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.

 

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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.