Category: Hollywood

Sirk #9: Interlude (US 1957)

At first I thought that everything is wrong with Interlude or perhaps it is that nothing is right. Douglas Sirk told John Halliday that it was the film in which he had little chance to develop the project or contribute to the script and none of the characters excited him. It was supposed to be an update of a John Stahl film and more surprisingly a version of the James Cain story Serenade. When the shoot began Sirk was still in a plaster cast after his accident on the Battle Hymn shoot and he had no time to research locations which were all covered by an assistant and the cinematographer Bill Daniels.

An American woman from Philadelphia, Helen (June Allyson), arrives in Munich to work for the American ‘cultural agency’, America House (which I think is a government body). She claims to be looking for experiences and trying to see something of the world. Her parents have discovered that an American doctor, Morley (Keith Andes), the son of friends, is also in the city. He calls on Helen but she soon meets a famous Italian conductor, Tonio Fischer (Rossano Brazzi). She is unaware that he has a sick wife and accepts his invitation to suddenly drive to Salzburg in the middle of a grand house party. A romance ensues.

A familiar Sirkian shot through the windscreen?

June Allyson was nearly 40 when she made the picture but the character seems to be written much younger. Allyson plays younger but she just doesn’t seem right for the role. Brazzi however does seem right for his role, except that, as Sirk points out, he has no sense of musical timing which caused headaches for the crew when he is seen conducting the orchestra. I don’t mean to criticise either actor but in June Allyson’s case her character doesn’t seem to make sense unless she is a woman who is younger and less experienced. Otherwise we keep thinking, “What did she do in Philadelphia/Washington DC for the last twenty years?” Jane Wyman was only a year or two older than Allyson when she starred for Sirk in roles which suited her – perhaps this is just a function of the period in that women are the same age for twenty years then suddenly ‘past it’? Helen calls herself ‘a girl’ at one point. I should also point out that Keith Andes’ doctor is also fairly long in the tooth for a visiting ‘research student’. The script by Daniel Fuchs and Franklin Coen seems confused.

Interlude is a Ross Hunter production in CinemaScope and Technicolor and it takes Sirk back to Germany and in a sense to Schlussakkord (Germany 1936) a Sirk melodrama with a great conductor as the male lead. Yet somehow it feels more like those 1950s Hollywood films in which Europe is at once both the ‘old world’, full of palaces and grand houses to be admired but also the front line in the Cold War with attempts to demonstrate to Europeans the ideals of American democracy. (‘America House’, like the British Council, is an agency meant to provide education and an introduction to American culture.) On the other hand, the cinematography creates not just beautiful vistas but also very pleasing ‘Scope compositions for a melodrama – with matching music (but an unconvincing title song). At moments it seems like a rehearsal for The Sound of Music (1965). The second half of the film did work for me and I found it both sad and moving, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.

The lovers in a café overlooking Salzburg

I should mention two other aspects of the casting. The sick wife Reni is played by Marianne Koch (credited as ‘Marianne Cook’) who I first came across in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) as the German contribution to Sergio Leone’s first film in the trilogy of ‘No Name’ Westerns. Her aunt is played by Françoise Rosay, the veteran French actor who fled Nazi Occupation in 1940 with her husband Jacques Feyder. She appeared in two Ealing films in 1944. Her appearance in 1957 is as a formidable matronly figure from the Victorian era (she was born in 1891). These casting decisions alongside the Italian Brazzi seem to say something about the state of popular cinema in West Germany in the 1950s.

I’m trying to come to some kind of conclusion about this film. From the perspective of 2019 this melodrama does seem rather strange with Tonio’s sometimes quite brusque treatment of Helen and the latter’s difficulty in coming to terms with a sick woman as her rival. I’m wondering if women now would be more likely to react to Tonio’s behaviour and also more direct in dealing with what they discover about his circumstances. But perhaps I’ve got that all wrong? Perhaps I’m not giving June Allyson enough credit for representing a certain type of American woman in the 1950s credibly?

I’ve a feeling that Interlude is technically efficient as a romance/melodrama but I’m not sure that Sirk and his cast and crew were fully able to exploit its potential.

