Quote of the Week: George Sanders Remembers Marilyn Monroe

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She was very beautiful and very inquiring and unsure--she was somebody in a play not yet written, uncertain of her part in the over-all plot. As far as I can recall, she was humble, punctual and untemperamental. She wanted people to like her.

-George Sanders, about Marilyn Monroe

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Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Technicolor Gene Tierney in Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Saturday at the Egyptian Theater, watching Lubitsch on the big screen, turning into an icicle. It really happened.

As we waited in line for a SIFF screening of Heaven Can Wait (1943), we were warned by a festival employee that the air conditioning in the Egyptian had been stuck on all night, and it was a bit chilly inside. However, he also told us that complimentary tea and coffee were available to help ward off the cold. A classy move.

The lady behind me was loaded up with a pillow and blanket, all ready to settle in for five hours of films, so she at least came prepared. She told me that getting ready for a long day at SIFF felt like packing for a camping trip. That's a good comparison, because both things have the same effect on your back. It actually didn't end up being much colder than usual.

Though I've seen and essentially enjoyed it a few times over the years, Heaven Can Wait has always been a problematic movie for me. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and written by the filmmaker's frequent screenwriter Sam Raphaelson, it has the sexy sparkle and sharp wit of his best films, though not quite as much as his pre-code romps. It also has a fantastic supporting cast, with Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, Marjorie Main and Gene Tierney doing some of their best work. My problem, aside from this being a post-code Lubitsch is that I don't like star Don Ameche and I like his character here even less.

The whole concept of this comedy is that Ameche's character, Henry Van Cleve is an imperfect person, but still worthy of entry into heaven. By the end of this screening, I think there were some audience members who still didn't believe he was ready for the pearly gates. I certainly wondered what he had done to redeem himself. Compounding the problem is that Ameche has always struck me as this kind of person in other movies as well: some cad who has it coming to him.

So my approach to this film is to treat Ameche like a talking movie audience member who won't be shushed, I feel tense about him, but I don't let him ruin things for me.

Heaven Can Wait follows Henry from babyhood to death. From the beginning he charms the ladies, and his flirtations with and mistreatment of them are the central pursuit of his life. As a baby his doting mother (Spring Byington) and grandmother (Clara Blandick) fight over him as he gazes up from the cradle. In the pre-teen years, he buys female attention with boxes of beetles. As a teen, he charms his mother's French maid (Signe Hasso) and gets drunk with her in a nightclub.

By the time Henry reaches adulthood, he has advanced to stealing his uptight cousin's (Allyn Joslyn) fiancée, Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney). It shouldn't come as a surprise, but is nevertheless disappointing that he isn't faithful to Martha. Never mind whether or not he should get into heaven, the dear lady should have kicked him to the curb. To make matters worse, when she enters the senior years, she is stuck with a hairdo that looks like an animal trying to eat her head. Even Gene Tierney isn't beautiful enough to overcome that, though she comes close.

With a man like that in the lead, the supporting cast must provide compensation, and it does. Charles Coburn is Henry's mischievous grandfather, and ironically is one of the most loveable characters, despite the fact that he must have been just as much of a cad as his grandson in his day. Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main play their familiar types with gusto as Martha's strict, but warm-hearted parents. I love Gene Tierney, and would watch her in anything, but I have to admit I didn't previously give her enough credit for her comedy chops in this movie. While she is often stuck in the unrewarding disapproving wife role, she has some comic exchanges that she handles with great skill.

I also love that continuing Lubitsch/Raphaelson tradition of putting the spotlight on the servants. It makes sense to focus some attention on the help; imagine the things they have seen and the talent it must take to manage their employers. In this case there are two fascinating characters: the Van Cleve's butler Fogdell, who reacts with subtle amusement and occasional delight to the dramas of the family and the very amusing Clarence Muse as Jasper, the Strabel's patient and diplomatic servant, who clearly understands the delicate nature of his employees' marriage.

In his small part as the Devil, Laird Cregar deserves special mention. He plays the evil delight of his character perfectly; wide-eyed with amusement from learning all the dirt about his potential residents. Cregar even has the right look for the role: sort of handsome, sort of repellant and definitely dangerous looking.

As much as I dislike Ameche, all these characters, and the sharp wit of the script kept me grinning. You know you've been watching a Lubitsch when your face is sore, but you don't remember any belly laughs. This is a sly sort of humor that gets under your skin.

