DEATH IN A CLOSET: MARIE WINDSOR IN THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

The single light bulb of interrogation now shines on Marie Windsor as Mrs. Frankie Neall in the model B classic picture  THE NARROW MARGIN (1952).  The  subject is the  Femme  Fatale.  The term Femme Fatale is defined loosely as “a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations.”  Film Noir is a literal breeding ground for this type of woman ranging from Lizabeth Scott (TOO LATE FOR TEARS), Jane Greer (OUT OF THE PAST), Barbara Stanwyck (DOUBLE INDEMNITY) and personal favorite Claire Trevor in BORN TO KILL.    THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) features one of the best both for  venom and poignancy.

 

To have one actor shine you must have a second actor doing their job well. It is a give and  take situation with actors; letting the other have  a moment.  In film, that becomes the  closeup or not making movement to steal a scene. Charles McGraw as Det. Sgt. Walter Brown plays brilliantly  with Marie Windsor as wife of hood Frankie Neall whose testimony is needed concerning  pay off operations. Mrs, Neall carries her late husband’s secret  list and since it contains important pay off names, naturally, certain parties will do anything to stop her from getting to her destination.  Sgt. Brown is reluctantly pressed into protecting her solo on a  train trip after his long time partner Sgt. Gus  Forbes (Don Beddoe) is gunned down on the stairs of a  tenement house during Mrs. Neall’s pick-up to the station.

Charles McGraw, in his trademark growl,  gives the character of Mrs. Frankie Neall one of the best intros to a character in all of the genre: even before the audience meets her.  Driving to the initial meeting, Sgt. Brown (McGraw) remarks that he already knows what she is like before they see  each other.  His partner (Beddoe) is mystified by Brown’s ‘special power’ since no one has met her yet.   Testy Sgt. Brown tells him that, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”  This rich line sets  up the audience for what is to come.

 

The policeman guarding Mrs. Frankie Neall is relived to get away from this duty.  Forbes asks if the music they hear is for welcome. The policeman says  “YUu don’t know how welcome. Turn that thing off.  Your escorts here.”   Director Richard Fleisher cuts to a shot of the figure looking up from the phonograph with  the requisite dangling cigarette and with smoke rising she moves to the men.  After an introduction that they are from Los Angeles,  she says, “How nice. How is  Los Angeles?” then looks at Brown and blows smoke in his face asking if  his “sunburn  wore off,” giving him a lingering smirk stare.

Mrs. Frankie Neal is dressed in a tight, white, patterned party dress which shows off Marie  Windsor.  She has the classic dark hair of the  evil woman in Victorian literature with a very  expressive face with cheek bones and eyes that will give you that “thousand yard stare” or  put you into more pleasurable pursuits.  Mrs. Neall argues  that she can pack her own things and is reluctant to go with them since  she is “taking a big chance.”  She is an independent woman who will not easily go with anyone or anything.   She even lets the list drop instead of placing it in Sgt Brown’s out stretched hand in another mark of contempt for the proceedings; yet she knows  she has to go.

The plans change with the  death of Sgt. Brown’s partner. On the train the two become travelling husband and  wife. Sgt. Brown and Mrs. Frankie Neal snipe at each other in the car going to the train as Brown wonders what he will tell Forbe’s wife.  Hard as nails Mrs. Frankie Neal says, “It’s fine  protection an old man who walks right into it an a weeper.”  No sentiment at all, only her life and getting to the destination.  Once on the  train, the two become dependent on one another. More so  when they find that one  of the killers is on the  train.   In many of the scenes Brown and Mrs. Neal  are so close  they could smell each other’s  breath, undoubtedly due to the small sets of this  B  picture plus they are in a train compartment.   Still, that proximity makes it possible for  a hint of romantic  entanglement which may or may not happen.

Brown wants Mrs. Neall to stay out of sight in the compartment. This forces him to bring her food and relieve her boredom.   Playing the portable phonograph and  playing solitaire are her only amusements.   Mrs. Neall doesn’t dress to  not attract attention either as she attires herself in a black (almost) peignoir type  gown and  jewelry .  This is a  woman not comfy with hiding or being told what to do. She is accustomed to standing up for herself and undeniably told to look beautiful to be  on the arm of a mobster.   Neall is accustomed  to being the center of attention, hence she  gives it  to Brown verbally when he meets  assorted characters and blonde  train passenger Jacquelyn  White (Ann Sinclair) and her precocious  son in the  dining car. This delays Brown bringing back her meal.  She is none too happy about the delay.

