DOUBLE BILL #17: Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

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Summer’s here, so I thought I’d go for a summer-themed Double Bill this month. And yeah, there’s a lot to choose from, but in the end, I went with… Esther Williams! And why not? Why not watch a couple of Esther Williams films, you know, the ones where she’s in the pool all the time? They’re fun, they’re sweet, they’re gooooorgeous and they have that harmless summer-y loveliness that makes you feel all warm inside.

Thrill of a Romance (dir. Richard Thorpe) is a perfectly charming film about a swimming instructor named Cynthia (Williams) who falls with war veteran Tommy (Van Johnson) while on her honeymoon. A fairly straight-forward plot, the film enjoys a supporting cast that very nearly steals the show, with Henry Travers and Spring Byington providing the laughs as Cynthia’s uncle and aunt, and Big Band icon Tommy Dorsey and opera singer Lauritz Melchior giving the movie that all-too-familiar MGM musical flair. Despite its stupid title, Thrill of a Romance is a lot better than it sounds. It isn’t the greatest of summertime romance movies, but it is absolutely lovely and thouroughly entertaining, albeit slightly dated. Besides, it’s an MGM picture! If nothing else, you get to look at it. It’s colorful, it’s extravagant, it’s bright and those bathing suits! Oh! I hate to use the expression ‘guilty pleasure’, but if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is.

Million Dollar Mermaid (dir. Mervyn LeRoy) stars Esther Williams as pioneering Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman and documents the early part of Kellerman’s life, from her childhood to her rise to stardom, highlighting her struggles, achievements and influence. The film co-stars Walter Pidgeon as Frederick Kellerman, her stern but supportive father and Victor Mature as Jimmy Sullivan, her manager and romantic interest. Often considered Esther Williams’ most iconic film, Million Dollar Mermaid is a suprisingly progressive film and it should not be underestimated. The similarities between Kellerman’s and Williams’ own life – both started out as swimmers, then went on be in movies – are apparent and, let’s face it, there was nobody more suited for this than Williams, who delivers a fine, slightly atypical and informed performance as the Australian icon. On top of this, Million Dollar Mermaid is an MGM spectacle, you know, the kind MGM was so outrageously good at, full of color, big, beautiful sets and breath-takingly stunning musical numbers.

Thrill of a Romance and Million Dollar Mermaid are fine films in their own right, as well as perfect summertime entertainment. I love this sort of stuff. I wouldn’t mind spending all day watching MGM extravaganzas and while these two are not necessarily my favorite summer flicks, you can’t go wrong with either of them. Besides, I thought I’d give Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) a break for once. Even I’m sick of talking about it.

 

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COMEDY GOLD #7: The morning after from My Man Godfrey (1936)

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My Man Godfrey (1936), the screwball comedy with a conscience. Apart from being insanely hilarious, its commentary about social injustice is still as relevant today as it was in the Depression era.

In it, high-society lunatics are on a scavenger hunt. The task? Find a homeless man and take him to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel. Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) finds herself a ‘forgotten man’, Godfrey (William Powell) and offers him five dollars if he agrees to come with her. Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), Cornelia’s sister and the ultimate airhead, doesn’t want her sister to win and immediately goes to talk to Godfrey, who agrees to go along with her. They arrive at the hotel and Godfrey addresses the crowd, condemning their behavior, after which Irene apologizes, offering him a job as her butler.

The next morning, everybody’s hungover and Godfrey has to deal with it – on his first day, no less. Mrs Bullock (Alice Brady) is mostly out of it, Cornelia throws him out of her room, and when he walks into Irene’s room, she doesn’t remember hiring him. She asks him, in her typical Carole Lombard loveliness, if he’s the new butler and what happened to Godfrey. She soon becomes smitten with him, and tells him he’s her ‘protege’. You know, like Carlo (Mischa Auer), mom’s protege. Godfrey is a bit skeptical about it, but he handles her and her ditziness with his usual charm and professionalism.

