the despondent actor’s tragic suicide.

There are other stars in minor roles, like Jean Hersholt’s producer Jo Stengel, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers as Millicent’s last-minute guests, and character actress Hilda Vaughn as Kitty’s avaricious maid Tina, and all get brief chances to shine. DINNER AT EIGHT is movie magic from start to finish, with enough going on to fill a dozen films! Those who have never seen it are missing not only one of the best Pre-Codes, but simply one of the best movies ever made, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast at their peak!

And now for that Famous Final Scene:

More in the “Pre-Code Confidential” Series:

LADY KILLER – KONGO – MAKE ME A STAR – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU – HOLLYWOOD PARTY – THE SECRET SIX – PLAY-GIRL – BABY FACE – BLONDE CRAZY – CLEOPATRA – THE MALTESE FALCON – DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE – FLESH – THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH – THE MAYOR OF HELL – RED DUST – BED OF ROSES – FIVE STAR FINAL – SHANGHAI EXPRESS – SAFE IN HELL – DIPLOMANIACS – GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE – BLONDE VENUS – THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE

Dark Valentine: THE LOVES OF CARMEN (Columbia 1948)


Love takes many strange forms, none more strange than the obsessive love Don Jose has for the Gypsy temptress Carmen in THE LOVES OF CARMEN, Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit of 1948. The film, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s famous opera, reunites GILDA stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford with director Charles Vidor, and though it’s in glorious Technicolor and set in 1800’s Spain, it’s got a lot of film noir elements going for it: there’s the protagonist caught in a rapidly moving downward spiral, the amoral femme fatale, crime, murder, and a bleak, downbeat ending. Think I’m stretching a bit? Let’s take a look…

Young nobleman Don Jose arrives in Seville with a dragoon squadron, a corporal with political ambitions and a bright future ahead of him… until he meets Carmen, a gorgeous red-haired Gypsy who is an expert manipulator. Jose is enchanted by this free-spirited beauty, even though she steals his watch when first they meet. Carmen gets into a street fight with a “respectable” citizen, slashing her face with a knife, and is arrested. Don Jose is put in charge of bringing her to jail, but allows her to escape.

Punished for his actions by his Colonel, Jose discovers his superior has designs on the Gypsy woman himself. He’s forced to stand sentry duty at a party, looking on forlornly as Carmen dances and clicks her castanets for the Colonel and his guests. She entices Jose into breaking his restriction, and when the Colonel later finds Jose at Carmen’s humble abode, a sword fight breaks out, and Carmen trips up the officer, who falls onto Jose’s sword, dead. The two head for the mountains, Jose now a deserter wanted for murder.

An old Gypsy woman has predicted “one love” who’ll bring death for Carmen, but the unfettered girl refuses to listen. The Gypsies in the camp have raised bribe money to free their leader, the lusty bandit Garcia… who also happens to be Carmen’s husband! Jose is subjected into joining Garcia’s highwaymen, with Carmen teasingly out of reach. She takes up with the bullfighter Lucas while scouting potential victims along the roadside, and after Jose kills Garcia in a knife fight (adding more blood on his conscience),he becomes leader of the bandits, not allowing Carmen to join in on the robberies. She refuses to sit around camp and be a simple esposa, taking off for a few days to dally with Lucas. The film culminates with Jose tracking down Carmen to Lucas’s estate and, finally realizing she’s no good, plunging his knife into her as Lucas shoots him in the back. The cursed lovers fall on the steps in a final death embrace.

Now if that’s not a film noir plot, I don’t know what is! Rita Hayworth, who was born for Technicolor, is stunning as the seductress Carmen, a woman who’s “bad all the way through… a liar, a thief, and a cheat”. Carmen cares about no one but Carmen (“No one tells Carmen’s eyes where to go or how to behave”, she declares), treating men like lace handkerchiefs to be used and discarded. We first meet her eating a juicy piece of fruit, tantalizingly licking her lips while Jose approaches, and there’s no doubt of the symbolism! Rita scorches every scene with her sex appeal; she’s the ultimate CT, and a femme fatale for the ages.

Glenn Ford’s Jose is a well-bred, ramrod straight soldier until he succumbs to his lust for Carmen. Jose is unworldly, in sharp contrast to the been-around-the-block Gypsy, and though some have criticized his performance, I found him to be more than up to the task. Victor Jory gets the plum part of bandit leader Garcia and runs away with it; I think it’s one of his best roles. Others in the cast are Luther Adler, John Baragrey (Lucas), Wally Cassell , Arnold Moss, Ron Randell, Phil Van Zandt , and Margaret Wycherly as the old Gypsy who predicts Carmen’s doom. Rita’s father Eduardo Cansino helped choreograph the Spanish dances for his daughter (whose production company was responsible for the film).

So while THE LOVES OF CARMEN may not fit neatly into anyone’s idea of film noir (which, let’s be honest, is a genre open to interpretation), a case can certainly be made for this dark tale of “delusion, idealism, and love gone wrong”. It’s the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day movie for those who’ve been burned by love, and a film that deserves a little more love itself from classic film fans out there. Now excuse me while I go eat a box of chocolates…

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!