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28 “Great Hitchcock Movies” Made By Other People

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2017 by travsd

This post was originally intended for Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, but since it’s not actually about the Master of Suspense himself but only some of his imitators, any old day’ll do. Elements that remind us of Hitchcock include: psychology: especially paranoia and obsessive sexuality; travelogue: a series of multiple exotic locations, often climaxing at famous landmarks and monuments; glamour: top movie stars (usually the best looking ones), wearing costumes by top fashion designers; humor: sophisticated, quipping repartee; and a self-conscious eye: often incorporating unusual angles or points of view or shot sequences that call attention to their existence, and the fact of looking. These elements are not always all present simultaneously or at all.

With one exception I’ve restricted the list to films made during Hitchcock’s lifetime. And I’ve left certain obvious things off, such as the James Bond films (not because they don’t fit, they do, but because they constitute an entire branching sub-genre themselves), and the Mel Brooks parody/tribute High Anxiety (1978). Also (interestingly) despite his clear fascination with terror, Hitchcock was noticeably, almost stubbornly, unconcerned with the supernatural, thus we leave off certain films like The Uninvited (1944), for example, whose location and atmosphere are reminiscent of Rebecca (1940), or Portrait of Jennie (1948), which has a Hitchcockesque tone. Both are disqualified for being ghost stories, which Hitchcock never indulged in.

Above Suspicion (1943)

Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray are a couple of American newlyweds drafted by British secret service to spy on the Nazis during their European honeymoon. The film is set in 1939, before American involvement in the war, thus they will be “above suspicion” by the Germans. With its theme of European tourism and innocent bystanders being drawn into international webs of espionage, the film is reminiscent of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) Secret Agent (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Saboteur (1942).

Gaslight (1944)

This classic film has actually surpassed any similar Hitchcock movie in becoming idiomatic for an evil husband (Charles Boyer) trying to make his wife (Ingrid Bergman) think she’s insane. It has much in common with Hitchcock’s earlier Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Bergman was to become a Hitchcock regular, starring in Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and Under Capricorn (1949). Joseph Cotten, who plays the hero in this, was the villain in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, released the previous year and would also star in Under Capricorn (1949).

The Stranger (1946)

Orson Welles loved spy stories. The strain was strongest in his radio work, although you can also see it in his involvement in such projects as Journey Into Fear (1942), The Third Man (1949), and Mr. Arkadin (1949 — I like its British title better: Confidential Report). With The Stranger, Welles was trying to prove his commercial viability in the wake of the box office failure of his earlier pictures Citizen Kane (1940) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). No one was more commercial than Hitchcock. The Stranger’s theme of an evil monster who has managed to integrate himself into an idyllic American small town is reminiscent of Shadow of a Doubt (Welles gives a chilling dinner table speech here much reminiscent of one that Cotten gives in the latter film); the idea of still-active post-war Nazis was explored by Hitchcock that same year in Notorious. 

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Robert Siodmak directed this thriller. Dorothy Maguire plays a mute serving girl who may be a serial killer’s next intended victim. Serial killers had been a favorite subject of Hitchcock’s since the time of The Lodger (1927); he returned to it in Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho (1960) and Frenzy (1972). The film’s opening set piece, which happens in an apartment above a movie theatre reminds us of a similar lay-out in Sabotage (1936). The film has eerie theramin music on the soundtrack, as in Spellbound. The big creepy isolated old house Maguire works in is like the one in Rebecca (and all Gothic dramas); and the titular staircase actually presages one that plays a highly memorable role in Vertigo (1958).

Dragonwyck (1946)

The “house haunted by memories” is like Rebecca; the slow poisoning of a wife (Gene Tierney) like Notorious; the tormented, controlling creep of a husband (Vincent Price) is like many Hitchcock characters. This movie is set in early 19th century upstate New York but Hitchcock occasionally did period pieces, notably Jamaica Inn (1939) and Under Capricorn (1949). Given Hitchcock’s love of Gothic melodrama, and his receptivity to female writers (see Du Maurier, below) one has to wonder if the Bronte Sisters had been a major influence on him as a youngster.

Possessed (1947)

Joan Crawford loves Van Heflin just a little too much. The theme of traumatically-induced amnesia is similar to Spellbound; the sick love obsession is like the one that would be at the heart of Vertigo. It is interesting, given the number of Hitchcockesque films Crawford appeared in, that she would never get to work with the Master.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Invalid Barbara Stanwyck accidentally overhears a murder plot over the phone. As in too many Hitchcock films to count, she is drawn into the thing, feeling morally bound to solve the mystery and prevent the crime from happening. The eventual realization that her own husband (Burt Lancaster) may be a killer also echoes Sabotage, Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious and would recur in Dial M for Murder (1954), whose telephone themed title reminds us of this one. Hitchcock would also use the invalid theme in many movies, notably Notorious and Rear Window (1954).  Wendell Corey, so memorable in Rear Window, is also in this film.

Sudden Fear (1952)

Again with Joan Crawford, and again with theme of a murderin’ schemin’ husband (Jack Palance) and a bit o’ gaslightin’. She then turns the tables in a most satisfying twist. The fact that her character is a playwright can be taken as a justification for the elaborateness of her revenge plot.

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

This one is based on a novel by one of Hitchcock’s favorite writers, who provided source material for no less than three of his films: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Birds (1963): Daphne Du Maurier. Hitchcock could easily have directed a film of this story as well. Richard Burton (in one of his earliest starring roles) falls in love with a young woman (Olivia de Havilland) who may have murdered his best friend and cousin (she was his cousin’s wife, thus the title). Its atmospheric setting in a castle on the Cornwall coast connects it to both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier made the area her home, and frequently laid her melodramatic yarns there.

Niagara (1953)

This one is amazing — so much like the Hitchcock of the 50s, yet predates a lot of that work. Joseph Cotten is the jealous husband of Marilyn Monroe (and rightfully so. To my mind, this is the sexiest of all Monroe’s performances. It’s enough to drive every heterosexual male in the audience out of his friggin’ mind). Cotten murders Monroe’s lover, then fakes his own death, and then terrorizes a fellow tourist (Jean Peters) who has accidentally learned the truth. Having the sexual obsession with a blond at the center of the story is quintessential Hitchcock, as its setting at an iconic tourist destination (Niagara Falls, obviously) which in particular reminds us of Redwood Forest in Vertigo and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959).

Black Widow (1954)

An interesting and unjustly forgotten suspense thriller written, directed and produced by Nunnally Johnson, who’d produced and written My Cousin Rachel. A Broadway producer played by Van Helfin is accused of murdering a young schemer (Peggy Ann Garner, best remembered as the girl in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). He is forced to flee and solve the mystery himself, which of course he does. The “smart New York settings” really remind me of the Hitchcock of the period, especially Rope (1948) — it has the same kind of fake but gorgeous cyclorama paintings outside the windows of the swanky apartments — but also Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. A topic for another time, but somehow this movie doesn’t quite gel. It’s one of Johnson’s first outings as director and there are problems of pace. And somehow he manages to underuse his stellar cast, which includes Gene Tierney, George Raft, Ginger Rogers, and Reginald Gardiner. Interestingly Gardiner’s first film had been Hitchcock’s The Lodger. 

Diabolique (1955)

Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, often called the French Hitchcock. It is said Hitchcock had wanted to direct a film of the novel this movie was based on, but Clouzet beat him to securing the rights. Like Hitchcock, Clouzet had been influenced by German Expressionism, and was known for suspense thrillers. In this one a pair of women (Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzet, the director’s wife) murder  the cruel tyrant (Paul Meurisse) who dominates both their lives at a provincial boys school, and events only get weirder after that. The bathtub murder scene is said to have inspired the shower scene in Psycho. 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Hitchcock never directed Agatha Christie stories, nor for that matter conventional murder mysteries per se, but Witness for the Prosecution does have its superficial similarities with The Paradine Case (1947), and for most of its running time anyway is about the familiar Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man wrongly suspected of murder. I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) were two Hitchcock films from the same period which riffed on this theme.