Trailer with French subtitles (includes SPOILERS) if you want to see the film first:

Sirk #6: Lured (US 1947)

Inspector Temple (Charles Coburn) has to decide if Sandra (Lucille Ball) is suitable for undercover work. (From dvdbeaver.com)

Lured is one of the films directed by Douglas Sirk in the 1940s after his arrival from Germany and before he began his long association with Universal. The production was put together by the independent producer Hunt Stromberg and distributed through United Artists in North America and the UK. Although filmed primarily on a studio lot in Hollywood, the film is in many ways a European production. It appears to be a remake of a French original Pièges (1939) directed by Robert Siodmak before he too went to Hollywood. The French film was given an English title of Personal Column and after its release, in the US, Lured was re-titled as Personal Column because the Production Code Office decided that ‘Lured’ was too much like ‘Lurid’! The UK release used Personal Column. Sirk judged that the title change was responsible for the film’s relative failure at the box office after a strong start.

Sandra undercover and watched by her police protector (George Zucco)

Fortunately, the film has been restored and is now available on Blu-ray (along with A Scandal in Paris (1946), also by Sirk) from the Cohen Group (See the trailer below). It turns out to be highly entertaining and both witty and a genuine noir thriller. It features a lead performance by the fabulous Lucille Ball who has never looked lovelier or sparkled with such vitality and intelligence. She also gets to wear some great costumes. Stromberg surrounded her with an outstanding cast that would not have been out of place in an A List major studio picture. George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff are joined by several of the other ‘Brits in Hollywood’. The film is photographed by the great William Daniels and the music is by Michel Michelet from the French original. Production design is by the Russian Nicolai Remisoff and the script was adapted from the French by the Polish émigré Leo Rosten. The narrative is set in London with Sandra (Lucille Ball) down on her luck and working as a ‘taxi dancer’ in a seedy dance hall after her American touring theatre show (she was a dancer) collapsed. When her friend Lucy goes missing after answering a ‘personal ad’ in the newspaper, Sandra goes to the police and finds herself being offered a job as a police detective by Charles Coburn’s Inspector. A serial killer is sending poems in the style of Baudelaire to Scotland Yard and each one signals a young woman’s disappearance. Sandra must answer any personal ads looking for young women, in the hope of ‘luring’ the killer out. Officer Barrett (a nicely-judged performance by George Zucco) is watching her all the time. Eventually, Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders), a nightclub owner looking to expand his business. She’s already come across him as looking for girls for his club. Is he to be trusted? Sandra takes to him, but are we sure he is kosher?

Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders) at a concert

Sirk liked this production very much. Stromberg gave him a free hand and Sirk appreciated all the talent he had to play with – and in return, Lucille Ball and Charles Coburn relished the chance to play roles in a crime film. Sirk had worked with George Sanders on two previous American pictures and Sanders and Ball make a good couple. Hardwicke is excellent as Fleming’s partner in the club business. The studio sets are beautifully lit and this works as a noirish London serial killer narrative with Gothic overtones, enhanced by the sequence featuring Boris Karloff. I have been able to view both the version on YouTube and the trailer for the restoration/new print on DVD and to watch a version of the film on Talking Pictures TV. This latter is odd in a couple of respects. First, it appears to have lost 5 minutes at the beginning but which turns out to be not particularly a problem. Secondly, and weirdly, all the newspapers, poems and handwritten notes in the film are in French. The film also ends with the traditional French ‘FIN’. I don’t understand this at all. The film does use some stock footage of Piccadilly Circus and a London bus but why substitute the English language close-ups of newspapers etc. with French versions? The only explanation I can think of is that Talking Pictures TV have got hold of a French release copy of the film with the subtitles removed? If anyone knows the real answer, please comment on this post.

Sandra and Fleming with the latter’s business partner Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke)

None of the quirks of the version I saw on Talking Pictures TV spoiled the film for me. I found it well worth watching and Lucille Ball was wonderful. It wasn’t what I was expecting from Sirk, but it stands up as a stylish Sirkian production.

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (US 1939)

It’s a while since I’ve watched a ‘B’ picture from studio Hollywood so I’m not sure how representative this film is. Online research shows that there are American fans of ‘The Lone Wolf’ and that this film is for some fans one of the weakest in the series. It’s much easier to see these kinds of films on American cable channels and I can’t comment on those preferences, though I disagree with some of the comments about Ida Lupino in this film. (I’m referring to this interesting post on the film from a Warren William blog which I otherwise found very useful.)

