Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #4: The Talk of the Town (dir by George Stevens)


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The fourth film on my DVR was the 1942 film, The Talk of the Town.  The Talk of The Town originally aired on TCM on March 20th and I recorded it because it was a best picture nominee.  As some of our regular readers undoubtedly know, it’s long been a goal of mine to watch and review every single film nominated for Oscar’s top prize.

The Talk of The Town is an odd little hybrid of comedy, melodrama, and a civics lecture.  Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) is a brilliant attorney and legal professor.  He’s been shortlisted for the Supreme Court and he’s also a widely read author.  In fact, he’s even rented a house for the summer, so that he may work on a book.  The owner of the house — teacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) — will also be acting as his secretary.

As well-read as Prof. Lightcap may be, he’s also rather stuffy and out-of-touch with what’s going on outside of the world of academia.  He knows how the law should work but he has little understanding of how the law actually does work.  Fortunately, he gets a lesson in reality when he arrives at the house and eventually meets the gardener, Joseph (Cary Grant).  Joseph turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and very passionate about politics.  Lightcap and Joseph have many debates about whether or not the American legal system actually protects the working man.

What Lightcap doesn’t know is that Joseph is actually Leopold Dilg.  Leopold is a labor activist, the type who you always see in old documentaries, standing on a street corner and preaching about unions.  Leopold is also a fugitive.  He was accused of setting fire to a mill, a fire that apparently led to the death of the foreman.  Despite the fact that he loudly proclaimed his innocence, Leopold was arrested and prosecutors announced that they would seek the death penalty.  Convinced that he would never get a fair trial, Leopold escaped from jail and fled to Nora’s house.

Nora and Leopold went to school together.  They love each other, even though circumstances — mostly his political activism — conspired to keep them apart.  When Lightcap moves into the house, Nora and Leopold’s attorney, Sam (Edgar Buchanan), hope that they can convince him to take on Leopold’s case.  However, they also have to not only convince Leopold to reveal his true identity but also convince Lightcap to put his supreme court appointment at risk by defending a politically unpopular defendant.  Their solution is to trick Lightcap into falling in love with Nora and then convince him to take on the case for her.

However, Nora soons finds herself falling in love with Lightcap for real.  Who will she choose in the end?  Cary Grant or Ronald Colman?  Today, it seems like a pretty easy decision but apparently, in 1942, Columbia Pictures actually shot two different endings for the movie.

The Talk of The Town is an odd little movie.  For the most part, it’s a drama.  But it also has plenty of comedic elements, mostly dealing with the attempts to keep Leopold’s identity a secret.  In the end, it’s a little bit too preachy to really work as either a drama or a comedy.  That said, I still liked The Talk Of The Town because it made a strong case for the importance of due process, which is a concept that a lot of people take for granted.

(At the same time, The Talk of the Town was made in 1942 so you never have any doubt that Lightcap’s belief in the American legal system will eventually be vindicated.  With America having just entered World War II, 1942 was not a time for cynicism.  If Talk of the Town has been made in the 30s, it probably would have been a very different movie.)

Probably the best thing about Talk of the Town is the cast.  It may not be a great film but, when you’ve got Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in a scene together, it almost doesn’t matter.

The Talk of the Town was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mrs. Miniver.

The Fabulous Forties #50: Lady of Burlesque (dir by William A. Wellman)


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Way back in April, I started on a series of reviews.  I announced that I would be watching and reviewing all 50 of the public domain films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.

At the time, I expected that it would take me maybe two weeks.  At the most, two and a half.  After all, I wondered, how long can I take?  Well, needless to say, it took me a little longer than two weeks.  In fact, it took me nearly 3 months.  (In my defense, May turned out to be a very busy month for me and I wasn’t able to review a single Fabulous Forties film.)  However, what’s important is that, after all this time, I am currently writing up the last of my Fabulous Forties reviews!

(And, right now, you’re reading it.)

On the whole, the Fabulous Forties has turned out to be pretty uneven box set.  It contains a few classics, like My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, and The Last Chance.  There are several good films, like The Black Book and Trapped.  And then there’s quite a few mediocre and forgettable films, like The Town Went Wild and Jungle Man.  (Dear God, Jungle Man…)  As I started on the final film in the set, I wasn’t sure what I was about to see…

Well, no worries!  The Fabulous Forties ends on a high note!  The 50th film is the wonderfully entertaining 1943 comedy-musical-mystery Lady of Burlesque!

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Lady of Burlesque (which was released in the UK under the title Striptease Lady) takes place in an old and somewhat decrepit New York burlesque house, the type of place where the audience is almost all male, the owners are somewhat sleazy, and the performers are a cross between cynical veterans and naive newcomers who are hoping for their first big break.