The Scapegoat (1959)

Another film based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel. This one plays on the familiar Hitchcockian theme of the double, which we get in films ranging from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Vertigo.  Here drab, lonely Alec Guinness is vacationing in France when he meets a man who is his twin in every way (also played by Guinness). The other man vanishes, leaving Guinness to take over his life, which includes wealth, an enormous estate, and the people in his life, including a wife, daughter and mistress. Bette Davis plays his drug addict mother!  Then of course the wife is murdered. The double turns out to have been the culprit and it is on the original Guinness to prove he wasn’t guilty. This film was remade in 2012 with Matthew Rhys in the Guinness part.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is frequently compared to Hitchcock’s Pyscho. Interestingly, given the fact that Powell didn’t usually direct this kind of film (to put it mildly) and Hitchcock was known for it, Powell’s film actually came out five months before Hitchcock’s. The voyeurism of Vertigo clearly influenced Peeping Tom. I find the fact that Peeping Tom‘s psychopathic creep is German for some reason to be vaguely Hitchcockian, and obviously the self-conscious detail that the villain is a film-maker, as well. It is the latter fact that makes Peeping Tom the true antecedent of later films like Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and De Palma’s Murder a la Mod (1968), which is one reason those two films don’t have their own entries on this list.

Midnight Lace (1960)

This film is like a family reunion for former Hitchcock actors. Doris Day from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)! John Gavin from Psycho! John Williams from Dial M for Murder! Herbert Marshall from Murder (1930) and Foreign Correspondent! With Rex Harrison, Myrna Loy and Roddy McDowell! Day is said to have gotten so involved in her character’s terror in this film that she gave herself a nervous breakdown. It’s all about a gaslighting plot; the antagonist repeatedly terrorizes Day but only when she’s alone, so there’s no one around to witness it. People around her begin to suspect she is going crazy.

I Thank a Fool (1962)

An interesting little artifact I stumbled across on TCM not long ago. Susan Hayward (in one of the best performances of the late phase of her career) plays a former nurse who’s done prison time for a mercy killing she comitted. She is then hired by the Prosecutor who originally put her away (Peter Finch) who then seemingly proceeds to frame her for the murder of his insane wife (Diane Cilento). Insanity, a remote mansion, being wrongly accused of murder, and other elements remind one of Hitch

Charade (1963)

This one is too well-known for me to have to say much about, I hope! Cary Grant was a veteran of several Hitchcock pictures, with North by Northwest as the most relevant one here. Peter Stone’s script was plainly written to channel the best of all Hitchcock tropes and scenes. Saul Bass, who’d designed memorable title sequences for Vertigo and North by Northwest did them for this film as well. And to my mind Audrey Hepburn has much in common in terms of screen of screen presence with frequent Hitchcock leading lady Grace Kelly.

Topkapi (1964)

This one is less obviously Hitchcockian, but I have my reasons. Peter Ustinov is a small time crook who finds himself drafted against his will into a double bind, forced to help a gang of high end thieves, and forced to help the police. Coerced into playing the double agent, and to have to lie to both police and the crooks, is a nightmarish predicament characteristic of Hitchcock. That, the exotic Mediterranean setting and the scenario of high-end heists (both of which it shares with To Catch a Thief) inspire me to include it here.

That Man from Rio (1964)

Ostensibly a Bond parody, this Italian-French co-production is more like a stylish Hitchcock adventure such as North by Northwest — its hero is not a professional spy whose job is to have such adventures. Jean Paul Belmondo is a sailor on leave whose girlfriend gets kidnapped by some antiquities smugglers, so he goes off in pursuit. His adventures take him to Brazil, where the famous landmarks of Rio have the same kind of visual prominence that American ones do in Hitchcock films. Plus this film (like Charade) is very rich in humor, a trait of all of Hitchcock’s double chase films.

Mirage (1965)

Peter Stone’s follow-up t0 Charade, designed to be the same kind of Hitchcock tribute, directed by Edward Dmtryk. In place of the leads from the previous hit, there are two more than worthy replacements: Gregory Peck (who’d been in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and The Paradine Case) and Diane Baker (who played the sister in Marnie).  Peck plays an accountant who suddenly finds him sucked into a maelstrom of intrigue — because he is actually an important scientist with amnesia.

Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)

A plot of the gaslighting sort: Carol Lynley is a young mom who drops her daughter off for her first day of school. The daughter vanishes and there is no proof that she ever existed. This plot (and the eventual arrival of an actual psycho) in combination with a cast of major stars (Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Kier Dullea) approximate the magic of a Hitchcock experience. Directed by Otto Preminger. 

Blindfold (1966)

Rock Hudson was often a kind of second string stand-in for top tier guys like Cary Grant and Gregory Peck. He is used in that capacity here as a psychiatrist who is drafted by the CIA to help a valuable scientist regain his memory. His character is famous, a target of reporters, an element that reminds me of North by Northwest. Hudson is taken to visit the scientist several times for psychiatric sessions, blindfolded (so he won’t know the location). Later, he is kidnapped by international criminals who want to find the scientist themselves. At the climax, Hudson must locate the scientist himself using his wits and sense of hearing alone. I hope I don’t have to spell out why this one is Hitchcockesque — it just is!

Arabesque (1966)

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen, who’d directed Charade, and co-written by Peter Stone from Charade and others. Cary Grant was originally sought for the lead role, but this was just at the time he was in the process of retiring. Gregory Peck, who’d been in Mirage, became the choice for the hero, an Egyptologist who is kidnapped and swept away to the Middle East so he can do a job of translating. The love interest is the most beautiful woman in the world, Sophia Loren. The plot is unbelievably convoluted, nearly impossible to follow. The international settings, thrills, sex and glamour float it along, but one thing missing from the equation is humor. It’s there in the script, but Gregory Peck was not a funny man. When he delivers the quips, they fall to earth like pyramid stones.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn as a blind lady in a New York City apartment being terrorized by a psycho (Alan Arkin) and gaslighted by his more artful partners (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, the latter of whom had been in Mirage). The men are after some heroin that was in a doll that someone gave Hepburn’s photographer husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) at the airport.  Her predicament of being trapped, helpless and alone in a Greenwich Village apartment is reminiscent of Rear Window, among other things.

Sisters (1973)

This is Brian de Palma’s first truly Hitchcockian film and in some ways his best, as it is more original and is less about literally quoting and re-creating Hitchcockian film techniques. Sometimes his earlier film Murder a la Mod is called Hitchcockian, but as we write above, it is more like Antonioni or Godard. In SistersMargot Kidder may or may not be a pair of separated Siamese twins, one of whom is a psycho murderer. Other “faux Hitchcock” De Palma movies include Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992). By the 1980s this strain of his work became increasingly tiresome, just empty exercises in technique.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier story about a grieving couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who are in Venice following the death of their child (The husband has a job restoring an old cathedral). This one, with its intimation of ghostly hauntings and psychic premonition, is more supernatural than Hitchcock would have liked, but it is based on Du Maurier and does end with a meat cleaver murder.

Frantic (1988)

This is my only outlier timewise, and I include it for what I hope will be an obvious reason: it is essentially Roman Polanski doing Hitchcock. I remember thinking that very thing in the cinema when I saw it in on its original release; that moment was essentially the origin of this long germinating piece. I have been formulating this list for decades. (There are others I have left off, perhaps I will do a part two at some point). The plot is essentially The Man Who Knew Too Much, with a doctor (Harrison Ford) seeking his kidnapped wife (Betty Buckley) rather than a kidnapped child, shot against the picturesque background of Paris, all on account of some accidentally switched suitcases.

 

Glenn Tryon: Forgotten Silent Screen Comedian

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2017 by travsd

Idaho-born Glenn Tryon (Glenn Monroe Kunkel, 1898-1970) had worked in vaudeville and the regional melodrama stage when Hal Roach hired him in 1923 to fill the void at his studio left by Harold Lloyd, who had departed to make features. He was a good looking leading man type, on the small side, and was adept at playing romantic light comedies with a bit of slapstick. He starred in Roach two-reelers for four years, and early on, backed Stan Laurel in shorts like The Soilers (1923) and Smithy (1924). Lloyd was to remake Tryon’s The White Sheep (1924) at feature length as The Kid Brother (1927). Tryon has a cameo as himself in Harry Langdon’s Long Pants (1927). 