 

Subtle moments  of  jealousy on the surface from  Mrs Neall toward Jacqueline  White and Brown’s involvement  with her.  Is it  a reflection of  a love/hate or  in this case  to keep the focus on  herself and the business  at hand?  The killers are on the train and they know where she is. They will make a move as the destination gets closer and times more desperate.  The change of heart, a change of direction, identities  revealed,  and a desperate reach inside a closet all come into play in something that is not  what it seems.

Marie  Windsor is towering in THE NARROW MARGIN (1952).   She invests the role of  Mrs. Frankie Neall with a desperation and purpose which may seem over the top at times.  She is a  flirt with men; especially Brown, and  ready to flash those eyes in any direction.  She is proud and wants to live most likely more than ever, yet she draws  both Forbes and Brown into her orbit, leading to tragedy.

 

Marie Windsor, who was born Emily Marie Bertleson, was  in many noir and B pictures. She became  their queen, much like later fifties science fiction queen  Beverly Garland. Windsor  is  variations of the  role, but none quite hit the temperature of Mrs. Frankie Neall, due to the fact she had the brilliant Charles McGraw to play against in scenes of  venom and caustic cynicism. Brown and  Mrs. Neall  are classic trapped’ figures moving literally toward a fate.

The closest Marie Windsor  id  get to this level was as the  scheming wife  Sherry Beatty with eternal fall guy Elisha Cook Jr. in Stanley Kubrick’s  THE KILLING (1956).

THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) is all the more richer  for the work of Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, and  a host of characters that move  in  and out of their influence. Brown has punch-ups similar to those in the James Bond picture FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), and absentmindedly going in the  wrong sleeping berth to having  Jacqueline White’s child spot his  gun in his jacket.  It is all part of this trip with killers on the loose.  Every train must reach its destination and this one  does at a station in a way few would expect.

 

 

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FISHNETS AND CIGARETTES: An Opinion on Rock and Roll, Youth and the Movies

Gone were the days of the Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney musicals with kids saving their farm, their home, their malt shoppe. Or something.  The sounds of “bobby soxer’ Frank Sinatra (who changed himself to record some of his biggest songs) changed to Bobby Darrin, Fabian, and others with that curled up lip, smoldering smile and sporting a cowlick. Women were not left out as Brenda Lee, and Connie Francis brought the new and controversial sound of rock and roll forward. Leading them all was, of course, Elvis Presley.

Rock and roll has been a key ingredient since Bill Halley first told us to rock around the clock. Films of this style, along with the beach movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Elvis Presley, even BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018),  gave the people what they wanted to see.  The movies, which were sometimes “B” pictures, were often the first and sometimes only time people would see these performers.   They packed the theaters, sending kids to record shops afterward to buy 45s and later LPs.   You wrote some sort of a story, blended in songs like a musical and you had the new youth market.

 

 

 

The other side of these pictures is that they cross into exploitation film with the story of the juvenile delinquent. This was sometimes a leather jacketed, motor cycle riding girl or guy who can play a guitar. Film genres with titles like HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR, HOT ROD GIRLS, and the films of Mamie Van Doran became the motorcycle films of Peter Fonda, early John Cassavetes ,  and Bruce Dern.  The genre mutated with EASY RIDER (1969) and the advent of ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).

 

The mockumentary style of Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) lends itself to authenticity and fun.  While it is a strong film in that it has appeal (it gives us a slice of the absurdity of rock and roll), it doesn’t give us a sense of the danger and consequence of our actions.

There is a price for everything. The dark horse choice for this style is SID AND NANCY  (1986).

SID AND NANCY was made in 1986 by Alex Cox with two unknown actors and true events that played out in the media at that time. The result is an experience that leaves a taste of metallic bitterness in your eyes.    It features  tour de force acting performances by Gary Oldman  ( chemically altered, perhaps?) and  Chloe Webb as the doomed lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.  People will say that their mannerisms were excessive yet so is dangerous rock and roll music that teeters on the edge of violence, illicit behaviour and societal change. It pisses off people like your parents because you want something of your own.

Cox uses startling images of faraway expressions as Sid and Nancy watch their dreams of stardom unravel in the reality of no acceptance.  The best and most telling is the long slow motion kiss in the alley way as the trash falls slowly downward. These people are garbage to everyone except one another.

Characters grapple with delusional fame in a pitiful attempt to gain acceptance and show that they are worth something.  Rock and roll music is the background to all this with its deals, eccentric ways of doing business and general sanctioned lawlessness.

The film features a version of the Frank Sinatra tune “MY WAY,” which the real Sid Vicious did record and release.  Brilliant choice of song since its selection bridges a gap between the old and the new. It is also a statement of individuality.  Oldman turns a pistol on the audience in a chilling moment that was edited out of some prints.  He also points it directly to the camera in what could be an accidental homage to the sequence in the ground breaking western THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).

