RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Linda Darnell

A Letter to Three Wives (Jan. 20, 1949)

A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)

The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.

Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)

A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.

The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.

The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.

The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.

While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.

A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).

Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.

Sothern Darnell and Crain

Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.

Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.

Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.

A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.

Advertisements

Forever Amber (Oct. 22, 1947)

Forever Amber
Forever Amber (1947)
Directed by Otto Preminger
20th Century-Fox

The review of Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber in the November 3, 1947, issue of Time magazine called it “every bit as good a movie as it was a novel,” but I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment.

Kathleen Winsor’s 1944 period romance was the best-selling American novel of the ’40s. Forever Amber sold more than 100,000 copies during its first week on the shelves, and went on to sell more than three million copies. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much Winsor’s storytelling skills had to do with its popularity. What I do know is that it was banned in 14 states, and that the attorney general of Massachusetts — the first state to institute a ban — cited 70 references to intercourse, 39 out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and seven abortions, among other reasons for the ban.

So it seems clear that whatever other merits the novel had, its biggest selling point was S-E-X.

To be adapted as a film, a lot of the novel’s more scandalous bits had to be cut out, but it still has one big selling point: L-I-N-D-A. D-A-R-N-E-L-L.

In her journey to the screen, the vain, beautiful, promiscuous, and socially climbing Amber St. Clare lost many of her lovers and innumerable shocking details and compromising situations from the novel were excised. (The film does contain one element from the novel that was extremely rare in Hollywood films of the ’40s — Amber’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. However, the fornicating that produces the offspring occurs so far off screen that the announcement that she’s expecting comes as a complete surprise.) No matter how tame the story might be compared with the book, though, Linda Darnell’s megawatt sex appeal and unearthly beauty lend a constant sense of illicit excitement to Forever Amber.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her co-star, Cornel Wilde, who plays Lord Bruce Carlton, the gentleman soldier on whom Amber sets her sights at the beginning of the film, but who never loves her quite as much as she loves him. Wilde cuts a dashing figure, but he has roughly one facial expression. He doesn’t so much act in this film as much as he exists.

Forever Amber is set during the English Restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne from exile and the monarchy was restored. The film hits all the high points of the time period, like the plague and the Great Fire of London. Also, George Sanders, who plays King Charles II, is a lot of fun to watch. His trademark indifference and supercilious charm are perfectly suited to the hedonistic monarch he’s playing.

Forever Amber is far from a great film, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s a beautifully filmed Technicolor epic that overwhelms the senses with its visuals and sweeping musical score. This is the kind of film in which $100,000 was spent filming a single kiss that was later cut from the film.

My Darling Clementine (Dec. 3, 1946)

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Directed by John Ford
20th Century-Fox

“This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is one of the most lauded westerns of all time.

Most criticism of the film is directed at its numerous historical inaccuracies, not its artistic merits. The ages of the Earp brothers are changed, for what seems no discernible reason. Characters die in the film who didn’t die until decades later. The chain of events that led up to the shootout near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 is highly fictionalized. In reality, Doc Holliday was a dentist, not a medical doctor. The list goes on and on.

So to enjoy this film, it’s probably best not to watch it with a talkative history junkie.

And if you yourself are a history junkie, try to ignore all the little details and appreciate this film for what it is — one of the great westerns, full of iconic scenes, memorable performances, finely staged action, and little moments that would be copied over and over again in westerns in the decades that followed.

My Darling Clementine is a remake of Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal (1939), which starred Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp. Both films are based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, which was based on interviews with Earp, although most historians suspect that either Lake was embellishing or Earp was.

Again, it really doesn’t matter when it comes to this film. The plot is not the important thing, it’s Ford’s evocation of a frontier town. The rhythms of life, the strong feeling of nighttime, daytime, daybreak — all are perfectly realized. It doesn’t matter that the real Tombstone isn’t anywhere near Monument Valley. Ford shot there because he liked the way it looked.

Day for night shooting can look terribly fake, or just plain terrible, but in this film Ford makes it look beautiful. In one nighttime scene, Wyatt Earp appears on a rooftop, shot in low angle, firing his revolver at a man fleeing on horseback. Behind him is a dark sky full of silvery clouds. The scene clearly wasn’t filmed at night, but it’s still breathtaking.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda’s performance as Wyatt Earp is one of the finest I’ve ever seen in a western. Protagonists in westerns tend to be stalwart men of few words, and Earp is no exception, but the humanity Fonda is able to express merely through his eyes is remarkable.

Fonda generates absolute authority in every scene. Except, of course, when he’s with the pretty Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). The scene in which he takes her to a Sunday dance at the site where the town’s church will be built is one of the highlights of the film. As Earp walks beside Clementine, the congregation sings “Shall We Gather at the River?” (later to be paid gruesome homage to by Sam Peckinpah when he made The Wild Bunch in 1969). The budding romance between the two is palpable, and is a fine example of Fonda’s wonderful silent acting.

Walter Brennan is also great as Old Man Clanton, the vicious patriarch of a nasty clan. Brennan played a lot of cuddly, blustery sidekicks, but here he’s completely convincing as a cold-eyed villain who tells his boys things like, “When you pull a gun, kill a man.”