To be honest, I could have chosen any scene (the ‘Godfrey loves me, he put me in the shower!’ scene is one of the greatest in screwball history), but this is an especially delightful moment. What I love about it is that it establishes their relationship in an understated and charmingly funny way, without letting it go where you’d expect it to. Right away, this scene firmly places Godfrey as the voice of reason in this madhouse. The sane one. The one with a brain and integrity. The one socialites could learn a thing or two from. His assessment of Cornelia (‘Park Avenue brat’) later on is a particularly poignant moment and, again, still relevant today.

In a world of endless parties and ditzy millionaires, My Man Godfrey, like any Gregory La Cava picture (Stage Door (1937) being the other big one), makes a statement about society without ever losing its charm. It’s one of the ultimate screwball comedies and one that has stood the test of time beautifully. Crazy how La Cava never gets the recognition he deserves.

DOUBLE BILL #16: Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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I like ghost stories. I like how they can be anything, how they can fit into an array of genres without ever losing themselves. I like the possibilities in them and how much you can get out of them. Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) are certainly perfect examples of this.

In Rebecca (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), a naive young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a companion to Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. They marry soon afterwards, and she becomes the second Mrs De Winter, moving into the beautiful, gothic Manderley mansion, where the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter, who died years before, is still very present…

Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca is, of course, a ghost story without the ghost. Rebecca’s ghost is a psychological, metaphorical one. She lives through the residents of Manderley, who refuse to let her go. And the second Mrs de Winter walks into Rebecca’s world without knowing what awaits her. Without knowing she’s the wannabe. The intruder. The one who should have never dared be Mrs de Winter. Because there’s only one Mrs de Winter and the utterly creepy Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) will never let her forget that. She, in particular, is obsessed and, some say, in love with Rebecca even after all these years and she taunts and tortures our lovely and scared nameless heroine at every chance she gets – the famous scene in Rebecca’s bedroom is probably their greatest moment together. Rebecca’s presence never felt more real, more horrifying, more penetrating than when Mrs Danvers goes through all her possessions in that majestic bedroom, in which the second Mrs de Winter is now trapped…

Contrastingly, in The Ghost and Mrs Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to move out of her controlling in-laws’ place in London and go to the British seaside with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood). She rents a rather lovely house in Whitecliff, despite the objections of the rental agent. Turns out, Gull Cottage is haunted by its former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who makes an appearance almost immediately. Lucy, suprisingly, doesn’t seem to mind it (‘Haunted! How perfectly fascinating!’). They develop a friendship, which then turns into a personal relationship, as well as a professional one: he wants her to write his life story. They start working on a novel together, and when Lucy goes to see a publisher to hand in her manuscript, she meets and falls in love with Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a children’s author. You can see where this is going…

What I love about this film is that it treats its subject seriously. One would probably be tempted to infantilize a story like this, but Mankiewicz doesn’t. All throughout the film, we respect it and we take it seriously. And we root for them to be together. Of course we do. The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a beautiful love story about redemption, lost love and regret without ever being contrived. It’s a magical ghost tale that is as real and genuine as its counterparts.

Rebecca is undoubtedly the darker film of the two and one of the things that makes it so dark is the fact that Rebecca doesn’t appear at all in the film. Not physically anyway. Daniel Gregg, however, makes himself known right away, unashamedly so. A psychological ghost that’s been kept alive by everybody else is a lot more haunting than a real one. In the same way, Manderley is a scary place, where everybody who lives there is still clinging to the memory of a dead woman. A big mansion which nonetheless feels stifling and oppressive. Gull Cottage, on the other hand, hasn’t been lived in for years and it’s a lovely place, and much more pleasant to be in, despite being completely empty – sort of. In fact, Gull Cottage is almost idyllic, not to mention incredibly romantic. Manderley’s dreamlikeness (nightmarish?) gives Rebecca a sort of gothic feel, almost horror-like. Rebecca doesn’t belong in any one genre. It’s a kind of mix between at least four or five genres, and they all blend exceptionally well. The Ghost and Mrs Muir could also be defined like this, although it is more on the romantic drama camp. A ghost love story, certainly. Mostly because Gull Cottage isn’t overpowering, allowing its characters to breathe, unlike Manderley, which overpowers everyone and everything, particularly the second Mrs de Winter. The detail of the lack of a first name is, of course, genius. She is a nameless, helpless, hopeless naive woman who gets overshadowed and downright dominated by everyone else. And it’s not even her fault, which only adds to the horribleness of it all. Lucy Muir, on the other hand, is an independent person, who will not be intimidated by anyone. She’s a self-assured woman, who knows what she wants and how to get it. They say a great story is all about great characters and, as far as ghost tales go, they don’t come much greater than these two.