Youth pictures by American International Studios and  Columbia included DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK (1957), ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (1956) and other titles that sported rock and roll, girls, guys and bewildered parents.

Exploration film done by independent companies and  some questionable film makers  such as  Russ Meyer and his seminal cool  picture  FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL (1965) rose to fill the drive in culture and seedy movie houses.  Trash was cool.

Pictures of this style I enjoyed were Richard Lester’s HARD DAYS NIGHT (1964), CONTROL  (2007) (directed by Anton Corbijn),  Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS (1991) and Franc Rodam’s  QUADROPHENIA (1979) and Claude Whatam’s THAT’LL BE THE DAY (1973).

Music is a part of all these pictures.  Yet, it is the stories that they tell – either of an era or a dream – that makes them not just musicals.    A STAR IS BORN went from Janet Gaynor to Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand now to Lady Gaga with different musical styles. proving the story is universal along with music.  Rock music today has splintered into groups of fans and many different genres similar to today’s film world.  The music, film and now television and the internet tread a path toward occasional seismic change. That is what keeps it vital.

HOLLYWOODLAND (2006)

Connecting truth, scandal, fabrication and lies are a huge guilty pleasure that gets the audience thinking, talking and yes, writing. Hollywood loves to take a look at itself in complimentary and not so complimentary ways.  Pictures such as  WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD (1932) ,  SOULS FOR SALE  (1923), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950),  THE BAD AND  BEAUTIFUL (1952), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950),  the vicious DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975), BARTON FINK (1991), THE PLAYER (1992),  and MATINEE (1993).  The list goes on.   The  2006 Focus Features picture HOLLYWOODLAND enters onto that list with a  difference: it is an inquiring, sympathetic look at the death of fifties SUPERMAN TV star George Reeves. That “solved” incident is connected with our friends from the E. J. Fleming book THE FIXERS at MGM: none other than Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling.

HOLLYWOODLAND  (2006), which was shot in California and Ontario, Canada, using many Canadian actors in supporting roles, features Adrian Brody as the fictional Lewis Simo. He is a cheap private investigator operating out of a motor court with his girlfriend Kit Holliday (Caroline Dhavernas).

Simo is taking money from a client, Chester Sinclair (Larry Cedar), whose wife is having ‘unauthorized carnal relations.’   Simo says all the right gumshoe phrases, offers Sinclair a shoulder yet no solution. He gladly talks Sinclair’s cash fee for expenses with a straight face. Sinclair leaves the motor court and Simo sheepishly says ‘ that it’s money’ when Kit says that the whole thing isn’t  right.   Simo visits his ex-wife Laurie (Molly Parker) and learns that their son is upset over the recent  death of Superman.  Simo finds  his son Evan (Zach Mills) tossing things around in their backyard when he goes to drive him to school.  Laurie tells him that all the  children are upset at the death of Superman.

Simo tries to reason with Evan on the way to school, giving him an Etch- a- Sketch drawing machine as a gift. It is tossed away.   Simo then says  in a  wonderful bit of  dialogue  to his son that ‘That astronauts, cowboys and people like that that one sees are not real.”   Evan knows but it doesn’t stop him from staring out the window as they drive.

After  dropping Evan off at school Simo heads to a  diner where he meets  a former  police colleague to get a lead on something they won’t  touch.   Simo gets razzed about  not being a real detective yet gets fee the headline of  George Reeves’ suicide that is screaming out of the paper. The police will not touch it because it is close to MGM ,who have closed the case.    Simo launches himself into the case as he senses a large payoff.

The picture unfolds in a series of  flashbacks in the neo noir style where we meet George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and follow his career in show business and his romance  with  Tonie Mannix (Diane Lane).  Solid  on screen chemistry between Lane and  Affleck as  they flirt themselves to dinner, a  walk, a  cuddle  and into bed after meeting  at a party.  Reeves  wakes up the next morning and realizes he has slept with wife of  Eddie Mannix. The Eddie Mannix who runs MGM studio.  This fact does not sit well for his career or so he thinks.

The relationship grows and Reeves auditions for a cheap television show called SUPERMAN which he doesn’t think will last but it’s money.

The picture moves  back to the present with Simo convincing  Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) that she should pursue the truth by getting the right headline in bold type.  Bessolo is convinced her  son did not commit suicide and  agrees to pay Simo to find the truth. She can only pay by cheque, though.

