Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

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In Memoriam 2017: Sports & Other Pop Culture

Since I’m a Massachusetts-based writer and unrepentant Boston sports fan, I’m dedicating this final “In Memoriam” post to two legends in their respective sports. The Red Sox’ Bobby Doerr was MLB’s oldest living player when he died in November at age 99. Doerr was a Hall of Fame second baseman, 9 time All-Star, and one of the best hitters and fielders at his position. Hockey Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt played 16 years with the Boston Bruins, eight of them on the feared “Kraut Line” alongside Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer. Schmidt also coached the Bruins from 1954-66, and passed away in January at 98.

Boston Celtic Fab Melo

Perhaps the saddest loss in Boston sports was former Boston Celtic first round pick Fab Melo, who died at the tender age of 26 from a heart attack in his native Brazil. Quincy, MA native Sam Mele (98) roamed right field for Boston and 6 other teams; as a manager he guided the Minnesota Twins to the AL pennant in 1965, losing to the Dodgers. Jimmy Piersall (87) played center for the Sox and others; the film FEAR STRIKES OUT starring Anthony Perkins was based on his life. Big Don Baylor (68) went to the World Series with The Red Sox in ’86, the Twins in ’87, and the A’s in ’88. NHL defenceman Gary Doak (71) helped the Bruins win the 1970 Stanley Cup.

Patriots QB Babe Parilli

The New England Patriots  lost quite a few alumni: quarterback Babe Parilli (87) was the franchise’s Tom Brady before there was a Tom Brady. Wide receiver Terry Glenn (43) died in a car accident. A pair of Pats head coaches left the field: Dick McPherson (86) and Ron Meyer (76). Cornerback Leonard Myers died of cancer at 38. Lastly, I’ll ask we just remember Aaron Hernandez’s play on the field, and not the tragic mistakes that led to his demise at age 27.

Tennis champ Jana Novotna

Other sports stars gone include Hall of Fame pitcher and former U.S. Congressman and Senator from Kentucky Jim Bunning (85), Detroit Tigers & Red Wings owner (and Little Caesar’s founder) Mike Ilitch (91), Chicago Bulls exec Jerry Krause (77), MLB player and World Series winning manager (with the Phillies) Dallas Green (82), Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney (84), Seattle Seahawks tackle Cortez Kennedy (48), baseball umpires Ken Kaiser (72) and Steve Palermo (67), 18 year MLB vet Lee May (74), Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian (94), TV sports producer Don Ohlmeyer (72), NBA superstars Darrall Imhoff (78) and Connie Hawkins (75), play-by-play man Bob Wolff (96), Wimbleton champ Jana Novotna (49), Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson (86), NY Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle (90), Blue Jays and Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay (40), and premier sportscaster Dick Enberg (82). “Oh, my!” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Leonard Reiffel (89), the physicist who invented the Telestrator!

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

The world of professional wrestling was hit particularly hard in 2017. Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka (73) was an innovative high-flyer extremely popular with fans, while Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan (72) was one of the game’s most hated managers. George ‘The Animal’ Steele (79) was noted for chewing up turnbuckles, and portraying Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD. Ivan Koloff (74) won the WWWF title from Bruno Sammartino back in ’71. Other grappling greats who passed include announcer Lance Russell (91), ‘The Big K’ Stan Kowalski (91), Burrhead Jones (80), Bruiser Bob Sweetan (76), Otto Wanz (74), Buddy Wolfe (76), Chavo Guerrero Sr (68), ‘Outlaw’ Ron Bass (68), Dennis Stamp (68), Japanese hardcore star Mr. Pogo (66), Tom Zenk (59), Nicole Bass (52), Matthew ‘Rosey’ Anoa’i (47), and a pair of “Pretty Boy”‘s, Larry Sharpe (66) and Doug Somers (65). Boxing lost former middleweight champ and RAGING BULL subject Jake LaMotta (95), trainer/manager Lou Duva (94), and Muhammed Ali’s personal physician, “The Fight Doctor” Ferdie Pacheco (89).

Turning our attention to the world of comics, SWAMP THING co-creators Len Wein (69) and Bernie Wrightson (68) both passed away in 2017. Two underground legends, Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, were both age 72 when they passed. MAD magazine writer Stan Hart (88) also won Emmys for his work on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW. Fran Hopper (95) was one of the few female artists working during the Golden Age. Dick Locher (88) was the artist on the strip DICK TRACY for decades. Marvel Comic’s Gal Friday ‘Fabulous’ Flo Steinberg (78) was an important part of that company’s emergence in the 60’s, as I’m sure was Stan Lee’s beloved wife Joan (93). Artists Rich Buckler (68), Dave Hunt (74), Sam Glanzman (92), Bob Lubbers (95), and Dan Spiegel (96) are also among the departed. And though he wasn’t in comics, painter Basil Gogos (88) will always be remembered for his FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND cover art.

Hef and his Bunnies

An era ended when PLAYBOY Magazine founder Hugh Hefner (91) died, as did three-time Playmate of the Month Janet Pilgrim (82). SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer and author (ALEX: THE LIFE OF A CHILD) Frank Deford was 78; New York Daily News columnist and author (THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT) Jimmy Breslin was 88. Jean Stein (83) wrote the definitive oral history EDIE, about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. Robert James Waller (77) was known for his book THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY; Donald Bain (82) for COFFEE, TEA, OR ME? Authors Brian Aldiss (92), Louise Hay (90), Miriam Marx (daughter of Groucho, 90), and Nancy Friday (84) all left us this year. (Just before posting, I learned one of my favorites, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Milhone “Alphabet” mysteries, passed away today at age 77). And finally, two names that won’t be familiar to you, but deserve their last bows. One is Stanley Weston (84), who is credited with inventing the action figure, prized possession of every fanboy! The other gentleman, Robert Blakely (95), was a graphic designer who created this iconic sign…

Let us all pray we don’t wind up running to one in 2018!

Young Frontier: John Wayne in THE COWBOYS (Warner Brothers 1972)

THE COWBOYS is not just another ‘John Wayne Movie’ from the latter part of his career. Not by a long shot. Duke had read the script and coveted the part of Wil Andersen, who’s forced to hire a bunch of wet behind the ears adolescents for a 400 mile cattle drive across the rugged Montana territory. Director Mark Rydell wanted George C. Scott for the role, but when John Wayne set his sights on something, he usually got what he wanted. The two men were at polar opposites of the political spectrum, and the Sanford Meisner-trained Rydell and Old Hollywood Wayne were expected to clash. They didn’t; putting their differences aside, they collaborated and cooperated  to make one of the best Westerns of the 70’s.

Andersen’s regular hands have all deserted him when gold is discovered nearby, leaving the aging rancher in the lurch. He heads for Boseman to look for recruits and, finding none, takes the advice of his old friend Anse (western vet Slim Pickens) and puts out the call at the local schoolhouse. Ten boys show up, green as grass but willing and eager to learn the ropes. An eleventh, the “mistake of nature” Cimarron, rides in, but after getting into a fight with another boy and pulling a weapon, Andersen refuses to take him along. Some older men, led by “Long Hair” Asa Watts, ask to join the drive, but when Andersen catches him in a lie he sends them packing.

Andersen’s in for another surprise when the cook he hired turns out to be a black man, Jebediah Nightlinger. The boys soon learn life on a cattle drive is no Sunday school picnic, and hardships are plentiful. Slim almost drowns crossing the river, until who rides up to save him but Cimarron. The wild child is then given a spot on the drive by Andersen, but there’s more hardship to come: Long Hair and his rustlers are following the herd, waiting for the right moment to strike…

Wayne’s Wil Andersen is an ornery cuss, tough as leather from his years as a cattleman, yet he shows a surprising tenderness toward the boys. The aging Duke gives yet another fine performance, and does marvelous work with his neophyte costars. Can you imagine being one of them, working with the legendary John Wayne! I would have killed for an opportunity like that! Wayne also works well with Roscoe Lee Browne (Nightlinger); the two have a grudging respect for each other that turns into something resembling friendship. Offscreen, the two actors discovered a mutual love for poetry – bet you didn’t know that about big, macho John Wayne!