From 1927 through 1932 he starred in features, often comedies at first, but increasingly westerns and B movies adventures in the sound era.  He co-starred with Merna Kennedy in three features in 1929 (Broadway, Barnum Was Right and Skinner Steps Out), immediately after she had co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). 

From 1933 through the end of the 1940s he amassed credits as a screenwriter, director and producer, contributing to many notable projects. He contributed to the screenplay for Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert (1933), the musical Roberta (1935), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), and the Marx Brothers Room Service (1938), and was associate producer on Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) and Keep ’em Flying (1941) and Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941). On the latter picture he met Jane Frazee, to whom he was married from 1942 through 1947. (His previous wife was stage and silent screen actress Lillian Hall, who ended her career in 1924 when she married Tryon, then a rising star).

Among Tryon’s more interesting projects from the 40s were a couple of anti-Hitler comedies, made as “streamliners” for Hal Roach. He produced The Devil with Hitler in 1942; and That Nazty Nuisance in 1943.

Late in his career, he went before the camera three more times. He played George White in George White’s Scandals (1945), appeared in the musical Variety Girl (1947), and has a small role in Home Town Story (1951). Sometime after this he appears to have retired to Florida, which is where he passed away in 1970.

For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

Why Most of the Time Frank Capra was Not “Frank Capra”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on May 18, 2017 by travsd

It’s film director Frank Capra’s birthday. This post has come about because in recent years I’ve filled out my Capraducation some — I’ve seen a bunch of his more obscure movies from early and late in his career. Once you do that, Capra’s “voice” becomes more diffuse. It becomes harder to say what it is.

It’s become idiomatic: “A Frank Capra movie”. Most people think they know what they mean by the phrase, and the idea that they have, I’ll bet, is coherent. It’s based on a handful of his best known and best loved movies, which will generally consist of the Capra movies most people have seen, chiefly: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Nowadays, many would call It’s a Wonderful Life their favorite and I’ve even heard some ostensibly knowledgeable commentators call it the most representative Capra movie. I would have to disagree. In my book, the two most perfectly constructed distillations of the Capra Idea are Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith…the little guy going up against huge, apparently unbeatable and malevolent forces and winning. In the case of Mr. Deeds it’s an ethic of generosity vs. cynical greed. In Mr. Smith it’s the application of power towards the common good vs. power for its own sake. It would be hard for me to pick which is my favorite. Some days, the first, other days, the second.

“Mr. Smith” — the Capra template

At any rate, while the other films I just mentioned may come close to the ideal in philosophy and tone, they deviate in structure. The stage version of You Cant Take It With You was much different; Capra kind of wrestled it into a message picture he was more comfortable with for the screen version, and it’s a little inorganic. Meet John Doe is very dark; it lacks the affirmation we get from Deeds and Smith. There is an 11th hour reprieve in the film but it is a small one and we emerge full of doubt about the goodness of The People. It’s a Wonderful Life is also pretty dark; it’s about a man’s inner battle between his own self-interest and the sacrifices he makes for the good of those around him. It’s an excellent movie (Capra justifiably thought that it was his best) but I wouldn’t call it representative of the Capra Idea — that’s my point.

Still these are the five I would call the most Capraesque in that sense. Yet Capra made close to 40 Hollywood features, and another dozen or so documentary films and industrials besides. Most of these films are not “Frank Capra films” in the commonly used sense. Some come close: I’d have to include The Miracle Woman (1931), American Madness (1932), Platinum Blonde (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934) and State of the Union (1948) in a slightly expanded circle, dealing as they do with fraudulence and values in America (most of them in the context of the Depression). He’s constantly asking, “What matters most in this world? Fame and riches? Or being a right guy?”

I haven’t seen all of his films, but of the ones I’ve seen the remainder are quite a grab bag. There are his two silent comedy vehicles for Harry Langdon, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), generally conceded to be among the greatest of silent comedy features. (Capra got his start in silent comedy as a gag writer for Our Gang!) There’s the Joe Cook starring vehicle Rain or Shine (1930), also essentially a straight up “comedian comedy”. Dirigible (1931) is a fictional adventure story about a race to the South Pole in a hot air balloon. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and Lost Horizon (1937) have (probably unintentional) racist overtones that seem to oddly point the way to his anti-Japanese propaganda films of WWII. Broadway Bill (1934) is a horse racing story; he later remade it as Riding High (1950). Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is just a straight-up farcical comedy with no social dimension at all.