I’m less bowled over by Victor Mature’s performance as Doc Holliday. The oily Mature seems to be in a different picture in most of his scenes, as he drinks to escape his past and romances the tragic prostitute Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).

As I said, the liberties Ford takes with history are legion. But as Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) showed, an accurate recitation of the facts doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. And who cares about the actual details of the shootout near the O.K. Corral when we have things in this film like Earp standing perfectly still as a stagecoach pulls in, then running to his left as soon as it kicks up a trail of dust, nearly invisible even to the viewer as he fires several shots and hits his target?

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck notoriously tinkered with this film. He thought Ford’s original version was too long, so he had director Lloyd Bacon shoot some new footage, and then re-edited the film himself. While some of Ford’s lost footage has been unearthed, his original version is lost. Would it have been a better film? Possibly. Is the version we are left with still a great film, and one of the greatest American westerns? Absolutely.

Anna and the King of Siam (June 20, 1946)

John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam isn’t nearly as well known as The King and I, the Technicolor extravaganza starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr that was made a decade later. Both films tell the same story, but The King and I does it in the form of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I saw The King and I when I was a kid, and have strong memories of certain scenes, but not of the film as a whole. So I came to Anna and the King of Siam relatively fresh, and was able to watch it without constantly thinking of Brynner’s iconic performance, at least most of the time. The one big difference — if memory serves correctly — is that the later, musical version of this tale was more of a love story. It’s not as if it ended with a marriage, or Kerr being added to the king’s harem or something, but there was a romance of some sort that grew over the course of the film. The closest Anna and the King of Siam gets is a couple of scenes between Anna and the king that end with the king leering, and seeming to contemplate her in a sexual fashion.

Anna and the King of Siam is the first filmed adaptation of Margaret Landon’s 1944 book of the same name. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly bought the rights to Landon’s book immediately after reading the galleys. As is often the case, the real-life Anna Owens was a considerably more interesting and complicated person than she was portrayed in the book or any of the films about her. This is largely due to her own self-invention. Anna Leonowens was born in poverty in India in 1831, the daughter of Sgt. Thomas Edwards, a soldier in the private army of the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Mary Anne Glasscott, an Anglo-Indian woman. Later in her life, Leonowens took pains to hide her origins, and claimed that her father’s rank was lieutenant (later she claimed he had been a captain), and that she had been born in Wales. It’s important to remember that these fabrications were not merely for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As a widow and a single mother, Leonowens faced an uphill battle in life, and almost certainly would have faced discrimination if her mixed-race heritage had been known.

While Anna and the King of Siam doesn’t delve deeply into Anna’s background, there is never any intimation that she is anything but the most proper of British ladies. The Anna Owens of the film, played by Irene Dunne, embodies the best values of the “modern” British empire, while King Mongkut (Rex Harrison) represents an older form of governance; repressive, misogynistic, autocratic, and superstitious.

Reportedly, most Thai who saw the picture were shocked and angered by the portrayal of their revered nineteenth century king, and the film was banned in Thailand due to “historical inaccuracies.” It’s hard to argue with this assessment. Landon’s book and Leonowens’s own recollections were by all accounts at least partially fabricated, and overemphasized Leonowens’s role in the king’s life, as well as the harshness of his regime. And there’s the larger question of how well any white actor — even one as talented as Rex Harrison — can portray an Asian character.

Granted, the yellowface portrayals in the film look ridiculous, especially Lee J. Cobb as the “Kralahome,” or prime minister, who appears for much of the film stripped to the waist, covered with dark makeup, and sporting a pomaded pompadour. But, like Harrison, he delivers a nuanced performance, and in their scenes together they drop the stilted line deliveries that they have in their scenes with Anna or her son Louis (Richard Lyon). (They continue to speak English, of course, but the syntactical variance is still a nice touch.)

If one ignores questions of historical accuracy, Anna and the King of Siam is an excellent and involving story of cultural differences and the challenges and rewards of education in the face of adversity. The principal actors all give great performances, especially the beautiful Linda Darnell as the king’s newest and most alluring wife, Lady Tuptim. It’s a role that easily could have been one-note, but Darnell is able to create a sexy yet repulsive character who grows more complicated as the film goes on, and eventually becomes the central tragic figure of the picture. Also, Anna and the King of Siam looks fantastic. It won two Oscars, one for best black and white cinematography and the other for best art direction, and they were well-deserved.

Fallen Angel (Dec. 5, 1945)

Fallen Angel, Otto Preminger’s follow-up to his smash hit Laura (1944), was slapped around by critics and passed over by audiences, but it’s not a bad film. It’s just not involving or memorable in the ways Laura was, and it’s composed of a bunch of elements that never really coalesce.

Fallen Angel reunited Preminger with the star of his previous film, Dana Andrews, and a lot of my enjoyment in the film came from watching Andrews. He’s more of a focal point in Fallen Angel than he was in Laura, and he dominates every scene he’s in. Andrews was 5’10”, but he looks well over six feet in this picture. He’s rough-looking but charming, and imposing and tough without being wooden. At the same time, he projects bitterness and alienation, barely concealed behind a handsome mask. In short, he’s the embodiment of American post-war masculinity. Andrews’s co-stars are all good as well. And I can’t fault Preminger’s direction. The film looks great, and taken one scene at a time, it’s very good.

Where Fallen Angel failed to engage me was in its pacing and storytelling. I haven’t read the Marty Holland novel the film is based on, but Fallen Angel plays like an adaptation of a sprawling book in which each section of the plot is dutifully reenacted, as opposed to a terse adaptation in which unnecessary subplots and themes are jettisoned. When drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is thrown off a bus in the small town of Walton, California, because he doesn’t have the $2.25 fare necessary to continue on to San Francisco, he stops in at a place called Pop’s Café. In the first few minutes of the film we’re introduced to all the major players; the phony spiritualist Professor Madley (John Carradine), whom Stanton used to shill for, hard-boiled ex-New York police detective Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), cafe owner Pop (Percy Kilbride), June Mills (Alice Faye), June’s spinster sister Clara (Anne Revere), and Pop’s pouting, sexy waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), whom every man in town seems to be obsessed with (and it’s not hard to see why).

The beginning doesn’t seem rushed, however, or as though too much information is being packed in. A lot of this can be credited to Preminger’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, who also worked with Preminger on Laura, and whose fluid tracking shots and crisp black and white cinematography are both a joy to watch. Eventually, however, the way certain characters dropped out of the picture left me feeling suspended. The grifting medium and his relationship with Stanton could have filled an entire picture (although I admit being partial to John Carradine), but he leaves town before too much time has passed. Later, when Stella is murdered, it happens off screen, and just as I felt her relationship with Stanton was starting to get juicy. His romance with June and Stella could have formed the classic “good girl/bad girl” film noir tension, but his romance with June doesn’t really get started until Stella’s ticket has been punched, and once that happens, Fallen Angel becomes more of a melodrama than a noir. It’s also a mystery, since we don’t know who killed Stella, but this aspect of the film doesn’t come to much, as the second half focuses more on Stanton’s courtship of the sheltered, naïve June, and the question of whether or not he really loves her or is just out to fleece her. Meanwhile, most viewers will have the number of suspects in Stella’s murder narrowed down to two suspects, neither of whom is a more interesting culprit than the other.

I’m probably making Fallen Angel sound worse than it is. Many modern viewers consider it a lost classic of film noir, or just a really great film that has been overlooked. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of Preminger or any of the principal actors. I found it disappointing, but that might change years from now with a second viewing.

Hangover Square (Feb. 7, 1945)

Hangover_square
Hangover Square (1945)
Directed by John Brahm
20th Century-Fox

Laird Cregar’s is a sad story. A brilliant character actor, Cregar died in December of 1944 as a result of a crash diet that most likely included amphetamines. Cregar shed approximately 100 pounds in a short space of time in an attempt to reinvent himself. Reinvention is a hard business, and no more so than in the studio-controlled Hollywood of the ’40s. Firmly established as a towering, 300-pound, sympathetic (and often childlike) heavy, Cregar’s notion that he could shed his tonnage, get plastic surgery, and reinvent himself as a romantic leading man was delusional.

Hangover Square is a follow-up of sorts to The Lodger (1944), in which Cregar played a highly fictionalized version of Jack the Ripper. Both films were directed by John Brahm, and both feature sympathetic depictions of mentally ill characters who are compelled to kill. In Hangover Square, Cregar plays a composer named George Harvey Bone, a man who is struggling to complete his masterpiece (an effective if not totally convincing concerto composed by Bernard Herrmann, who also composed the film’s incidental music). However, Bone suffers from a bizarre condition that causes him to black out when he hears loud, discordant noises. In these fugue states he may or may not be committing murders. His energy and creativity are reinvigorated, however, when he meets a beautiful singer, played by Linda Darnell. Unsurprisingly, she leads him on and then does him wrong, which frays his last shred of sanity to the breaking point.

Hangover Square was based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton. The novel was published in 1941 and took place in the late ’30s. I’ve never read it, but apparently it’s a black comedy, and there’s a lot of thematic material about the rise of fascism in Europe. Not much of that stuff made it into the film. Originally the film was supposed to be set in the present day, but it was changed to the late Victorian era, presumably to capitalize on the success Brahm and Cregar had had with The Lodger. Both films are very good, and worth seeing, but Hangover Square is more of a mess than its predecessor. Herrmann’s score, as well as the music he writes that’s meant to be composed by Bone, makes the film feel very contemporary, and the Victorian setting isn’t handled very well. What Hangover Square does have going for it, besides Cregar’s performance, are a couple of incredibly striking scenes, both involving fire, that will stick with a lot of viewers.

It’s a shame that Cregar died when he did. He hadn’t even hit 30 when he passed away (although he could play much older). Even in minor roles he always made an impression. Had he lived, would he have been the gay (or at least gayish) Orson Welles? We’ll never know. In his last role, he’s not what anyone would call “svelte,” but the weight he had lost is noticeable. He appears diminished, haunted, and on the verge of being destroyed. It’s a masterful performance in a pretty good film, and one worth seeing.