The film was a digital presentation of a new restoration by the 20th Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive, and The Film Foundation. While I found it beautiful overall, I was especially impressed by how vivid the colors were in the restored version. It's already such a brightly colored film, and in this presentation all those reds and blues really popped. There's also few leading ladies who can make a movie audience collectively hold its breath during a close-up like Gene Tierney does. She was made for Technicolor.

The Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Giveaway!

To commemorate the tenth and final volume of Warner Archive's delightful Forbidden Hollywood pre-code series, I am giving away one five-film set to a lucky reader!

The collection includes:

Guilty Hands (1931), with Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis and Madge Evans

The Mouthpiece (1932), starring Warren William and Sidney Fox

Secrets of  the French Police (1932), featuring Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff and Frank Morgan

The Match King (1932), with Warren William, Lili Damita and Glenda Farrell

Ever in My Heart (1933), with Barbara Stanwyck and Ralph Bellamy

For more information about the films, check out my review from yesterday.

To enter the giveaway, just tell me your favorite pre-code film in the comments!

-Deadline to enter Monday, 5/30, 11:59 PST
-Open to USA residents only
-Winner to be announced in an update to this post Tuesday, 6/1 

Good Luck!

Warner Archive: The Final Volume of Forbidden Hollywood

I'll admit to being disappointed when I learned that volume 10 of Warner Archive's Forbidden Hollywood series would be the last. From the first installment, these sets of pre-code movies have always been a must-have for me. I've made so many great discoveries through the series over the years, and enjoyed being able to own copies of films I'd only previously had access to through TCM and aging VHS tapes.

There's something to be said for leaving the party while you are still having fun though. Every volume of the series has been well curated and it is good that it is finishing strong with a set of intriguing films. It is also encouraging that Warner Archive has emphasized that it remains committed to releasing pre-code films, something which I have already seen to be true.

Guilty Hands (1931)

Lionel Barrymore plays an oily, amoral D.A. who kills a womanizing client (Alan Mowbray) during a weekend party at his isolated estate when he learns the man plans to marry his much younger daughter (Madge Evans) the next day. Thinking he has committed the perfect crime, he confidently asserts to the police that it is a suicide. He soon realizes that the dead man's long-suffering mistress (Kay Francis) is on to him though, and a battle of wits and wills ensues.

A lot happens in the brief 69 minutes of this efficient little thriller. It's an interesting role for Francis. She's as fashionable as always, but she gets to play a clever sleuth in that string of pearls and satin evening dress. It's amusing to watch the delight she takes in each new discovery as she unravels the particulars of Barrymore's crime. Though she can go a bit too bug-eyed in some of the more dramatic scenes, she hits the right spots emotionally in one of her more intriguing performances.

I found the relationship between Barrymore and Evans a bit odd, with the overly cozy body contact and long kisses on the mouth. Was such contact between fathers and daughters deemed acceptable back in the day? Or is there something to be read from what I found to be the unsettling sensuality of their bond?

The Mouthpiece (1932)

At first this law drama seems to be serving up the same wolfish Warren William to be found in most of his pre-codes. That type is subverted here though, and in an interesting way. You keep thinking the story is settling back into a conventional rut, when it takes another unexpected turn and tricks you yet again.

William is Vince Day, a lawyer who discards his morals and starts representing criminals when he learns he has sent a wrongfully convicted man to the electric chair. He uses unconventional methods to keep crooks out of jail, resorting to sensational behavior like punching state witnesses and taking poison to make his point (only to have his stomach pumped just in time). Young Southern belle Celia Farraday (Sidney Fox) catches his eye, and he prepares to make another conquest, but she is much wiser than her innocent demeanor would have you believe.

When Celia begins to turn the tables on Vince, he is as stunned as if every dastardly Warren William character were lining up to take it on the chin. There is danger of excessive sentimentality, but Fox keeps her character sharp and crisp. Vince, while capable of change, adjusts his personality subtly. You believe that he had good in him all along, but also that the cad is never going to entirely disappear.

Secrets of the French Police (1932)

Despite running barely over an hour, this brisk flick manages to cover several genres, and none of them thoroughly. It's a bit of a romance, mostly a police procedural, sort of a comedy, but with hints of horror.

Frank Morgan stars as police inspector François St. Cyr, an innovative gumshoe with a crime lab and a passion for advanced investigative techniques. Eugenie Dorain (Gwili Andre) and Leon Renault (John Warburton) are lovers, she a flower girl, he a petty criminal. Eugenie is kidnapped by power-mad General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) who hypnotizes her into believing she is the exiled Princess Anastasia. He also kills women and coats them in wax, just like in that year's Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932).

