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Tag Archives: Gene Lockhart

Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947)

When I was a kid, I briefly corresponded with Santa Claus. I’m not talking about the annual “letter to Santa” every kid writes, with a list of everything they want in their stocking that year. I dropped Santa a line in the off-season — June or July — and asked him how summers were at the North Pole, how Mrs. Claus and the elves were doing, and what his reindeer liked to eat.

I was eight or nine years old. I didn’t exactly believe in Santa Claus, but I liked the idea of him. Writing a letter to him felt good. And doing it in the summer made me feel unselfish.

I can’t remember if I was surprised or not when I received a response from Santa Claus.

It was a typewritten letter, and it was postmarked the North Pole. Santa thanked me for my letter, let me know what was going on at the North Pole, told me what his reindeer liked to eat, and told me that he liked my drawing of a train and said he assumed I must live near a railroad and that he sincerely hoped I stayed away from the railroad tracks. I didn’t quite understand that last part. There was a freight train that ran through town, but it wasn’t that close to my house, and I never hung out down there, and why wouldn’t Santa know that? Doesn’t he know everything? Surely “plays risky games on the train tracks” would’ve put me in the “naughty” column, wouldn’t it?

He ended the letter by saying that he thought the stamp I’d pasted to the front of the letter was awfully attractive, and asked if I’d ever considered stamp collecting as a hobby. He may have thrown in some stamps to get me started. I can’t remember.

I figured I should probably take Santa’s advice, so I got into stamp collecting and kept up the hobby for several years. It did occur to me that it was a little strange that the last place I saw my letter to Santa was sliding down the mail slot at the post office and that I got a response from some dude calling himself Santa who seemed to be really into philately. (That’s “stamp collecting” for all you non-philatelists out there.)

Around this time, one of my teenaged foster sister’s friends asked me if I believed in Santa Claus, and I responded, “I believe in the spirit of Christmas.”

Which brings me around (finally) to George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. It was just as funny and enjoyable as I remember it being. I found the scene in which Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) tells a shop owner that his store display features his reindeer in the wrong order more whimsical than factual this time around, and the scene in which we see a man in a chintzy Santa suit, drunk as a lord, really disturbed me when I was a kid. This time around, it was merely mildly amusing. (As a jaded adult, Santa Claus-related hijinks have to be a little more disturbing than public intoxication to get a rise out of me.)

Kris Kringle replaces the intoxicated Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and does such a good job that he’s hired as a store Santa. Unlike most department store Santas, he doesn’t shill for his employer. In his first day on the job at Macy’s, he sends a harried mother (Thelma Ritter) to Schoenfeld’s Department Store, which he says is the only place in town that has the toy her son wants. Kringle keeps a very close watch on the toy market, after all. She’s flabbergasted that a department store Santa would send her to a competitor, but she’s delighted, too, and Kringle’s helpfulness creates an enormous wave of good publicity for Macy’s.

The only problem is that Kris believes he really is Santa Claus, and tells everyone so. When the event director who hired him, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), finds out that he’s been filling the head of her six-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), full of such nonsense, she’s upset, and pulls his employment card. It lists his address as Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged, 126 Maplewood Drive, Great Neck, Long Island, but his date of birth says “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth,” under “place” he has written “North Pole,” and his eight tiny reindeer are listed as his next of kin.

Dr. Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris’s nursing home, assures Doris that Kris’s delusion is harmless, but a meddling little twit named Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who gives psychological evaluations to Macy’s employees conspires to have Kris committed.

In order to prove Kris’s sanity, his lawyer, Fred Gailey (John Payne), announces that he will in fact prove that Kringle is Santa Claus, and therefore not insane. It’s the trial of the century. A series of newspapers blare increasingly wild headlines, culminating in the ridiculous “Kris Kringle Krazy? Kourt Kase Koming ‘Kalamity!’ Kry Kiddies.” (A lot of people will tell you that puns are the lowest form of humor, but they’re not. Alliteration is.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction. Every character who has faith is rewarded, but there’s nothing in the film that’s overtly unreal. Doris and Fred find love with each other, and Susan’s only Christmas wish is fulfilled, but in a clever, roundabout way. (There’s no final shot of Kris Kringle shooting out of a chimney or anything.)

