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Tag Archives: James Gleason

Smart Woman (April 30, 1948)

Edward A. Blatt’s Smart Woman is a film of “lasts.” It was the last screenplay for which Alvah Bessie received a credit. (Louis Morheim and Herbert Margolies are also credited for the screenplay, from a story by Leon Gutterman and Edwin V. Westrate.) Bessie was one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten,” a group of people who refused to cooperate with HUAC and who were blacklisted from the movie industry in 1948.

It was also the last film to feature Constance Bennett in a starring role. Bennett was a glamorous actress who appeared in dozens of films in the ’20s and ’30s, but whose star began to fade in the ’40s. (Her younger sister, Barbara Bennett, also appeared in films, and her youngest sister was film noir icon Joan Bennett.)

Smart Woman was the second and final film released by Bennett’s own production company, Constance Bennett Productions (the first was Paris Underground in 1945). It was distributed by Allied Artists. Smart Woman is by no means a bad film, but it’s not difficult to see why it didn’t reignite Bennett’s career and launch her back into starring roles.

Bennett plays defense attorney Paula Rogers, a woman who’s “smart” not just in the cerebral sense, but also in the sense that she is fashionable and sophisticated. She’s a single woman with a young son named Rusty (Richard Lyon), and her love for her son will force her to make difficult decisions as the plot of the film unfolds.

As in most “women’s pictures,” there is a suave, sophisticated, and handsome gentleman to set Paula’s heart (and the hearts of distaff audience members) aflutter with desire. He’s a special prosecutor named Robert Larrimore (Brian Aherne) who’s appointed to investigate cases the crooked district attorney, Bradley Wayne (Otto Kruger), may have improperly handled.

There’s also a slippery gangster named Frank McCoy (Barry Sullivan), whom Paula defends in a murder case. The prosecuting attorney? You guessed it … it’s Larrimore.

Smart Woman is well-made entertainment, but it’s lacking that essential spark that would move it up into the “must-see” category. Thematically, the film has elements of a film noir or gangster picture, but its cinematic style is straightforward and without any baroque flourishes. The script is well-written, but it contains a lot of parallelisms, which always seem more clever to someone hunched over a typewriter than they play out in an actual film. The film’s leads are good, but they had more active careers in the ’30s than they did in the ’40s, and Smart Woman occasionally feels a little old-fashioned because of it.

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Tycoon (Dec. 27, 1947)

Richard Wallace’s Tycoon is a bloated, overlong Technicolor epic that takes place in the Andes. It stars John Wayne as a big, tough, fearless railway engineer named Johnny Munroe.

Munroe and his crew of wisecracking roughnecks are hired by a fussy British aristocrat named Frederic Alexander (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) — who for some reason has a sprawling estate in South America — to build a railroad tunnel through miles of solid rock.

Munroe thinks it would be smarter to just build a bridge over the mountain, but Alexander’s personal engineer Ricky (Anthony Quinn) wants a tunnel — and the stockholders agree with him — so that’s what the stockholders will get.

Munroe’s difficult job becomes even harder when he meets Alexander’s pretty daughter Maura (Laraine Day). Alexander is an overprotective single father who plans for his daughter to marry a suitable man and take her place in society, so when she falls for Munroe’s thuggish charms he’s horrified. He tells her that he understands that in pagan Rome young women of breeding amused themselves with gladiators, but he never thought she’d fall victim to such venal desires.

The romantic and domestic scenes in Tycoon are campy and poorly handled. The masculine realm is better handled, but not by much, and at more than two hours long, I found Tycoon a chore to get through.

John Wayne is one of the most famous movie stars of all time, but there’s a reason his most popular movies are westerns and war movies. He just wasn’t that good at playing romantic leads.

Tycoon was the most expensive movie to date from RKO Radio Pictures, but I doubt it caused Darryl F. Zanuck or any of the other big studio heads to look over their shoulders too much. The film’s $3.2 million budget didn’t touch spectacles like Cecil B. DeMille’s $5 million Unconquered (1947) or Zanuck’s $6 million Forever Amber (1947), but even taking into account the difference in budget, Tycoon can’t hold a candle to other big-budget flicks. The filmmakers originally planned to shoot at RKO’s Estudios Churubusco in Mexico, but shifted production to Hollywood at the last minute. Consequently, Tycoon just doesn’t look that good. All the backgrounds are matte paintings and the Incan ruins are obviously sets. There are a bunch of explosions and a big finale involving a race against time to stabilize a bridge against the onslaught of an overflowing river that involves some pretty hot miniatures and a stunt double who looks nothing like Wayne, but that’s about it in terms of excitement.

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.