THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938)

The mystery play, with its creaking doors, sliding panels and bodies falling out of unexpected places has  long been a staple of  stage thrillers.  THE CAT  AND THE CANARY (1927), THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) and others were made into films with the  fusion of the forties of horror/mystery to come.

Boris Karloff, or “Billy Pratt” as his older brothers called him, takes center stage in name only in this John Farrow directed picture THE INVISIBLE MENACE ( 1938).

The picture clocks in at a mere fifty five minutes, suggesting that it was to be part of the bill with other features.   THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) does feature Boris Karloff on the poster and in the  trailer as Karloff returns. There  are many  fine performances crammed in to that short screen time.

The  story is Pvt. Eddie  Pratt  (nice reference to Boris in the cast), played by Eddie Craven, who  gets married to Sally (Marie Wilson) on pass. He smuggles her to his island base in his bag to spend their honeymoon.  The base  does not allow women, so poor Sally gets to hide under bunks, in lockers and boxes to evade being found.

The night is filled with fog and shadows as a man is found bayoneted and hung.   Lt. Mathews (Regis Toomey), Colonel Rogers (Cy Kendall) and Dr. Brooks  (Charles Trowbridge) all try to solve the murder with Jevries (Boris Karloff) becoming the harried suspect.  The FBI is called in the person of Colonel Hackett (Henry Kolker)  to drive the investigation forward and make an arrest.

Lt, Mathews, Col Rodgers, Dr Brooks, and Jevries have some amusing dialogue as they trade barbs. Their  mutual excuse of  ‘being in bed and read’  seems too similar.  When  Colonel Rodgers makes that observation he is told “not to pick on them.”   Colonel Hackett arrives in a tuxedo to take charge,  which he does  quite well.  The pace changes with rapid fire dialogue between Hackett and  Jevries, reducing him to a babbling mess, plus revealing a secret pass involving a trip into the jungle.   Henry Kolker does  well in the role as a change of pace from his usual slimy film noir gangster.  The dialogue  with Boris Karloff peaks in an excellent interrogation scene with both actors going at each other.

The comic relief is supplied  by Sally and her enlisted man husband trying to get privacy for their honeymoon.  Marie Wilson does her  trademark “innocent blonde” routine with bits of dialogue and chirpy screams at the right moment.

 

In her career, Wilson developed took the role of  ‘dumb’ blonde with a  figure  that ‘never quit’ to new heights.  She lost the role of ‘Billie Dawn’ in the film version of  BORN YESTERDAY to Judy Holliday.  This was  major disappointment for  her.  At that time a girl named  Norma Jean Baker  came onto the scene and changed her name to Marilyn Munroe, thus limiting Wilson’s career options.  Wilson did go on to a career  in vaudeville blackout shows in the forties with the  highlight  being a mock strip tease.  The stage was a forum for her work, even playing the title roles in GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES,  BUS STOP and BORN YESTERDAY on the stage in summer stock and  dinner theater.

 

Regis Toomey had a huge career in film, television, and silent  film; usually playing buddy roles for some larger name. He later moved on to soldiers and other characters. Toomey could do musicals, physical comedy and just be the all around smiley face.

Boris Karloff was featured on the bill for box office appeal.  The horror film genre ceased production and was banned  in the UK and the US because of the horrific, heavily censored story (yet still violent)  THE BLACK CAT (1934) and THE RAVEN (1935), in which he co- starred with Bela Lugosi. The pictures  featured  sadistic scenes like the flaying of flesh in silhouette and  themes of  necrophilia and  hints of incest. Those threads were still were apparent,  even after the Hays Commission came down on the films. The  versatile Karloff  found work in mystery films, playing Asian despots and detectives  such as the MR. WONG series for Poverty Row Studios.  The horror ban was  lifted in 1938 with his return appearance as  the monster  in THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).   Karloff complained about these and his mad scientist pictures  to follow as  just walk through roles, but he  always put an effort to do a complete performance.  He was  dismayed at actors who complained about typecasting as he  felt it always gave him work and kept food on the table.    A lesson he learned  from his poorer traveling stock theater days in Canada when one had to learn how to fry an egg if you were lucky have one on an iron plus press your clothes under the mattress you slept on.

THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) also has an unbilled quick moment with Carole Landis before her career took off and tragedy struck.