As quickly becomes apparent, the theater would fall apart if not for its main attraction, Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck).  Dixie serves as a mentor for the newcomers and a confidante for the veterans.  She knows how to keep the audience entertained, even when two dancers are loudly screaming at each other offstage.  She knows how to deal with the sleazy owners and how to placate the owners of the Chinese restaurant next door.  Dixie also knows better than to get romantically involved with any of male comics who perform at the theater but that doesn’t stop her from flirting with one of them, Biff Brannigan (Micahel O’Shea, playing his role with an almost poignant earnestness).  As I watched the film, I could tell that Barbara Stanwyck was neither a natural dancer nor singer but it didn’t matter because, whether Dixie was trying to keep peace backstage or performing onstage and singing a song called, “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String,” Stanwyck totally committed herself to the role.

Plus, her outfits were to die for!

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Seriously, as I watched Lady of Burlesque, I totally wanted to get a job dancing in an old timey burlesque house!  If only I had a time machine…

Of course, it should be understood that the acts in Lady of Burlesque are risqué but, by today’s standards, they’re also rather innocent.   The jokes may be full of double meaning but it’s all hidden in the subtext.  The costumes may be sexy but they also stay on.  (That probably had more to do with the production code than to do with the realities of 1940s burlesque.)

Anyway, Lady of Burlesque is technically a murder mystery but mostly, it’s just an excuse to show the performances happening onstage and a few comedic (and occasionally dramatic) vignettes of what it was like to be backstage in a burlesque house.  Two dancers are murdered but the show must go on.  Even as Dixie solves the murders and tries to keep everyone calm, the show must go on.  In fact, that’s one of the true joys of Lady of Burlesque.  Regardless of what madness might be going on backstage, the show never stops!  In fact, the film often seems undecided about whether or not the backstage murders are bad because of the loss of life or the fact that they threaten to interrupt the performances onstage.  Lady of Burlesque becomes a tribute to the work ethic of entertainers everywhere!

Lady of Burlesque was based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee.  The name of that novel was The G-String Murders.  Not surprisingly, that title was changed for the film version.

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Well, that concludes the Fabulous Forties!  In a few weeks, I’ll start in on my next Mill Creek box set, the Nifty Fifties!  Until then, enjoy Lady of Burlesque!

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Little Foxes (dir by William Wyler)


Little_foxesThat Bette Davis was an amazingly talented actress is something that we all already know.

However, she has become such an iconic figure that I think that it’s easy to forget just how versatile she could be.  She was ferocious in Of Human Bondage.  She was poignant in Dark Victory.  She was majestic in All About Eve.  Even when she eventually ended up appearing in stuff like Burnt Offerings, she still managed to command the screen.  Of course, nobody played evil with quite the style and power as Bette Davis at her prime.  And if you ever have any doubt about that fact, I would suggest watching the 1941 Best Picture nominee, The Little Foxes.

Based on a play by Lillian Hellman, The Little Foxes is a dark Southern melodrama that takes place in 1900.  The once mighty Hubbard Family has fallen on hard times.  Brothers Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) have inherited their father’s money and Oscar has made himself even more wealthy by marrying the poignant alcoholic Birdie (Patricia Collinge).  However, when Oscar and Benjamin decide that they want to build a cotton mill, they discover that, even with their own fortunes, they are still $75,000 short.

They turn to their sister, Regina (Bette Davis).  As quickly becomes obvious, Regina is a hundred times more intelligent and clever than either one of her brothers.  However, because she’s a woman, Regina was not considered to be a legal heir to their father’s fortune.  As a result, after his death, she was left penniless.  In order to survive, Regina had to marry the wealthy but sickly Horace (Herbert Marshall).  When Regina asks Horace for the $75,000, Horace refuses.  He wants nothing to do with either one of her brothers.

With the reluctant help of Oscar’s son, Leo (Dan Duryea), the brothers steal the money straight from Horace’s bank account.  Regina, however, finds out about the theft and schemes to blackmail her two brothers….

For the majority of the film, you are totally on Regina’s side.  Despite the fact that Regina is ruthless and obviously taking advantage of Horace’s weakened state, you find yourself making excuses for her.  Her brothers are both so sleazy and greedy and Regina is so much smarter than her idiotic siblings that the film occasionally feels like a dark comedy.  It’s fun watching her get the better of them and you find yourself assuming (and hoping) that Regina will somehow be redeemed by the end of the movie.

And then it happens.