The investigation and Reeves’  career and  relationship with Tonie Mannix  go back and forth in a non confusing pattern to the story.    The picture reaches  a  conclusion that is somewhat ambiguous, but it was dealing with the actual events.  Along the way we  meet a series of  interesting characters like Reeves’ manager  Art Weisman, played  with style  by Jeffery DeMunn.  The actor may appear to be a cliche  manager; he is always fast talking  with a smooth, almost friendly approach that I think is a blend of  people like Lew Wasserman who ruled  Hollywood after the  studio system’s collapse

Robin Tunney does a  funny and aggressive  turn as Lenore Lemon. She was  the  woman that broke up  Reeves and  Tonie Mannix.  Lemon is a gold  digging, dark haired woman in the femme fatale tradition.  Tunney plays her with gusto and  open sexuality in clothes and manners representative of ‘party girls’ that attended  functions to be with them and perhaps  get money or  recognition.

 

Ben Affleck does  well as  George Reeves. He apparently threw himself into research for the role.  Affleck watched the entire  SUPERMAN television series, and studied Reeves’ voice patterns  in tapes and commercials.   He does an excellent job with some  minor makeup additions to his face to look like Reeves, particularly in the credits of  the  SUPERMAN television series.  Affleck later said he took the role because it was a broken character, plus it distanced him from the large budget pictures he had been cast in before.

A tension filled moment happens when Reeves,  in a live action stunt as  Superman is confronted by a  child who  unwittingly points  a real gun at him, wanting to see the bullets  bounce off.  Interestingly,  both Lane as Martha Kent and Affleck as  Bruce Wayne/Batman would connect in another superhero drama,  JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017).

Diane Lane shine as Tonie Mannix with laughter, a beguiling smile, wonderful  face and  eyes  that seem to dig right into Affleck on screen.  Lane  wears the clothes well, as do all the actors.  Tonie Mannix  was a former  dancer. It was a shame that that was not put into the screenplay.

Bob Hoskins as  Eddie Mannix and Joe Spano as Howard Strickling absolutely steal the show.  Hoskins is tough and coarse, almost  Tony Soprano like in his physicality and voice. Mannix was connected and this maybe an exaggeration.  Hoskins jumps out of one particular scene  when Reeves, Tonie, Mannix and his Asian mistress are at dinner. Reeves tries to engage Mannix’s mistress in conversation when Mannix growls at him not to talk to her.  When Reeves inquires as to why Mannix tells him with a wry smile that she  doesn’t  know  English.

Joe Spano also comes  across  as  the smooth yet direct Howard Strickling whose job is  to make things right when something prevents one person from buying a  ticket to a  film.  Spano’s  Strickling is smooth and erudite with a hint  of menace. He is someone who does his job with ruthless precision.  Hoskins and  Spano both make the best of  limited  screen time, which makes what they do more interesting.

The key scene, and  you can take from it what you will, is between Mannix and Tonie.   Tonie has just told Eddie that Reeves is leaving her. Mannix tells her  that she is lovely and he will do anything to protect her happiness.  HOLLYWOODLAND  shows three examples of  Simo’s possible investigation by presenting three ways  that  Reeves may have  died.  Each is different, some  conjecture, but they are presented as ideas of what might have happened.

HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) was helmed by  television director  Allan Coulter who replaced Mark and Michael Polish. They were up and coming filmmakers who worked  with actors James Woods and Nick Nolte on successful Festival Feature NORTHFORK (2003) and the Billy Bob Thornton feature THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (2006).

Facts are changed, characters are written in and events  are  condensed in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006). The facts  are that Mannix  did have  a wife named  Tonie who had numerous  affairs of which he had  full knowledge and encouraged. Mannix  encouraged them because  it made Tonie happy.   Mannix also had an Asian mistress among others, all with full knowledge of his  wife.

HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) is as entertaining as the historical fiction or fact books one finds on the  shelves.  Symbolism abounds  with what we do for money, also that we  don’t listen to people or really know what they do.  How much to we  really know people is brought  out with a moment between Kit and Simo at night.  Simo really doesn’t know what Kit can do or  what she is capable of.

If one watches HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) for the well paced action, the characters, brilliant wardrobe plus cars and  a story of what might have happened without hitting one  with conclusion over the head then it is enjoyment.  Reeve’s death is  still a true  event in Hollywood history that has been officially solved. Or has it?

THE EASIEST WAY (1931)

I have a film going weakness for the early talkies.  There is something naive yet fun to watch in these pictures:  the  Vitaphone System title for  Warner Brothers/ First National and, the propeller aircraft going around the globe for Universal, or the single title card with with all the “players” listed along with the title and director.  You might get a star in an early role or one having their (Helen Twelvetrees, Ruth Chatterton, Winnie Lightner) last hurrah as their career faded when Hollywood moved on.   Fitting into this  is MGM’s  THE EASIEST WAY (1931) with Constance Bennett,  Robert Montgomery, Adolphe Menjou and  an early pivotal role for Clark Gable.

The picture was  directed by hard drinking, womanizing “man’s man” Jack Conway, who was part of the group around Clark Gable, along with  Victor Fleming, Spencer Tracey and a  few others.   Conway wasn’t a creative director along the lines of  John Huston, but his work was making  efficiently entertaining dramas . There were some minor masterpieces such as  LIBELED LADY (1936).

THE EASIEST WAY (1931) opens with the Murdock family as they rise for the morning in their poor tenement house.   Laura Murdock(Constance  Bennett) works hard to help her family along with her  father Ben (J. Farrell MacDonald) and her mother Agnes  (Clara Blandick).   Younger sister Peg ( Anita Page) is in love with ambitious laundry delivery man Nick Feliki (Clark Gable).  Ben Murdock encourages  Peg to marry Nick.    Laura rejects a marriage proposal from a suitor  to take up with wealthy William Brockton (Adolphe Menjou), whom she meets  from behind the counter of her sales job.  Brockton hires her for  modeling jobs at his advertising agency. The relationship blossoms into expensive gifts and a move to his luxury apartment. Months go by and Laura’s mother starts to notice she is working at night more often and has pricey clothes  and  arrives back in a chauffeured car.  Laura visits the now married sister Peg to see their child; only to be asked to leave by Nick when he demands to know how she gets her money.

This is a precode society drama that features  Laurie’s rise in life as she becomes involved  with men such as newspaper man Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery).  He promises to marry her after  she leaves Brockton.   That does not go to well in the  film and changes happen. Through the film is the delightful world weary  gold digger Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau), who provides Laura with support, advice and  a  view of what her life will be as she has  lived it herself.   Laura asks her  for rent money when she leaves Brockton.  Elfie has none to spare and calls her a fool for waiting for Madison to come back from South America.

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Conway covers the action and story well  in THE EASIEST WAY (1931), particularly when showing the tenement house in the beginning. The camera does a  lovely tracking shot as  the  various folk rise or  don’t rise  and  get themselves  ready for their day.  In one shot you get the atmosphere as  you see the bric- a brac, the washboards, and the clothes hanging everywhere in the cramped  quarters.   Conway contrasts this  when  Menjou comes on screen, as he  stays in a  two shot that has wonderful detail on the story all around. Brockton sneaks a not so sneaky look at Laura’s legs from in front and  behind of the counter. The camera doesn’t have to move to get the intent.   onway also uses a  wide shot  when Brockton is in his office along with his staff to contrast the  little tenement house with the  office. The office  staff  have their backs to the camera as  Brockton gives orders to showcase his authority and money.

Constance Bennett does her best as  the sympathetic Laura Murdock who goes through life and  these events because  she has  to.   Bennett makes Laura at home in a cheaper house dress to a more expensive yet tasteful attire.  Bennett, in all her pictures, dresses  with a style  reminiscent of  Kay Francis in her  roles.  These women have style, grace, and clothes that are practically interesting and well beyond the budget of the  film audience. They were  an attraction to watch in themselves.

Clark Gable’s early role in the picture was important in establishing  his career .  Gable’s performance  as dastardly  Rance Bennett in the  William Boyd, Helen Twelvetrees Western,  THE PAINTED DESERT  (1931)was a  fan favorite.  THE EASIEST WAY (1931) showed he could handle two contrasting parts with audience favor and this led to the offer of  a contract at MGM.  Gable was still the  tough talking, righteous, hard working guy,  but you could see the  shadows of what was to come later in pictures like MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934) .

Adolphe Menjou  is his slippery self  as  the wealthy Brockton.  Menjou does these roles so well as  the  society  man with silky manners and a rattlesnake’s  heart.  Menjou wore  suits well,  had  the mustache,  the manners and was impeccably groomed in this one. It was reminiscent  of his role  as  “Paul Mollett” in JOURNAL OF A CRIME (1934), in which he  menaces  Ruth Chatterton and  Claire Dodd over a paper.

Clara Blandick, who plays Laura’s Mother Agnes Murdock, is barely recognizable as  she would have  screen immortality as Auntie Em in  WIZARD OF OZ (1939).  Blandick was  a stage actress who became a character actress in film.   Blandick was one of the many faces in the  background or small roles in  major films.  She suffered from poor health after her appearance in KEY TO THE CITY (1950) with Gable and Loretta Young as   mayors at a convention.  In 1962,  Blandick  went to church in Hollywood, returned home and wrote a note to her friends saying she was going on the “greatest adventure of her life.” She then took an overdose of sleeping pills and put a plastic bag over her head. Clara Blandick was 85 years old.

