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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

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The Red Shoes (Sept. 6, 1948)

The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a girl who can’t stop dancing after she puts on a pair of magical red shoes. An angel appears and tells her she will continue to dance after death as a warning to vain children everywhere. Her feet keep dancing in the red shoes even after they are amputated.

It’s a potentially wonderful parable for the way ballet dancers suffer for their art, but as a cinematic experience, The Red Shoes left me wanting. I’ve been hearing for most of my life about how wonderful this film is, but for me it was the most disappointing production from Powell and Pressburger that I’ve seen so far.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but I had very high expectations, and I felt let down.

In terms of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, The Red Shoes lacks the warm, human drama of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the sublime comedy of a film like A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s most similar to Black Narcissus (1947), in which lush visuals eroticized a slight story.

The Red Shoes is beautiful to look at, and the dancing is marvelous, but the story never completely captured my interest, and I found the performances of the actors campy and overblown.

The intense, youthful-looking 51-year-old Austrian actor Anton Walbrook plays composer and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, the head of the Ballet Lermontov. For him, dance is a religion, and when Lady Neston (Irene Brown) tries to get him to watch her niece dance at a party, he witheringly replies that he doesn’t care to see his religion practiced “in an atmosphere such as this.”

Her niece has real talent, however, and she soon becomes one of Lermontov’s principal dancers. Her name is Victoria Page (“Vicky” for short), and she’s played by the beautiful red-haired ballerina Moira Shearer.

Shearer

Powell and Pressburger wisely chose to cast real ballet dancers who could act a little, rather than actors who could do a little ballet. For the most part it works, but except for Shearer — whose performance in The Red Shoes I find quite wonderful — the ballet dancers don’t have a lot of range as actors.

When there’s no dancing going on in The Red Shoes, things feel a little lifeless. The film is ostensibly about Vicky being torn between her love for the “attractive brute” Lermontov and her love for the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose creativity is burgeoning as Lermontov’s is failing. I never felt compelled by either of these relationships, however, and it didn’t help that I found Goring utterly devoid of charisma. It also doesn’t help that this plot device kicks in too late in the film to feel authentic.

The Red Shoes is a visual feast with some wonderful ballet sequences, but dramatically, I found it sodden and overlong.

Bodyguard (Sept. 4, 1948)

Bodyguard
Bodyguard (1948)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard features Lawrence Tierney doing what Lawrence Tierney did best — knocking down everyone and everything that gets in his way.

In the first sequence of the film, LAPD detective Mike Carter (Tierney) is reprimanded by his lieutenant (played by Frank Fenton) for using his knuckles instead of his brain. Before Mike even has a chance to plead his case to the captain, the lieutenant informs him that he’s already talked to the captain on Mike’s behalf and that Mike is suspended effective immediately.

So Mike uses his knuckles instead of his brain and gets into a glass-breaking fistfight with his lieutenant.

When Mike and the lieutenant are gearing up to throw punches, the film cuts back and forth between the two men as they both step closer to the camera, eventually getting so close their noses are almost touching the lens.

After Mike is bounced from the force, a man named Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed) approaches him with a proposition. He’ll pay Mike a $2,000 retainer to act as bodyguard to his aunt, Mrs. Gene Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon).

Who can say no to a $2,000 retainer?

Well, apparently Mike Carter can. He’s got better things to do, like spending time with his cute blond fiancée, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final film role), and playing the ponies down at the track.

But when Mike is framed for murder, he’s forced to get into the action. What do Mrs. Dysen and her meat-packing plant have to do with the murder Mike’s been framed for? And was the accidental death of a plant inspector really accidental?

One thing I love is when a B movie gives its peripheral characters interesting lives that in no way advance the plot. For instance, Bodyguard features a scene in an arcade where Mike tries to get the counter girl’s attention as she chats with a couple of sailors. He doesn’t succeed for awhile, and when he finally does, one of the sailors tries to start a fight with him. Bodyguard runs for barely longer than an hour, and has a dense, twisty plot, but it still finds time for entertaining little moments like that.

It also features a ton of location shooting in Los Angeles and great noir cinematography by Robert De Grasse. Bodyguard is unmistakably designed to be the second feature on a double bill, but it’s well-made, well-acted, and holds up as superior entertainment.