It was a little weird to watch this movie in springtime. It created the same type of cognitive dissonance as smelling turkey roasting in August, or attending a Fourth of July barbecue in November. I blame Daryl F. Zanuck, who insisted that the film be released in May, since he said that more people went to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. The studio kept the film’s Christmas theme a secret in its trailer. Also, you’ll note that the theatrical release poster above prominently features Payne and O’Hara, and Gwenn is not dressed up like Santa.

Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Adapted Screenplay (George Seaton), and Best Story (Valentine Davies). It won all of the Oscars it was nominated for except Best Picture, which went to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.

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The Strange Woman (Oct. 25, 1946)

Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman, directed with uncredited assistance from Douglas Sirk, is based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams.

Born in 1889, Williams was a prolific novelist who is probably best known today for the same reason he was famous in 1946; he wrote the novel Leave Her to Heaven in 1944, which was made into a hit film in 1945 starring Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent, a calculating sociopath with twisted ideas about love.

The Strange Woman was a natural choice to be made into a film following the success of Leave Her to Heaven. Both stories are psychosexual portraits of women with Electra complexes who use their allure to ensnare men and who don’t allow conventional morality to keep them from their goals; even taboos like murder mean nothing to them.

Unlike Leave Her to Heaven, The Strange Woman is a period piece. The film begins in Bangor, Maine, in 1824. Young Jenny Hager (Jo Ann Marlowe) is being raised by a single father (Dennis Hoey) whose only love in life seems to be drink. After Mr. Hager receives stern words from prosperous shop keeper and importer Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart) when he once again begs a jug of liquor off of him, the scene switches to a river bank, where young Jenny is tormenting Mr. Poster’s son Ephraim (Christopher Severn), a sickly boy who can’t swim. She pushes him into the river and holds his head under with her bare foot, but when Judge Henry Saladine (Alan Napier) arrives in a carriage, she says, “Poor, poor Ephraim,” and jumps in. She drags him to shore and blames his predicament on the boys she was with.

The judge is disgusted with Mr. Hager for stumbling through life drunk and failing to care for his daughter, but once Jenny and her father are alone, it’s clear that she loves him unconditionally. “Before long we’ll have everything,” she says. “Just as soon as I grow up we’ll have everything we want, because I’m going to be beautiful.” Mr. Hager tosses his empty jug into the river, and when the ripples clear, child actress Marlowe’s reflection has become that of the beautiful Hedy Lamarr.

Jenny may be all grown up, but clearly only a few years have passed. All the adults are played by the same actors, and things are much the same in Bangor. Her father is still a hopeless drunk and Mr. Poster is still the wealthiest, most powerful man in town. Bangor appears to be a little rowdier, however, with more commerce coming through the docks, and more drunken sailors stumbling around. Jenny and her friend Lena (June Storey) hang around the waterfront, attracting the attention of sailors. Lena tells Jenny that, with her looks, she could get the youngest and best-looking men around, but Jenny replies that she’s only interested in snagging the richest.

When her father confronts her, she flaunts her sexuality, bragging that she can make any man want her, and he beats her viciously. The whipping he gives her, while they stand face to face, is a little ambiguous, and more than a little sexual.

She runs away to Mr. Poster’s house, and shows him the stripes on her back, throwing her hair forward and dropping the back of her dress, as if she’s posing for a racy portrait, and his face registers both shock and lust.

