VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945)

The scope of large events such as war can be hard for people to grasp. History is usually  written by the victors.  Hence,  VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945),  in the  USA (A. K. A.  PERFECT STRANGERS) presents the watcher with a low key, intimate view of ordinary people who undergo a personal  cataclysm.    The picture was directed and  produced  by  Alexander Korda, using  Metro’s  U.K. production facilities. This in and of itself gives the film a different look; best characterised as a portrait of a married couple that you look at  with some indifference, till you notice  a humanity and  vulnerability.

The script was  penned by  Clemence Dane, who won an Academy award for  the original screen play from his story,  with help from Anthony Pelissier.   Mr Pelissier was an actor in the thirties with perhaps his best writing credit  being  THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949).

VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) tells the story of  a ordinary,  drab couple named Robert and Cathy Wilson, who  join the military in England. Robert joins the Royal Navy and Cathy is called up by the Wrens.  The picture follows their exploits to the  end when they both decide that  they no longer want to be married.    This plot may seem similar to many romantic war time pictures, however, the sheer subtlety of the story, the  brilliant acting, and, in  the best cases,  non-acting, make film this a  treat.

Robert Wilson is played by Robert Donat, who had  great success in the title role of  GOODBYE MISTER CHIPS (1939) and the  classic THE 39 STEPS (1935).  Mr. Donat perfects the regimented  English man building on his  role as ‘Chips.’  Wilson has  the same breakfast each day, checks the barometer by tapping it,  and receives his  umbrella from Cathy on the same arm.   Donat  is a combination of  Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, both ‘masters of props;’ creating little bits of business for their role that is not in the script.  This creative process takes disciplined  indulgence by a  director to allow it  to happen and be seen in the final print.  Although usually a hallmark of theater actors,  a few film actors of the time had the ability to do small things that we remember,  such as the James Cagney walk and shoulder shrugs.  Humphrey Bogart’s hand placement held like a ‘rat’ in front of himself as Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED  FOREST  (1936). Modern examples would be  Warren Beatty repeatedly  flipping a single wooden match in his mouth as he is baited by Faye Dunaway  in BONNY AND CLYDE (1967).    

Actors prosper in a role when they are given something to play against.   Strong acting is the battle of  give and take in a scene or  a moment. Often, it is body position, movement and  “acting still,” which is hard to do.  This gives the other actor the moment that can be crucial to a  story. Spencer Tracy spent a  key  scene with his  head  down, saying dialogue with Ernest Borgnine standing almost over him in  BAD  DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) and  takes the scene in a  subtle way.

 

Cathy Wilson is played by Deborah Kerr in her M.G.M debut. Cathy caters  to Robert by not wearing lipstick or makeup.

She  even remarks  to a  new female friend in her barracks,Dizzy Clayton (Glynis Johns) that she won’t  smoke because Robert doesn’t like it.  Robert and Cathy are trapped in their own routines with his being the office and hers being their apartment.  They suffer  disappointment when an expected  bonus of having Robert’s service salary possibly being topped  up by the accounting firm he works at; only to find he is several months short of the cut off.   The managing director states, “A rule is a rule.”

Cathy and Robert grow in different directions as  they meet other people.  They both find  lonely people in their own way such as  Robert meeting Elena (Ann Todd),  a  widowed nurse with whom he learns to dance with .

Cathy meets and  goes out socially with  a man called Richard (Roland Culver). Richard is an engineer who draws and sketches, has anecdotes and  take her  on picnics, knowing she is married.

The military service  changes them as  Robert goes  from being a sea sick newbie who can’t eat to a Petty Officer.  Cathy dances, wears  lipstick , changes her  hair style and  smokes.  She also goes on dangerous messenger duty in a  small powerboat under  fire to deliver a  military order when radios  fail.

The two get a  ten day pass to meet  for the first time in several months.    Life can change you and it does not have to be a war.

VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) features effective battle scenes especially at night and aboard  ship.  One gets to see  the details of life aboard such as  hammocks above the  mess table.