The director, Richard Fleischer, had a long career in Hollywood. He was born in 1916 and Bodyguard was only his fourth feature film (he made a number of documentary shorts in the 1940s as well). To put things into perspective, this is the same man who would go on to make The Narrow Margin (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975), and Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Bodyguard is also notable for being the first time acclaimed director Robert Altman got his name in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, and the story is credited to George W. George and Robert B. Altman.*

Tierney

*Altman also worked on the script for Edwin L. Marin’s Christmas Eve (1947), which starred George Raft, but Altman’s name didn’t appear in the credits.

Sorry, Wrong Number (Sept. 1, 1948)

Sorry Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures

Lucille Fletcher was the greatest playwright who ever worked in the medium of radio.

Fletcher had an instinctive understanding of radio’s limitations and possibilities. Her dramas were often confined to a single location, never had more characters than the listener could keep track of, and exploited simple but primal fears like helplessness, confinement, and being alone in the dark.

Her most famous radio play was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, as an episode of the CBS anthology series Suspense. It starred Agnes Moorehead as a bedridden invalid who accidentally overhears a phone conversation between two men who are planning a murder. Distraught, she tries to get the operator to find out where the call came from. When that doesn’t work, she calls the police, but without specific information — she didn’t hear any names or exact places — there isn’t much they can do.

It’s a brilliant setup. Since all the action takes place in a single bedroom and all of the dialogue takes place over the phone, there’s never any confusion about who’s who, or what’s happening. Also, the fact that the story is told completely through sound creates a terrifying sense of intimacy.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was the most popular episode ever broadcast on Suspense. It was so popular that it was performed seven more times, each time starring Agnes Moorehead; again in 1943, in 1944, in 1945, in 1948, in 1952, in 1957, and for the final time in 1960. (Suspense was on the air from 1942 to 1962.)

Stanwyck

It’s natural that such a popular radio play would be adapted for the big screen, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work expanded to three times its length for a visual medium.

People seem to have mixed feelings about Anatole Litvak’s film version, but I thought it was pretty good. I love Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s a more likeable protagonist than Agnes Moorehead was in the same role on the radio.

I found Sorry, Wrong Number similar in some ways to Robert Siodmak’s film The Killers (1946), which was adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Both films take a small, perfect little piece of art and expand it into a feature film by adding a bunch of characters and a whole lot of plot that’s not even suggested in the original work. (Incidentally, both films star Burt Lancaster and feature William Conrad in a small but important role.)

How well this works is up to the individual viewer, but I thought that Sorry, Wrong Number worked pretty well as a film. It doesn’t have the same impact as the radio play, but the integrity of the original story remains intact, even though it only occupies the first 15 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the film. The film version also humanizes her husband (played by Lancaster) and turns him into a victim of sorts, which is drastically different from the radio play, in which he is mostly an off-stage presence.

Anyway, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work for radio, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the shows she wrote scripts for. You can click on the titles below to stream the shows or right-click to download them.

The Hitchhiker (first broadcast November 17, 1941)
This is the June 21, 1946, broadcast of the show on Orson Welles’s Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Welles reprises his role as a man driving cross-country who repeatedly see the same hitchhiker on the side of the road, even though there is no possible way the man could be moving from place to place so quickly. The chilling music is by Fletcher’s husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann. Like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” this play was done for radio several times, and was even adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960.

The Diary of Sophronia Winters (first broadcast April 27, 1943)
Sophronia Winters (Agnes Moorehead), an unmarried middle-aged woman who is feeling liberated after her father’s death, meets a man named Hiram (Ray Collins) whose sister-in-law was also named “Sophronia.” Hiram marries Sophronia and begins to torment her with tales of the other Sophronia, an ax murderess. This is a claustrophobic, suspenseful story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as memories of the real-life case of Lizzie Borden.

Sorry, Wrong Number (first broadcast May 25, 1943)
The original radio version stars Agnes Moorehead and is one of a handful of absolutely indispensable shows if you have any interest in radio drama.

Fugue in C minor (first broadcast June 1, 1944)
Ida Lupino plays a woman in the late Victorian era who is introduced to a widower with two young children. The widower, played by Vincent Price, is a composer, and his children believe that he murdered their mother, and that her spirit is trapped in their father’s organ.

The Search for Henri LeFevre (first broadcast July 6, 1944)
Paul Muni stars as a classical composer who believes his work has been plagiarized and broadcast on the radio by a man named “Henri LeFevre.”