Both Rebecca and The Ghost and Mrs Muir could very well be near the top of any list of great gothic films (one suspects Rebecca might actually be number one), and rightly so. Their stories are exquisite, the direction is masterful, they look and feel extraordinary (George Barnes won Best Cinematography for Rebecca, while Charles Lang was nominated for The Ghost and Mrs Muir), and, on top of that, they boast two of the greatest scores of all time. Franz Waxman’s haunting score for Rebecca is instantly recognizable, and Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful melody in The Ghost and Mrs Muir is one of the best he’s ever done. And they will both get stuck in your head. Go on, have a listen if you don’t believe me.

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Can I just point out once again how utterly wonderful the Never Gonna Dance number from Swing Time (1936) is? I mean I love the whole film (Pick Yourself Up is my favorite Fred and Ginger number) but Never Gonna Dance is just majestic and beautiful and brilliant, with a dance routine that is everything you’d expect from those two. Apparently Ginger’s feet were bleeding throughout the whole thing. You’d never guess. 

COMEDY GOLD #6: The maracas scene from Some Like It Hot (1959)

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It’s Billy Wilder’s birthday today and I thought I’d pay tribute to the great man in this COMEDY GOLD special by talking about his comedy masterpiece, Some Like It Hot (1959). And since Pride Month is still going strong, this seems rather fitting. We had Marlene in drag a few days ago, so now it’s time for Jack and Tony.

Like everybody else, I adore this film. Every single thing about it. And while I don’t have a favorite scene, I do love the maracas scene, for a number of reasons.

In it, Josephine/Joe (Tony Curtis) climbs in through the window of his and Daphne/Jerry (Jack Lemmon)’s hotel room in Florida, fresh from his date with Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), only to find Jerry lying on the bed, shaking his maracas (!), blissfully happy. The reason for his happiness? His recent engagement to Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). When he tells Joe the big news (‘Who’s the lucky girl?’ ‘I am.’), he immediately tries to talk him out of it. But what I like about this conversation is that Joe mentions the ‘laws and conventions’, and that it’s ‘not been done’, not necessarily because it’s wrong. He’s also primarily worried about his friend and the repercussions of everything that would follow. Jerry’s chilled attitude about it (‘What are you going to do on your honeymoon?!’ ‘We’ve been discussing that. He wants to go to the Riviera but I kind of lean towards Niagara Falls’) is refreshing (albeit comedy-driven), especially for 1959, and a fantastic study on dialogue and punchlines, whose formula has since been emulated countless times. This was, of course, Wilder’s way of appealing to the censors so he could get away with it, only to then throw censorship out of the window with the most iconic closing line in Hollywood history, and a triumph of acceptance and tolerance, not to mention hilariousness.

Apart from everything else, Some Like It Hot is progessive, gender-bending and rule-breaking, all meticulously and masterfully done in the name of comedy. And what a comedy!

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)

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Because we’re still celebrating Pride Month here at the Garden, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite LGBT moments in Pre-Code Hollywood: THAT scene with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930). The one that always comes up. The one that’s been talked about a million times. Morocco‘s greatest claim to fame.

Dietrich received her only Oscar nomination for Morocco (dir. Josef von Sternberg), in which she plays Amy Jolly, a nightclub singer, who falls in love with a Legionnaire, Private Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), whom she meets just as she arrives in Morocco. Problem is, they’re both being pursued by other people – imagine! Later on, they meet again in the nightclub where Amy performs, in what is undoubtedly one of the most iconic LGBT moments in film history. In she comes, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, smoking a cigarette, in all her Marlene Dietrich glory, looking so excruciatingly sexy, it’s ridiculous. You can’t take your eyes off her, and why would you want to? Cooper’s face as he lays eyes on her says it all, really. And even though the scene (and the film) is meant to be about the two of them, it really isn’t. At all. This is all about Dietrich, with those eyes, and that smirk, and that face, and that suit, singing ‘Quand L’amour Meurt’, and kissing another woman on the lips. Wonderful.

This was Dietrich’s Hollywood debut and what a debut! The film itself is rather average but her performance and this scene particularly elevate it to classic status, rightly so. It’s ground-breaking, it’s daring, it’s fabulous, and it’s deliciously hot. Of course it is, it’s Marlene, for goodness’ sake.

DOUBLE BILL #15: Hell’s Highway (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933)

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I will never not love Pre-Code. I am constantly in awe of it and I am always amazed at how much they got away with. And because it’s Pride Month, I thought I’d take a look at two of the many (yes) films that dealt with LGBT issues or showed LGBT characters in one way or another. This wasn’t done in an obvious way back then, so we don’t have a whole lot to go on, but what we do get out of some of these films has rightfully gone down in history. And even though there’s quite a few films and scenes to choose from, I went with these two because I feel they get slightly overlooked.

Hell’s Highway (1932, dir. Rowland Brown) is one of the most brutal and horrifying prison films from Hollywood’s Pre-Code era, if not of all time. Centered around the horrible death of an inmate by a prison guard, Hell’s Highway depicts the horrors of prison life in an honest and gritty way, which at times can be downright uncomfortable to watch. And that’s one of the things I love about it. But most of all, I love the relationships between the characters. The brotherly love between Duke (Richard Dix) and Johnny (Tom Brown), in paticular, is endearing and the film’s greatest asset. And then of course, there’s the prison cook, played by Eddie Hart, a gay man who enjoys some quiet time with the guards in the (regrettably) few scenes he’s in. He’s human, he’s flamboyant, and he’s unapologetic about it. He’s also never ridiculed or made to look like a gimmick. He’s just simply one of them. They’re all in it together, after all.

In Ladies They Talk About (1933, dir. William Keighley and Howard Bretherton), Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is the decoy in a bank robbery, orchestrated by her and her gang. After getting caught, she confesses her guilt to radio personality and evangelist David Slade (Preston S. Foster), who, despite being in love with her, ends up turning her in. At San Quentin State Prison, her smart-talking, no-nonsense ways get her into trouble right from the off – nothing she can’t handle though. ‘Sister’ Susie (Dorothy Burgess), a David Slade devotee, gets angry when Nan turns off his radio show as soon as she walks in and the two of them begin their on-going feud. Nan strikes up a friendship with Linda (Lillian Roth) right away, and she tells her all about the inmates as well as the prison’s facilities. In the washroom, we’re introduced to the ‘butch’ inmate, sporting a suit and smoking a cigar. ‘Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle’, Linda tells Nan, after which, our lesbian inmate turns around and gives Nan the eye. In a later scene, she’s seen in a montage flexing her arms, much to the admiration of her cellmate (girlfriend?).

What I like about these two films and their respective characters is that, even though they have a relatively short screentime, they did not go unnoticed and they got their point across, even if at times they succumbed to being a stereotype (hey, it was the 1930s), and they undoubtedly made their mark and helped shape LGBT cinema. Hell’s Highway and Ladies They Talk About are just two of them, however, and there is so much LGBT stuff to get through in Pre-Code. I mean, who can forget Marlene Dietrich in that scene from Morocco (1930)? But that’s for another post.

Johnny Guitar (1954): Guilty Pleasure? Nah

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Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray), the Casablanca of westerns, is a psychological melodrama that often gets overlooked and unfairly dismissed. It’s not the greatest of westerns by any means but it’s a darn good film nonetheless. And I love how utterly, outrageously fabulous it is. I love Vienna (Joan Crawford), a strong-willed, unapologetic badass, and one of Crawford’s greatest creations; I love her outfits (the Queen of Fabulous has never looked more fabulous!), and Sterling Hayden is always a joy to watch. Not to mention that it’s got some of the best dialogue ever – ‘I searched for you in every man I met’, in particular, is a wonderful line. Is Johnny Guitar a guilty pleasure? Nah, just a pleasure.