This is the first of nine outings for the character ‘Michael Lanyard’ a.k.a. ‘The Lone Wolf’ played by Warren William, a leading man in ‘pre-code Hollywood’ who continued to be prolific in the later 1930s and 1940s but who died aged only 53 in 1948. He’d previously played in a Warner Bros. series as ‘Perry Mason’ but this Lone Wolf series came from Columbia with each film running for around 70-80 minutes. This first film has the distinction of two female leads still in the early stages of what would later become ‘A’ list careers – Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth. Both young women were 20 at this point, but both had already appeared in several films. Lupino was second-billed to William as she had more experience in leading roles than Rita Hayworth. I don’t know much about the director, Peter Godfrey, who was British and a former actor directing only his second film. Later some directors took on more than one title in the series. Edward Dmytryk directed two of the later ones. My research suggests that there had already been other ‘Lone Wolf’ films from other studios and this story actually dates from 1914, one of the eight stories written by Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933). IMDb suggests that there were some 20 films in all plus radio and TV series featuring ‘The Lone Wolf’. There is a suggestion that Columbia gave this a slightly higher budget to cover the salaries of Lupino and Hayworth but in the event it turned out to be one of the shortest films in the series. I wonder if there were cuts?

from left: Karen (Rita Hayworth), Michael (Warren William) and Val (Ida Lupino)

Michael Lanyard is an ex-saferobber who was once a kind of ‘gentleman thief’ in the mould of Raffles. He is now going straight and has been accepted in high society, so much so that he is dating the daughter of a Senator in Washington. This is Val Carson (Ida Lupino). Lanyard’s household includes a young daughter, Patricia (Virginia Weidler) and a butler Jameson (another British actor, Leonard Carey). The plot is a convoluted tale of crooks rather than ‘spies’, working for an oil millionaire who is attempting to steal the secret plans for an anti-aircraft gun. Lanyard is entrapped by a young woman, Karen (Rita Hayworth), and forced to open a safe where some of the plans are kept. The plot hinges on the plans being split into two parts, each of which is in a safe in a different location. Cue endless mini-chases as different envelopes are stolen and then taken back while The Lone Wolf is pursued by both the crooks and the police. I thought at first that it was going to work along the lines of The Thin Man and other comedy thrillers of the 1930s. The spy theme doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the expectation of war in Europe which isn’t too surprising, though the British actors and director would presumably have been aware of events. It is certainly a ‘light’ and at times quite witty film. But Lupino is much younger than William who is twice her age. It is difficult for her character to match his sophistication (i.e. like Myrna Loy with William Powell in The Thin Man) and the script relegates her role to comic relief, much like the butler and the daughter. (The film was also released with the title The Lone Wolf’s Daughter.) I understand that the girl playing Patricia was a prolific and well-respected child actor who the next year appeared in both The Philadelphia Story and The Women, but here she is a brat for much of the film only becoming resourceful in the final sequence. Columbia must have come to the same conclusions about the casting because for the remaining eight films they cast different female leads, changed the butler and dropped the daughter.

My main concern with the film is Ida Lupino’s participation.The film came at the point when she had left Paramount and was working freelance. She must have been concerned about her income and responded to Columbia’s offer even though she was in the process of marrying Louis Hayward in November 1938 when the shoot began. In one sense it is odd in that she presumably thought of the film much as she did some of the other ‘B’ pictures that she had appeared in as a loanee from Paramount. On the other hand, the comedy element may have been attractive. The blog by Cliff Aliperti referenced above suggests that the comic elements were not there in the original stories and that Warren William brought them with him from the Perry Mason series – an intriguing suggestion as I don’t remember any comic elements (apart from a few smiles and nudges) in the books or the later Raymond Burr TV series. But then Aliperti argues that Ida Lupino can’t play comedy and he describes her performance as ‘cartoony’ and zany (while saying that he admired her performances in the early 1940s when she stepped up to ‘bigger pictures’). These are interesting comments, especially put against other commentaries on later Lupino films.

The ‘knife scene’ in which Val frightens away Helen (Marie Templeton) who she thinks is a rival (she’s not!)