The Furnished Floor (first broadcast September 13, 1945)
Don DeFore plays a man whose wife has died. He moves back into the apartment he used to share with his wife and restores it to exactly the way it was when his wife was still alive. Mildred Natwick plays his landlady.

Dark Journey (first broadcast April 25, 1946)
Nancy Kelly and Cathy Lewis play a pair of old friends who reunite after years apart. One of them is obsessed with a man who has spurned her, and believes that she can make him love her through sheer force of will.

The Thing in the Window (first broadcast December 19, 1946)
Joseph Cotten plays a man who thinks he can see a corpse in the apartment across from him, but he can’t be certain if his mind is playing tricks on him.

As I said, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work, and I hope you will too.

Rope (Aug. 28, 1948)

Rope
Rope (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

Did you know that actor Dick Hogan’s last role was playing a symbolic male orgasm?

It’s true. Hogan — previously mentioned in this blog for his role in Shed No Tears (1948) — was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope as murder victim David Kentley.

It’s an important role, but a thankless one. As Kentley, Hogan has no lines, and is offscreen for most of the film’s running time.*

After the film’s opening credits have rolled, we hear his scream, then see him with a rope wrapped around his neck at the moment he is dying. He’s being murdered by a pair of thrill-killers named Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who consider themselves “superior” and most everyone else — including their friend David — “inferior.”

Rope is based on a 1929 play written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. Brandon and Phillip are thinly veiled versions of Leopold and Loeb, the infamous thrill-killers who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in an attempt to commit a “perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb were law students at the University of Chicago. Both came from wealthy families, and both had muddled ideas about Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” and their own superiority.

Long story short, their crime was far from perfect, and they were arrested and put on trial. Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch opponent of capitol punishment. The jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced the two young men to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate in 1936, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958, after 33 years in prison. He died in 1971 of natural causes.

Dick Hogan

But back to the fictionalization of their crime, and that symbolic male orgasm I mentioned at the beginning.

I’m sure some will accuse me of “reading too much into” the film or seeing something that isn’t there, but I think anyone who reads up on the Leopold and Loeb case and then immediately watches Rope will find it impossible not to notice the homosexual undertones. Also, Hitchcock is one of the most self-aware filmmakers of all time, and he was fascinating by unconventional sexuality.

The very first scene — the murder — is a symbolic orgasm shared by the murderers; strangled, intense, and shameful.

The murder is a stand-in for a sexual encounter between Brandon and Phillip. Phillip doesn’t want to turn the lights on right away. “Let’s stay this way for just a minute,” he says, and Brandon lights up a post-coital cigarette. “We couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight.”

This is about as explicit as a film from 1948 could be when exploring gay sex and gay desire.

Add to this the fact that the two young men are most in danger of being found out by book publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who was the boys’ headmaster in prep school. The theme of naughty little boys possibly being found out and punished by a boarding-school authority figure is just one of the many skillful pieces of homosexual innuendo that Hitchcock sprinkles throughout Rope.

Granger, Stewart, and Dall

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts. He filmed the action in long takes, like a play. Most of the cuts are necessitated by the length of film reels, and are done as seamlessly as possible (e.g., an actor passes in front of the camera, darkening the frame for a moment to facilitate a cut). Most of the action of Rope takes place during a dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. They’ve arranged a buffet on top of the trunk in which David Kentley’s corpse has been hidden.

I don’t normally like films adapted from plays, but I love Rope. Stage plays are very different from screenplays, and I think the problem with most play-films is that something seems very, very “off” about the dialogue and the way the characters appear, disappear, and reappear in physical space. By filming Rope exactly like a play, however, Hitchcock ironically created a very exciting movie that works extremely well. There’s a creepy sense of intimacy created by the single setting and the actors all playing off each other without a cut every few seconds. And of course, the fact that every line in the film is colored by the viewer’s knowledge that the corpse of David Kentley is hidden away under everyone’s nose.

The way the film moves from day to night is eerie and impressive, too. The backdrop of the film is an enormous window that looks out over Manhattan, and as the film moves forward in time the sky grows darker and lights come on in the buildings and smoke curls from little smokestacks.

Rope should be seen at least once by everyone who has any interest in how films are made. And for people who love Hitchcock’s gruesome playfulness and gallows humor, it’s a film to be savored over and over.

*Interestingly, Hogan has a speaking role in the film’s trailer, but never utters a word in the film itself. Hitchcock’s films always had some of the most inventive trailers, and Rope is no exception: