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Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Dark Corner (April 9, 1946)

If someone were to say to me, “What exactly is a film noir? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I might direct them to Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Not because it’s the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but because it contains so many “noir” elements; a tough-talking P.I. and his sexy secretary, blackmail, frame-ups, violence, creative use of shadows and low-angle shots, and a plethora of quotable tough-guy dialogue like “I can be framed easier than Whistler’s mother.” It’s also not a picture that’s attained the status of a true “classic” like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946), so no one’s going to be distracted by great acting, iconic characterizations, or a brilliant storyline. This is pulp. Pure and unvarnished.

I love pulpy noir, so I really enjoyed The Dark Corner. On the other hand, I first saw this movie less than a decade ago, and only remembered one scene, in which one character pushes another out of a skyscraper window and then calmly walks to his dentist appointment. I have pretty good recall, especially when it comes to films, but I didn’t remember anything about this movie, not even after watching it again. Nothing came back. And I have a feeling that I won’t remember much about it 10 years from now, either.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the heck out of it while I was watching it. Mark Stevens isn’t an actor who ever made a big impression on me, but he’s a passable lead. As private investigator Bradford Galt, he delivers his lines with the speed and regularity of a gal in the steno pool pounding the keys of a Smith Corona typewriter. Galt is the kind of guy who makes himself a cocktail by grabbing two bottles with one hand and pouring them into a highball glass together. He’s also the kind of guy who probably wouldn’t do well in today’s litigious corporate environment. When he tells his newly hired secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) that he’s taking her out on a date, she asks, “Is this part of the job?” He responds, “It is tonight.”

It turns out that he’s (mostly) telling the truth, and the reason he’s taking her out on the town is to draw out a tail he’s spotted; a big mug in a hard-to-miss white suit played by William Bendix. Their date was one of my favorite sequences in the movie. There’s a lot of great location footage of New York in The Dark Corner, but the scenes in the Tudor Penny Arcade take the cake. I don’t know if any of the scenes in the arcade were shot in back lots, but the batting cages, the Skeebowl, and the coin-operated Mutoscopes with titles like “Tahitian Nights” and “The Virgin of Bagdad” all looked pretty authentic.

Once Galt gets his hands on the guy tailing him and roughs him up for information, the plot kicks into gear. Bendix’s character, “Fred Foss,” is a heavy who claims to have been hired by a man named Jardine. Galt starts to panic as soon as he hears the name. Jardine was Galt’s partner when he was a P.I. in San Francisco. Jardine had Galt framed, which led to Galt doing two years in the pokey. Jardine (played by the blond, German-accented Kurt Kreuger) is now in New York, but still up to his old tricks, seducing married women and running blackmail schemes. The current object of his affection, Mari Cathcart (Cathy Downs), is married to the effete art dealer Hardy Cathcart, who is played by Clifton Webb. In The Dark Corner, Webb essentially reprises his role from Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944); another film noir in which a painting of a beautiful brunette played a major role.

I won’t summarize the Byzantine plot any further, but it should go without saying that all the pieces tie together. As I said, The Dark Corner isn’t the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty enjoyable to watch, and it looks fantastic. The dialogue is especially cracking, and consistently verges on the ridiculous. For instance, when Cathcart tells Foss (who is on the phone with Galt) to tell Galt that he wants $200 to leave town, Foss repeats the information to Galt by saying, “I need two yards. Powder money.”

Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.

The Gay Cavalier (March 30, 1946)

With this film, handsome 40-year-old actor Gilbert Roland stepped into the role of the Cisco Kid, a Mexican bandit created by O. Henry in his 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.” Roland was the fifth man to play the role, after Warner Baxter (in four films, 1928-1939), Cesar Romero (in five films, 1939-1941), Duncan Renaldo (in three films made in 1945), and William R. Dunn, who was the first man to play the Cisco Kid, in the silent short The Caballero’s Way (1914). Roland would go on to play the Cisco Kid in a total of six films released by Monogram Pictures in 1946 and 1947.