It’s not long before Jenny marries Mr. Poster. It’s clear that he is a replacement for her father. Her physical longing, at least for the moment, is focused on her old friend — and new son-in-law — Ephraim, who has been sent away to school. She writes Ephraim a letter telling him how lucky he is to have a “nice young mother” and that she will “demand obedience and love.” She writes that if he refuses her, “I will punish you by not kissing you good night” and ends her letter with the line “…come home and see what a fine parent I can be. I do think families should be close, don’t you? Your loving mother, Jenny.”

Ephraim (now played by Louis Hayward) returns home, and he and Jenny slowly but surely fall for each other.

As the film poster above rather obviously shows, Jenny has two faces. For instance, when she and Ephraim sit on the banks of the river together, her recollection of pushing him into the river when he was a boy is flawed. She tells him that those rotten boys did it to him, and she tried to save him. Is she lying? Does she know she is lying? Does he know? Does he go along with it because he loves her, or does he truly believe her?

Jenny’s dual nature mirrors the nature of Bangor itself. On the one hand it is a prosperous New England town with an active churchgoing population of well-to-do people (like Mr. Poster and his young wife), but on the other hand it is a seedy little port city full of drunken sailors and “grog shops and low houses” (a.k.a. pubs and brothels). Jenny uses her husband’s money from his shipping and lumber businesses to improve the town, shaming him publicly into contributing large sums to the church. In private, however, she is carrying on with Ephraim, and even encourages him to arrange an “accident” for his father so they can be married.

Ephraim won’t be the last man in Jenny’s trail of conquest, either. As soon as she lays her eyes on John Evered (George Sanders), the tall, strapping foreman of Mr. Poster’s lumber business, it’s clear that the weak-willed Ephraim doesn’t stand a chance.

The Strange Woman is a well-made film with fine performances all around (with perhaps the exception of Gene Lockhart, who as Mr. Poster exhibits some of the most over-the-top reaction shots I’ve seen since watching Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows). Its narrative is sprawling, and clearly adapted from a novel, but the filmmakers keep everything moving along nicely.

Director Ulmer was a talented craftsman who toiled away in Poverty Row for most of his career, producing a few masterpieces, a few awful pictures, and plenty of films in between. The Strange Woman represents the rare film on his résumé with a decent budget and a reasonable shooting schedule. He was lent out by P.R.C. (Producer’s Releasing Corporation) at Lamarr’s insistence (apparently they were friends back in their native Austria-Hungary). He was paid $250 a week for the job. P.R.C. studio boss Leon Fromkess, on the other hand, received roughly $2,500 from United Artists. While he may have gotten the short end of the stick financially, the deal gave Ulmer a chance to work with a professional cinematographer (Lucien Andriot), a major star or two, a well-written script based on a hot property, and major studio distribution.

A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).'”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.

Leave Her to Heaven (Dec. 19, 1945)

Can there be such a thing as a film noir in color? I don’t think there can, but the term noir has been so widely used, popularized, and bastardized that director John M. Stahl’s Technicolor adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’s novel Leave Her to Heaven, made during the heyday of noir in Hollywood, is often referred to as a rare instance of a film noir in color.

A year after she starred as the eponymous Laura (Otto Preminger’s 1944 classic that is also frequently referred to as a noir even though it really has very few characteristics of one, aside from being filmed in black and white), Gene Tierney created a memorably unhinged character named Ellen Berent.

When we first meet Ellen, the first thing we see is her beauty. Sitting across from novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) in the lounge car of a train, surrounded by green walls, her dark hair and pale face offset by her bright red lips, she looks like a porcelain doll come to life. Quickly, however, we notice something else. The way she is staring at him is predatory. The way she doesn’t speak for a long time after he answers a question is strange. She is beautiful, but there is something wrong with her. We can guess, however, that his relationship with Ellen won’t have a happy ending.

If only Richard saw what the audience can see. Of course, the audience also has the advantage of a framing device. In the first scene of Leave Her to Heaven, we see Richard return to Deer Lake, Maine. His friends and neighbors look at him strangely. As they whisper among themselves, we learn that he has just gotten out of prison after a two-year stint, but we don’t know what the charge was.