Bruce Dern  was an actor on the rise when he made THE COWBOYS, and he’s one scary hombre. His character is mean as hell, bullying one of the kids he catches alone, threatening to slit his throat if the boy dares tells Andersen he’s being followed. When he rides into camp and menaces the youngster, Andersen loses his cool, and the two men engage in a brutal brawl.  Andersen, trouncing the younger man,  turns his back on Watts, who in a rage shoots the older man in the back five times… AND BECOMES THE MOST HATED MAN IN CINEMA HISTORY! Believe me, it was a shock to see Duke get killed on the screen back in 1972, and to this day, there are fans who’ve never forgiven Bruce Dern for murdering John Wayne – after watching that scene, I hated him for years! (But enough time has passed, Bruce – all is forgiven!)

The cowboys themselves are played by Alfred Barker Jr (Fats), Nicholas Beauvy (Dan), Steve Benedict (Steve), Robert Carradine (making his film debut as Slim), Norman Howell (Weedy), Stephen Hudis (Charlie Schwartz), Sean Kelly (Stuttering Bob), A Martinez (Cimarron), Clay O’Brien (Hardy), Sean O’Brien (Jimmy), and Mike Pyeatt (Homer). They’re all good, especially when they stumble upon an encampment of whores led by Colleen Dewhurst, a scene that’s both funny and poignant. After the death of Wil Andersen, the boys decide “we’re gonna finish the job”, and THE COWBOYS becomes a revenge tale, picking off their adversaries one by one until the violent climax where Bruce Dern gets his just desserts!

Director Rydell learned his craft in the world of episodic TV (BEN CASEY, I SPY, GUNSMOKE), and had previously made THE REIVERS with Steve McQueen . Rydell had his own personal vision of what the film should be and Wayne, whose clout was enormous and easily could’ve taken control of the production over, stepped back and just acted as part of the ensemble. For his part, Rydell and cinematographer Robert Surtees paid homage to Wayne’s films with John Ford in the composition of many shots; there’s even the familiar door motif from THE SEARCHERS, and a scene of Andersen at his own children’s gravesite that echoes SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON . John Williams , as he did for Rydell’s previous film, contributes a memorably majestic score.

Big John Wayne was nearing the end of the trail when he made THE COWBOYS. Of his six remaining films, only THE SHOOTIST stands out as a quality piece of filmmaking. THE COWBOYS is yet another testament to his acting ability, and a damn good movie. Surrounded by an unfamiliar cast and crew, ailing from the cancer that eventually killed him, Wayne is out of his comfort zone, and gives his all in the role of Wil Andersen. It’s not a “John Wayne Movie”, it’s a movie featuring John Wayne, actor. As it turns out, THE COWBOYS is one of his best 70’s cinematic outings, and a movie I can still watch and enjoy over and over.

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!

Here’s Looking at You On The Big Screen, CASABLANCA!

Longtime readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film. It’s blend of stars, supporting cast, script, direction, drama, romance, and humor is the perfect example of 1940’s Hollywood storytelling,  when Tinseltown was at the peak of its moviemaking powers . I’ve seen the film at least 80 times in many different formats, from broadcast television to cable and satellite, from VHS to DVD to DVR, but never before on the big screen – until this past Sunday, that is!

Fathom Events, in conjunction with TCM, presents classic films on a monthly basis in theaters across the country. In my area, they’re shown at Regal Cinemas in Swansea, MA, a half hour drive down the highway. I’ve been tempted to make the trip a few times, but never got around to it for one reason or another. But when I heard CASABLANCA was this month’s feature, I knew I had to be there, despite the drive, the multiple personal viewings (hell, I own it in two formats!), and the $12.50 ticket price (not to mention the requisite popcorn and soda!). This was an opportunity to see my favorite movie on a big screen, and I wasn’t about to pass it up!

