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Tag Archives: Vanguard Films

Portrait of Jennie (Dec. 25, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Directed by William Dieterle
Vanguard Films / The Selznick Studio

William Dieterle directed one of my favorite romances of the 1940s, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), which starred Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers.

Cotten also starred for Dieterle in his film Love Letters (1945), and again in Portrait of Jennie, a romance with elements of magical realism.

Portrait of Jennie is based on Robert Nathan’s 1940 novel, and takes place in New York in 1934. Cotten plays an artist named Eben Adams who is cold, hungry, and poor. Worst of all, he is only painting competent but uninspired still lifes. He is desperate to paint something truly meaningful.

One wintry evening in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She wears old-fashioned clothes and speaks of things that happened decades ago as if they were current events.

Jennie inspires Eben to create a sketch of her. The sketch impresses an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Her partner, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway), tells her they won’t turn a profit at the price she paid Eben, and Miss Spinney informs him that she didn’t buy it for the gallery, she bought it for herself.

Eben investigates the mystery of Jennie Appleton while working on his portrait of her. She appears to him at various times, and is years older each time, even though only days or weeks have passed.

Cotten and Jones

I liked Portrait of Jennie, especially the first half, which is one of the most darkly magical lensings of Central Park in winter that I’ve ever seen. Cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died shortly after completing work on the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for his black and white cinematography. The film was also nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects, which it won.

Cotten was 44 when he made this picture, which is a little old to be playing a “young artist,” as he’s described by Ethel Barrymore, but he’s a great actor, so I didn’t mind so much.

Eben’s portrait of Jennie Appleton, which appears in full Technicolor at the end of the film, was a commissioned piece by Ukrainian-American artist Robert Brackman. It became one of David O. Selznick’s most prized possessions, and hung in his home after he married Jennifer Jones in 1949. (They remained married until his death in 1965.)

In my recent review of Act of Violence (1948), I mentioned how rare films from the 1940s were that didn’t open with a full set of credits. Portrait of Jennie goes one step further by not even putting a title card at the beginning of the film, which contributes to its sense of dreamlike fantasy.

Robert Brackman

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The Paradine Case (Dec. 29, 1947)

The Paradine Case
The Paradine Case (1947)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick Releasing Organization

The Paradine Case was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed while toiling under the heavy yoke of his contract with David O. Selznick.

Even though The Paradine Case was filmed entirely on sets in Selznick’s studio in Culver City, it ended up costing nearly as much as Gone With the Wind (1939), partly because Selznick insisted on extensive reshoots and constantly rewrote the script. Selznick even took over the postproduction work, editing and scoring the film without Hitchcock’s assistance.

Some of the money shows up on screen, though. The set used for the courtroom scenes that dominate the second half of the film was a perfect facsimile of London’s Old Bailey. It cost Selznick about $80,000 and took 85 days to construct.

The Paradine Case is a talky, slow-moving courtroom drama, and it’s rarely on lists of people’s favorite Hitchcock films, so I had pretty low expectations going in, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, though. No matter how static the setting or how garrulous the script, Hitchcock always found a way to make the proceedings fun to watch.

He doesn’t go to the lengths he would later go to in set-bound pictures like Rope (1948), with its takes that last an entire reel, or Dial M for Murder (1954), which was shot in 3D to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy, but The Paradine Case contains a lot of long takes and subtle dolly movements at critical moments to keep things interesting.

I think the biggest problem with The Paradine Case is the performance of Italian actress Alida Valli as the accused murderer Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine. Valli was touted as the “next big thing” when she appeared in The Paradine Case. She was known professionally as just “Valli,” and her name even appeared in the credits (and on the poster above) in a different font than the other actors’ names.

Grant and Valli

The central conceit of the film is that the sober, level-headed, married barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) falls instantly in love with Mrs. Paradine, convincing himself not only that she is innocent of the crime of poisoning her husband, but that he knows who is really guilty — Colonel Paradine’s valet, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan).

The problem, for me at least, is that Valli is too cold and distant to be believable as an irresistible femme fatale. On the other hand, it does lend her character an air of impenetrable mystery.