The uniforms  worn are  correct  down to the decorations,  and cap and uniform patterns for both men and women.  Women wear pants in this film along with  a tunic and cap to sail.  You get a warmth from the people in the picture as  they joke  and interact with personality that could be caricatures meant to boost morale.

 

VACATION FROM MARRIAGE (1945) is effective as  you watch the subtle change of Cathy and Robert, and those around them.  Humphrey Bogart as  Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA (1942)  once  said

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… . 

The troubles of  two little people  are wonderfully handled  in this picture  with tour de force acting bringing a  world of  one couple to  life and change.

 

 

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FOXY BROWN (1974)

Classic film is not confined to black and white pictures of the ” Golden Age.” Many were  glorious imitations of what has been done before,  and that is comforting. You will find occasional seismic changes such as the Production Code altering the precode  era to the advent of post war film noir.  What became known as  Blaxplotation film gave way  in the upheaval of  the early seventies with a push from people who are not represented even today  fairly and justly in film.  The very best of these, if not without controversy,  was FOXY BROWN (1974),  along with BLACK CAESAR (1973). They kicked the doors in.

Hey man ..give me five…. don’t give me the jive because FOXY BROWN is alive? Yes.. dust off  those white bell bottoms with the tight waist, toss on a patterned shirt and some jewelry that will tip the average persons head over onto their chest and get ready because Jack Hill’s 1974 urban violent Blaxplotation hit film is on blu-ray.  Oh yes, and did I mention it’s set to a cool funky soundtrack by Willie Hutch well before the style was readily available?

FOXY BROWN ( 1974), along with SHAFT (1971), and COFFEY (1973) were three essential pillars of what was known as Blaxplotation film.  While not exactly a politically correct term, Blaxplotation supposedly was coined by Mario Van Peebles for a series of pictures that allowed Black actors and actresses to do the same thing that white actors at the time were doing in films such as DIRTY HARRY (1971),  MAGNUM FORCE (1973) ,  MACON COUNTY LINE (1974) , and the Charlie Bronson DEATHWISH series.   These pictures were targeted for the urban marginalized markets in inner cities who could identify with the people, settings, and situations.  I would suggest that the genesis goes farther back to Russ Meyer’s female empowerment film with guns and fast cars; that masterpiece of cool, FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL (1965).   Director Jack Hill has the formula going here: the car chase, the drug lords, and the kidnapping and abuse of the lead character. It is how FOXY BROWN does it that is different and stylish.

This film starts with a street hustler named Link Brown, (Antonio Vargas), cringing in a bar full of police officers. He’s trying to wait out a bunch of thugs who want to beat him for holding out on a loan from losses incurred from street gambling schemes. In desperation, he calls his tough sister Foxy (Pam Greer,) to bail him out yet again. Foxy runs some of the thugs into the river in her car. Afterwards, Link pleads to her that he’ll live the straight life if he can hide out at her pad for a while. Foxy reluctantly agrees.

Later, Foxy goes to visit her boyfriend Dalton Ford  (Terry Carter) in hospital , an undercover officer who has been investigating the same crime-ring that Link owed money to. The hoodlums thought they’d killed him, but he really ended up in hospital for plastic surgery to give him a new and safe identity. Emerging as handsome Michael Anderson, he and Foxy hope to start life anew. On the streets, they encounter a black gang who beat and run drug pushers out of town. Foxy introduces Michael to the freeloading Link, and Link acts suspicious. Link leaves Michael and Foxy to themselves, but later looks at some newspaper cuttings and adds two and two together. There is an enormous debt to pay … and this kind of information could clear that debt. No sooner does Foxy think her life will be smooth, than Michael crashes through her door, breathing his last and shot to death. With some detective work, the grieving and raging Foxy soon tracks Link down at his girlfriend’s, and as they snort coke she storms in on them. Livid with anger, Foxy won’t kill her own brother, but she does force the identity of Michael’s killers out of him, then forces him to leave the city. And so Foxy is out for vengeance, and she does it well.  It seems this way with most action stars pushed to limits.

The  evil, sadistic villains in this case,  who run the dug empire, are in the persons of Steve Elias (Peter Brown), and Katherine Wall (Kathyrn Loder);  who looks a little like Carolyn Jones.  Interesting relationship between these two. They feign physical contact,going through the motions only to find that their real love is drugs and the power that they bring.  Like most villains, they have a cast of repulsive henchman at their disposal for the dirty work.

Vengeance gets derailed with a series of incidences, such as a graphic kidnap and assault scene at a farm by some good old country boys who keep Foxy happy by shooting her up with drugs.  Exacting her pound of flesh in a flaming escape,  to being piloted in a plane to a meeting by a young Sid Haig, leading to a firefight and  a special personal delivery to the drug lord’s girlfriend Katherine Wall.

FOXY BROWN blu- ray is a feast for the eyes in all its seventies glory. Every fold, every color, every pattern is shown is bright and crisp.  The interiors are well done with the  bric a brac and odd colors.  The night exteriors are well shown, as black levels contrast nicely with the colors.  The exterior scenes have a slight haze in them, particularly the country scenes, perhaps having to do with the heat of the day or the smog situation at that time.

Soundtrack wonderfully different for the time of funky guitars with wah wah pedals going and in car chases mixed in. What makes it different is that these films set the pattern for what was heard in TV series of the seventies such as THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and CHARLIE’S ANGELS. The second track mixed in is commentary from director Jack Hill telling us his thoughts on the film.  You will be singing the title song FOXY BROWN along with the end credits.

FOXY BROWN blu-ray comes with a good selection of extras for an enhanced experience.  Director Hill related how he had wanted FOXY BROWN to be a sequel to COFFY (1973)  which also starred Pam Grier. Asher thought he had created a franchise character for a series, but the studio said no. Asher also mentions  he was not in favor of the ripoff of the James Bond style of titles for FOXY BROWN that open the picture. A 25 minute look at Blaxplotation cinema is included,  called BACK TO BLACK THE BRILLIANCE OF BLAXSPLOITATON.  A 19 minute interview with stunt man Bob Minor called  NOT A MINOR INFLUENCE, explaining how the film launched his Hollywood career.     Theatrical trailers  for  FOXY BROWN,  COFFEY, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS and SORCERESS plus a slightly longer  black and white promo  for Jack Hill/Sid Haig film PIT STOP.  Quality varies in these selection due to print preservation but still adds to the experience.

 

The controversy was  that FOXY BROWN (1974) perpetuated the stereotypes of Black culture having to do with drugs and violence.  This was long before  BLACK PANTHER (2018) was on the screen.  Women’s groups found resorting to violence overshadowed that Pam Grier’s  character was strong willed and was doing necessary work.  Much like today, FOXY BROWN (1974) objectifies women, particularly  Black women. It is not a reach to say, skin color aside, that without FOXY BROWN (1974) you would not have strong female roles  such as Ripley in ALIEN,   Sarah Conner in THE TERMINATOR plus the work of  the late John Singleton and  current  film makers  like Jordan Peele. There is  much work to be done in the on screen portrayal of people other than white and  male.

FOXY BROWN  (1974 is a good high octane,  fun, visceral, story with an undercurrent of “Power to the people.” It is a slice out of time with its colors, music, slang and seventies production values that set a pattern easily seen today with only the music  style changing.  FOXY BROWN  really is as her brother says,  “That’s my sister..she’s a whole lotta woman.”

 

 

 

 

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1946)

The story OF HUMAN BONDAGE has become like A STAR IS BORN, that is, being filmed many times with different effects on the audience and box office.  Studios loved to put actors into roles that are ‘star making,’ hoping the magic will occur again.  Such  would be the case with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker in the Edmund Goulding version of the  Somerset Maugham  story.    Directors, particularly in theater, believe that some roles are “bulletproof.”  Actors simply have to make their entrance, say their lines and not hit the furniture and all will be good.  This is not the case here.

Edmund Goulding tested Eleanor Parker twice for the role of Mildred in the picture and  was convinced she could handle it. Parker was known for ‘sweet roles’. The studio wanted to launch another star the same way this 1934 version did  for Bette Davis. However,  watching the picture one wonders what  Goulding saw in Parker and how much pressure he felt from the  studio to cast her.     She  doesn’t get much help from her  on screen partner,Paul Henreid, who does his level best with wordy dialogue and an over the top limp.  Parker  gets  saddled with a Ingrid Bergman look, complete with exaggerated  eyebrows.  One of the  few times that Hollywood overdid trying to make someone look dowdy or  trashy.

 

The story  of  one sided  passion by a medical student who has a limp  is a story we know.  It was previously made in 1934 with Bette Davis, teaming up with Leslie Howard and  again in  1964 with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey.  Bondage takes on a different meaning in today’s world; however, power, control, jealousy, self-abasement—these are characteristics of the love that Maugham identifies as bondage. The kind of love based on these qualities produces pain, shrinking of one’s heart, a lack of freedom and happiness.   The love becomes a curse for one, while the other is  content to sit. This desire to have  fun and to simply dance is difficult for Paul Henreid’s Phillip Carey, so Mildred  flirts with close friend Harry Griffiths, played  by Patric Knowles.

These bits of dialogue, looks, and  hand holding in secret give Parker some of her best moments of the picture as she plays off of Griffiths very  well  and  Goulding photographs them in closeup effectively.  Where the character of Mildred loses her effectiveness is when Parker begins  yelling and other histrionics.  The result is for my ears  what came to sound later like a ‘Eliza Doolittle’ accent in all its  cliche beauty, much the same as  the dreaded ‘Lucky Charms’ Irish accent.

 

Eleanor Parker apparently worked hard on the accent,  learning from English actress Doris Lloyd, who had  a small role as  a land lady in the picture.  Lloyd had a  huge career in film and other work, so she did the thing that  most good actors do:  support your fellow actors by helping them. An accent, in this case.  Interesting to note that Lloyd was born in Liverpool and the accent that Parker gives is  pretty much cockney minus the  rhythm and the little rhymes.  It is said that Parker learned the accent so well the English in the cast thought she was one of them.  I find that optimistic, designed to give her confidence and good press.

Paul Henreid  has his accent explained as having an Austrian mother. He does his best with wordy dialogue, especially in the beginning of the picture  with Alexis  Smith (Norah Nesbitt) in her too brief  screen time.

Henreid matches the wardrobe he is given, that is, a stiff performance that is almost mechanical  in body language, except for his  face. It light ups when he is happy and he purses his eyebrows when not.  Where you really see it is in the scenes between Carey and Athelny (Edmund Gwenn).

Athelny is everything that Carey is not:  happy, has a loving family and a marriageable  daughter  Sally  (Janis Page) that he fondly reminds  everyone.  The two meet in a hospital and  strike up a  friendship in a delightfully light  fast moment which changes  the tone of the picture.   The mood  drops when Mildred  enters the film,  if intentional, it is  quite effective.  One can really seen the chops of the acting between Edmund Gwenn and Eleanor Parker.

Gwenn is fluid in his movement, speech and mannerisms with the words just flowing musically from his mouth even in the tense moments. Gwenn does a wonderful drop in volume when in a  tender moment between father and  his daughter Sally, who finally tells him that she is in love with Carey. Gwenn simply asks her in the most sincere three words in the film,’Tell your Father,” which comforts her.  The  slightly tipsy Harry Griffiths’ (Patric Knowles) moment is on the  rooming house stairs when he looks Carey in the eye and tells him that he will not do anything to hurt  him and Mildred. He, of course,  doesn’t follow through, as Mildred  wants  a bit of fun.

Writer Catherine Turney, who gave us the wordy screenplay, is  said to have been a champion for larger women’s  roles  in pictures. She did previous  work for  Barbara Stanwyck,  Anne Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Bette Davis  and others.  She also did uncredited  writing work on MILDRED PIERCE (1946), that was nominated for an Academy Award.  Parker’s  first entrance  as the Tea Room waitress and all her  moments  like that seem filled with gyrations, and the voice of an actor  trying too hard.  Parker has a final scene  edited  out of the picture as it was deemed  too bleak for audiences at the time.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1946) suffers from poor casting and sluggish direction of actors in spite of the production values of sets and camera work. This version of the story is not  shown much as  apparently  the  film was completed in 1944  and shelved for two years as the result of a disastrous opening.   With the exception of the supporting people like Edmund Gwenn, Janis Page  and  the always wonderful  Una O Conner (Check the brilliant, subtle look out she gives Mildred when giving her a package) the picture is still worth a look to see actors  trying hard to work without much support.

 

 

A WICKED WOMAN (1934)

Studios would launch an actor, attempting to build them up in the public’s eye.  It was this type of gamble or put an established  star in a role against type.   MGM tried  with Mady Christians in A WICKED WOMAN (1934), proclaiming her as a “brilliant new star:” only to find it didn’t work.  The picture lost money.  Of course, losing money doesn’t speak to whether a film is poor or the actors aren’t up to snuff.   In fact, A  WICKED WOMAN (1934) is a hard look at  a woman in an abusive relationship and what she does to change.

The picture opens in total dark squalor as a pregnant Naomi Trice (Mady Christians) and  her husband Ed Thrice (Paul Harvey) are trying to make the best of things.  Their children are in rags in one corner of the home and Ed is  fed up with the situation.   Ed stumbles in, demanding all the money they have saved and that their oldest child go with him.  What follows is somewhat brutal for the time, as there is a scuffle, and a lot of shoving that results in  Naomi pulling a pistol.  She pleads with him at the door the  not to come closer and not take the boy while a  thunderstorm rages outside.   Naomi pulls the trigger,  killing her husband in full view of her oldest boy.

 

The  scene changes to daylight where  Naomi has given birth to her child, only to be questioned as to the whereabouts of her husband who has vanished.   Montage of Naomi working hard in machine shops as the years go by, to creating clothes.  The children have grown and we see Rosanne (Marilyn Harris)  playing with a doll  she has ‘found.’  Naomi, in a  fit of self righteousness, burns the doll in front of her daughter in a  stove. Rosanne is  crying due to the cruelty of the act. It will mold her as she grows up.

 

Rosanne (played by Jean Parker) becomes the rebellious child when she grows up. Naomi is now a successful dress designer with her own shop;  yet she cannot escape her past.   Charles Bickford comes calling as Naylor, who wants to court and marry Naomi .   She is more concerned about Naylor destroying the discipline of her home.   A WICKED WOMAN (1934) then follows the path of the redemption of Naomi and family.

The courtroom drama is  different in that  Naomi gives an impassioned speech that she was coming back to pay for her crimes.  To let her pay for her husband’s death but to keep her children away as they must not know her past.

Director Charles Brabin keeps the action moving quite fast considering the  scope of  events in this, what could be termed, ‘B’ picture.  The  thunderstorm effects  are  quite striking and the opening  in the depths of poverty are  well handled even if slightly exaggerated in scope.

A WICKED WOMAN (1934)  features some  male and female actors learning their craft as  the B picture was a training ground.   A young Robert Taylor as  Bill Renton: a romantic Lothario role that would serve him well in such pictures as  JOHNNY EAGER  (1941).

Jean Parker, in the  role of the grown Rosanne, would have a long career in film and television.  Sterling Holloway takes a bow as  young Peter  who woos  Yancy (Betty Furness) to a dance.

 

Charles Lane  appears  as defense Attorney Beardsley toward the film’s  end.  Lane  would have a massive career  in film and television, mostly known as Homer Bedlow on Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies  television shows.

Marilyn Harris, who is best known for her role of ‘Little Maria’ or the  ‘Daisy that wouldn’t float’ in James Whale’s  FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is the  younger Rosanne.   Harris would have a short career up to the  forties, mostly in uncredited ‘girl’ roles in spite of a demanding stage mother. Harris was told to keep her weight down by her mother so she was literally starved.  She gleefully accepted hard boiled eggs as  payment for doing what would be  legendary work in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

A WICKED  WOMAN(1934)  did not result in Mady Christians becoming a star. In fact, she returned to Germany in 1948 where she had previously worked in film since  1917.  Christians  was blacklisted during the McCarthy period.

A WICKED WOMAN (1934) is a solid picture that packs a lot of events into its seventy two minutes.  The  action rolled  pretty  fast as  per pre-code times, and that makes  for   good  viewing.  The picture  is a non varnished look at what a woman has to do when pushed to extremes.  It’s also a chance to see some good people learning their craft.

THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929)

Early talking pictures are absolutely fun to watch. You get to see  evolving processes and talent.  One can see the camera move away from locked framing similar to theatrical stage play to actors gradually finding their feet and voices.  Movements become  less  stilted,  voices  become less histrionic as the medium grows.   Story also evolves with  more  depth as  the early pictures were often taken from bestsellers. I wish for more of those today.  Such is the case of the  M.G M. production THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929), with Norma Shearer.

 

 

Truly, there is nothing remarkable about this picture as it is a  variation of  a  role Norma Shearer played for years. only getting more provocative in style. I find her, even if she is an icon of  the  movies, looking odd on camera with the ill advised hair style. That was  the style those days, yet she  doesn’t photograph as wellas  early Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Loretta Young,  Colleen Moore,  Mae Murray and  others.   Irving Thalberg (production chief at MGM) played  a part in her career,  just like Marion  Davies and  William Randolph Hearst creating intrigue at the  studio. No doubt Norma Shearer  has  talent. I believe it comes  to fruition in the George Cukor directed THE WOMEN (1939) . She did have to play opposite Joan Crawford and others:  that elevated  the game.    Mind  you, Joan Crawford and others were stuck in the roles of the dancer or the girl gone bad. Such was movie making at that time.

Story wise,  THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929)  does give an interesting take on marriage and adultery from the twenties point of  view with the father,  Henry Marlett (Lewis  Stone) having an affair with Beth Cheever (Helene Millard).   This  turn of  events is a  disaster  for  the  daughter  played  by Lucia ‘Lally’ Marlett (Norma Shearer) as she resents the treatment of her mother, Harriet Marlett (Belle Bennett).  Enter newcomer Robert Montgomery as John Douglas Cheever, the son who gradually sweeps  Lally off her feet before the water sweeps both away.  Beth even  tries  to commit  suicide as a  result of the shame of the  affair.  Father  also comes close to hitting his daughter when she criticizes him for his  actions,  but he is  stopped  by  the line, “If you were not a  girl,” which is  unpleasant to see.

It was good to see a  younger  Lewis Stone looking trim and playing polo (all the rage in the  film colony at that time).  This was long before he  got put in the roles of  judges and fathers, when he still was able to do the range,  even as a cowboy in the original THREE GODFATHERS  (1936).   Robert Montgomery is the fresh face, having been  hand picked by Shearer for the role. He is  youthful and happy as only Montgomery can be before he  became the tough-as-nails  private  eyes as well as directing and producing.

Director E. Mason Hopper, who was  actually a silent film director, does a  good  job with the polo action,  swimming  sequences and boating  scenes.  The  storm is well  handled for the day even if  the   sets look a little more  studio it should have been.  The  dialogue sequences  are  well executed with  moving camera on the  outside moments after the polo match to  good  intimacy in the room scenes. The picture also featured  the popular song Blue is the Night.

 

Why I said THEIR OWN DESIRE (1929) was not remarkable because it  levels with the  other pictures of the day on this subject.  The  script was penned by Francis Marion and others in apparently two versions, one  with sound and one with title cards for those theaters not equipped for  sound.  THE  DIVORCEE (1931) will be  a  superior  film in style, attitude and acting. You could not get there before  going through the motions with  films like THEIR OWN DESIRE(1929).

SUDDENLY (1954)

The sun and fun of Palm Springs, California warms both the heart and the skin of those that go there.  Temperature is in the high 40s in some cases, and the desert around you makes for intrigue in places and people when the night falls.  The unofficial, or depending on who you speak to, the official “King of Palm Springs” was Frank Sinatra during the forties through to the sixties.  Coming off that trip, what better film to look at  than one of Sinatra’s better roles, that of John Baron in the underrated SUDDENLY (1954).