Even though it was a Sunday afternoon during football season, a three-quarters full crowd gathered to attend the 2:00 showing. The fact that our Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots didn’t play hated rivals the Denver Broncos until 8:30PM certainly didn’t hurt matters (and by the way, we kicked their asses!).  The audience was a good mix of older viewers and, to the delight of my classic movie lovin’ heart, some younger fans, giving up their Sunday afternoon to watch a 75-year-old Black & White movie in a theater. Just goes to show what I’ve known all along – a great film will always draw an audience, no matter how old it may be.

After a filmed introduction and some solid background info from TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz, it was showtime. Seeing this film up there larger than life was an awesome experience for yours truly, even though I know it by heart and can recite the dialog like singing along to an old song on the local classic rock radio station. Every line on Bogart’s world-weary face was there, all the pain and self-pity indelibly etched in vivid detail when Rick Blaine meets up with his long-lost love Ilsa Lund, now accompanied by Czechoslovakian freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. The scene where Rick, drinking himself to oblivion in the darkened Café Americain, orders his piano playing friend Sam to play “As Time Goes By”, stirring memories of his and Ilsa’s affair in Paris before the Nazis marched in, brought tears to even the most jaded of eyes – including my own. I guess Captain Renault would label me a “sentimentalist”, too!

Ingrid Bergman looked beyond beautiful on the big screen, her dewy-eyed, ethereal face conveying powerful emotions boiling just under the surface. Paul Henreid looked more heroic than ever as Victor Laszlo, especially during the inspirational scene where he leads the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise”:

Claude Rains  as Captain Renault gets most of the best lines, and got the biggest laughs from the crowd, including that “I’m shocked – shocked to find that gambling is going on here” one. The diminutive Rains dominated every scene he was in, and very nearly steals the picture from the Bogart/Bergman/Henreid triangle with his acting skills. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Karl got his share of laughs, too, whether looking at Rick all googly-eyed after the boss allows a young refuge couple to win at roulette, or the charming scene he shares with Mr. and Mrs. Leuchtag (Ludwig Stossel, Ilka Gruning) as they demonstrate their command of the English language – or rather lack of it!

Dooley Wilson has never sounded better, and his musical interludes on “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood” felt like a live concert event, surpassed only by the iconic song “As Time Goes By”. Peter Lorre , Sydney Greenstreet, Conrad Veidt – such an amazing cast! And being the inveterate Familiar Face spotter that I am, it took all my strength not to shout out the names of the character actors who pop up in scene after scene (Frank Lackteen! Dan Seymour! Madeleine LeBeau! Gino Corrado!), many of whom were real-life refugees who escaped the Nazi terror in Europe and came to America to ply their trade.

All in all, celebrating CASABLANCA’s 75th Anniversary on the big screen was a dream come true, and an experience I’ll not soon forget. The perfect film in the perfect venue, surrounded by like-minded fans – I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I could go on and on, but instead I’ll let the great Dooley Wilson take this post home. Play it, Sam:

 

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.

Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.

Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.

William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)

The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered,  putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (Universal 1963)

Many years ago, back in the 80’s I believe, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard. It was early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, and as my friend was still crashed from the previous evening’s debauchery, I decided to walk down to the beach and catch some rays. I strolled past a particularly marshy stretch when, out of nowhere, a seagull buzzed by my head. Then another. And another. And soon there were about ten of the nasty flying rats swooping down at me, screeching and dive-bombing toward my long-haired dome (this was back when I actually had hair!). I ducked and dodged, yelling and snapping my beach towel at the airborne devils, and ran as fast as I could away from the area, scared to death one of these buzzards was going to peck my eyeballs out! It was like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s  1963  masterpiece of terror THE BIRDS!

THE BIRDS was Hitchcock’s follow-up to 1960’s PSYCHO, his first true entry into the horror genre. While that film deals with an easily explained (though very complicated) deranged man, THE BIRDS gives no clarification as to why the critters rebel against mankind. They have no motive, they just do, making their actions all the more terrifying. Birds have always been an omen of portending doom in Hitchcock films, from 1929’s BLACKMAIL all the way to the taxidermy of Norman Bates, but here The Master of Suspense takes it to the next level – birds as agents of chaos.