Interestingly, although so many now love It’s a Wonderful Life, it bombed when first released. It was both a financial disaster and a crisis of confidence for Capra that he never completely recovered from. I theorize that 1946 audiences found it intolerably old-fashioned and sentimental. To us, it seems timeless. But in 1946, the cutting edge was movies like Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Best Years of Our Lives. Capra was now at sea. I happen to like State of the Union (1948), a story of political corruption not unlike Meet John Doe. But everything after that is both feeble and pretty hard to take. Of his four remaining features, two are remakes of previous Capra hits (Broadway Bill as Riding High; Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles [1961]). Two of the four (Riding High and Here Comes the Groom [1951]) star Bing Crosby. A Hole in the Head (1959) is the most interesting and easiest to take of the bunch, although it’s slow moving and lacks the sort of sparkle that once came easily to him.

Capra remained healthy and alert well into the 1980s. I loved his autobiography and I often used to think “What a shame he could’t get funding for pictures, he had at least another couple of productive decades in him.” But then I went and watched (or tried to watch) his last movie Pocketful of Miracles the other day, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, and I was like “Oooooh! This is why.” And I’m more than okay with the fact Capra made no further movies. It seems as though, in his best pictures, i.e., the Depression era message movies and his Why We Fight series of WWII documentaries, he had something to push back against. An epic sized villain. Lady for a Day had made sense in the context of the Depression, but as a period piece I found Pocketful of Miracles screechingly, unwatchably bad, just woefully out of step with the times, full of patronizing, rose-colored, romanticized portrayals of homeless people and gangsters. I sort of wanted to throw up from the first frame. And, listen, I’m plenty sentimental. I watch Capra’s movies from the 30s and weep.

The last Hollywood film Capra worked on was the sci-fi astronaut story Marooned, which he was originally to direct. He quit the project due to budgetary frustrations. The film was finally made by John Sturges and released in 1969. A lot of his final movies were science related documentaries and industrials. By training he was an engineer.

So we return to my original thesis. Most of Frank Capra’s movies are not “Frank Capra” movies. Those constitute a minority within his body of work.

Leonard Sillman: The Man Behind “New Faces”

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by travsd

Several years ago I acquired a box of old theatre books that someone was discarding. Tucked in the pages of one of them, presumably as a bookmark, was a xeroxed program for a show called New Faces of 1952. This was my first awareness of Leonard Sillman (1908-1982).

I’m not a collector; in fact I actively try NOT to collect (however, books do seem to accumulate). But I understand why others  collect. There is a magic to stuff. Facts that you hear or read about feel theoretical. But when you can put your hands on something it becomes real. Here was a real old theatre program left by someone who had attended a Broadway show full on then-unknowns, “unknowns” among whom were Mel Brooks, Paul Lynde, Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, Carol Lawrence and Ronny Graham. “What a wonderful thing, I thought. Vaudeville was long dead in 1952, but Broadway still had this mechanism for introducing talent to the public in the form of these revues.”

The man responsible for the New Faces series, and much else, actually had a vaudeville background. He was 14 when he moved from his native Detroit to come to New York to love with an aunt and study dance with Ned Wayburn. He was only 16 when he replaced Fred Astaire in the road company of Lady Be Good. He performed in vaudeville for a bit with Frances Gershwin, sister of George and Ira, for a partner. He also appeared in three Broadway shows: Loud Speaker (1927), Merry-Go-Round (1927), and Polly (1929).

Then he headed out to Hollywood where he taught dance to movie performers, Ruby Keeler among them, and got bits parts in three films in 1933: Whistling in the Dark, Goldie Gets Along and Bombshell. It was there in 1933 that he also produced his first theatrical production Lo and Behold at the Pasadena Playhouse, featuring Eve Arden, Tyrone Power, Kay Thompson and Mr. Silliman’s own sister June Carroll. And Sillman performed in the show himself as well, as he often did throughout the years.

Sillman at Work

Lo and Behold was such a hit that he was able to bring it to Broadway under the title New Faces of 1934, and with new cast members, including Henry Fonda and Imogene Coca, with staging by Elsie Janis. The timing of this development is interesting. As we wrote here, the great Broadway revue series of the early 20th century were in their death throes when the Depression hit. Their aesthetics were old-fashioned; and the scale of the spectacle was becoming cost-prohibitive. This was like a passing of the torch. While Sillman himself was a dancer, and his shows certainly featured song and dance numbers, they didn’t have huge, expensive kickline choruses. Smart, sophisticated sketches, initially written by Sillman himself were the meat of it. Sillman was to create, produce and direct numerous such revues, many of them under the New Faces banner, through 1968! Some other “new faces” he introduced to Broadway included Van Johnson (1936), Irwin Corey (1943), Billie Hayes, Maggie Smith (both 1956), right down to Madeline Kahn and Robert Klein (both 1968). There was also a a film version, New Faces of 1937, with Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Parkyakarkus, Bert Gordon, and Harriet Hilliard, a radio version (1948), and a 1954 television version of New Faces of 1952. 

In addition to his revues, Sillman also produced and directed book musicals and straight plays, most of which weren’t as successful as his revues. His last Broadway credit as producer was a 1970 revival of Hay Fever featuring Sam Waterston and Shirley Booth that ran three weeks. Leonard Sillman had a good eye for talent.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Walter Forde: The “British Harold Lloyd”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Why You MUST See “Paradise Alley”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of stage and screen Renaissance man Hugo Haas (1901-1968). Haas is an intriguing cinematic figure whom I am only just now discovering for myself, and the process is giving me great joy.

Of German-Jewish parentage he was born in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time of his birth, but was incorporated into the new nation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Haas became a star of Prague’s National Theatre, and by the 1920s he became a popular film actor as well. In the mid-30s he expanded his reach, also become a successful film director. His biggest hit while still based in his native country was Skeleton on Horseback (1937) an adaptation of a play by Karel Capek, best known to many of our readers no doubt as the author of R.U.R. 

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Like so many others, Haas was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslavakia (1938-1939). It took several years for him to make his way to Hollywood, where he begins to show up as a character actor by 1944. He was successful as such for several years, in films like The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and King Solomon’s Mine (1950).

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But unlike many refugee film directors from France and Germany whom one might rate as his peers, Haas was unable to get a foothold with the major studios as a director. Nothing daunted, at a time when such risk-taking was rare, he poured his income from acting into his own independent films which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself, a series of seedy, gritty, sensationalist noir melodramas with titles like Pickup (1951), One Girl’s Confession (1953), and Bait (1954). The films were not highly-rated by the critics, but netted enough profit to keep him going as long as demand for B movies remained.

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By 1959, That B movie market had dried up, and he seemed to be at the end of the line. There seems to be some awareness of that in his last film Paradise Alley (completed 1959, released 1962). Much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a highly self-reflexive work, a kind of valedictory statement. And it has the kind of mix of intellectual pretension and seedy poverty row folk-art non sequitur that graces such wide-ranging films as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), and Utopia (1951) starring Laurel and Hardy.

Haas plays a once-famous German silent-film director named Mr. Agnus (Latin for “Lamb”, i.e. Christ), who moves into a slum neighborhood which evokes everything from Elmer Rice’s Street Scene to Dead End to the then-current West Side Story. Like the latter, it has a Romeo and Juliet thing going, with the star-crossed lovers played by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and Don Sullivan, star of such epics as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). The neighborhood is a seething cauldron of sex, hatred and violence. A gang of not-so-juvenile delinquents, all of whom seem to be about 47 years old, run around; one of them is played by Duke Mitchell, who’d co-starred in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla seven years earlier, but is ignominiously overshadowed by bigger stars in this film.

Amazingly, Paradise Alley does have a large number of well-known names in the cast, although at the time the film was made, most of them were either former stars or would only later come to have cults of fans in retrospect. And this really fuels the down-at-the-heels Hollywood magic of this film in a manner that recalls Sunset Boulevard. Morris’s parents are played by comedian Billy Gilbert and former silent star Corinne Griffith. Sullivan’s mother (and Gilbert’s enemy) is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton. Familiar character actress Almira Sessions is the landlady. Noir sexpot Marie Windsor is the provocative burlesque dancer just across the way. Silent comedian Chester Conklin, in one of his last roles, plays a retired Hollywood camera man; character actor Pat Goldin, best known from Jiggs and Maggie comedies, plays another retired film professional.