The picture is quintessential 1950s paranoia minus the nuclear threat. Photographed  in a fashion that makes even the scenes in the daylight look menacing, is offered by director Lewis Allen and with a taunt script by Richard Sale.   SUDDENLY (1954) is about a plot to kill the President of the United States while he stops in the little California town of Suddenly. Leading the plot is John Baron (Frank Sinatra),  and his henchmen who take over a house owned by the Benson family, which has the proper vantage point.

Within the home you  have the  post war ‘nuclear family’  of  widowed Ellen Benson  (Nancy Gates) who takes care of her young son, Peter (Kim Charney) and her aged father Peter (Pop) Benson (James Gleason).  Young Peter is a precocious 50s child, t- shirted, jeans and combed hair that is looking forward to watching baseball with Pop Benson if they can get the television working.   Ellen Benson is a pacifist  whose husband  was killed in action.  She is doing her best to care for both her charges while being romanced by lantern jawed, deep voiced, Sheriff Tod Shaw,  played by Sterling Hayden.

Baron and his gang take over the family and their home and wait for the President to arrive.  Sheriff Shaw and  Secret Service Agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) are trying to secure the site when they go to the Benson home and are captured.   Television  repairman Jud (James O Hara) makes a pre-arranged house call to fix the  television and is also captured.  Baron and his gang now have a full house of people: exactly what they didn’t want.  The  waiting produces tension among those concerned as  John Baron becomes more talkative about his reasons. The anger  of  a ‘little man’ feeling trapped seethes from Baron as it did at times from Sinatra in real life.

 

Baron enjoys killing, even to the point of threatening young Peter.   Ellen cannot stand  guns or violence in her home so this sets up some hard discussions.  The  President does come to town as the  tension mounts and  Baron  readies the rifle with telescopic sight and special stand. Not before sudden switches happen and  someone is  in the  wrong place  at the  wrong time.

SUDDENLY (1954) is filled with wonderful claustrophobic camera work even  when shot in essentially two rooms and limited  exteriors.    Point of view  shots abound  as the  resolution happens and  the lives of the Benson family are shattered.   Frank Sinatra  is effective as the brutally violent John Baron.   His look and clothes, complete with fedora, all fit what Old Blue eyes was like during that time in his life. No matter what happened in the  picture, Baron always looks put together .

What really is the strong point of  Sinatra’s performance is  his eyes. Those blue eyes which look light grey with black and white photography as expressive in  both defeat and triumph. This role marks the first time he played a  heavy role. This was a calculated  risk for him and the studio. In spite of winning the  1953  Academy Award  for his role of  “Angelo Maggio,” Sinatra was  driven to prove he was not a “one trick pony” in Hollywood.  SUDDENLY (1954) was without box office heavy weights  like Burt Lancaster,  Debra Kerr,  Montgomery Clift , and Ernest Borgnine to play off of so Sinatra had to carry the picture himself.

Sterling Hayden as Sheriff Tod Shaw is strong, especially playing against Sinatra’s thinner body type.   John Baron controls them all as things  change with voice and kinetic movement. It flows almost with a dancer’s grace.  Shaw, try as he might to assert Law and Order along with Secret Service man Carney,  are both held in check by threats.  This mechanism might seem irrelevant today as one  wonders why the two don’t simply jump John Baron or have  Ellen Benson do something.  It was the 1950s, though, and essentially a picture about pacifism carried too far by the Benson family. Seemingly one had to ready for “Reds under the bed” and other menaces trying to destroy the American dream of postwar life in the suburbs with white picket fence, baseball, or in this case : small town life like artist Norman Rockwell painted.