THE  EASIEST WAY (1931) is enjoyable due to the performances in a  tight, well done picture for its time. The script is from a play  by Edith Ellis and was  thought to be more dangerous than the David Belasco Broadway stage hit. Several studios tried to get a version done even after it was  filmed as a silent feature  in 1917.  The  Hays office offered many objections and projects were abandoned. You can still see those precode moments in the picture, especially in the beginning, with slight nudity and the attitude of the women who want to marry for money instead of love.

 

THE FIXERS: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine (Book review)

  • Paperback: 315 pages
  • Publisher: McFarland Publishing (Nov. 30 2004)

Hollywood’s morals (or lack of)  have long been with us as we discover even today. I have been interested in that part of Hollywood for a long time and wanted to find out more.  Hence, I got myself a copy of E.J. Fleming’s book  THE  FIXERS: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity machine.  I have already been through Kenneth Anger’s  HOLLYWOOD  BABYLON  volumes with their sensational photographs and  legends.   I have found that THE  FIXERS rates right up there with them in content and prose minus the full spread photos.

This book doesn’t present the story of Mannix and Strickland but simple  a catalogue of events and scandals.  MGM had what was called the”Special Services Department,” which took care of all manner of matters for stars and studio personnel.  It has been written it was this department that was involved in a potential cover up of Jean Harlow’s husband Paul Bern in 1932. Mayer and others from the studio were on the crime scene before the police had arrived, to tamper with evidence and plant a ‘suicide’ note.  This department of the studio could not have done this on its own – it needed complicity with police forces. It had sweeping powers.

Special Services provided a cushion from everyday life for those that worked at MGM; including those attending the studio school.  Other studios had versions of this department, often with newspaper people and the current rendition of the gossip columnist, who were given exclusive stories by meeting, talking to or ferreting out stories for the public’s insatiable appetite for Hollywood stars and the studio that employed them.  These people would cover up peccadilloes by providing ‘medical leave from exhaustion’ to a female star, extra, or script girl. It wouldn’t look good if the star of your latest picture about homespun American life with Mom and apple pie was seen in a drunk tank, or as Johnny Weismuller did, to have lifted a starlet up so high off the ground that her footprints were found next morning on the ceiling of a living room after a night’s frolic.

THE  FIXERS does present the  Rosco (Fatty) Arbuckle case  with sympathy for what eventually happened, even after being acquitted.  E. J. Fleming paints Virginia Rappe  as a opportunist party girl ,who, in fact, had  several abortions.   Virginia’s mother  was complicit with studio heads  Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor in setting the evening’s  events up to get money, since the studio felt that Arbuckle was being paid too much.

THE  FIXERS also makes claims that  Louis B Mayer  had  affairs with practically every major female star including Swanson, Harlow,  and  many others.  The book also contains inaccuracies and speculations, such as  Errol Flynn being  born in New Zealand. Speculations are passable in a  book of this nature but they should be labeled as theories in the text.  THE  FIXERS  speaks dimly of law  enforcement and  the medical profession as many of those people chose to look the other way due to money or persuasion and  promises of  exclusive access.

Fun events include British Director Edmund Goulding who was a homosexual and hated by Mayer  who staged and choreographed S and M parties including one that got so out of hand two people were hospitalized in the  presence of Anita Loos.  He later hired a  prostitute to have  sex at a  Hollywood gas station so he could watch the reaction of  the mentally challenged “Gas pump’ jockey. There was  a infamous ‘Gas Station’ brothel known as  Scott’s but that was in the 1940’s and the site is long gone.

Goulding was banished the  Europe when he was also in trouble with the Law.  Irving Thalberg brought him back to MGM against Mayer’s objections and  the felony conviction.  Quite a  life I would say.

THE  FIXERS  goes  into detail about brothels owned by the studio in which clients might enjoy the company of “three month” contract starlets surgically altered or made up to look like major female  stars. These women  would often be schooled in how to talk, the lives of those stars lives and outfitted in actual wardrobe from films manufactured in a  shop in the basement.

E.J. Fleming misses  the mark with THE FIXERS by cataloging these and other events instead of  going behind and  talking about the the personal side of  Eddie Mannix and  Howard Strickland. We know that these men were powerful; often at the  right hand side of Louie B Mayer,  telling him what happened or  who sent whatever in the studio mail.   Most of these events are by people long passed on, so anything is speculation now.  It gets harder to separate the  legend from the facts, which means the real story is somewhere in between.