Aware of both Regina’s scheme and the fact that she never loved him, Horace announces that he’s going to change his will and he’s going to leave his entire fortune to their daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright, in her Oscar-nominated film debut).  He also tells Reginia that he’s going to say that he lent Leo the money, which would make it impossible for her blackmail scheme to work.

It’s while they’re arguing that Horace suddenly suffers a heart attack.  And as Horace struggles to climb up a staircase so that he can get his medicine, Regina calmly sits in a chair and shows not a hint of emotion as he dies.  It’s such an unexpected and effective moment, largely because Bette Davis’s performance was so good that it kept both the viewer and Horace from realizing just how monstrous Regina truly was.

It’s hard to think of any contemporary actress who could so totally and believably embody a character of Regina Gibbons.  It takes courage to commit so fully to playing such an evil and hateful character.  Bette Davis had that courage and her performance alone makes The Little Foxes worth watching.

Shattered Politics #9: State of the Union (dir by Frank Capra)


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“Politicians have remained professionals only because the voters have remained amateurs!” — State of the Union (1948)

Does anyone remember the Americans Elect fiasco of 2012?

Americans Elect was an organization set up by a bunch of businesspeople, attorneys, and out-of-office politicians.  Their stated goal was to challenge the political establishment, shake up the two-party system, and elect a president.  The idea was that the party would hold a nationwide primary.  Any registered U.S. voter could go online and cast their vote on what they thought should be in the party’s platform and who they thought should be the Americans Elect presidential candidate.  Whoever won this nationwide primary would be required to 1) run on the platform and 2) pick a vice presidential candidate from the opposite party.

And all would be right with the world, right?

Right.

Anyway, I did register as an American Elect delegate, just because I was curious to see who was getting votes in the nationwide primary and who wasn’t.  (And yes, I did cast a vote.  I voted for Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia.)  Looking over the site, I saw that all of the usual suspects were getting votes — Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump, and even Barack Obama.  None of the big vote getters were exactly nonpartisan or independent figures.  With the possible exception of Ron Paul, all of them were members of the very establishment that Americans Elect was claiming to challenge.

Anyway, Americans Elect ended up nominating no one for President and, as we all know, the 2012 election came down to choosing between two candidates who both received money from the same millionaires and, in the end, the status quo was upheld.

To be honest, everyone should have realized that Americans Elect was a sham as soon as the New York Times printed a column praising the effort.  Any truly independent political organization would never be praised by the New York Times.  Instead, like most so-called independent political organizations, Americans Elect was just a case of certain members of the establishment slumming.

So, the lesson of American Elect would seem to be that any attempt to run outside of the mainstream will, in the end, simply lead you back to the mainstream.  That was an expensive lesson for all of the volunteers who devoted their time to getting Americans Elect on the ballot in 28 states.  It was a lesson that they could have learned much more easily by watching the 1948 film, State of the Union.

In State of the Union, newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) wants to make her lover, Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy), President of the United States.  Grant is a no-nonsense, plain-spoken businessman who is quick to explain that he loves and cares about his country but that he hates partisan politics.  (In many ways, it’s impossible not to compare Grant to … well, to just about every single wealthy businessman who has ever run for public office while claiming to essentially be nonpolitical.  The big difference is that Grant actually means it.)  However, by subtly appealing to both his ego and his patriotism, Kay convinces Grant to run.  With the help of sleazy Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou) and the sardonic Spike McManus (Van Johnson), Kay uses her money and her newspapers to turn Grant into a viable candidate.

The only problem is that Grant is separated from his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) and, since this movie was made in the 1940s, everyone knows that Grant has to be seen as being a family man if he’s going to be elected.  For the election, Mary and Grant pretend to be happily married.

As the primary season continues, Grant finds himself being more and more manipulated by Kay and Jim.  Eventually, Grant is forced to make a decision between his campaign and his integrity…

Following Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Meet John Doe, State of the Union was the third part of director Frank Capra’s political trilogy.  Based on a play (which, itself, was supposedly inspired by the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie), State of the Union never quite escapes its stage-bound origins.  Add to that, the film was probably a bit more shocking when it was first released in 1948.  In 2015, we’re used to idea of politicians being controlled by money.  But, in 1948, audiences were perhaps a little bit more innocent.

But, that said, State of the Union is still an entertaining film.  Needless to say, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn have a wonderful chemistry together and Hepburn gets a great drunk scene.  (Hepburn had such an aristocratic presence that it’s always fun to watch her do comedy.)  Angela Lansbury also does well, playing a character who could very well grow up to be the role she played in The Manchurian Candidate.

67 years after it was first released, State of the Union remains an entertaining film that makes some good and still relevant points.  In 2016, when you’re tempted to get involved with the latest version of Americans Elect, watch State of the Union instead.