Ida Lupino was often described as ‘intense’, both in her performances and sometimes in her off-screen behaviour. At the same time she was a talented actor with an unparalleled range of performance skills learned within the Lupino family set-up. She could do comic timing and she had the skills for slapstick. Aliperti points to a piece of ‘comic business’ she does with a knife when interrogating a woman she thinks is a rival for Michael’s affections. Ida Lupino did appear in a full-blown Warner Bros. comedy, Pillow to Post (1945) in which she plays the daughter of a businessman, trying to make a contribution as a travelling salesperson and discovering how difficult it is to find accommodation in wartime – and having to share a room with a man. Several commentators attest to Lupino’s skills in pulling off this kind of farce/screwball comedy, expressing surprise that she wasn’t used more often in this kind of role. I haven’t seen Pillow to Post (her Warners films are difficult to find in the UK) but I enjoyed her performance in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. In this mode Ida comes across as a ‘trouper’ (which I’m sure she was) willing and able to have a go. She handles a baseball bat as a weapon with as much skill as she wears a mink stole. This would be the last time Ida Lupino appeared in a B movie but the interesting trivia point is that Louis Hayward played The Lone Wolf on TV in the 1950s, by which time Ida Lupino was in her third marriage having divorced Hayward in 1945.

Lust for Gold (US 1949)

This odd film offered Ida Lupino a lead role that paid the bills as she was preparing projects for her new production company now that her Warner Bros. contract work was completed. Her new husband Collier Young was a producer at Columbia and according to Lupino’s biographer William Donati she hoped that by choosing a Columbia script she would at least see Collier on a regular basis. However, Lust for Gold was a location shoot in Arizona for much of the time. Lust for Gold, as the title baldly suggests, is a story about a real life mystery – a ‘lost gold mine’ on Superstition Mountain in Arizona – and the people who will go to any lengths to find it. In fact, this is arguably the most often quoted ‘lost treasure’ story in the Americas with many references in American popular culture and the development of what is now a mythical story based on ‘real’ events.

Julie (Ida Lupino) meets a cleaned up Jakob Walz (Glenn Ford)

The script embraces the mythological/real basis of the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Mine’ by setting the story in the present and revealing the original events as a Western narrative via a prolonged flashback. In the present, ‘Barry Storm’ (the pen name of the writer of a 1945 book about the myth) travels to the mountain, claiming he is a descendant of the original ‘Dutchman’, the German migrant Jakob Walz. Storm is involved in a shooting on the mountain and encounters the local sheriff and his men. With what the sheriff tells him and further research in newspaper archives of the 1880s and talking to elderly locals he pieces together a possible scenario – which leads into the flashback with Glenn Ford, Columbia’s go-to leading man for this kind of film. He plays Walz who finds the original mine and then hits town where Ida Lupino is Julia Thomas, from a German family in Milwaukee and who runs a small bakery shop. Julia is married to the spineless Pete (Gig Young) but she sees an opportunity to seduce Jakob and find the gold for herself. It’s a risky business as the whole town knows about the find. What follows is a classic Western melodrama which ends in disaster and takes us back to the present where Barry Storm becomes involved in a typical Hollywood ‘resolution’ that maintains the integrity of the ‘lost gold’.

Julie and her husband (Gig Young) on Superstition Mountain

I need to admit that at times this is very serviceable entertainment. At other times it threatened to lose my interest. The film was originally intended to be directed by the highly experienced director George Marshall but when he was not available it was passed to S. Sylvan Simon who was arguably better known for comedies. It turned out to be Simon’s last film as director as he died suddenly aged just 41 a couple of years later. Ida Lupino gives a committed performance as usual and the other leads are fine. Glenn Ford with beard and unruly hair certainly looks different and his character is vicious, even by the standards of later Westerns. Several of the minor players are of interest, including Jay Silverheels as a sheriff’s deputy in the contemporary-set scenes. For children of my generation he was ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger series on TV and, as the sheriff, Paul Ford is fondly remembered as the commanding officer trying to keep Sgt. Bilko in check in the Bilko/Phil Silvers TV series in the 1950s.

Ford and Lupino with (I presume) director S. Sylvan Simon

For Ida Lupino this was one of the films she worked on with Archie Stout as cinematographer. Stout, like other crew members was impressed by the way Ida stayed out on location in the blazing sun in order to see how the production functioned rather than heading back to town as soon as her scenes were completed. Stout would become one of her own loyal crew members happy to tell anyone who asked that Ida Lupino knew more about angles and lighting than most of the directors he worked with. Certainly, the experience on Lust for Gold must have been very useful when The Filmakers were shooting on location in similar terrain for The Hitch-Hiker in 1953.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (US 1951)

Florence (Sally Forrest), Mrs Farley (Claire Trevor) and Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young)
Photo courtesy Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 794943a )

This was the fourth feature directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her husband Collier Young for their company The Filmakers. It has received far less attention than the first three and suffered more from a critical dismissal. I think there are two reasons for this. First, its subject matter is less sensational/socially conscious than the first three (which deal with unwanted pregnancy, polio and its effect on young lives and rape) and secondly it is adapted by Martha Wilkerson from a novel (or possibly a short story) by John R. Tunis. On the previous three pictures, Lupino and/or Young had been involved in the writing. My own feeling is that although the film has weaknesses it is overall a well-made film on a modest budget that has several good points and provides both an enjoyable entertainment and food for thought – partially provided by the original material by John R. Tunis.

The best way to describe this 77 minute picture is as a sports film and family melodrama hybrid. It tells the cautionary tale of a young female tennis star and her pushy mother played by Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor, the two stars in the cast. Forrest had played the lead in two of the earlier Lupino films, Not Wanted and Never Fear. Claire Trevor was just a few years older than Ida Lupino and had experienced something of a similar career. I remember her from Stagecoach (1939), Farewell My Lovely (1944) and Born to Kill (1946). She would have known Lupino at least through shared experiences of working with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and other leading stars (e.g. on Key Largo (1948)).

Gordon (Robert Clarke) is torn between his love for Florence and his anger about the way she is being led astray by her mother and Locke

Sally Forrest is Florence Farley, an 18 year-old high school graduate practising tennis shots against the wall when she is spotted by Gordon (Robert Clarke, also in Outrage). He has a temporary job at the local country/sports club and invites her to play tennis there. Florence is seriously talented and before long is a local junior champion and over the next couple of years becomes a contender for National Women’s Champion at Forest Hills and then at Wimbledon. Her rise to tennis stardom is orchestrated by her mother (Claire Trevor) in cahoots with the oily Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), an Eastern tennis agent. Both Gordon and Florence’s father Will (Kenneth Patterson, again, also in Outrage) are left struggling in Florence’s wake.

It is when Florence and her mother opt to travel to Europe with backing by Locke through his contacts with hotel chains and other ‘sponsors’ that Gordon, who has proposed to Florence, refuses to follow her. Instead he rails against the sponsorship which threatens her ‘amateur’ status. I was a little surprised by this (and an earlier similar scene on a smaller scale). I remember how tennis, like athletics and rugby always had the important professional v. amateur divide, but I do wonder how American amateurs could afford to travel to London, Paris and Melbourne without some form of sponsorship – presumably through their official federation? The reason why this is a strong element in the film’s plot goes back to John R. Tunis who was a fierce critic of professional sports and the way they were covered by the media. He usually wrote what would now be termed ‘Young Adult’ fiction (his publishers actually pushed him into writing for younger readers) with a strong moral undertow. Many of his books were about baseball and American football but his novel American Girl (1930) and short story Champion’s Choice (1940) were about tennis. By all accounts Tunis was a highly regarded and very well-known writer as well as tennis commentator. It’s unfortunate that the film’s short running time doesn’t allow Tunis’ ideas to be developed in a more organic way. At the end of the film when Florence has ‘repented’ to some extent, she gives an interview about fair play and being a role model to a journalist who is rolling her eyes in disbelief at the fiercely moral line that is being taken.

