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Tag Archives: Frank Skinner

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (March 1947)

I suppose this had to happen.

After yesterday’s film, The Farmer’s Daughter, which was an inspirational and heartwarming story of a woman fighting to succeed in a man’s world, I got hit in the face with this wet noodle of a picture. Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is a not-so-heartwarming film about a woman slipping into the depths of loneliness, depression, and alcoholism.

Inspired by the tragic life of Bing Crosby’s first wife, singer Dixie Lee, Smash-Up begins with Angelica “Angie” Conway, née Evans (Susan Hayward), lying in a hospital bed, her face and head bandaged, murmuring, “I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink… I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink…”

The events that brought her to this place are told in flashback. Angie and her husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), both start out as struggling singers, but after he gets a job performing on the radio as “Ken Conway, the Singing Cowhand,” he grows to be a coast-to-coast sensation, and Angie’s career is derailed.

She turns to drinking to soothe her loneliness and frustration, staying home with their infant daughter while Ken is on the road with his friend and partner Steve Nelson (Eddie Albert), his manager Fred Elliott (Carleton Young), and Elliott’s beautiful secretary, Martha Gray (Marsha Hunt), which drives Angie into a spiral of jealousy and paranoia.

Angie may live in a large, beautiful home with servants (all provided with the money from Ken’s success), but none of it means anything when she’s all alone with her baby, who has a fever, and she’s singing “Hushabye Island” to her while a weighted toy swings back and forth on the dresser by the crib. Its shadow is taunting. It looks like a liquor bottle bobbing to and fro.

It would be easy to call Smash-Up a distaff version of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). The two films have many similarities, but Smash-Up is as much about a disintegrating marriage as it is about dipsomania.

There’s some nice subjective camerawork in Smash-Up, like the zoom in on Angie’s face when Ken walks out after finding her drunk at her vanity table following the baby’s illness, but it never gets as wildly baroque as the depictions of Ray Milland’s delirium tremens in The Lost Weekend.

The film also sidesteps several issues. For instance, after Ken leaves with their daughter and Angie says, “I’m going to get my baby back,” there is a montage of liquor splashing into glasses, Angie’s unsteady feet on the sidewalk, and neon club signs (including the appropriately named “Club Downbeat”) that ends with Angie passing out on a stoop. She wakes up in a strange room with her clothes and a man’s clothes thrown over a chair. The camera pans up and we see an unattractive middle-aged man in his undershirt working his razor over a strop. Before the audience can get any ideas, however, we see that there is also a woman in the apartment, who tells Angie that she and her husband put her to bed, effectively quashing any hint of booze-fueled promiscuity.

Like The Lost Weekend, Smash-Up ends a little too happily for its own good. But while The Lost Weekend ended with a promise to stop drinking that might be insincere, Smash-Up pulls out all the stops. The film ends not only with Ken and Angie promising to each other that they’ll try to patch things up, but with the revelation that Angie’s face (the result of a fire caused by a half-smoked cigarette and a bellyful of liquor) is going to be fine, and there won’t be any scarring.

Smash-Up isn’t a bad film, just a gloomy one. The melancholy refrain of the song “Life Can Be Beautiful” started to drive me crazy by the end of the picture, but it suits the proceedings. The actors all play their parts well, especially Hayward, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

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The Egg and I (March 21, 1947)

Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I begins with Claudette Colbert dressing down a comical, goggle-eyed Pullman porter. (Was there ever any other kind of Pullman porter in the movies?) The poor fellow drops an egg on the floor of the train car. When he says, “It’s just an egg,” Colbert flips her wig and exclaims, “Just an egg?!?” She asks him if he’s ever stopped to consider how much work it takes to bring an egg into this world. After the chastened porter scurries out, she addresses the camera directly and says, “And I’ll bet you think an egg is something you casually order for breakfast when you can’t think of anything else. Well, so did I once, but that was before the egg and I.”