The film starts normally enough, as lawyer Mitch Brenner and newspaper heiress Melanie Daniels “meet cute” in a San Francisco pet store (where Hitch has his cameo as a man walking his dogs). Melanie, intrigued by the handsome Mitch, decides to follow him to Bodega Bay, an idyllic coastal town where he lives with his widowed mother and younger sister. The blonde practical joker purchases a pair of love birds, and sneaks into Mitch’s house, leaving them behind as a present for his sister Cathy. While observing his reaction from her motor boat, Melanie gets bashed in the head by an errant gull. It’s no mere accident, just the first sign of things to come.

The birds begin their attacks in earnest at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, flocks and flocks of them reigning down on the innocent children. Hitchcock ratchets things up from there, as the audience never knows when the creatures will strike next. They fly down the chimney at the Brenner’s home, terrorizing them. Later, Mrs. Brenner discovers her neighbor’s dead body, his eyes horribly pecked out. The scene at the schoolhouse is one of the most iconic in both the Hitchcock and horror canons: as Melanie sits outside the school, the birds begin to gather, first one, then another, perching on the monkey bars and swing set, as the children sing an innocent song in class. Melanie and teacher Annie Heyworth, Mitch’s ex-lover, line up the kids, telling them we’re having a fire drill, marching them out slowly. The birds then attack, and the children make a mad dash for safety, the birds pecking and clawing at them with frenzied abandon, the children screaming as their flesh is rended from their arms and faces.

Melanie and Cathy make it to the safety of the local restaurant, where we get some relief from the tension as some minor characters (an ornithology expert, a fisherman, and a souse) expound on what the hell is going on. Bodega Bay is now under siege, and Mitch boards up the family homestead to keep Melanie and his family safe. Outside, we hear the shrieks and caws of the birds, hundreds of them, as they try to break through the wood. After everyone else falls asleep, Melanie hears something upstairs (Hitchcock’s famous staircase motif is revisited). Opening the door to a bedroom, she recoils in horror as the birds have broken through the ceiling. Trapped now, Melanie is viciously attacked by the demonic birds, as they mercilessly bite and rip at her. Mitch awakens to pull her out of this assault, but it’s too late – the woman is now in total shock from her frightening ordeal.

There is no musical soundtrack in THE BIRDS. Instead, an electronic early synthesizer is used to create the sounds of the avian monsters, to chilling effect (though composer Bernard Herrman is credited as ‘sound consultant’). Sound plays an important role in conveying the sense of dread and fear, with technicians Remi Glassman, William Russell, Oskar Sala, and Waldon Watson all contributing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made over fifty years ago, thanks in large part to the contributions of Disney animator Ub Iwerks and matte artist Albert Whitlock . DP Robert Surtees , working on his 11th of 12 movies with Hitchcock, delivers his usual fine job. The eerie blending of both sound and visual effects combine to raise the terror quotient to heights never matched before, and rarely since, despite all the technological advances.

The cast is well-chosen, with stalwart Rod Taylor as Mitch and former model Tippi Hedren making her film debut as Melanie (Miss Hedren named her child after her character in THE BIRDS, actress Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy is outstanding as Mitch’s domineering yet sympathetic mother, Veronica Cartwright (later of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and ALIEN) is little sister Cathy, and Suzanne Pleshette, always a welcome presence, plays Annie. Familiar Faces in support include Malcom Atterbury, Richard Deacon, Ethel Griffies (as the bird expert – she even looks like one!), Charles MacGraw (the fisherman), Ruth McDevitt, Dal McKennon, William Quinn, Karl Swenson (the drunken doomsayer), and Doodles Weaver. Look for little Suzanne Cupito, later known as Morgan Brittany, as one of the frightened children.

Hicthcock directed from a script by Evan Hunter, better known by his pen name Ed McBain (of the ’87th Precinct’ novels), adapting his screenplay from a story by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel REBECCA inspired Hitch’s first American film. THE BIRDS is a true classic of the horror genre, dealing as it does with the unexpected, the unknown, the unexplainable. After you finish watching it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn’t possibly happen. Or could it? Don’t forget what happened to me on Martha’s Vineyard all those years ago. As Scotty said in Howard Hawks’ THE THING  , “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking!”. And have a frightfully Happy Halloween!