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These last two provide the engine for the film’s rather slight action. Haas (his name is a stand-in for Jesus, recall) gets it into his head to bring peace to the slums by pretending to make a film with Conklin and Goldin, casting everyone in the neighborhood, and making them say nice things to each other. (An oddly Catholic impulse I felt, in its formal ritualism leading to grace, though Haas was Jewish).  Further, there is no film in the camera, giving the entire charade an existential slant not unlike we get in the plays of Jean Genet.

In the end, a real Hollywood film producer played by William Schallert gets wind of the project, and decides to make a real film, and that’s where we get into some heady territory. Not only has peace been achieved, but the poor people of the ‘hood will now be on the payroll merely for existing. Is this communism? Utopia? Heaven? Then it gets trippier, when much like the Monkees movie Head, the last few moments of the film become a replay of the film’s first few moments, including theme song and credits: the film is a film of a film of a film of a film in an endless feedback loop.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s technical brilliance. Its aspirations are great, but so are its limitations. The dialogue is frequently bad, almost Ed Wood level in its inexplicable refusal to move the plot forward. Haas’s lines are often simply strange and clunky; after all English was Haas’s third language (at least). Directorially, the pace is often slow, stilted, and full of dead air, with no sense of urgency or narrative momentum. Though the cast is well known, most of them were character actors accustomed only to small parts. Ironically Paradise Alley may have given them the largest, most dramatically challenging roles of their careers, and many of them seem stretched beyond their abilities. And then there’s the fact that Haas seems incapable of refraining from weird, inappropriately sexual jokes and moments, including a gratuitous near-rape scene in the film’s opening minutes. Also I’m not sure, I have to watch it again, but I think one of the female characters is inexplicably played by a man in drag. All of this goes to explain why the film wasn’t released for nearly three years after it was made, and why it continues to be so rare today.

But it is now one of my favorite films. Paradise Alley somehow manages to incorporate nearly everything I love in the world into an exceedingly strange and cosmic fruit salad. Watch it here. 

King Baggot: One of Filmdom’s First Stars

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of King Baggot (1879-1948). I know — sounds like a good name for a Hobbit’s Doberman Pinscher. What he was, was one of the first movie stars whose name was promoted to the public, one of the biggest screen stars of the American cinema’s early years, and one of its top directors as well.

The son of Irish Catholic immigrants he started out working for his father’s St. Louise real estate film. But the Siren Call of the theatre was irresistible and he began barnstorming with Shakespearean stock companies, gradually working his way up to top outfits like the Frohman and Shubert companies. His one Broadway show was a 1906 production of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. 

In 1909, on a lark he have the then-still-quite-new movie business a try, starring opposite Florence Lawrence in The Awakening of Bess at IMP Studios. She was to be his leading lady for two years, at which point he starred in numerous films opposite Mary Pickford. He starred in scores of movies in these early days, when most films were about ten minutes long. A well remembered early picture is his 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

He began writing films in 1911 and directing in 1911. In 1913, he directed and starred in a feature length Ivanhoe. The following year, he made Shadows, in which he played ten characters. In 1921, he stopped acting in order to concentrate on directing. Films of this period include Kissed (1922), Marie Prevosts’s one of first starring pictures; The Gaiety Girl (1924), Raffles (1925), and probably his best known film nowadays, William S. Hart’s last picture Tumbleweeds (1925). Baggot’s last film as director was Romance of a Rogue (1928).

Unfortunately just as the industry was transitioning into talkies, Baggott had developed a bad reputation in the business due to his drinking. At this stage, he was hired neither as a star nor as a director, and was simply a bit player, often only an extra. He continued to work until the end of his life, and in some classic films, but normally as an uncredited walk-on. (Look for him, for example, alongside W.C. Fields in Mississippi, since this is Fields Fest! Fields always had a soft spot for forgotten old stage veterans.)

To learn more about early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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