Most of the story is told in flashback. Beginning with the scene on the train, we see how Richard fell into Ellen’s clutches. After they disembark, they find that they are both guests at Rancho Jacinto, in New Mexico, where Ellen has gone to scatter her father’s ashes. After telling Richard several times how much he looks like her father (even though a framed photograph of the man looks nothing like Cornel Wilde), the scene in which the stone-faced Tierney rides a horse and scatters her father’s ashes in the mountains is one of the most striking in the picture. When Richard agrees to marry her soon after, it is at her urging. Marrying her is something he thinks he wants, but the words “Will you marry me” never escape his lips. He is caught in her web.

After their marriage, Ellen and Richard go away to his cabin in Maine. She resents the intrusion of anyone else into their lives, such as her sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) or Richard’s younger brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), who is recovering from polio, and her resentment has deadly consequences.

Ellen is devious, but it’s not always clear how conscious she is of her own cunning. Although the other characters speak of how unnaturally close she was to her father, and how she loves with a childish ferocity that can be dangerous, the viewer is not privy to any deeper psychological insights. There are no scenes of her childhood or flashbacks to any trauma that might have precipitated her madness. It’s refreshing to have a character with sociopathic tendencies that have no pat explanation, but some insight into the jealousy that drives her might have helped flesh out the character.

So what is it that makes Leave Her to Heaven a film noir? The classification is a slippery one, and has become popular enough that nearly every black and white film from the ’40s that is not a musical or a comedy has been called a film noir at some point. In one of the first treatises on the subject, the 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953, French film critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton identified the five main facets of film noir. They said that it is “oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel.” Over the years, the term film noir has grown to encompass certain stylistic elements as well. Stark black and white cinematography and unbalanced constructions that grew out of German Expressionism are both hallmarks of noir, as is a pervading sense of doom.

So does Leave Her to Heaven contain any of these elements? It certainly could be called “strange,” but it’s not particularly dreamlike. It’s not very erotic, either, since Ellen seems to capture Richard in a web that is more psychological than it is sexual. Her actions are sometimes cruel, but the picture as a whole is not terribly ambivalent. Ellen may arouse feelings of both pity and hatred in the viewer, but she is still presented in a straightforward way. She has no crises of conscience or confusion about what she wants. And the lush Technicolor cinematography really pushes Leave Her to Heaven out of the noir category.

Leave Her to Heaven is a melodrama with a couple of shocking scenes, a sociopathic main character, and a courtroom denouement that drags down the pacing of the picture, but which does feature an enjoyable performance by Vincent Price as one of Ellen’s old flames who is now a prosecutor. It is not a film noir, unless we can divorce style from content. The absence of black and white cinematography and a real sense of doom (or a truly unhappy ending) means that Leave Her to Heaven just doesn’t qualify as a film noir. Of course, this shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. Whatever its genre, it’s an effective film with an interesting performance by a beautiful actress who didn’t exhibit a great deal of range in any of her roles, but who is chilling in this one.

Leave Her to Heaven was Twentieth Century-Fox’s highest grossing picture of the 1940s. Tierney was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and Leon Shamroy won an Oscar for best cinematography in the color category.

The House on 92nd Street (Sept. 10, 1945)

House92ndStWhen The House on 92nd Street was released on DVD in 2005, it was as part of the “Fox Film Noir” collection. This is misleading, since it’s more of a docudrama than it is a noir. It’s a historically important film, however, since it was one of the first to feature location shooting for nearly all the exteriors, and one of the first to skillfully blend fact with fiction while presenting itself as essentially factual. (Charles G. Booth won an Academy Award for best original story for his work on this film.)