THE INVISIBLE MENACE (1938) packs  a lot into its 55 minute running time. John Farrow keeps the action going in the fog:  a good way to not have spend money on a set and still be  effective. Farrow was married to Maureen O Sullivan. One of their children turned  out to be Mia Farrow, who later married Frank Sinatra. The picture  features performances and moments that go by pretty fast, and this makes for  good ‘pot boiler’ entertainment even if  you can easily figure out the mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MEN OF BOYS TOWN (1941)

The sequel remains pretty much as it is today:  repeat box office receipts with the same formula.  That itself is passable in the day of the studio system when film output to fill the theaters with product was required.  Sometimes it works  as in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and sometimes it doesn’t, as in ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES (1939).   MEN OF BOYS TOWN (1941) is stuck in between for  running the gambit of good and solid to  not working at all. It depends in what you look for in a sequel.

MEN OF  BOYS TOWN (1941) was the  sequel to the massive hit  BOYS TOWN (1938).  The picture featured  Spencer Tracy in one of his most endearing roles as  Father Flanagan.  Author James Curtis, in his exhaustive biography of Tracy, mentioned that the actor hated the role and thought he  looked ridiculous in the collar.  Tracy  was  a devout Catholic himself, and was racked with guilt about his son being born deaf and prone to drink. Tracy felt that he was a failure as man for not having a healthy child as he still loved his son deeply. Tracy also wondered if  he was doing the real Father Flanagan justice with his  portrayal of him in the film as he himself was so inadequate.

Mickey Rooney takes a break from ANDY HARDY series and musicals with Judy Garland to reprise the  role of the grown up Whitey Marsh who in the first film was the smart, wise cracking tough guy that changes over the film to a compassionate person that helps others.

Bobs Watson, or the  ‘Hollywood cry baby,’ as he was known,  was gifted with the ability to shed buckets of tears on cue and is back as the cherubic faced, happy , smiling Pee Wee.

The picture opens with Whitey (Mickey Rooney),  who has now grown to be the mayor of Boys Town, announcing to the throng that Father Flanagan is returning. The school has reached a financial crisis as Father Flanagan reveals that he has borrowed the money to build the  new school facilities and all the loans are about to come due to his partner and financial officer of the school,  David Morris (Lee J. Cobb).   The new facilities are needed because of the policy to help every boy that comes to them as a result.   This fact is wonderfully illustrated in a moment with Whitey and two runaways from a brutal reform school that find themselves with no place to go, only to be taken in by Father  Flanagan.

Flanagan is called away to the criminal trial of  a boy, Ted Martley (Larry Nunn), who stands accused of killing a guard at a nearby  reform school.   Ted is unable to rise to hear his verdict as he is confined to a gurney due to paralyzed legs inflicted by the guards’  treatment.

Martley is taken to the infirmary of  Boys Town where he broods and does not smile, no matter how hard the other boys try to cheer him up. Whitley, Pee Wee and the gang try everything to make Martley smile, including a personally staged show with comic skits  featuring a  very inventive slow motion wrestling duo. All are met by stone cold silence.

Later, when a older couple, M.r and Mrs. Maitland ( Henry O’Neill and Mary Nash) come to Boys Town they bring a dog that Whitey mistakenly brings to Martley that breaks his brooding. Marley calls the dog Bohunk, yet doesn’t know it already has a home.

Moments  in  MEN OF  BOYS TOWN (1941) link up similar to the first film as boys  are  adopted. Miracles happen in the infirmary.  The brutal reform school is found out.  Whitey is adopted by the Maitlands, who have lost a son.  His  exit from Boys Town comes complete with Auld Lang Syn sung by the  actual Boys Chorale group. It goes for the tears, which happen in full buckets from Rooney, Bobs  Watson and others.   The Maitlands’ life of  parties and clothes does not work out. Rooney gets to dance at school dances in a sequence as he feigns not having the ability to hoof.  He rebels and gets tangled up with a young pint sized thug, Flip Brier (Darryl Hickman).  Interesting dialogue and actions as  Whitey tries  to deal with and reform and a smaller version of himself complete with gangster one liners and guns.

MEN OF BOYS TOWN (1941) was directed by Norman Taurog, who went on later to direct mainly teen beach musicals and some Elvis Presley films.  Some sequences were shot  at the real Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska.

MEN OF  BOYS TOWN (1941) delivers the same sentimental feeling as the first film without the novelty.  Tracy is  steady in the role, offering a soothing voice,  even enjoying a game of handball in full robes.  The cast had grown up and  abilities had changed.  The ham radio technology is evident and plays a crucial part in the picture.  Many little sequences of fun like Flanagan hiding chocolates from Pee Wee and leading him on a  game of ‘hot and cold,’ only to amusingly ask him to empty his pockets when he takes too much. Justice is served as Father Flanagan’s line, ‘There is no such thing as a bad boy,”  sets the pattern for enjoyable if not sentimental fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.