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Tag Archives: George Bassman

The Arnelo Affair (Feb. 13, 1947)

Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair is a crime melodrama with so much voiceover narration that most of it can easily be understood and enjoyed by blind people.

Oboler cut his teeth in radio. His most famous work was for the horror anthology Lights Out, which is one of the scariest and most gruesome radio shows of all time. Oboler was a native of Chicago and the child of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was a prolific writer — one of the most talented in the medium of radio. His work as a film director is more hit or miss.

The Arnelo Affair, his third film, is based on a story by Jane Burr and takes place in Chicago. It starts out promisingly, with a lot of heat between its protagonist, Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford), and the magnetic, mustachioed nightclub owner Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak). Anne is married to a lawyer and all-around stuffed shirt named Ted (George Murphy), who’s such a drip that he won’t let their 9 year-old son, Ricky (Dean Stockwell), touch any of the tools in the room in their house marked “Ricky’s Workshop.”

The Parksons have been married for 12 years (which, if Gifford’s character is the same age as she is, means they got hitched when she was only 14 or 15), and Anne is clearly neglected and unloved. When her path crosses Arnelo’s, his persistence and menacing charm draw her to him.

Eve Arden, at this point typecast as the worldly and knowing friend of the troubled female protagonist (see also Mildred Pierce and My Reputation), plays Anne’s friend Vivian, who cautions Anne that “Canaries and hawks don’t make good playmates.”

She’s right, of course, and when Arnelo murders one of his other girlfriends in order to draw Anne closer to him, Anne will realize what a dangerous game she’s been playing.

Oboler’s script is perceptive about infidelity, and the dialogue is more believable than in most melodramas, but Oboler’s direction is flat, and he relies too heavily on voiceover narration by Gifford to explicate her character’s emotions. The Arnelo Affair isn’t bad, but after 45 minutes it loses momentum and never really picks up again. It might have made a better 60-minute B movie programmer from one of the small studios than a 90-minute maudlin MGM melodrama.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (Oct. 5, 1945)

AbbottCostelloHollywoodAbbott and Costello were one of the most popular comedy teams of the ’40s. They’re still famous for their “Who’s on first?” routine, and a lot of their film and radio work is still funny, as long as you’re in the mood for their old-fashioned brand of burlesque antics. If you’re not in the mood for them, or if one of their bits falls flat, Lou Costello is the most irritating man on earth.

In Abbott and Costello in Hollywood they play a couple of bumbling barbers named Buzz Kurtis (Abbott) and Abercrombie (Costello). Who’s ready for lots of physical humor involving shaving cream and shoe polish?

When we first meet the boys, they’re in the supply room of Hollywood Shop: Barbers to the Stars. Even if you’ve never seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, as soon as you see Abbott instructing Costello on how to shave a customer’s face without cutting him while Costello listens attentively, holding a straight razor poised above a balloon covered with shaving cream, you’ll know the balloon is not long for this world. If you have seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, you’ll know that after the balloon breaks and sprays shaving cream all over Costello’s face, there will be a second balloon. Will there be a third balloon? I don’t want to give anything away.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t coast on barbering gags, since Abbott and Costello decide they want to be Hollywood agents at around the 30-minute mark. As with any Abbott and Costello picture, however, the plot is secondary to gags and wordplay, so it doesn’t really matter whether they’re playing geologists or Portugese noblemen. A lot of the routines in this movie are clunkers, but a few are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one in which Costello hides out by pretending to be a dummy on the set of a western, and finds himself being punched in the face and thrown over a balcony in take after take by craggy-faced tough-guy character actor Mike Mazurki.

Most of the “stars” they meet in Hollywood (like Rags Ragland) are long forgotten, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see a young Lucille Ball in a small role.

The Clock (May 25, 1945)

TheClockThe Clock is the first film Judy Garland made in which she did not sing. She had specifically requested to star in a dramatic role, since the strenuous shooting schedules of lavish musicals were beginning to fray her nerves. Producer Arthur Freed approached her with the script for The Clock (also known as Under the Clock), which was based on an unpublished short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico. Originally Fred Zinnemann was set to direct, but Garland felt they had no chemistry, and she was disappointed by early footage. Zinnemann was removed from the project, and she requested that Vincente Minnelli be brought in to direct.

The Clock is the second film that Minnelli directed that starred Garland. The first was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which is one of the great American musicals, a big, Technicolor production with memorable songs and fine performances. It’s worth seeing, even if you’re not crazy about musicals. Minnelli and Garland were involved romantically during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, and they were married on June 15, 1945, shortly after The Clock was released.

The Clock seems like a deliberate attempt to make a film as different from Meet Me in St. Louis as Minnelli was capable of making. Filmed in crisp, luminous black and white, The Clock is an intimate story of two people. Cpl. Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is on leave in New York City for the weekend. While trying to find his way around Pennsylvania Station, he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland), a Manhattan “girl next door” who works in an office and isn’t initially thrilled that Joe takes in interest in her. She breaks her heel and he offers to help her, but he’s so pushy that it’s a bit of a turn-off. He refuses to take “no” for an answer, following her onto a bus, questioning her incessantly, and attempting to arrange to see her again. He also does it in such a naïve, corn-pone manner that it’s obvious that a polite girl like Alice would have a really hard time just telling him to shove off. Part of the problem, for me at least, is that Walker just doesn’t have the necessary charisma to pull off the “aw shucks” persona the script calls for and get away with it. In any case, after some indecision (and after ignoring her roommate’s advice that the young serviceman she met is “just looking for a pick-up”), she goes back to the Astor Hotel to meet him under the clock where they first met. They spend the entire night together, exploring New York City, and even end up helping a milkman (James Gleason) make his appointed rounds after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) punches him in the face, partially blinding him. Over the course of the night, they fall in love, but are separated on a busy subway the next morning. How will they ever find each other in a city of seven million people? (I don’t want to give anything away, but the way they find each other again won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.) After they reconnect, Joe asks Alice to marry him, and she accepts his proposal, but they have to run through a mess of red tape to get the necessary documentation to get married immediately, before Joe has to ship out again.

The Clock has a lot to recommend it. Garland looks beautiful, and her performance is natural and engaging. Walker only has one mode, “wanting Alice,” but Garland wonderfully expresses confusion, excitement, and ambivalence on her path to falling in love. Also, the film does a good job of playing through the stages of love, from initial infatuation to full-blown romantic love, marriage, and even the quiet vicissitude of the “morning after.” The film looks fantastic. Minnelli recreated New York City on the MGM backlots in Culver City, California, mixing sets with stock footage, but I never realized this while watching the movie, and I live in New York. He reportedly spend almost $70,000 recreating Penn Station, and it certainly doesn’t look like a set. (The original Penn Station was torn down before I was born so I can’t say if it’s perfectly accurate, but it certainly fooled me.) I liked The Clock, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old movies, especially anyone who loves tales of wartime romance, but a more interesting actor than Walker in the lead role might have elevated it to a truly great film.

This is a love story, but it’s a melancholy one, especially during its second half. I’m not sure if the sense of sadness that pervades the film is by design, or is due to the fact that both stars were plagued with personal problems throughout filming. Garland became increasingly addicted to the prescription drugs the studio gave her to control her weight and perk her up, and Walker had recently found out that his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, had been cheating on him with producer David O. Selznick and wanted a divorce. Reportedly, Garland would often find Walker drunk in L.A. bars during filming and she would help him sober up during the night so he could appear in front of the cameras the next day.