SUDDENLY (1954) is a taunt thriller that moves  quickly with scenes of  utter desolation that make you almost taste the dust.  It is a bleak, desperate story as people become trapped in a house, each with their own concept of the world, while rolling to a conclusion.  Well worth seeing for an ensemble performance, good story and  directing.    See it  in a restored version if you can. It is best this way, even if you need your television repaired like the Benson family. Enjoy with two fingers of Jack Daniels, four cubes, and  a splash of water. Don’t forget the cocktail napkin to hold it in your palm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONVENTION CITY (1933)

This is a look at CONVENTION CITY (1933). It is considered a  ‘lost film” due to its content. Film has been censored since it first began as a kinescope show for a nickel. There has always been some group or groups of people in society that wished to control the message, the images, and the depiction of what was acceptable.

 

CONVENTION CITY (1933) was directed by Archie Mayo with such stalwarts as Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee, Adolphe Menjou, and Grant Mitchell. It was deemed so notorious  by Warner Brothers that prints were ordered destroyed by Jack Warner.  Still pictures and art survive from this precode gem.

 

 

 

The plot revolves around the convention of the Honeywell Rubber Company in Atlantic  city.  Throughout the film, the employees of Honeywell Rubber are mainly concerned with drinking and sex. President J.B. Honeywell is to choose a new company sales manager.  The picture includes  seductions,  drinking, bribes, and scantily clad people. The position of sales manager is bestowed upon a drunken employee as a bribe.

 

 

Joan Blondell later said that during the making of CONVENTION CITY (1933) dialogue had double meanings.   For instance,  these bits of  dialogue:

“No, but it won’t be marriage. I’ll guarantee you that. A traveling salesman needs a wife like a baby needs a box of matches.”

“Now you take off that dress and I’ll take off my toupee, huh!”

Girl’s voice: “Listen, sister, if they tire you, you better leave town before the Hercules Tool Company gets here.”

Risque  material by the standards of the day.  Jack Warner demanded  Joan Blondel wear underwear for fear of  letting “those bulbs stick out.”

The large studios, in spite of their power to control lives, manipulate the newspapers, and in some cases even obscure criminal facts from the public, knuckled under to the code controllers by editing their pictures accordingly.  Many of the studios held previews in little known theaters and edited films or re-shot whole endings or added new sequences on the strength of printed reactions from the public. The famous MGM train that housed Irving Thalberg, Louis B Mayer and others comes to mind as they shifted through the audience reaction. If it was a good preview, it was a wonderful trip back, if poor then there was tension both creatively and literally.

The reason the studios capitulated was that they simply could not alienate a group of people such as Catholics. The church had tremendous power, lead by The Catholic Legion of Decency. When you were told not to go to a particular film, you did not go.  This brought about the slow demise of such people as Mae West, plus it also made what are now called Pre-code film for the 1920s to 1934 all the more interesting to watch today.  The studios could not afford to offend people of other countries in their depictions as the European market was a huge moneymaker. Many of the studio moguls were also originally from Europe or Canada and felt an obligation to their roots.

The danger today with the various media delivery systems that we have to homes, phones etc. can make something like that into a “must” see for people.  Audiences will want to see it simply because it is forbidden by a segment of our planet, and this can make for a cult film.

Our adoration process today can overshadow flaws in making something marginal into something that it is not.  I do not see why we make film that offends a section of the population.  Mind you, we still do it with persons with disabilities, women, minorities, religions in the media; yet we do not criticize them well, with respect for their traditions. We have lost the ability to produce satire or humor in the media without pushing buttons, causing fear, animosity and cruelty to those we aim our salvo. If we are clever in our approach to a story it is perceived as being ‘highbrow,’ where film for can only be entertainment. The offended groups often protest in media without effect and film as an industry continues to take liberties with them.  We continue to do what film has done on many levels and that is to appeal to the lowest denominator in society because it’s about money. The original moguls knew that right from Hollywood’s beginning.

The real shame is film is a wonderful medium for telling stories. It can criticize, illuminate parts of the human condition and our world in ways we have not thought of or used. The danger today is that we elevate so rapidly what we like or perceive that we should like, to heights undreamed. I cannot help but wonder if it is deserved.  Word of mouth, perceptions of the public are a massive force in film . Caveat emptor.