Sparks don’t exactly fly when Valli and Peck share the screen, and Ann Todd is pretty bland as Keane’s too-understanding wife Gay, so I especially enjoyed Charles Laughton’s performance as the mildly sadistic judge who presides over the Paradine case, Lord Thomas Horfield.

The Paradine Case is not a film I’ll be championing as “misunderstood” or “underrated,” and it will never be in a list of my favorite Hitchcock films, but I still thought it was really good. Peck’s accent is a little weird for a London barrister, but the acting in the film is excellent, the story is involving, and the direction is assured.

The Farmer’s Daughter (March 25, 1947)

H.C. Potter’s The Farmer’s Daughter has a title that makes it sound as if it might be an extended dirty joke that also involves a traveling salesman, but it’s not. It’s a funny, romantic, and inspiring film about a young woman whose life takes a very different direction than the one she expected it to take when she left home for the big city.

Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) lives on a farm in “Redwing County” with her Swedish father and mother (Harry Shannon and Anna Q. Nilsson) and her three brothers, Peter (James Arness), Olaf (Lex Barker), and Sven (Keith Andes). She goes to Capital City (a thinly veiled Chicago) to pursue a nursing degree, but an unscrupulous “friend” of her family named Adolph (Rhys Williams) weasels all of her money out of her and she’s left penniless.

She takes a job as a maid in the palatial home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore), a grand dame and behind-the-scenes political figure whose son, Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), is a congressman. When asked about her qualifications, Katrin tells Ethel that at home, she makes six beds every morning, does the washing and ironing for her three brothers, herself, and mama and papa, cleans all seven rooms and does dishes, helps mama with the canning — preserves, meat, eggs, dill pickles, smoked ham, and bacon — waits on tables (40 hands at harvest time), and makes glögg at Christmas. And that’s just what she does indoors. Outdoors, she plows with a horse and tractor, hoes potatoes, shucks wheat, milks cows, beds horses, butchers pigs, kills and dresses chickens, and cuts wood for both mill and stove.

She’s hired.

She doesn’t mention that she also give back-cracking, limb-twisting, lung-emptying Swedish massages, which she does for Glenn while he’s recovering after falling through the ice while skating with her.

Katrin is also a whip-smart young woman who speaks her mind as easily as she breathes. During a party for political bigwigs at the Morley home, where Katrin is serving drinks, a congressman named Wilbur Johnson (Thurston Hall) says it’s too bad Katrin has only just moved to town, because a vote from a pretty girl like her would have made his victory complete. She responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, if I could have voted, I wouldn’t have voted for you.” He’s taken aback, but her Swedish-accented, lilting, matter-of-fact delivery leaves him speechless.

After the party, Glenn asks Katrin why she doesn’t like congressman Johnson, and she says it’s because he opposes a higher minimum wage. She agrees with Johnson that people should be responsible for themselves, but she believes in a living wage. When Glenn asks her what she means, she responds, “A living wage depends on whether you’re getting it or giving it.”

After Katrin stands up at a political rally and poses a series of hard questions to the Morleys’ candidate, Anders J. Finley (Art Baker), including a number of very specific questions about his record that show she’s done her homework, the opposition party asks her if she’d like to run against Finley for a seat in Congress.

Katrin’s no-nonsense, can-do, take-charge attitude takes her as far in politics as it did back on the farm, but her opposition to the Morleys’ candidate threatens the budding romance between her and Glenn. It also drives her back to her family farm in despair after a vicious smear campaign is launched against her.

As with most political movies, the film is careful not to offend anyone by getting too deeply into hot-button issues. It’s also not very nuanced. By the end of the film, Finley has gone from being a condescending chauvinist to a figure of pure evil who is in league with both gangsters and home-grown fascists.

But The Farmer’s Daughter still manages to be a very funny and occasionally sharp political satire. The script by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr is wonderful, and the actors all play their parts to perfection. Ethel Barrymore conveys much without even speaking, and Charles Bickford is especially good as the Morley’s crusty old butler, Joseph Clancy.