You are more likely to enjoy this movie if you don't try to understand it. Just take in the visuals, like Morgan's striking method of creating a larger-than-life police sketch, the creepy wax figures and the trippy hypnotism scene. The leads also have just enough to offer. Morgan is lightly amusing and clever; Andre is a bit stiff, but intriguing for her unusual beauty; and Warburton is a slight, but interesting talent with a soft-eyed, gentle, but confident style that reminded me of Cary Elwes as Westly in The Princess Bride.

It isn't quite good, but it's an experience worth having.

The Match King (1932)

An interesting, and rare for the time, pre-credit sequence sets up this quasi-biopic of Swedish match mogul Ivar Krueger like a comedy, but it is always at its core a story of a tragic man. William is Paul Kroll, a Swedish man working various cons in Chicago who heeds a call to return home to save the family business, a struggling match factory.

Kroll is fond of saying, "Never worry about anything till it happens. I'll take care of it then." The only problem is that he seems to tell himself this too, but his chief talent is conning investors and bankers into loans he can't repay.

Though he never makes enough to cover debts, he does know how to build sales: Kroll comes up with Krueger's real-life idea to create the superstition that lighting three cigarettes on a match is bad luck in order to quickly increase sales by a third. He is also not above resorting to murder to stamp out competition and reduce his own risks. Even in the pre-code age, there's no way he's getting away with it all, though it's always interesting to watch him try.

Lili Damita is a fascinating Garbo/Dietrich hybrid as Marta Molnar, an actress who mesmerizes Kroll.

Ever in My Heart (1933)

This movie starts with a perfect romance which unsteadily becomes a tragedy. Stanwyck is Mary Archer, a wealthy small town girl all ready to marry her cousin Jeff (you know she won't because he's Ralph Bellamy, eternal resident of Dumpsville). She changes her plans when she becomes completely smitten by Jeff's German friend Hugo (Otto Kruger). They marry, have a child, and live a happy life as respected members of the community. Then World War I breaks out and Hugo's German heritage is suddenly viewed as a threat by the townspeople.

What follows is typically frustrating and heartbreaking, especially after the warmth of the opening scenes. Mary wonders what to do with her life, while from across the room a group of women from the town read each other newspaper horror stories about the war. One woman gasps, "Oh my gracious goodness, why I thought they only did those things in the Bible," and you know the propaganda machine is in full swing. Then begins the patient wait for common sense to prevail, or a believable tragedy to break the tension, but neither happens. This is a movie that stays true to human nature, but not so much to its core characters.

There's a scene where Mary gets a letter from Hugo in which he says he has joined the German army out of frustration with his treatment in America. For just a moment, a surge of tears reveals the force she had as a young actress whenever her character was in pain. It's frustrating though, because instead of spitting out an indignant rebuke of the situation, she suffers in silence. Though it is great acting, it isn't the Stanwyck the film needs. If there was ever a situation in which she needed to get angry and spew vitriol, this is it.

I can't completely dislike this movie, because Stanwyck has never been so beautiful, and she is always worth watching. While Otto Kruger had unconventional looks for a romantic lead, the pair has many tender and charming moments together. They have the unusually-charged chemistry of a pair who no one would think to match, but turns out to be perfectly in sync. This is why the way it all plays out is frustrating and in a lot of ways implausible, but it is worth the watch to see these actors together.

Love pre-codes? Grieving the end of the Forbidden Hollywood series? Check back tomorrow for a very special giveaway!

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Orson Welles in Falstaff/ Chimes at Midnight (1965)

It's almost comforting to watch Orson Welles play the title character in Falstaff/ Chimes at Midnight (1965), because he seems so happily at home. The director called it his favorite film, a sentiment that wasn't shared by critics upon its release, but which has changed in the years since. In a new restoration, it is possible to fully appreciate the beauty and madness of Welles' passion project.

The concept for the film began as the 1939 stage play Five Kings, which was written by Welles. He drew parts from Shakespeare's Richard III and Henry IV, V, and VI into one show. That first try was a disaster, as was a 1960 revival, but Orson was determined to produce this ultimate expression of his love for Shakespeare, and his favorite character Sir John Falstaff. Long scorned by Hollywood, he managed to cobble together a Spanish/Swiss production. Given the battle it took to fund and film it's astonishing how beautifully-executed and powerfully acted it is.

Welles had a great sense for how the language of Shakespeare should be presented, alternating between busy tableaux with lots of movement and chatter and the stillness of quiet monologue. He sets his more populated scenes in impeccably designed surroundings, all worn beams and hanging bunches of herbs. He stages extras high and low, and deep in the frame, always keeping the visuals lively. The monologues are stark by comparison, shot in intimate close-ups, with moody lighting reminiscent of an alley scene in a film noir.