The House on 92nd Street stars William Eythe as Bill Dietrich, a second-generation German-American who becomes a double agent for the F.B.I., Lloyd Nolan as his contact in the Bureau, Agent George A. Briggs, and Signe Hasso as the leader of the spy ring, Elsa Gebhardt. The film is a fictionalized account of the F.B.I.’s 1941 operation against the Nazi spy ring led by Fritz Joubert Duquesne. It was one of the largest counterspy operations in U.S. history, and led to the conviction of 33 people. In reality, however, none of them were involved in anything quite as grand as the secrets of the atomic bomb, which is the MacGuffin in The House on 92nd Street. And the real Dietrich was not the all-American boy portrayed by Eythe. He actually was a German-born man named William G. Sebold who served in the German army during World War I but became a naturalized American citizen in 1936. Presumably the war was still too fresh in the minds of the American viewing public for them to accept a German as the hero of a picture.

This film also shows the beginnings of J. Edgar Hoover’s massive publicity campaign for the F.B.I., which he disguised as a simple display of information. In reality, of course, Hoover carefully controlled the information that the public saw about the F.B.I., twisting and distorting as necessary. A good example of this information control is a scene early in the film, in which we see an indoor enclosure the size of an airplane hangar, filled with filing cabinets. The booming voice of the narrator (Reed Hadley) explains that this is the F.B.I.’s collection of 100 million sets of fingerprints, a number that seems unlikely, given that the population of the United States was fewer than 140 million people in 1945. Were they counting each finger? The message, of course, is that there is no hiding from the F.B.I. If you commit a federal crime or spy for another nation, they will find you. (This was also the message of the radio show This Is Your F.B.I., which began broadcasting dramatizations of real federal cases on American Broadcasting Company stations in the spring of 1945, all with the cooperation of Hoover, who called it “the finest dramatic program on the air,” and “our show.”)

The House on 92nd Street was directed by Henry Hathaway, but much of its style can be attributed to producer Louis de Rochemont, who created the “March of Time” newsreel series. When he lacked the footage he wanted, de Rochemont would stage clever recreations, but his newsreels were presented as wholly factual. It’s important to keep in mind that American audiences were less savvy about media trickery in 1945. After all, it had only been six years since people tuned into Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast midway through the program and thought Martians were vaporizing people in New Jersey.

The House on 92nd Street begins with a compilation of actual footage of people entering and exiting the German embassy, which is interesting. Of course, the characters in this film watch a great deal of surveillance footage. Some of it is real, some is not. It’s not that audiences in 1945 didn’t realize that the film was a blending of reenactments and actual footage, it’s the overall message they were taking away from the film that was perhaps not completely accurate. For instance, in Thomas M. Pryor’s September 27, 1945 review of the film in the New York Times, he wrote the following:

Since the picture, produced by Twentieth Century-Fox with full cooperation from the F.B.I., was completed some months ago, the secret of the atomic bomb has been revealed. Now the picture carries a simple and restrained foreword explaining that the “Process 97” which the Nazi agents are attempting to steal was in reality a part of the atomic bomb formula. It is to the producers’ everlasting credit that this information is not sensationalized in the film.

In reality, however, there is no evidence that there was a single “missing piece” of the atomic bomb process that spies were in danger of transmitting back to Nazi Germany. And of course, film by its very nature presents a sensationalized picture of reality.

Also, a big deal is made at the beginning of the picture that every person playing an F.B.I. agent, aside from the principals, is an actual F.B.I. agent. This, however, does not make what is depicted any more or less truthful than if they were played by actors, but it seems to.

The House on 92nd Street is not a bad picture by any stretch. Taken at face value, it’s tense and exciting. And director Hathaway, when not constrained by the documentary-style approach of de Rochemont, creates some great sequences, such as when Dietrich gets himself arrested just to get in touch with Briggs at the F.B.I., or the meeting between Dietrich and his co-conspirators at a waterfront dive. And the final shootout, which involves tear gas grenades and a surprising disguise, is fantastic. If you’re looking for a film that uses the framework of a docudrama to present a tense film noir, however, you’d be better off watching Anthony Mann’s excellent T-Men (1947).