In O. Henry’s short story, the Cisco Kid was a vicious and slippery bandit, but by the time Warner Baxter was playing the role, the character had metamorphosed into a noble caballero; a sort of Mexican Robin Hood.

Baby boomers will remember that on TV, the Cisco Kid had a sidekick named Pancho. The first iteration of this character appeared in the 1939 film Return of the Cisco Kid, and he was named “Gordito” (Spanish for “Fatty”). In The Gay Cavalier he’s called “Baby,” and is played by the Mexican actor Nacho Galindo.

Baby gets the first lines of the picture. While Cisco kneels beside a grave, Baby explains to one of his fellow outlaws (presumably one who has just joined the gang and, like the audience, has no idea what’s going on) that Cisco’s father was a notorious bandit. To make up for his father’s exploits, Cisco now robs from the rich and gives to the poor. It’s a clumsy bit of exposition, but no clumsier than most of the rest of the dialogue in the picture. When Baby decides that they’ve spent enough time at the gravesite and he wants to get going, Cisco tells him, “Time is a wonderful thing. It ages wine and mellows women.” Roland is the main reason to see the picture, especially for women who get all hot and bothered for the Latin Lover type. He can really sell lines like this, and not sound too ridiculous.

What Roland is mostly selling, of course, is S-E-X. But not so much that it might offend audiences, or disrupt traditional morality too much. In one scene, Cisco climbs up onto a lovely young señora’s balcony while Baby plays a little music down below. Eventually she reveals that she has a husband who is away on a fishing trip. Cisco responds, “Sometime, when I see your husband, I will tell him the fishing is much better here on land. Adios, beautiful.” He kisses her hand, leaps from the balcony onto his horse, and rides off with his crew and Baby, whose serenade is no longer required.

The Gay Cavalier takes place in California in 1850. The nice thing about old Hollywood westerns that take place in California is that the scenery is authentic, if nothing else. Martin Garralaga, the actor who played “Pancho” in the three 1945 Cisco Kid films with Duncan Renaldo, here plays Don Felipe Geralda, a man who has fallen on hard times. His youngest daughter, Angela (Helen Gerald), is engaged to marry a wealthy American named Lawton (Tristram Coffin), whose money will allow the Geralda hacienda to stay in the family.

Unbeknownst to the Geraldas, Lawton and his partner Lewis (John Merton) are up to no good. In the beginning of the picture, they ambush a wagon carrying a shipment of silver collected from poor people to build a mission in Monterey. They leave one man wounded but alive, and say loudly within earshot of the man, “All right, Cisco, we got what we want. Now we go.”

All of this plays out about as predictably as you’d expect. The enjoyment comes from the particulars. The sultry and beautiful actress Ramsay Ames plays Don Geralda’s eldest daughter, Pepita, and she sings a few numbers that Ames herself is credited with writing. Also, the action is well staged, especially the final showdown between Cisco and Lawton. As he demonstrated in a film I watched last year, Captain Kidd (1945), Roland is a hell of a sword fighter. He and Coffin go at it with no stunt doubles in evidence, although the film is sped up very slightly.

Also, unlike most of the actors who played the Cisco Kidd, Roland was actually Mexican. He was born “Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso” in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1905. He took his stage name from his two favorite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He’s a very credible swashbuckler, and a lot of fun to watch, even though The Gay Cavalier is strictly a programmer.

One odd note, the DVD from VCI Entertainment I watched uses a print with a strange ADR issue. It didn’t take long before I noticed that every time someone said “Cisco Kid” it was looped in, and not well. I did some research, but couldn’t find exactly why this was the case. This was originally released as a Cisco Kid feature, and there would have been no restriction on using the name, so the prevailing theory seems to be that the film was dubbed for television release in the ’50s, and the character’s name was changed so as not to cause confusion with the Cisco Kid TV show, and one of those prints was the only one they could find, so they dubbed the original character’s name back in. Whatever the reason, it was weird and distracting.

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