 

 

 

CHEERS FOR MISS BISHOP (1941)

Hollywood loved to make films about doctors, nurses, lawyers, scientists, truck drivers,  electric linemen,  oil riggers; and, of course, teachers. The noble occupation of teaching  makes one think of the various narratives: GOODBYE MISTER CHIPS (1939),  TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS (1940) and  THE BROWNING VERSION (1951).   The Tay Garrett   directed CHEERS FOR MISS BISHOP puts the writing on the board as another neglected work.

 

The story presents Martha Scott in a bravo performance as Miss Ella Bishop, who grows up to become  a teacher.  It begins when she and her childhood sweetheart Sam Peters  (William Garrgan) are older  and a series of  flashbacks tells their story. This  was  one of the first films to explore flashbacks plus narration to bring the story in to focus.    The audience finds Miss Bishop attending college, dreaming to be a teacher.

 

 

Ella meets lawyer Delbert Thompson ( Don Douglas) while locked out on the roof of the family home one snowy  evening.  Their relationship begins; however, Delbert is also fraternizing with Ella’s more precocious cousin  Amy (Mary Anderson).  This is the  conservative Midwest, so Delbert has to marry Amy while still loving Ella. Amy and Delbert move away.

 

Amy returns to the family home and Ella, who was abandoned by Delbert after she becomes pregnant.     Twists and turns, lost loves and  academic colleagues and students grow up as Ella’s life continues.   She does marry briefly,  only to have that change suddenly. The constants throughout are the students, her work and  the presence of Sam Peters.   Peters starts off with little but end up owning a grocery store. He always has a shoulder for Ella.  Peters is one  of the first in the town to buy an automobile. He keeps running over  grass and flowers with it much to torment of Chris Jensen (Sterling Holloway).

CHEERS FOR MISS BISHOP does have some similarity to GOODBYE MISTER CHIPS (1939) in the setting and  certain events, except this is from a  female point of  view and not in a  English school.   The picture also features some  subtle moments of a bumbling , awkward  student Anton Radcheck (Knox Manning), who dreams of nothing more than becoming a famous astronomer.  He does, with Ella’s encouragement early in her teaching career.   This  was the  first picture to hint at the  effect teachers have on the lives of their students.

 

 

Female student Stena (Sue Moore) , of  whom  Ella Bishop has given a chance is thought  be slow and dreams of being a librarian.  Stena is almost expelled from the  school for getting  high marks on an exam when she is suspected of cheating.  She  recites the  Declaration of Independence and  the Constitution for the  Academic Board in her nervous,  accented voice. It turns out she is gifted with photographic memory.

Martha  Scott is wonderful as  Ella Bishop. She  takes the role through from young girl to old age.   Scott and  Gargan  are aided in their roles by some of the best non- overpowering age make up by Don Cash.  Ella and  Sam age with dignity via subtle diction changes, physicality and  facial expressions.

CHEERS FOR MISS BISHOP  also marked  the  debut of  Rosemary DeCamp. She went onto be the calming mother and level headed  character in many pictures and  television series to come.

Veteran Actor  William Farnum is in a brief role as  Judge Peters. Farnum was once one  of the highest paid actors in Hollywood,  receiving the  sum of  $10,000 from William Fox  during the mid twenties.  Farnum also played the role of Ben Hur on  stage for  five years. When he passed away, pallbearers  at his  funeral included Cecil B DeMille, Jesse Lasky, Clarence Brown, Frank Lloyd,  Leo Carillo and  Charles Coburn The eulogy was delivered by Pat O Brien.

CHEERS FOR MISS  BISHOP  was edited by Willam F. Claxton, who had  a huge career as an editor in film and later on in television. He worked on BONANZA, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, HIGH CHAPARRAL and  many others

CHEERS  FOR  MISS BISHOP is  a sanitized version in the Hollywood style of treading the  right path.  Uplifting? Yes, for the  time and the world situation in 1941. Good performances by both Martha Scott  and William Gargan, along with many smaller portraits of  students and characters  intertwined  throughout their lives.   The picture was nominated  for an Academy award for best musical score.  The constant is friendship and tragic love between  Ella  and Sam; yet it is one that sustains them both through the years.  You wonder what might have been.

 

 

 

TITANIC (1953)

James Cameron’s mega budget picture aside, the sinking of the  Titanic, first and foremost, is a human story. The sinking of the unsinkable has been filmed many times,  beginning in silent film to the definitive British production A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958).   Director Jean Negulesco’s  version of the story sits as a bridge to the British film with some surprises.

TITANIC (1953) can be characterized as a  soap opera style picture.  A one line summary I found said,  “People bicker about their lives, then the boat sinks.” Simplistic view; yes, but as I  have said before it is the execution of the idea that is important.

The cast is a  wonderful combination of characters from Clifton Webb as millionaire Richard Ward Sturges, who is determined to be on the Titanic to stop his wife Julia  (played  by Barbara Stanwyck) from taking their children to Europe.

 

The picture also features young Robert Wagner as college lothario Gifford “Giff” Rogers, who finds himself wooing  Sturge’s  daughter Annette, played by Audrey Dalton.     Richard  wants to spend time with his son  Norman (Harper Carter),  who still idolizes  him.  The family drama gave the epic story a  different look when in the opening moments Sturges tries to buy his way onto the ship only to find it is sold out, so he  finds offers money to a passenger in steerage class going with his family.

 

The immaculately groomed rich guy finds himself below deck with the people who carry their belongings in boxes.   They sing and dance  to simple music while the others dance and eat in the ballrooms above.   While walking on deck (he has to sneak up), Sturges meets an old friend who is surprised he is there and  gives him access  to his wardrobe.

 

 

Sturge’s daughter Annette  finds out about her mother’s  intentions of going to Europe to stay and rebels by seeing  good old college boy  Giff Rodgers and his  crazy friends. Wagner performs (not sure if voice was  dubbed) a silly song with his friends on the  deck to woo the standoffish Annette. Norman wants  to bond with his father  and the  two get involved in games as a team aboard ship. This gets  disrupted when Julia tells Richard  that Norman is not his son. Richard then snaps at him, ignores his requests, looks on him  sleeping with disdain, and wants nothing to do with him.

The crew of the ship is presented in  diligent fashion. Brian Aherne takes a bow as  Captain Edward Smith; a stiff officer to protocol and  duty yet with a human side to his officers.  One  gets to see  the boiler room  in all its steamy, brutal glory, of men shoveling coal and the other inner workings of the  ship in detail.

Richard Basehart is booze loving “Man of God’ George S. Healey who is returning home after quitting his studies. Basehart, whose hairstyle never changes in any picture, no matter the role, has some good moments as  he spouts philosophy to Julia while standing on deck against a rail.   Healey also tries to dictate a cable message  in the  signal room while morosely drunk, only to crash out in befuddlement.

 

 

Thelma Ritter had the role Maude  Young  especially written for her in the picture.  Young is a wise cracking, card playing  woman who smokes  rather then be  a  more sedate  woman.   The  role was  based on  Molly (Margaret) Brown who was a real life survivor of  the Titanic voyage  and later played by Debbie Reynolds in the musical THE UNSINKABLE  MOLLY BROWN (1964).

Icebergs  abound  and procedure is followed with precision  yet the inevitable happens.  “Women and  Children first!” is  the  cry on decks as Norman, in a poignant gesture, gives up his lifeboat seat  to a terrified older woman. That woman was  played by film veteran Mae Marsh, who was in  INTOLERANCE (1916) and BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Samuel Goldwyn signed her for twenty five hundred dollars  a  week and  gave her the moniker “The Whim Girl.”  Marsh’s career was  a disappointment and  she retired in 1918. She had to return to screen as she was  financially wiped  out by the  crash of 1929.  Marsh found film work, usually in uncredited roles, in North America  and Europe.  She became  part of the John Ford company.  He was her favorite director, and she appeared in several of his films:  THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) , HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, (1941) MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) and  THE  QUIET MAN (1952).  She also had a role in the 1954 version of  A STAR IS BORN.

TITANIC (1953) has been criticized for it special effects  model work.   Many have said the work looks inadequate on screen,like a “Naval tragedy taking place in a  Central Park pond’.”  The effects work for the time, although the film does not show that the Titanic split in two when it sank. The split of the  ship  had  yet to be  proved as the  wreckage was  not discovered until 1985.

Barbara Stanwyck’s career was in transition during the fifties.  She began to grace  television more and more, even if she did play opposite Elvis Presley in ROUSTABOUT (1964).  She gives  a strong, sensitive performance; particularly when she  confesses  that Norman is not the couple’s  son.   Stanwyck was overcome by uncontrollable tears during filming as  she found looking into the faces of the actors as they stood on the set of the sinking ship tragic.   Robert Wagner also disclosed that the  two began a brief  affair after  filming was  over.

 

 

TITANIC (1953) handles itself  well for the time. Director Jean Negulesco  uses  sweeping camera movements,  tilted  angles and claustrophobic  sets in corridors  and rooms  to tell a  story of people put in this situation.   The story was based on facts that were later  discarded.  The picture  won the Academy Award  for  Best Original Screenplay and  was nominated for a  Directors Guild  award  in 1953.   TITANIC (1953) is a solid if historically inaccurate look at an event well familiar to the big screen.