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Tag Archives: Sydney Greenstreet

Ruthless (April 16, 1948)

He wasn’t a man … he was a way of life.

The last line of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless could have been the capper to an epic tale of striving and loss, but after almost one hour and 45 minutes of not-quite-there dramaturgy and characters that seem more like symbols and types than actual people, that last line rings utterly false.

Ulmer is a good director — he’s been called “the poet of Poverty Row” — but nothing he’s made since Detour (1945) has really struck a chord with me.

Detour is not only one of my favorite film noirs, but one of my favorite films, period, and would easily make the list of my top 10 favorite films of all time.

I liked both The Strange Woman (1946) and Carnegie Hall (1947), but neither ascended to the pulpy, brilliant heights of Detour. It’s been more than 15 years since I saw Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), but I remember loving it. The wonderful lead performances by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff didn’t hurt, but Ulmer’s direction and surreal set pieces took it to a level that most Universal horror films can’t match. His dreamy horror film Bluebeard (1944), which starred John Carradine, is good too.

My point is that Ulmer is a director capable of great stuff, but Ruthless doesn’t show him in top form. Based on Dayton Stoddart’s 1945 novel Prelude to Night, the film is a series of flashbacks that tell of the merciless rise to power of Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott).

The film begins with a glamorous party at Horace Vendig’s palatial seaside manor. He has thrown the party to coincide with his announcement that he is handing over all his wealth and possessions to world peace organizations. Among the guests are Vic Lambdin (Louis Hayward) and his date, Mallory Flagg (Diana Lynn). Vic is Horace’s oldest friend, and his reappearance stirs up old wounds and painful memories.

Horace was an unwanted child. His parents (played by Raymond Burr and Joyce Arling) split up, and both of them were more interested in their own love affairs than in their son. But after Horace saves a girl named Martha Burnside (played as a child by Ann Carter), her parents accepted him as their own child, which allowed him to attend Harvard and make his mark in society. Incidentally, young Horace is played by Robert J. Anderson, who also played James Stewart as a young man in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

In the series of flashbacks that follow Horace’s childhood, Zachary Scott and Louis Hayward play the younger versions of themselves and Diana Lynn, who plays Mallory, also plays the grown-up Martha Burnside. I’m not sure what the point of this dual role was. The two characters aren’t related, and if Mallory’s resemblance to Martha is meant to remind Horace of everything he has lost then not enough comes of it.

Horace’s ruthless business machinations and his seduction of women are inextricable. When he’s used a woman for all the social advancement she’s worth, he throws her aside for his next conquest.

The film’s theme of sex & business is made most literal in the sequence in which Horace takes over the entire financial empire of Buck Mansfield (Sydney Greenstreet) by seducing his wife Christa (Lucille Bremer). With her comes everything. She tells Buck that she couldn’t transfer her affection to Horace without also transferring her loyalty, but the idea that she holds the key to all of Buck’s assets is still pretty far-fetched. She eventually wises up, as all of Horace’s women do, and she screams at him, “From the first moment you weren’t kissing me, you were kissing forty-eight percent!”

On the IMDb page for Ruthless, there are many user reviews that proclaim the film a classic, and nearly the equal of Citizen Kane (1941). I don’t know what movie these people saw, and can only ascribe their enthusiasm for Ruthless to the deep desire that lies in the heart of every cinéaste to champion an unfairly neglected film.

Besides the style of the film, which is passable but nowhere near the technical brilliance of a film like Kane, the lead performance of Zachary Scott is too one-note to ever make the viewer truly hate or love Horace Vendig. (It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the scenes of Horace’s childhood, in which another actor plays him, are the most moving and compelling of the film.)

Scott crafts a character who is by no means likeable, but there’s also nothing particularly interesting or profound about his plutomania, and I could never dredge up the depth of feelings that his friend Vic experiences, making the “tragic” events of the film’s climax more laughable than sad.

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The Hucksters (Aug. 27, 1947)

It’s hard to watch Jack Conway’s The Hucksters today and not compare it with Mad Men.

While Mad Men is a TV series that began in 2007 and takes place in the early ’60s and The Hucksters takes place during the time it was filmed (the post-war ’40s), they share a number of similarities, and not just because they’re both about advertising agencies.

Both feature at their center a dashing leading man with rugged good looks as an advertising genius who must navigate the tricky waters of love, sex, and difficult clients. Jon Hamm was in his mid-30s when Mad Men began, while Clark Gable was in his mid-40s in 1947, but both of their characters are veterans of the most recent war and inveterate seducers of women.