The sensational poster dreamed up by RKO’s marketing department

The short running time is a feature of The Filmmakers’ films. This was mainly because of limited funding, though in the best films it means a lean and supple narrative. Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the films funded and distributed by RKO. According to various sources, Howard Hughes offered The Filmakers around $200,000 per picture but did not interfere in the productions. However, this film certainly shows all the signs of a rushed ending and the narrative almost seems to collapse in the final scenes as Florence performs a volte-face and her mother is left to try to understand what has happened. The quandary for Lupino and Young as The Filmmakers is neatly summed up by the marketing campaign devised by RKO exemplified by the poster above. The imagery and the tagline both oversell and distort what the film has to offer – but on the other hand, RKO muscled the film into cinemas and attracted audiences. However, the film ultimately failed because it actually bears little resemblance to the poster’s suggestions. Hughes organised grand openings for the film in various cities – but The Filmakers picked up the expenses bill and this wiped out their share of any profits.  The Filmmakers’ films have also suffered from the label of ‘B picture’ attached to them by critics and general commentators. I suspect the tag comes mainly because of the short length and the relatively low-budget. But Hard, Fast and Beautiful is not a ‘B’ in conception or execution. Ida Lupino herself associated The Filmakers with the director-producers she named as ‘Independents’ including Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen and Louis de Rochemont (see below). Using this term suggests a link between Ida Lupino and later ‘American Independents’ like John Sayles.

Florence speaks to her father (Kenneth Patterson)

The film is photographed by Archie Stout who shot Lupino’s first three pictures but is best known for his work with John Ford and edited by William Ziegler (known for work with Hitchcock). The music is by RKO’s film noir master composer Roy Webb and the two art directors, Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey were responsible for the sets on Out of the Past (1947) – in my view the best noir from the 1940s. This is a list of veteran talent that any ‘A’ film production would be lucky to attract. These were hard-bitten Hollywood pros, some of whom were happy to work with The Filmakers more than once because they admired Ida Lupino’s talent and desire to learn as a director.I think a lot of that industry knowledge is up there on the screen. The tennis matches, mostly filmed in California or at Forest Hills are very well put together. I’m no tennis expert, but Sally Forrest was convincing for me. There are many long shots of the courts with cuts to Forrest serving and returning and she certainly hits the ball ‘hard and fast’. Lupino was well-known for her use of location shooting and for her interest in both neo-realism (she met and admired Roberto Rossellini) and in the American form of ‘semi-documentary’ championed by Louis de Rochemont in which crime and ‘social problem’ pictures were shot on location. Lupino probably also followed the career of Mark Hellinger, the producer for whom she worked on They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942). In the late 1940s he produced two New York-based films noirs with extensive location shooting, the Jules Dassin directed Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).

But it is the melodrama which intrigues in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and Lupino must have known instinctively how to direct Forrest and Trevor, having played similar roles herself. In the scene above the mise en scène conveys so clearly the family conflict. Hollywood showed us so many twin beds in married couples’ bedrooms, but I’ve never seen them back to back like this. The divide is very clear and almost doesn’t need dialogue. The film’s script draws on the mother-daughter relationship seen in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) though the roles are reversed to some extent. Mildred has a much stronger story but on the other hand, Ida Lupino and Collier Young present a more realist feel for the situations faced by their characters. Claire Trevor is also a match for Crawford as the mother. I can’t help feeling that if The Filmmakers had had a little more time and a little more money they would have made a fine melodrama.

A Star is Born (US 1937)

In the last few weeks I’ve struggled to watch streamed movies on MUBI, mainly because I couldn’t find the time, but also partly because of the films on offer. However, I couldn’t resist the prospect of the 1937 A Star is Born. I’d seen the film many years ago, but possibly in black & white on TV. The early Technicolor print was a welcome surprise. I don’t know if it was MUBI or my TV set but the Academy ratio print kept switching to a cropped 1.78:1 TV image. This was annoying but in the end I simply accepted that it wouldn’t stay in the correct ratio. I’ve noticed this before and it seems to be a streaming problem.

I enjoyed the film immensely but I had forgotten just how many tears a good 1930s melodrama can invoke. Dare I re-watch Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)? That’s usually the acid test for a Melo. A Star is Born works for me because of the performances of the lead actors. That isn’t to detract from William Wellman’s direction. He was mainly known for his action pictures but here working for David O. Selznick he takes a sharp look at the familiar Hollywood tale about the young woman who leaves North Dakota to find fame and fortune. Wellman contributed to the script alongside Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell and Robert Carson. I found the studio scenes to be very interesting, illustrating the workings of the system. I suspect that the story of the production of the script would be well worth exploring. Both original story and developed script were Oscar-nominated and the story won. Janet Gaynor gives a remarkable turn as Esther Blodgett who becomes Vicki Lester when she signs a studio contract courtesy of her encounter with ailing star Norman Maine. The irony is that Ms Gaynor had been in Hollywood since the early 1920s, starting aged 16 and when she made A Star is Born she was already an Oscar winner for her three films, including Murnau’s Sunrise, in 1927. All I can say is that I was convinced by both her portrayal of the young girl from North Dakota and, even more so, by her emerging star persona as Vicki Lester. She is ‘natural’, beautiful and captivating whether as Esther, Vicki or ‘Mrs Norman Maine’.

