The Big Let-Down: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Warner Brothers 1947)

You would think THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS is just the type of movie I’d love. It’s a Warner Brothers pic from the 1940’s, it’s got Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck , there’s mystery and murder, a Gothic atmosphere… and yet, I didn’t love it, or particularly like it, either. For the first three-quarters, it’s too mannered, slow-moving, and (the cardinal sin) boring for my tastes. Things do pick up a bit towards the end, with Bogie menacing Babs alone in that gloomy mansion, but the denouement failed to satisfy me.

There are a number of reasons why the movie just doesn’t work. It was filmed in 1945, but held back two years by the studio for some reason or another (reports vary). Director Peter Godfrey, a Stanwyck favorite, just wasn’t up to the task of creating much suspense. Then again, the screenplay by Thomas Job practically gives everything away early on, so much that there’s really no suspense to be had. We already know Bogie poisoned his first wife to be with Barbara, and once he takes up with Alexis Smith and Stanwyck falls ill, we know exactly what’s going on. In the hands of, say, Alfred Hitchcock , perhaps we’d have a different, more suspenseful film, but Godfrey’s plodding direction fails to deliver the goods.

Then there’s Bogart, a fish out of water among all the Gothic trappings. I love Bogie, he’s one of my favorites of the classic era, but he just doesn’t feel like he belongs here as an artist with an insane streak. I could see someone like Errol Flynn (who costarred with Stanwyck in Godfrey’s similar CRY WOLF that same year) or maybe Paul Henreid (who was announced for the role during pre-production) pulling it off, but Bogie’s just flat-out not right for the part. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS sometimes gets lumped in as a film noir (as it seems too many films do these days), but it’s a far cry from that stylistic genre. It’s more a Gothic mystery, and doesn’t make the grade in that department either, thanks to Godfrey’s mishandling of the material and Bogart’s weak performance.

The supporting cast doesn’t help matters much. Ann Carter, who was brilliant as the lonely child in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, is stiff and wooden as Bogart’s daughter Bea. Nigel Bruce goes for laughs as Stanwyck’s doctor, but doesn’t achieve any. Alexis Smith is okay as Bogart’s next conquest, but isn’t given a lot to do except look good. Anita Sharp-Bolster (MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS ) gives the best performance as the housekeeper Christine, a decidedly minor role. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS certainly looks good, with Anton Grot’s set design and Peverell Marley’s cinematography helping a bit, and has a great dramatic score by Franz Waxman . But looks aren’t everything, and I can think of dozens of films starring Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck I’d rather watch than this tedious, tired film. I bet you can, too.

Tears of A Clown: Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (United Artists 1952)

Charlie Chaplin was unquestionably one of the true geniuses of cinema. His iconic character ‘The Little Tramp’ has been entertaining audiences for over 100 years, enchanting both children and adults alike with his winning blend of humor and pathos. But by 1952, the 63-year-old Chaplin had been buffeted about by charges of immoral behavior and the taint of Communism during the HUAC years, and filmgoers were turning against him. It is at this juncture in his life and career he choose to make LIMELIGHT, a personal, reflective piece on the fickleness of fame, mortality, despair, and most prominently, hope. It could be considered Chaplin’s valedictory message to the medium he helped establish, even though there would be two more films yet to come.

 

“The story of a ballerina and a clown…” It’s 1914 London, and the once-great Music Hall clown Calvero arrives home from a drunken bender. Fumbling with the key to unlock the door to his squalid rooming house, Calvero finally enters and, smelling gas, bursts into an apartment, saving the life of suicidal failed ballerina Thereza. Bringing her upstairs to his own humble room, the washed-up clown tries nursing her back to health, despite the protestations of landlady Mrs. Alsop. Calvero is upbeat, enjoying life as it is, even though he’s no longer able to amuse the crowds that used to love him; Thereza, on the other hand, hates life and “the futility of it all”, an invalid no longer able to use her dancer’s legs.

A doctor tells Calvero her symptoms are psychosomatic in nature, so Calvero acts as both nurturer and therapist, getting Thereza to open up about her past life and unrequited love. He’s able to get her back on her feet, both physically and emotionally, though he can’t get himself back in the limelight, dismally bombing out at a low-rent music hall. The roles are now reversed as Terry encourages Calvero to not give up hope, and when she lands the role of prima ballerina in “Harlequinade”, she manages to get Calvero a part as the clown. It is here she meets her lost unrequited love Neville, now a pianist for the company. Thereza confesses her love for Calvero, but the old clown doesn’t wish to stand in the way of what he perceives as her true happiness.

Thereza becomes a huge success, but impresario Mr. Postant doesn’t think the clown is funny. Calvero overhears, and once again goes out and gets sloshed, leaving the production and Thereza behind. While Thereza dances to world-wide acclaim, Calvero becomes a pitiful street performer begging for change. When Postant learns of Calvero’s plight, he arranges a gala benefit in the great clown’s honor, where Calvero returns to the limelight to take his final, fatal last bow…

LIMELIGHT is autobiographical on many levels, as Chaplin mixes both his current situation in America with the lives of his mother and father. Originally a Music Hall performer himself, Chaplin’s Calvero closely resembles his Tramp in spirit, the perpetually downtrodden Everyman who always looks at the sunny side of life. Walking that familiar tightrope between comedy and pathos, Chaplin gives a commanding performance here. Moving between pantomime and eloquence, Chaplin expresses a worldview of acceptance as Calvero, determined to remain true to himself no matter the circumstances, even when he feels he can no longer connect with the audience. His devotion to his craft is amazing, not only as star of the film, but producer, writer, director, music score (for which he won a belated Oscar in 1972, twenty years after the film’s initial release!), and even co-choreographer. LIMELIGHT is also a family affair, with son Sydney Chaplin playing Neville, Charlie Chaplin Jr. as one of the ballet clowns, and younger children Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael as urchins on the steps in the opening scene. Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler Dryden appears as a doctor, and even wife Oona O’Neill Chaplin has a part as an extra.

The role of Thereza is played by 21-year-old Claire Bloom , whose ethereal poignancy as the ballerina is brilliantly portrayed. We watch in amazement as the despairing Terry, wanting only to die, blossoms into a beautiful artist radiating hope. Marjorie Bennett gets a chance to shine as Mrs. Alsop, probably her best screen role. The always-welcome Nigel Bruce is Postant, Norman Lloyd plays stage director Bodalink, and popping up in small parts are silent veterans Charlie Hall, Charley Rogers, Snub Pollard (as one of Calvero’s street musician cohorts), and Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s costar in many of his early films, making her final screen appearance.

Most notably, LIMELIGHT features the first and only pairing of Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton , who rivaled Chaplin in popularity during the silent era. The duo perform a musical comedy number at Calvero’s benefit show, almost completely done in pantomime, and though their screen time together if brief, it is both funny and memorable. Though an unmistakable air of melancholy pervades the film, Chaplin gets to strut his stuff in some amusing solo numbers, including a flea circus sketch and the comical song “The Life of a Sardine”.

The ballet section, highlighted by the performance of “Harlequinade”, is hauntingly beautiful. Danced by Andre Eglevsky and Melissa Hayden (subbing for Bloom) of the New York City Ballet, the two teamed with Chaplin on the film’s choreography, and create a marvelous and moving piece of work. The entire film is a splendid balance of that same humor and pathos Chaplin had walked successfully for almost forty years, when the “Little Fellow” (as he called his most beloved creation) first arrived on the screen with his baggy pants, beat-up bowler, scrub moustache, and cane. LIMELIGHT is the sum of Chaplin’s entire career as an entertainer, a film of love and loss, hopes and dreams, and one no movie lover should miss.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series: