Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve

(1941)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Coburn, William Demerest, Eugene Pallette
IMDB Entry

We continue our overview of Preston Sturges with his next hit, They Lady Eve. His success with The Great McGinty and Christmas in July allowed him to use some top-of the line actors in a movie that’s a comic retelling of the Garden and Even.

Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) is a con woman  who works in tandem with her father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn). On a ship, they set their sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), an rich heir who is traveling home after an expedition to the Amazon to study snaked. Jean makes a play for him, and hooks him easily, but the con falls apart  when the falls in love with him. Even worse for her, Charles’s valet, Muggsy (William Demarest) does some snooping of his own and discovers the truth. Charles dumps her.

Jean, angry and jealous, gets back at Charles by posing as the Lady Eve Sidwich and quickly raps the naïve Charles around her finger. And the complexities grow.

Both leads are, of course, first class. Henry Fonda is not often classed as a comedian, but he could handle it with the best of them, and by playing it all straight, it makes it al funnier. The same can be said of Stanwyck, who clearly is having fun with the role. She makes a great comic temptress, exuding too much sexuality for Charles to stand. The entire movie plays with the Adam and Eve there, except now Eve tempts the man who studies snakes.

I can’t go without mentioning William Demerest. The plot depends on Charles not realizing Jean and Eve are the same woman and Sturges had the audacity to let the audience know that it’s just a convention.  Muggsy spends much time trying to convince Charles of that, but Charles refuses to listen.

Sturges love for bawdiness is in full  string here, especially in a scene where Eve tells Charles all the men she’s  been with.  He gets around the censors by just showing Charles’s reaction.

The movie was another hit for Sturges and began to show his forte for bawdy situation and great slapstick.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Christmas in July

Christmas in July

(1940)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Ernest Truax,
William Demarest
IMDB Entry

After the The Great McGinty was shot, writer-director Preston Sturges wasted no time  in shooting his second film. Less and a month after it wrapped, shooting began on his follow up, Christmas in July.

Jimmy Macdonald (Dick Powell) is an office worker who dreams of glory, entering every contest he can find so that he could use the winnings to marry his girlfriend, Betty Casey (Ellen Drew). His current dream is to win the Maxford House Coffee, with the slogan, If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee -- it’s the bunk.”

A group of coworkers prank him by sending a fake telegram telling him he’s the winner. and he goes off the Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn), owner of the coffee company, in order to collect the money. No winner had been announced, but Maxford assumed they forgot to notify him and, seeing the telegram, he writes the check and Jimmy goes off to spend it. But eventually, the truth comes out and Jimmy is in deep trouble..

As is usual for Sturges, it’s populated with idiosyncratic characters and frenetic situations. Powell by this time had the role of a charming romantic lead down pat.* and Ellen Drew is also quite good. The Sturges stock company showed up, most notably William Demarest as the head of the slogan judges.

And the twist at the end is one of the funniest in film.

The movie was another hit for Sturges, and two successes in only two months put in into the forefront of top directors.

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*Though a few years later he remade his image as a hard-boiled detective with a sense of humor.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Great McGinty

The Great McGinty

(1940)
Written and Directed by
Preston Sturges
Starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff,  Muriel Angelus, William Demerest
IMDB Entry

Last week, I wrote up a blog post on Easy Living, a movie with a script by Preston Sturges. But I realize that Sturges fits firmly in the category of Great but Forgotten. These days, you have to be a big film buff to know the name, but in his heyday he was one of the great comic minds of film,a man able to use both witty dialog and lowbrow slapstick as needed for a gag. But since he didn’t show his face, he gets overlooked. So I’ll be doing an overview of some of his films in the next few weeks, starting with the one that got him into the director’s chair:  The Great McGinty.

The film starts in a small bar in South America where Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is the bartender and starts to tell his story to an American visitor.  McGinty was a tramp who took up an offer of $2 per vote to vote under a false name, and does it so well, that the political boss (Akim Tamiroff) starts rising in the machine, eventually being elected mayor as a reformer. He marries Catherine (Muriel Anglus) to prove his credentials as a family man and rises to become governor – before he falls.

The movie is a satire on old-fashioned machine politics of the era, but still holds up well  today.

Sturges had written the script and sent it to Paramount, who wanted to go forward. But Sturges had one condition:  he would sell the script to Paramount for $10, but only if he were allowed to direct the film. This was unheard of in Hollywood,* but Paramount agreed and Sturges ended up being the first to have a “Written and Directed by” credit.

Even better:  the movie was a hit. And Sturges won a best screenplay Oscar, making it the least expensive screenplay ever to win the award.