And then, after the opening credits roll, we’re introduced to Betty MacDonald (played by Colbert), who goes along with her goofily happy, wild-eyed husband Bob’s plan to move out to the country and run a farm.

Bob MacDonald (Fred MacMurray) served in combat in Okinawa, and he’s so happy to be back home that he’s going to make good on his foxhole promise to himself to devote himself to growing things from the soil and raising livestock. Returning to the land. Getting back to basics. The whole nine yards.

Bob actually seems a bit crazy. If this wasn’t a light comedy, I’d say Bob was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder manifesting as mania. But since it’s a comedy, his zeal is played for laughs. He’s insensitive to everything going on around him. When Betty falls off the roof into a washbucket, he looks down and asks, “What are you doing down there?” He also buys a dog named Sport who’s already bitten everyone in town and can’t be too near livestock. (I hope he didn’t pay too much for him.)

The Egg and I was based on the 1945 best-seller by Betty MacDonald, the author of the popular series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children. The Egg and I detailed her real-life experiences as a young woman living on a small chicken farm in Washington State with her first husband, Robert Heskett, from 1927 to 1931. I haven’t read the book, but by all accounts it’s more witty and acerbic than the film adaptation, which suffers from an overabundance of broad comedy.

If you’re in the mood for a slapstick barnyard comedy, however, The Egg and I offers everything you’ll expect — goats eating hats, ramshackle structures, leaky roofs, beds with rusty springs, leaky buckets, rotten boards, Betty sawing off the limb of the tree she’s sitting on, Betty wrestling with a sow and ending up in the mud, and hillbilly stereotypes galore, such as Bob and Betty’s neighbors, “Ma” and “Pa” Kettle, whose front yard has a hand-painted sign that says “beware of the childrun.” When Betty discusses the oldest boy, Tom Kettle (Richard Long) with Ma, and says, “He ought to go to college,” Ma responds, “College?!? What fer?”

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride’s earthy performances as Ma and Pa Kettle were so popular in The Egg and I that they went on to star in nine more films as the characters, Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951), Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953), Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954), Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956), and The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957). Main was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Kettle in The Egg and I. (Unsurprisingly, she lost out to Celeste Holm, who co-starred in Gentlemen’s Agreement.)

While The Egg and I was a huge hit in 1947, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. It relied too much on slapstick humor, and Colbert and MacMurray were both much too old for the roles they were playing. I thought it was mostly dumb, and you couldn’t pay me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films that followed it.*

*This is actually a lie. If you’re interested in paying me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, please contact me.

I’ll Be Yours (Feb. 2, 1947)

I really liked I’ll Be Yours, and not just because it stars my time-travel girlfriend, Deanna Durbin. It’s a light and frothy romantic comedy — hardly my favorite genre — but the performers are appealing, the humor is genuinely funny, and the musical numbers are great.

Durbin herself can’t be counted among the film’s fans. She retired from acting at the age of 27, after a 12-year career in the movies, and retired to France with her husband. In an interview with David Shipman in 1983, Durbin called her last four films — I’ll Be Yours, Something in the Wind (1947), Up in Central Park (1948), and For the Love of Mary (1948) — “terrible.”

I imagine that Durbin’s negative assessment of her last several films was at least partly due to her dissatisfaction with Hollywood. If she was yearning for a “normal” life and looking for a sign that she should continue acting, I’ll Be Yours is neither groundbreaking nor artful enough to qualify. But if you’re a fan of Deanna Durbin, I’ll Be Yours is wonderful entertainment. She’s as lovely and appealing in it as she was in everything else, and her singing voice was unparalleled among Hollywood ingenues.

In I’ll Be Yours, Durbin plays a naive, wide-eyed young woman with the unwieldy name of Louise Ginglebusher who leaves her hometown of Cobleskill, NY, for a life of excitement in Fun City. While eating lunch on a ridiculously tight budget, she’s befriended by a cranky but kindhearted waiter named Wechsberg (played by William Bendix, another performer who was able to overcome mediocre material).

She’s given a job as an usherette in a palatial movie house by a fellow native of Cobleskill, Mr. Buckingham (Walter Catlett), and shown kindness by a young and handsome lawyer named George Prescott (Tom Drake) who sports an unfortunate Van Dyke beard.

After Wechsberg sneaks Louise into a swanky party he’s working at the Savoy Ritz, she’s snookered into performing a musical number by a philandering millionaire named J. Conrad Nelson (Adolphe Menjou). Naturally, she pulls it off with aplomb, and the song she sings — “Granada” — is a high point of the film.

This leads to J. Conrad Nelson offering Louise a starring role in the Broadway musical he’s financing, but to fend off his advances she invents a husband for herself. In doing so, she underestimates the tenacity of Nelson’s libido. Nelson demands to know who her husband is so he can be put on his payroll and eventually be bought off and done away with.

Forced to produce a husband, Louise turns to Prescott, but his old-man beard will have to go.

All of this is ridiculous, of course, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining vehicle for a quartet of appealing performers. And the music is wonderful.

Felix Jackson wrote the script, which was adapted from Preston Sturges’s The Good Fairy (1935), which was based on a play by Ferenc Molnár. William A. Seiter directed the film.

Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.

Pillow of Death (Dec. 14, 1945)

Wallace Fox’s Pillow of Death, the sixth and final film in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series, is a haunted house mystery, the kind that Charlie Chan and the Crime Doctor excelled at solving. It lacks the ghoulish fun of the Inner Sanctum radio show, and it’s the least memorable of the film series.

The film begins when attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) drops his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) off at her family home after another late night of preparing briefs at the office. The crotchety patriarch of the family, Sam Kincaid (George Cleveland) grumbles, “The Kincaid women never worked,” which is funny, considering the fact that his sister Belle (Clara Blandick) waits on him hand and foot, and he employs Amelia Kincaid (Rosalind Ivan), a poor relative from England, as his housekeeper.

When Fletcher returns home, the police are waiting for him in his living room. Capt. McCracken (Wilton Graff) and his men acted on a tip from a spiritualist named “Julian” (J. Edward Bromberg), who is sitting in Fletcher’s rocking chair like he owns the place. The police inform Fletcher that Julian had a psychic presentiment that one of his adherents, Mrs. Fletcher, had come to harm. When the police arrived at the Fletcher home, they found her murdered corpse. Fletcher is now the prime suspect.

After he’s questioned and released, Fletcher goes to the Kincaid home, as does Julian, and most of the rest of the film takes place there. Donna’s amorous teenaged neighbor Bruce (Bernard Thomas) keeps popping up, skulking around the grounds and saying little, as the bodies start piling up. The haunted house clichés come fast and furious, including a séance presided over by Julian, which gives the roly-poly character actor Bromberg free rein to tilt his head back, roll his eyes up in his head, and speak very, very slowly. It’s not quite entertaining enough to be called “campy,” but it comes close.

Unlike the previous films in the series, the supernatural element is poorly handled and its role in the story is never fully explained. In other Inner Sanctum films, and on the radio show, any supernatural hokum was usually debunked and explained away. Like pulling the mask off the monster at the end of Scooby-Doo, the explanations were sometimes preposterous, but they were usually clever, or at least fun. And since Pillow of Death a straightforward mystery, the lack of explanation seems more like a product of lazy writing than anything else.

Also, with a title like Pillow of Death I was expecting something more overtly supernatural, like a pillow cursed by Satan, or a talking pillow, or possibly even a pillow with a hole in it full of sharp teeth. Instead, an ordinary pillow is used at one point as a murder weapon, in an attempt to smother someone, but that’s it. Given the pillow’s limited role in the film, the title seems almost like a joke.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.