As Henry IV, John Gielgud gets the best of that one-on-one attention. I don't think I fully appreciated this actor before I saw him here. Finally I understand how mesmerizing he could be. Though he speaks with passion, there's never the feeling that he is out of control. Even a shot of the back of his neck can bring chills, as you realize his every movement is shot through with power, but carefully calibrated. When he's onscreen, it's impossible to look away.

Playing son of Henry IV Prince Hal, Welsh actor Keith Baxter looks a bit like Anthony Perkins, even possessing some of his youthful tension, which works well for the conflicted character. He shifts believably from playboy cad to imposing royal. You can see the threads of his past within him though; he is never quite to be trusted.

This is essentially a man's world on display, so Jeanne Moreau has little to do as Doll Tearsheet. She doesn't need much to command attention though. In a role like this, you wonder how much further she could have gone as an actress in English language productions.

While I was blindsided by Gielgud, this film is still essentially Welles' playground. He somewhat tamps down the humorous aspects of Falstaff, but there's always a bit of a twinkle to him. It is clear that the character is home to him, the role for which he has the most affection. When looking at his enormous size, it's hard to believe the actor actually had to lose weight to play the part.

Juxtaposed with the alternating merry and elegant tone of the rest of the film, an extended battle scene comes as a bit of a shock. It is shot to show the chaos of war as it directly affects the bodies of soldiers. The charging motion of arms and legs are set off against bodies submerged in mud, and larger vistas are abruptly switched to close-ups of gushing wounds and falling men. It's a bloody spectacle in the midst of another, more civilized demonstration, but you sense the same game is being played.

Chimes at Midnight will return to SIFF Cinemas for a regular engagement once the festival is over. It's well worth a watch for fans of Shakespeare on film and the featured actors. For Welles lovers it's a must see.

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: George Sanders Steals Everything in A Scandal in Paris (1946)

This past Sunday, while Captain America boomed away in the next theater, a near-capacity crowd enjoyed George Sanders being his slippery best in Douglas Sirk's A Scandal in Paris (1946). It felt like a minor victory that a small part of Pacific Place Theaters was given to such an unusual classic.

Long one of my favorite films, I thought this was an interesting choice for the festival. A film starring a character actor most famous for playing villains in one of his rare starring roles, and helmed by a director most famous for mid-century melodramas with vivid hues and heartbreaking plot twists, is just the sort of treasure you hope to discover at a film festival.

Set in 18th-century France, it is a loosely-adapted biography of a thief who went by the name Eugène François Vidocq, and had a long career in crime before he switched sides and became a criminologist (in the film he becomes the Parisian chief of police). Here he is accompanied by his accomplice Emile, played by Akim Tamiroff with a magnificent monobrow, troll's face and the twinkling, long-lashed eyes of a pretty girl.

Vidocq is born in prison, and continues to spend his youth there, honing his skill as a thief and increasing his prospects with each attempt. When he agrees to pose for a portrait with Tamiroff, astride a horse dressed as St. George, while his pal plays the dragon, he unknowingly consents to a sort of police sketch. Though he takes off with the steed, the excellent likeness painted by a priest comes back to haunt him.

Until then, he steals jeweled garters while seducing ladies in carriages and gains invitations to country estates where he can clean out the family jewels while enjoying the luxuries of his gullible hosts. He falls for one of his victims though, the seemingly innocent Therese (Signe Hasso) who is the daughter of his host, the police minister (Alan Napier).

At first, Vidocq is enchanted by Therese's placid beauty. He slips into her room at night to kiss her cheek, a moment which she later remembers. She also sees his resemblance in the St. George portrait and with a little detective work begins to understand this handsome stranger. His adoration changes to respect when he realize the object of his affection is smarter than he is.

Playing a sexier, more outrageous counterpart to Therese is Carole Landis, as showgirl and gold-digger Loretta, who fascinates Vidocq as much as she arouses his need to steal. The actress would make only a few more films before she committed suicide in 1948. Here she is at her best, and demonstrates a unique combination of beauty and comic ability too quickly lost to the world. I like to think she would have been a great sitcom star.

A jumbled cast of wry and hapless characters supports Sanders and his ladies. While I could be content gazing at Sanders and Landis for an entire film, this group is one of the great pleasures of the film.

I especially liked Emile's criminal family, who all have fascinatingly bizarre, bushy-eyebrowed faces that look like they were molded out of clay. The visages of Cousin Pierre (Skelton Knaggs), Cousin Gabriel (Fred Nurney) and Aunt Ernestine (Gisella Werbisek), not to mention Emile, would not be out of place in a horror film. And yet, there's something loveable about them all; they are so determined and diligent in their larceny.

Also intriguing is the child actress Jo Ann Marlowe as Therese's pre-teen sister Mimi. There's no cuteness in this sophisticated and charming performer, she has some of the sharpest lines and she bites into them with precocious delight. You know that when this kid grows up she's going to subvert the restrictions of 18th-century society to her own desires. As her high-living marquise grandmother, Alma Krueger perhaps provides a glimpse into the girl's future.

The story is played lightly, with wry humor, intrigue and tantalizing romance. I always wonder if I'm reading more sex into it than is intended. There's something so erotic about the way Therese caresses a rose with increasing intensity while attempting to seem casual as she discusses her possible sins with a country priest. It also seems like an unmistakably vaginal shape that opens in a paper screen that Loretta sets aflame during her act, before she steps through it to go flirt with the men in the audience.

Of course, I could just be reacting to the sensual gaze of Sanders, which seems to mesmerize both the male and female members of his circle. He is such an appealing romantic lead, a little dangerous, but not so intimidating that you fear for his conquests. He is a gentleman cad and you want them to sample the excitement he offers.

All the romanticism, innocence and violence of the story are nicely symbolized by an early version of a merry-go-round run by pulleys, which is the setting for some of Vidocq's most intense moments. The trilling, but sly musical theme for these scenes ties them together smoothly, setting the stage for a delightfully sophisticated conclusion.

I thought this was a wonderfully unusual choice for the festival. It was a perfect Sunday movie.

Happy Birthday Douglas Fairbanks: Five Swashbuckling Facts

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Though he is mostly only remembered by classic movie fans today, actor, producer and studio owner Douglas Fairbanks was one of the most important and influential figures of early Hollywood. He was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, presented at the organization's inaugural award ceremony and was one of the group of filmmakers who started the independent studio United Artists. The actor was also one of the first internationally famous stars and part of the first celebrity couple with his even more incredibly famous wife Mary Pickford.

Famous for comedies, fantasies and swashbucklers, in which he played active, charismatic characters, Fairbanks was just as colorful in real life. In celebration of his birthday, here are a few fascinating facts about the groundbreaking actor:

1. He liked to run in the nude.

Just like the ancient Olympians. Fairbanks was comfortable with public nudity, as long as he was concealed from female eyes, but as the sight of a naked movie star running through the streets of Los Angeles would cause a sensation, he had to find a private way to exercise in the buff. His solution? Fairbanks had a special enclosed concrete trench installed at Pickford/Fairbanks Studios. It was two city blocks long, six feet deep and wide enough for him to make turns while he ran laps.

2. He doubled for his own stunt double.

A enthusiastic devotee of physical fitness, Fairbanks was famous for doing his own film stunts. On occasion, and always under protest, he would be forced to use a stuntman for especially death-defying feats. Despite the stern warnings of studio cohorts, loved ones and directors, the actor would still sometimes find a way to perform these acts of daring.

On the set of Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), he didn't like the way his double was performing a jump and stepped in to demonstrate how to do it, inspiring the man to suggest that he might as well go home. The actor took his determination a step further on the set of Robin Hood (1922), when he secretly switched places with the stunt person for a dangerous climb up a chain, causing his brother and advisor Robert Fairbanks to slump into a chair in shock when he realized he'd been duped.

3. He played a role in the superhero craze.

When Fairbanks made the swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro (1920), the idea of a double identity hero was not yet common in popular culture beyond the eighteenth century literary sensation The Scarlet Pimpernel. Batman creator Bob Kane has said that the actor served as part of the inspiration for his own hero. The influence of the actor's confident stance: with his head back, hands on hips and wide stance can also be seen in Joe Shuster's first Superman comics series, which debuted in 1933.

4. He popularized the suntan.

Fairbanks was a sun worshipper and delighted in having dark skin, which was at the time associated with outdoor labor and low wage earners. He popularized the practice of sunbathing and the pursuit of golden skin with the elite.

5. He allowed tourists to visit his film sets.

For a few years during the silent film age, Hollywood hotel managers were given a set number of passes to distribute to film fans, who would then be given a tour of Pickford/Fairbanks studio and, conditions permitting, a chance to watch filming. Over 23,000 spectators would ultimately visit the studio. The actor's The Thief of Baghdad (1924) director Raoul Walsh was irked by Fairbank's love of an audience, but did concede that the admirers helped to inject more life into the actor's performance.
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