As for the cast, most were chosen because they were under contract and came cheap.   Brian Donlevy had been a dependable actor, though never really a star before this. His best-know role after this (in the UK,at least) was as the title character in The Quatermass Xperiment.

Akim Tamiroff’s accent meant he specialized in portraying foreigners. Probably his best-known role these days was Joe Grandi in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil.  Muriel Angelus had a spotty career. This was her only lead role (and final film) but she is quite good as the woman who convinces McGinty to change his ways.

The film also introduced the actors who became part of Sturges “stock company,” who he used time and again in his movies.  Most prominent was William Demarest, who appeared in eight of Sturges’s films, plus two others he wrote.

A great beginning to a fine directorial career.

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*Except for Charlie Chaplin, who was sui generis.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Easy Living

Easy Living

(1937)
Directed by
Mitchell Leisen
Written by Preston Sturges from a story by Vera Caspary
Starring Jean Arthur,  Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Mary Nash,Luis Alberni, Franklin Pangborn, William Demarest, Robert Greig
IMDB Entry

Preston Sturges is one of the most overlooked great names in film comedy. You have to be a film buff to know of him, yet his films are still riotously funny today (not an easy trick). And his career was very unusual for the time: he started out as an uncredited dialog writer and moved on to do screenplays. Easy Living showed him in full flower before he moved on to being a writer/director.

J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold), a rich banker, is incensed that his wife Jenny (Mary Nash) has wasted money on an expensive fur coat and tosses it from the roof of their penthouse, where it lands on Mary Smith (Jean Arthur). She tries to return it to Ball, complaining that it broke the feather on her new hat. Ball takes her – dressed in the mink – to the shop of Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn), who draws the conclusion that Mary is Ball’s mistress. Rumors spread and Mr. Louis Louis (Franklin Pangborn) – who is trying to get on Ball’s good side – offers her a suite. Mary still has no money, and, when she tries to find a way to steal a meal at the Automat, runs into Ball’s son, John (Ray Milland). Thinking he’s penniless, too, she lets him stay with her.

No one was Sturges’s equal in combining smart, snappy dialog with out-and-out farce and is clearly shows here. The idea about a comedy about a man’s supposed mistress might have gotten in trouble with the Hayes office, but the concept is hinted at subtly enough as to be easily missed.

I’m used to seeing Edward Arnold play a banker, but this one is different, where he actually is humane. Jean Arthur is one of my favorite 30s actresses, and this is a slightly different type of role. She usually plays a smart women, but Mary takes awhile to figure out what is going on about her.

Director Mitchell Leisen also came to directing in an unusual way: he was a set designer and moved on to directing in the mid-30s.

Jean Arthur, Ray Milland, and, to a lesser degree, Edward Arnold, were established Hollywood actors for many years. The movie also included Franklin Pangborn, Robert Greig, and William Demarest, who became part of Sturges’s “stock company” in later years.

It’s a successful comedy of its time that is still funny today.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Sinking of the Lusitania

The Sinking of the Lusitania

(1918)
Directed, Written, and Drawn by
Windsor Mckay
Wikpiedia Entry
Full Movie on Youtube

Name a shipwreck.

Chances are, you thought of the Titanic. And that’s not surprising, given how it has been talked about and turned into blockbuster movies. But for many years, the Titanic had faded into obscurity, not to be revitalized until Walter Lang had a best seller with his book A Night to Remember in 1955. Up until  then, however, the shipwreck people remembers was the Lusitania.

This main reason was its historical importance. The ship was sunk by a German U-Boat, at a time they claimed the right to sink any ship, passenger or warship, and became a catalyst for the US entering World War I.*

Windsor McKay was one of the great cartoonist of all time, creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, both of which are still influential over a century after they were created.  He also was arguably the inventor of the animated film.**

The movie begins with a look and McKay  and his studio looking at photos of the ship and talks briefly of the 25k drawings needed to make the film and the technical issue of creating the look of the sea. It then tells the story of the ship, how it sailed and was hit by German torpedoes. It’s a propaganda film, or course, filled with remarks about the heartless hun torpedoing a passenger ship.***

The images are arresting and the ship was probably a pinnacle of animation in its time, filled with attention to detail. It ran for twelve minutes, making it the longest animated film up to that point. It’s still a powerful statement.

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*It raised outrage at the time. The sinking caused them to back off, but when they tried to reinstate it, the US declared war.

**It’s always iffy to call someone the inventor of an art form, but McKay was clearly one of the first, and the first to make a name for himself doing it. His Gertie the Dinosaur is still listed as one of the greatest cartoons of all time.

*The point of unrestricted submarine warfare was to prevent the allies from sneaking munitions into the UK on passenger ships. Afterwards, the UK insisted there was nothing of that nature aboard, until 1982, when the finally admitted there was ammunition on the ship.