Category Archives: American

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

The 1930 Frank Capra film Ladies of Leisure stars a very young Barbara Stanwyck as tough, independent party girl Kay Arnold. It’s New Year’s Eve in New York, and it may be Prohibition, but that certainly doesn’t stop the booze from flowing at the penthouse apartment of dilettante rich boy/artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves), son of a railroad tycoon. The party spills over into drunken absurdities and Jerry, suddenly losing his taste for the wild high life, ditches the party and his love interest Claire Collins (Juliette Compton) and goes off for a solitary drive.

While driving through deserted streets Jerry spots a  young woman as she rows towards shore away from a party taking place on a yacht. The woman, who accepts a lift back to New York, is Kay Arnold, and to Jerry she seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s unpretentious and unaffected, and on the drive back, Jerry and Kay impress each other for various reasons. As a party girl (which is a euphemism for prostitute), Kay fully expects Jerry to step out of line–after all, her line of work involves men just like Jerry–men rich enough to afford her company while they simultaneously don’t expect to be restricted to polite behaviour.

Jerry asks Kay to model for him, and although she’s suspicious at first, she soon ends up at his penthouse apartment putting in long hours. Jerry just can’t seem to get his painting right. In his head he has a vision of Kay gazing toward the heavens with a beatific gaze, but he just can’t seem to get the pose. He buys Kay clothes, wipes off her makeup, but there’s still something missing.

In the meantime, everyone sees Jerry’s real motive for employing Kay as his model. Jerry’s amusing, permanently boozed-up friend, Bill (Sherman Lowell) fancies Kay for himself, and he makes it clear he’s interested, even dangling a cruise to Havana in front of her nose. Claire senses a shift in Jerry’s interest, and Jerry’s parents step in with separate attempts to prise Jerry away from Kay.

The role of Kay Arnold was a breakthrough in Stanwyck’s career, and she’s really wonderful as the gum-chewing, rough-around-the edges party girl who reforms thanks to love. I’ll admit, though, that I prefer Kay in the beginning of the film. She becomes far less interesting when she falls in love and giddily dons an apron. The role of Jerry is problematic–mainly because he’s such a wanker. He’s completely out of touch with his feelings–which isn’t a problem in itself, but then he orders Kay around in a most annoying fashion. He doesn’t make much of a romantic figure especially when Kay appears to transform, dropping some of her most appealing characteristics as she tries to please Jerry. There’s a vast gap between these two and as far as the love story goes, I don’t hold out much hope for this couple.

On the other hand there are two other performances well worth noting: Lowell Sherman as Bill and Kay’s hilarious chubby best friend: Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost): a woman who believes “you can’t weigh sex appeal.”

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The Gay Sisters (1942)

“Let that be a lesson to you not to go driving around the county deceiving strange men.”

After the death of his wife on the Lusitania, wealthy New-Yorker Penn Sutherland Gaylord (Donald Woods) decides to ‘do’ something and goes off to fight and subsequently die on the fields of France. This leaves his three small children, Fiona, Evelyn, and Susanna orphaned. Before Gaylord leaves to fight in WWI, he imagines that he’s taking care of his children’s future by leaving an iron-cast will which includes a vast fortune and the splendid Gaylord mansion to his three daughters. Early scenes show Gaylord with his eldest daughter, Fiona–a proud, imperious child who hides her emotions in front of the servants.

The film then flashes forward. The Gay sisters (as they are now known) are all adult. Fiona (Barbara Stanwyck) and Susie (Nancy Coleman) still live in the Gaylord mansion while Evelyn (Geraldine Fitizgerald) is married and living in England. The Gaylord estate has been tied up in litigation for years, and has gradually been bled dry with multiple versions of the will, various lawsuits and a series of  lawyers. Think Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Bleak House and you get the picture. Fiona–the oldest girl and the backbone of the family is the tough one of the bunch–the most vocal and the one who’ll fight to the death to keep the mansion.

The Gaylord mansion is, apparently, in the crosshairs of Charles Barclay (George Brent), one of the will’s contestants. He wants to demolish the Gaylord house and build some monstrosity (according to Fiona) to be known as Barclay Square. It looks as though the litigation will continue when sister Susie who’s in love with artist Gig Young (played by Byron Barr before he changed his name to Gig Young) secretly goes to Barclay on a mission to persuade him to drop the suit. Her action causes a chain of events to take place….