The Hucksters is based on Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 novel of the same name, which spent a year at the top of the best-seller lists. Wakeman’s novel was based on a four-part exposé in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Star Spangled Octopus,” about talent and promotional agency MCA.

The novel’s racy subject matter was largely responsible for its success. Life magazine called it “Last year’s best-selling travesty on bigtime advertising.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid nearly $200,000 for the rights to Wakeman’s novel in a pre-publication deal. Most of the salacious details, however, never made it into the final shooting script. (Clark Gable’s take on the first draft of the script was, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.”) For instance, in the novel, Gable’s character, Victor Albee Norman, has an affair with a married woman, but she was changed into a war widow for the film.

Consequently, The Hucksters never quite achieves the satirical bite of Mad Men, but there are number of bits that are funny, particularly if you’re familiar with radio advertising circa 1947.

There are plenty of reasons to see The Hucksters. It was the American film debut of Deborah Kerr, who plays Gable’s widowed love interest, Kay Dorrance, and it also features the beautiful Ava Gardner as a torch singer named Jean Ogilvie. Adolphe Menjou is wonderful as Mr. Kimberly, the head of the advertising agency, and Keenan Wynn is appropriately irritating as a third-rate radio comedian named Buddy Hare.

The most memorable actor in the film, however, is Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Evan Llewellyn Evans, the grotesque and demanding head of Beautee Soap. After Gable’s character, Victor Norman, rejects the more scandalous layout favored by Evans, Evans sits down at the head of the boardroom table, tilts his head back, hawks, and spits on the table. “Mr. Norman, you’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “But you’ll always remember what I just did. You see, Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, you aren’t gonna sell any soap.”

The Hucksters could have used more moments like that. It’s nearly two hours long, and Gable’s romance with Kerr takes up much of the running time. It’s perfectly well-handled and shot, but it’s a storyline one could see in any number of pictures, while the advertising angle of the story is unique, and the film could have gotten more mileage out of it.

The Hucksters earned a respectable $4.4 million during its domestic release, but was a complete flop overseas, since in those days no one outside the United States was in any way familiar with American advertising or commercial broadcasting.

Christmas in Connecticut (Aug. 11, 1945)

ChristmasInConnecticutBarbara Stanwyck was a superstar of screwball comedies, and she created one of the all-time great femmes fatales in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Christmas in Connecticut is one of her minor efforts, but it’s amusing enough, and if you’re specifically looking for a holiday film, you could do a lot worse.

Stanwyck plays a renowned magazine food writer named Elizabeth Lane, a woman whose public persona might remind modern viewers of Martha Stewart. She writes about her perfect life in Connecticut, describing her beautiful snow-blanketed farm, her husband, her child, and the lavish meals she prepares. She has a loyal readership of both men and women. Women aspire to be like her and men dream of having a wife like her. In reality, however, Lane lives in a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan, types her columns next to a hissing radiator, and can’t boil an egg. She’s a talented writer, but that’s it. Her recipes all come from her restaurateur friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall). Her editor, Dudley (Robert Shayne), knows her secret, but her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), does not, and that’s where the trouble starts. Mr. Yardley thinks it would be terrific publicity to reward a handsome but malnourished young sailor named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), who survived a German U-Boat attack on his ship, with a Christmas dinner hosted by Lane and her husband. Who does not exist. At a country home that does not exist.

In classic screwball comedy fashion, confessing right away and letting the chips fall where they may does not even qualify as Plan C, so Lane enlists the help of an accomplice, her friend John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), a pompous ass who keeps proposing to her even though she has no interest in marrying him. She agrees to finally get hitched if only he’ll go along with her deception. The fact that he owns a farm in Connecticut is key, as well. He doesn’t have a baby, but they can always borrow one from a neighbor, right?

It should go without saying that Jones and Lane are attracted to each other, but their incipient romance is complicated by the fact that Lane is pretending to be married with a child. When the film first came out, the NY Times review said that “Peter Godfrey, the director, has a good deal to learn about the art of telling a boudoir joke in the parlor and getting away with it.” Modern viewers, however, will probably find most of the jokes fairly tame. Jones’s seeming willingness to cuckold Lane’s “husband” does reach a fever pitch toward the end, but nothing very lascivious comes of it.