The Fabulous Forties #19: Whistle Stop (dir by Leonide Moguy)


Whistle_stop_poster_small

The 19th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1946’s Whistle Stop and I’m sad to say that I ran into some trouble when I tried to watch it.  As much as I love the Mill Creek box sets, the DVDs within are somewhat notorious for getting easily damaged.  That was the problem that I ran into when I tried to watch Whistle Stop.  From the minute I hit play, the film would randomly pause.  The picture would randomly pixelate.  The sound would randomly vanish.  As you may have picked up, it was all very random but it also made it impossible for me to watch Whistle Stop.

However, like almost every other film that’s ever shown up in Mill Creek box set, Whistle Stop is in the public domain and, therefore, it’s been uploaded to YouTube by dozens of different accounts.  Once I realized that the DVD wasn’t going to work, I switched over to YouTube and I finally got watch Whistle Stop.

Really, I probably shouldn’t have gone to all the trouble.  Of the 19 Fabulous Forties films that I’ve watched so far, Whistle Stop is perhaps the least interesting.  Half of the film is a film noir and the other half if a small town melodrama but, with its convoluted plot and uninspired direction, it really doesn’t work as either.

Mary (Ava Gardner) grew up in a small town but, eventually, she left and went to the big city, hoping to make a new life for herself.  Apparently, she didn’t succeed because, two years later, she returns to the small town.  (The town is so small and obscure that it’s mostly known for its train stop.  Hence, it’s a “whistle stop.”)  When she returns, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend, Kenny Veech (George Raft) has become a loser in her absence.  Kenny is still in love with her but he’s also bitter at her for leaving town.

Making things even worse, from Kenny’s point of view, is that Mary is now dating a sleazy nightclub owner named Lew Lentz (Tom Conway).  Kenny’s best friend, Gitlo (Victor McLaglen), comes up with a plan, in which he and Kenny will kill Lew and make it look like a robbery.  However, Lew has plans of his own and…

You know what?  I’m probably making Whistle Stop sound more interesting than it actually is.  This is one of those films were the plot manages to be absurdly complicated without actually adding up to much. On the plus side, Ava Gardner, one of my favorite of great femme fatales, is beautiful and sultry as Mary and reminded me of why, for several years, Film Noir Femme Fatale was my default Halloween costume.  Tom Conway makes Lew Lentz so amazingly sleazy that you can’t help but admire his commitment to the role.  On the other hand, George Raft is totally miscast and way too handsome and naturally rakish to play a total loser like Kenny Veech.  Watching the film, you can tell that he wasn’t particularly comfortable playing such an insecure and passive character.

Whistle Stop wasn’t particularly memorable but if you want to watch it, you can do so below.  It’s free!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #18: A Letter To Three Wives (dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)


220px-A_letter_to_three_wives_movie_poster

Last week, I started a little series that I call Embracing The Melodrama, Part II.  Over the next three weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 128 cinematic melodramas.  I started this series with the 1927 silent film Sunrise and now, we have reached our 18th film, the 1949 best picture nominee, A Letter To Three Wives!

Now, I’m going to start this review by pointing out something that will probably scare off some of our readers.  So, before you read the next paragraph, understand that A Letter To Three Wives is a great film that’s full of great performances and witty dialogue and you really should watch it the next time that it’s on TCM.  Got all that?  Okay.  Good.  Moving on…

A Letter To Three Wives feels a lot like a 1949 version of Desperate Housewives.  Now, before you freak out, I’m talking about early Desperate Housewives as opposed to later Desperate Housewives.  The similarities are actually pretty striking.  Both A Letter To Three Wives and Desperate Housewives take place in an upper class suburb.  Both of them deal with women who appear to have happy marriages but who are all actually dissatisfied with how their lives have turned out.  Both of them are satires disguised as mystery stories.  (The mystery in Desperate Housewives involved murder.  The one in A Letter To Three Wives involves adultery.)  Perhaps most significantly, both Desperate Housewives and A Letter To Three Wives are narrated by a snarky woman who exists largely off screen.

The narrator in A Letter To Three Wives is named Addie Ross and voiced by Celeste Holm.  We never actually see Addie but we hear a lot from her and a lot about her.  Apparently, every man in town has, at some point, been in love with Addie.  Every woman is jealous of her.  And Addie, amazingly enough, seems to have the power to know exactly what’s happening in everyone else’s marriage.  At the start of A Letter To Three Wives, Addie has sent … well, a letter to three wives.  In the letter, Addie explains that she’s run off with one of their husbands but she declines to reveal which husband.  Each one of the wives thinks back on her marriage and wonders if her husband is the one.

Deborah (Jeanne Crain), for instance, is a country girl who met and married Bradford “Brad” Bishop (Jeffrey Lynn) during World War II.  Deborah is insecure about the fact that Brad comes from an upper class background and that he was apparently engaged to marry Addie before he met Deborah.

(Here’s an interesting piece of trivia for those of you who, like me, are into true crime stories.  Along with the movie character, there’s also a real-life murderer named Bradford “Brad” Bishop.  Like the character in the movie, he came from an upper class background.  Unlike the film character, the real Brad Bishop ended up murdering his wife, his children, and his mother and then fled to Europe.  He’s been a fugitive for close to 40 years and is believed to still be alive.  He’s currently on the FBI’s most wanted list.)

And then there’s Rita (Ann Sothern), who is an old friend of Brad’s.  Rita is married to George.  George is a quiet and intellectual English professor who is insecure over the fact that Rita, working as a soap opera writer, makes more money than he does.  George is played by Kirk Douglas and, admittedly, it does take a while to get used to the idea of Kirk Douglas playing an introverted intellectual.  But, once you get over the initial shock, Kirk Douglas gives a pretty good performance.  Kirk may be miscast but that actually works to the film’s advantage.  In a world where surface appearances hide the unexpected truth, it only makes sense that a mild college professor would look like Kirk Douglas.

My favorite wife was Lorna Mae (Linda Darnell), who grew up next to the train tracks and who pursues and eventually married a wealthy, older man (Paul Douglas).  It was impossible for me not to relate to and even admire Lorna Mae.  Much like me, Lorna Mae was determined to get what she wanted.  Perhaps my favorite scene with Lorna Mae was when she blatantly did everything possible to get stuffy old Paul Douglas to look at her legs, largely because I’ve done the exact same thing on occasion.

A Letter To Three Wives is an entertaining and witty film that still holds up today.  Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz deservedly won the Best Director Oscar for his work here.  The film itself was nominated for best picture but lost to All The King’s Men.  I actually happen to like All The King’s Men but, if I had been an Academy voter in 1949, my vote would have totally gone to A Letter To Three Wives.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #13: Rebecca (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Rebecca_1940_film_poster

Well, here we are, less than a week into Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, and I’m already running behind!  The plan, as I mentioned back on Monday, is to review 128 melodramatic films over the next three weeks.  And, even though I know that sounds a like a lot, I had it all planned out so that I’d be able to get all that done in just 21 days.  All I had to do was make sure that I reviewed 6 films a day.

And …

Well, life happened.

But no matter!  It may now take me 3 and a half weeks to review 128 films but that’s no great tragedy.  And besides, regardless of how long it takes, I’ve got some pretty good films scheduled.

Take, for instance, the 1940 best picture winner Rebecca.

Rebecca is a film that all women can relate to.  The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine.  I say “heroine” because we never actually learn the character’s name, nor do we learn much about her background.  When we first see her, she’s defined by her job, which is to basically be a paid companion to a wealthy woman.  Later, she’s defined by her whirlwind romance with the brooding and aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  When, after two weeks, they get married, she becomes known  as the second Mrs. de Winter.  She becomes defined by both who she married and who she is not.

She’s not Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter.

As soon as Maxim takes his new wife to his estate, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she’ll always live in the shadow of the deceased Rebecca.  Everyone she meets describes Rebecca as being a vibrant, lively figure — in other words, the complete opposite of the meek second Mrs. de Winter.  The coldly imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s room and makes little attempt to hide the scorn that she feels for the second Mrs. de Winter.  Even worse, once they return to the estate, Maxim reveals himself to be moody and tempermental.  With the help of the manipulative Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim will never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.

Making things even more complicated, a man claiming to be Rebecca’s cousin comes by the house when Maxim is away.  Jack Flavell (played by George Sanders, at his most serpent-like) suggests that there may have been more to Rebecca’s death than the second Mrs. de Winter was originally told…

Rebecca is a classic film, for many reasons.  It’s well-acted, with Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Sanders all bringing their characters to vibrant life.  It’s a gothic romance.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a mystery.  It is the epitome of old Hollywood style.  But, for me, the main reason that Rebecca is a classic is because it tells a story to which almost everyone can relate.  Every relationship that I’ve ever had, I’ve always been curious and occasionally even jealous of who came before me.  There’s nothing more intimidating than living in the shadow of someone who you will never get a chance to meet personally.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities are everyone’s insecurities and, in some fashion or another, we’ve all had a Mrs. Danvers in our life.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s struggles are our struggles and, as she grows stronger, the viewer grows stronger with her.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time but he never won a directing Oscar.  Rebecca was the only one of his films to win Best Picture.  Producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to direct Rebecca and it’s been reported that Hitchcock resented Selznick’s interference.  (And, while Rebecca is undoubtedly a good film that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film in the way that Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, or Vertigo are Hitchcock films.)  As a result, Hitchcock subsequently made it a point to edit future pictures in camera so that the studios would not be able to re-edit his films.

But, whether you consider it to be a Hitchcock picture or a Selznick production, Rebecca remains a wonderfully watchable melodrama.