The Gay Sisters, directed by Irving Rapper, certainly has the feel of a novel, so it should come as no surprise that it’s based on a book written by Stephen Longstreet. While the film isn’t bad (I actually rather enjoyed it), it never quite reaches the heights it strains to touch. It’s not quite soap opera, not quite drama and not quite romance, and yet at the same time, I suspect that the novel was a grand mixture of these elements. As it is, the film develops some intriguing asides but then wraps them up all too implausibly as the plot dashes to the final scenes.

The sisters are a mixed bunch with Evelyn (back on a visit) the bitchy pretentious one who sports a monocle, and Susie is the most human of the litter. That leaves Fiona played with Stanwyck’s usual backbone. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for the sisters who collectively moan about how poor they are, and yet none of them work and there’s more than one fur coat flapping in the breeze. At one point, Fiona mentions she inherited a cool $100,000 dollars from an aunt–quite a fortune in those days. It might as well be $100 from the way it’s mentioned almost as an aside–while today, sixty years later, $100,000 is still a large amount of money to the average working stiff. But that’s just the money issue; when it comes to character, Evelyn is nasty, and the way Fiona used Charles isn’t exactly charming either. That leaves Susie, but there’s dirt in her past too. Perhaps the novel managed to be a grand tear-jerker, but somehow that’s lost in the film version. That said, the sympathy that does come to the sisters comes courtesy of understanding the burden of responsibility of having a great house, and a great name and two dead parents. The weight of this burden taints all three sisters in different ways, but the film makes the point that they certainly haven’t had a normal life (whatever that is).

If you’re a Stanwyck fan, you won’t be able to resist watching the film just to see her in this role.

Quotes:

“We’re all little people trying to find and grab what happiness we can . We fight back and love each other, work a while and die still little people. But once in a while one of us has a chance to do something . Life hands it to us on a platter.” (Gig Young to Evelyn)

“Love is something you cut out of yourself or it moves in and cuts you apart.” (Fiona to Susie)

 

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Forbidden (1932)

“You’re poison to me. Poison. I wish I’d never met you!”

The Frank Capra pre-code film Forbidden examines a love affair between a single career girl and a politician. Yes, the story of the backstreet love affair has been done a million times, but there are nice little complications to Forbidden that elevate this drama from the mediocre. And of course, it does star Barbara Stanwyck….

The film begins with librarian, Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) deciding on a whim (and infected with spring fever) to cash in her savings and take a cruise to Havana. In the library, she’s a spectacled frump complete with a bun, but once aboard ship, she’s dressed in a full-length evening gown, fur stole and glittery jewelry, but she’s still noticeably alone–a fact that confounds the ship’s crew. 

Lulu meets and promptly falls in love with another solitary passenger, Bob (Adolphe Menjou). Nicknaming each other 66 and 99 (after the numbers of their cabins), Bob and Lulu spend the entire time together–both on the cruise ship and later in Cuba’s nightclubs. Their love affair is light and devil-may-care. Any serious discussion is deliberately avoided–although at one point Lulu does drop a broad suggestion about skipping the homeward bound ship and staying in Havana.

But Lulu and Bob return to their old lives. She begins working at a newspaper office where she attracts the interest of Holland (Ralph Bellamy), but Lulu makes it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile Bob’s continuing relationship with Lulu is marginalized into the odd stolen hour, and in spite of the fact he’s a lawyer, Lulu never sees his name in the paper. Eventually of course, Bob reveals he’s married and cannot divorce his wife. Lulu is content to take crumbs but circumstances drive the couple apart.

Forbidden traces the relationship between Bob and Lulu over several decades. Bob’s political career soars while Lulu remains in the background, and she sacrifices again and again–career, relationships, motherhood–these issues are sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s home and career.  Forbidden explores the oppositional forces of selfishness and selflessness through their relationship.  At first, Bob and Lulu think of themselves and their desires, but then Bob shifts and suddenly he has to protect his wife, Helen (Dorothy Peterson) due to  her ‘invalidism’. His argument against a divorce to protect his wife also rather conveniently ensures the continuance of his political career. The film doesn’t explore Bob’s motives a great deal, but the tantalizing possibility that Bob uses his wife as an excuse to protect his political ambition is evident. 

Forbidden is a film that can generate a lot of intriguing discussions, and I suspect many of us would have different opinions about the characters, their motives, and just how selfish or unselfish they really are.

The film makes it clear that Lulu and Bob both very deftly avoid any discussion of their lives when they first meet. In fact at one point, Bob seems (in retrospect) on the verge of confession, when Lulu stops him. Later, Bob’s late night visits must also rouse Lulu’s suspicions but once again she avoids confronting the truth until she’s forced to. This conspiracy of silence extends beyond the lovebirds and even includes Bob’s wife. During one scene in the film, Bob’s wife is about to take off for Europe for a ‘cure,’ and she gives Bob carte blanche to do as he pleases, telling him:

“While I’m away, I want you to have a good time and I won’t ask any questions either.”

So it seems that Bob and Lulu’s affair will be ignored by the missus just as long as he keeps it under wraps. So we have a mistress who’d rather not know about the wife, and a wife who’d rather not know about the mistress. And what of Bob? He has his proverbial cake and eats it too. At one point, Bob rather lamely tells Lulu: “why I’ve taken your life almost as though I’d been a murderer,” and in another scene, he whines (rather unconvincingly, I thought) about how difficult his life is.

Then there’s the question of Holland. He’s every bit as ambitious as Bob, but his goal as newspaper editor is to ruin Bob’s career, and so Holland digs hard and deep for a scandal. Lulu uses Holland, and yet Holland uses Lulu too. So basically we see these four adults in twisted relationships that are a bizarre combination of selfishness and selflessness, and by the time the film ends the results of these relationships are disastrous and destructive.

Forbidden is a really interesting early pre-code vehicle for Stanwyck. The drama steers clear of hysteria and too much melodrama. The weepy bits are well done and conducted with beautiful touches–my favourite scene is when Bob runs after Lulu in the rain. Catch the moment when the rain drips from Bob’s hat. It’s a magnificent touch.

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Holiday Affair (1949)

“And I want a girl that’ll drop everything and run to me, no matter what the score is.”

Every Xmas, I tell myself that I will watch a few christmas-themed films, but I usually don’t. This year, however, I managed to catch Holiday Affair, a 1949 film starring lovely Janet Leigh and her somewhat unlikely co-star Robert Mitchum. This delightful film aired on Turner Classic Movies, with the host Robert Osborne explaining that the film was quite a departure for Mitchum. Howard Hughes (RKO pictures), apparently wanted Mitchum to clean up his act after a drug bust in 1948. The intro didn’t mention that Mitchum’s fellow bustee was Lila Leeds. As part of her ‘correction process,’ she made the film She Shoulda Said No (AKA Wild Weed)–a cheesy film, unsurprisingly, about the evils of Marijuana. Lila was finished in Hollywood but Mitchum emerged unscathed.

Holiday Affair is set in the Xmas season in New York and concerns a plucky young war widow named Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh) who lives alone with her son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert). Connie is a ‘comparison shopper’ and works undercover buying products that are scrutinized by a competitor and then returned. While buying a toy train, Connie is served by Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) who sells her the train before she dashes home. This initial encounter should be trivial, but it isn’t, and Steve Mason seems to drink in every detail about Connie–even if she’s distracted and in a great hurry.

Connie appears to have a simple home life, but there are complicated undercurrents. She’s courted by staid, responsible lawyer, Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), but she can’t let go of the memory of her dead husband. Carl wants Connie to marry him, but Connie isn’t sure….

When Connie returns the train to the department store the following day, she runs into Steve Mason again. He spots her as an employee of ‘comparison shopper,’ and he’s fired when he doesn’t ‘out’ her to his hovering supervisor. Connie feels responsible, and soon the two are off to lunch and a friendship begins. This friendship, of course, threatens Carl but delights Timmy.

With Robert Mitchum vs. Wendell Corey, the film’s conclusion is obvious from the outset, but it’s all so delightfully done, perfectly timed and realized. Unlike some Xmas films, Timmy isn’t too angelic (one scene pushes the boundary), but he throws a few fits and tantrums along the way which help the reality factor.

Connie isn’t the great interest here. Instead it’s the two men, In each other’s company (usually on Connie’s territory) their every action and word carries a deeper meaning. Carl, who’s understandably threatened by Steve tries to stake out prior ownership, and this leaves him in an unflattering light. Sympathies for Carl erode during these scenes as we cheer for Steve the underdog, who has materially, a lot less to offer. Mitchum, naturally, steals the film. Steve Mason is an intriguing character, and for him poverty seems a choice and a definite moral value decision. It’s interesting to see how others make judgments about Steve based on his loner, non-materialistic behaviour. But by far the best (and funniest) scene in the film includes a police lieutenant (Harry Morgan) who tries to unravel the complicated relationships revealed right before him.

Anyway, if you want a decent Christmas film that you haven’t watched a million times, keep your eyes open for this one.

From director Don Hartman.

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Party Girl (1930)

“Don’t call me Madame!”

Party Girl is a tepid little melodrama directed by Victor Halperin and featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The film is one of the morality tales that is supposed to simultaneously titillate and preach to its audience. Unfortunately, it does neither.

Maude Lindsay (Almeda Fowler) runs a shady “party girl” escort business, and the term “party girl” doesn’t carry the same meaning it has today. For the purposes of the film, it’s a euphemism for prostitute. Mrs. Lindsay provides her party girls for various informal meetings. They’re a sort of ‘perk’ for the businessmen who attend and are supposed to encourage contract signing, etc. One evening Mrs. Lindsay holds a party–complete with a bevy of her naughty girls–for the United Glass Company.

Jay Rountree (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) the wastrel son and heir of another glass manufacturer crashes the party, and although he’s seeking a good time, he finds himself up to his spoiled little neck in trouble when he becomes involved with “society trollop” party girl Leeda Cather (Judith Barrie).

Simplistic, and not particularly noteworthy, the best part of the film is the role of Leeda as the bad girl. Although the party girls are just the female version of playboy Jay Rountree, while his drunken faux pas are considered mere foibles, the females’ behaviour is interpreted, by the script, as morally reprehensible. Flippant Leeda, the worst of the bunch, callously teaches Jay a painful lesson on the need to stay sober. Made in 1930, Party Girl was originally banned, and it’s just recently been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. This DVD from Alpha video has some sound problems. The speech of some of the characters is not particularly clear, and there’s a loud background hiss for most of the film. The picture is acceptable, but it’s a bit faded in spots.

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Scared Stiff (1945)

“Have you got a woman in this room?”

A dead body, an antique chess set, and two scheming women are at the heart of the surprisingly entertaining little mystery, Scared Stiff. Bumbling reporter, Larry Elliot (Jack Haley) is given an assignment to cover the chess tournament at the Grape City Harvest Festival and interview the new Miss Muscat. This is Larry’s last chance to prove himself as a news reporter, and if he fails on this assignment, his uncle, who owns the paper, has threatened to give Larry the boot. Distracted at the Greyhound bus station by beautiful redhead, Sally Warren (Ann Savage), Larry gets on the wrong bus and goes to an Inn at Grape Central. Just as Larry realises his mistake and tries to leave, a body is discovered on the bus. Larry has to stay at the inn until the police arrive to investigate the case.

Scared Stiff or Treasure of Fear is about 64 minutes long. The film is well paced and full of some great characters. Twin brothers Charles and Preston Waldeck own the inn, and the brothers each own half of an extremely valuable jeweled chess set. There’s a pushy blonde, Flo Rosson (Veda Ann Borg) who makes overtures to Larry, and there’s an obnoxious bratty child prodigy, a chess player who annoys everyone. Escaped criminal George Markham (Barton MacLane) is also on the loose.

Jack Haley’s performance as Larry reminds me a little of the early Bob Hope. Larry has that sort of naivete that gets him into trouble and yet protects him at the same time. The film is saved from mediocrity by its humorous overtones. There’s one scene, for example, when Larry has the two female characters hidden in his room, and the landlord takes the moral high ground. The film’s finale is a splendid chase sequence through the wine cellars of the inn. The Alpha DVD quality is less-than-perfect. There are some spots where the film skips and the odd word of dialogue is lost. The picture and sound quality, however, are acceptable.

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