Loretta Young was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best actress at the 20th Academy Awards for her role in this film. (Rosalind Russell had been heavily favored for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra.) I can’t compare Young’s performance to any of the other women who were nominated, because I haven’t seen their films yet, but I think her win was well-deserved. Katrin Holstrom, with her blond hair tied up in coiled buns and her Swedish accent, could have easily been a caricature, but Young imbues her with so much liveliness and depth that I fell in love with her, and was rooting for her all the way.

The Farmer’s Daughter has a light touch, and is very funny, but it’s still an inspiring film. Remember that when it was made, women had only had the right to vote at the national level for slightly more than 25 years, and only 41 women had served in the United States Congress.

It might not be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, but it is the funniest, warmest, and most moving. Wait … maybe it is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

Duel in the Sun (Dec. 31, 1946)

Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.

Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)

The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.

Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.

Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.

Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).

The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.

There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.

Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”

Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.

Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.

In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.

Notorious (Sept. 6, 1946)

Notorious
Notorious (1946)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
RKO Radio Pictures

Notorious was Alfred Hitchcock’s second film to star Ingrid Bergman. Like the first, Spellbound (1945), it’s a perfect marriage of director and star. Later in his career, Hitchcock had a penchant for casting blond ice queens like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, so it’s easy to forget how good he and the brown-haired Bergman were when they worked together.

In Notorious, Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German-American man convicted of spying for the Nazis. As soon as the trial is over, she throws a little party in her Miami bungalow and gets good and blotto. The sense of intimacy that Bergman creates in this scene is remarkable. She doesn’t slur her words or make a fool of herself, but through her drunken ramblings she reveals some of her innermost thoughts.

Not so with the handsome stranger (Cary Grant) who sits alone at her party. He remains an enigma for awhile. After she throws everyone else out, she takes him out for some good old fashioned drunk driving. (And all the herky-jerky rear projection stuff made me feel a little inebriated, too.) When a motorcycle cop pulls her over, the stranger flashes a badge of some kind, and the cop lets them go. Alicia’s mood sours. She hates policemen.

Alicia learns that this handsome stranger’s name is Devlin, and he’s a government agent. He has listened to the recordings of conversations she had with her father, and knows that she is loyal to the United States, despite her anger about his imprisonment. Because of her father’s espionage work against America, however, she is the perfect person to infiltrate a group of Nazis who fled to Brazil after the war.

While waiting to begin her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, she falls in love with Devlin. It happens — as these things tend to in the movies — quickly and with little explanation. Devlin seems to love her, too, but when it comes time to put her into the field he is all business. And since part of her assignment is to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), an old friend of her father’s and a member of the Nazi inner circle in Rio, Devlin chooses duty over love, and is cold enough to her that she eventually accepts Alex’s proposal of marriage.

Needless to say, living with a man she doesn’t love and his creepy, controlling mother (Leopoldine Konstantin) in a mansion in Rio, surrounded by Nazis who think nothing of killing traitors, is a dangerous proposition for poor Alicia, especially since her romance with Devlin continues to grow, despite both of their efforts to quell their own feelings.

Ingrid Bergman

Unlike Spellbound, which had all manner of baroque, Freudian lunacy, Notorious is an elegant and understated picture. The espionage plot isn’t overcomplicated, and it’s not really the focus of the movie. The love triangle is, as well as all the suspense and danger related to it. A sequence at one of Alex’s parties, in which Alicia and Devlin pass a key from hand to hand, achieves greatest emotional significance and more suspense than a complicated cryptography system or a series of twists and double-crosses ever could.

As a pure cinematic experience, I prefer Spellbound, despite — or perhaps because of — its craziness. Notorious is still a great movie, and Cary Grant is a less inert leading man than Gregory Peck. Ingrid Bergman is stunningly beautiful in this film, too. It’s not just the contours of her face, which are lovingly illuminated by cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, it’s her intelligence and openness, and an ineffable quality of vulnerability.

Notorious was a critical and commercial success, and one of the biggest hits of 1946. Claude Rains was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor and Ben Hecht was nominated for best original screenplay, although neither won.

The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.