Norman attempting to play ‘house husband’ to Vicki the star after a busy day’s filming

I also like Frederic March who seems to convey strength and vulnerability, solid character and potential danger with ease. March had a long Hollywood career in leading roles without ever quite reaching the top echelon of stardom (by which I mean, his name hasn’t stayed in the public consciousness since the studio period). Outside of film and theatre (where he was also successful) March appears to have been politically OK as well. Perhaps most of all I enjoyed watching Adolphe Menjou in this film. It’s such a shame that Menjou was not only a staunch Republican but also a fierce anti-communist and McCarthyite. But then that’s true of quite a few of the Hollywood actors I admire. That was their talent I guess, to play roles that often belied their own political views. In A Star is Born, Menjou is the remarkably sympathetic small studio boss who goes out of his way to help Vicki. The other standout performances are by May Robson as Esther’s grandmother, a young Andy Devine as the assistant director who encourages Esther and Lionel Stander as everyone’s idea of the hard-bitten studio press secretary who will stop at nothing to paint the studio in its best colours.

Norman Maine (Frederic March, right) meets the studio press man Libby (Lionel Stander) after his ‘dry-out’

A Star is Born has had a complicated history in the US in terms of ownership and rights. Made for Selznick, it was eventually sold to Warner Bros. which produced the first remake in 1954. The film then passed into the Public Domain in the US in 1965, although Warners have retained distribution rights that have covered each of the three subsequent remakes. I’m assuming that the MUBI streaming uses a print based on the original nitrate print that was used for Kino’s Region A Blu-ray. I found the print to be quite muddy and dark in the opening half of the film with few of the uses of primary colours I associate with early Technicolor. The later scenes, especially outdoor scenes seem to have a much greater colour range and more vibrancy.

Perhaps now I’ll dig out my DVD of the 1954 remake before finally getting to see the new version in December if it’s still around.

Widows (UK-US 2018)

Challenging power – Viola Davis and Colin ~~Farrell

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Soundinterview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (USA 1990)

Likely Corman’s final film as director, this is adapted from Brian Aldiss’s novel,

“a meditation on the wilful independence of the Frankenstein myth.”

Shot on the then standard format of 35mm it can be enjoyed [if Bradford’s Media Museum is accessible] this coming Wednesday in the quality auditorium of Pictureville.

The film’s story involves a time-travelling scientist, Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) travelling back in time to meet, not just Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and her story-telling circle, but her creation Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) and his own creation the ‘Monster’ (Nick Brimble). The film works weird variations with the historical characters and with the fictional ones. And Corman fans will find references from Corman’s large and long cinematic output. The continuity is variable and at times the plotting requires careful attention. However there are bravura sequences filmed with elan and a sense of fun, including laboratory work, a trial and an execution. There are some fine examples of special effects from the period. And the film finally transports us to an arctic winterland that transforms the final chapter of Shelley’s novel.

The film has it share of violence, with severed limbs, mutilated bodies and much blood. It gained an 18 certificate from the BBFC in 1991. The film is in standard widescreen and DeLuxe colour, running only 85 minutes. The locations were in Italy, standing in for Switzerland, and the production crew involved a number of craftspeople from the Italian industry.

It is a rare pleasure now to see classic films in their original format and happily the Museum are using their best screening venue. The print is from the Museum archive and is apparently in good condition. And John Hurt’s voice is always worth the price of admission. The film also ties in with a new event at the Science & Media Museum;

“Introduced by Pippa Oldfield, Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery, to celebrate the launch of the exhibition ‘In Search Of Frankenstein’.”

Frankenstein is one of my favourite stories, as a novel or in the endless retelling on film. The many variations on the creation of the monster are a continuing pleasure in mise en scène.