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Tag Archives: Melvyn Douglas

A Woman’s Secret (March 5, 1949)

A Woman's Secret
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

A Woman’s Secret is the third Nicholas Ray film I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it was the second film he directed.

Ray completed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market it. It premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

The success of Ray’s third film, Knock on Any Door (1949), led to his first two films being released in the United States in 1949 by a newly confident RKO Radio Pictures.

Of his first three pictures, A Woman’s Secret is easily the weakest, and is significant mostly because it’s how Ray met his second wife, actress Gloria Grahame.

After shooting wrapped, the two were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1948. It was the second marriage for both of them. (They had to live in Nevada for the required six weeks before Grahame could get her quickie divorce from actor Stanley Clements). Before they divorced in 1952, Grahame starred in one of Ray’s greatest films, In a Lonely Place (1950), which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

A Woman’s Secret was a contract job for Ray. The screenplay was adapted from Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s 1946 novel Verpfändetes Leben (Mortgage on Life) by the film’s producer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Ray had no script input, so it’s easy to write it off as a studio-imposed footnote in Ray’s career.

Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a mystery. It’s no In a Lonely Place, but it’s worth watching at least once.

The central relationship in the film is the one between Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and her protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). Marian is a singer who has lost her voice, and she’s completely shaped and guided Susan’s career, rechristening her “Estrellita.” One night, after the two argue bitterly, a shot rings out. Susan lies on the floor near death, a bullet lodged near her heart. Marian is holding the smoking gun, but this is a mystery picture, so don’t assume anything yet.

Most of the film’s plot unspools as a series of flashbacks as Susan lies in the hospital and the detective assigned to the case — Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) — tries to piece together the facts. He spends a good deal of time with composer and pianist Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), who is Marian’s boyfriend. Fowler also gets plenty of help from his wife, Mrs. Fowler (Mary Philips), who’s running an investigation of her own.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in A Woman’s Secret, but nothing really jells. The film is too crowded with plot and characters for the central relationship between Marian and Susan to ever be fully explored. Melvyn Douglas and Jay C. Flippen are fine performers, and both inject their two-dimensional characters with enough life to make their scenes interesting. Philips gets a juicy role as Inspector Fowler’s wife, and her nosiness isn’t just played for laughs. She actually knows what she’s doing, much to her husband’s chagrin.

Most people who write about Ray’s career either gloss over or completely ignore this film. There’s not much about it that fits in with his obsessions and themes. But despite a studio-imposed script, there are interesting themes and tensions bubbling below the surface. Grahame’s role as Susan/Estrellita in particular feels at home in Ray’s oeuvre. She’s a misunderstood, inarticulate, unhappy, and tragic outsider — a character type that would recur again and again in Ray’s films.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (June 4, 1948)

I don’t know about you, but comedies like H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House really stress me out.

When the subject of “things I could never laugh at” comes up, most people think of things like the death of a beloved family pet or ethnic cleansing, but while I don’t find either of those subjects fertile ground for comedy, one subject stands above all others as something I can never laugh at — chasing good money after bad.

I don’t know if Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the first comedy in which most of the “comedy” involves someone making terrible decision after terrible decision and throwing vast sums of money into a disastrous project, but it’s one of the best-known and most well-loved.

The first movie like this I saw was the 1986 Tom Hanks “comedy” The Money Pit, which even as a kid I found stressful and unfunny.

The second was the Joe McDoakes “comedy” short So You Want to Move (1950), in which every bad decision the main character makes and every accident he has is flashed on screen in dollar amounts. As the one-reeler continues, and he drops things and crashes into things, his financial responsibility grows and grows. As an argument for using professional movers, So You Want to Move is a persuasive infomercial, but as a comedy it’s totally devoid of laughs. At least for me.

At least Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is enjoyable in the early going, and stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who previously starred together in Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and who are both attractive, charming, and a lot of fun to watch.

Grant plays Jim Blandings, a college graduate who lives in Manhattan, works in advertising, and makes about $15,000 a year. We learn all this from the film’s omniscient narrator, who also calls Mr. Blandings a “modern-day cliff dweller,” since he lives in a high-rise apartment building with his beautiful wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two daughters, and their housekeeper Gussie (Louise Beavers).

Here’s a case where inflation doesn’t tell you everything, since $15,000 is roughly $145,000 in 2012 dollars, but I don’t think even that salary today would be nearly enough to support a wife who doesn’t work, two kids in private school, and a Manhattan apartment big enough to fit a family and a live-in servant.

Granted, the Blandings live in cramped quarters. Everything in their apartment is full to bursting and ready to explode like Fibber McGee’s hall closet, and as the narrator tells us, “just getting shaved in the morning entitles a man to the Purple Heart.” But that’s just Manhattan living, folks. Even for the relatively well-to-do.

One day Mr. Blandings is enticed by a brochure from a Connecticut real estate firm that encourages him to “trade city soot for sylvan charm.”

I can’t even talk about what happens next. It’s just too painful.

I will say this, however. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was funny enough to entertain even someone like me, and Mr. Blandings is presented as just enough of a screwball idiot to make his terrible decisions a little easier to laugh at. For instance, when his lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) asks what his engineer said about the foundation of the house he just purchased, Mr. Blandings responds, “Who needs engineers? This isn’t a train, you know.”

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

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