COMEDY GOLD #12: The telephone conversation from Midnight (1939)

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Midnight (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939) is one of the many, many gems that came out in Hollywood’s greatest ever year. Not only that, but the Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett-penned screwball comedy is also probably the funniest of the bunch: showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris with nothing but an evening gown. She befriends taxi driver Tibor (Don Ameche), who lets her stay with him for the night. However, unbeknownst to him, she soon slips out and crashes a high-society party. While there, she meets Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor), her toyboy Picot (Francis Lederer), and her husband Georges (John Barrymore), who immediately hires her to break up the relationship between Helene and Picot. Not only that, but Tibor is now searching for Eve as well…

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how funny John Barrymore was. His extensive Shakespearean background and dramatic screen roles could have easily overshadowed his comedic performances, but you have to look no further than Midnight (and Twentieth Century, 1934) to see that he deserves just as much praise for these as anything else. In Midnight, the telephone scene is certainly his crowning moment: chaos is well on its way by the time Tibor, pretending to be Eve’s husband, tries to get her away from this mess she got herself into. He comes up with a fake daughter called Francie and pretends to have received a telegram from Budapest saying she has the measles. Eve and Georges are onto him, of course, and Georges quickly goes into the next room, while Eve places a fake call to Budapest. Obviously, Georges’ one-liners and baby-talk on the other side make the entire scene. It’s such a silly moment, and that’s what makes it so funny. The wonderful absurdity of screwball comedies is unparalleled, even to this day, and Midnight is one of those that gets funnier every time you watch it. And while Claudette Colbert was one of the queens of the genre, John Barrymore should rightfully be up there with her and the rest of them. But then again, how can you not be funny with a script written by Wilder and Brackett?

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Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon – The brilliance of the MacGuffin

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Yeah, yeah, we all love Alfred Hitchcock and the world is full of movie lovers bending over backwards trying to over-analyze Vertigo (1958), give Norman Bates a heart or prove that North by Northwest (1959) is a romantic comedy. There is not a whole lot left to talk about, dissect or explore in Hitchcock’s filmography. But I love a blogathon. And I love Hitchcock. So here’s my article about some of his MacGuffins. Because why not?

Described by Hitchcock himself as ‘the thing that the spies are after, but the audience don’t care’, a MacGuffin is an object, real or abstract, and essentially a plot device, that sets the true plot of the film in motion. It’s something that the characters are after, and that ultimately leads them to the situation that is the plot. So, in other words, a MacGuffin is only important to the character s and discardable to the audience. Psycho (1960), for example, contains Hitchcock’s most easily identifiable MacGuffin: the 40,000 dollars. In the film’s opening scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) talk about Sam’s increasing debts; that afternoon, she steals her boss’ money, goes on the run, is stopped by a state patrol trooper, then dumps her car at the dealership, and then checks into the Bates Motel… and there we have Psycho. The money is now irrelevant and the story changes perspective entirely. It’s such a clear shift, so well made, that there is no mistaking it. Vertigo, on the other, the most studied of all of his films, is not that simple. One of the many things that keeps being brought up regarding Vertigo is the MacGuffin. Film historians and indeed bloggers alike have argued that Scottie (James Stewart)’s vertigo itself is the MacGuffin. Others say that it’s plot itself (film students!). Others, the majority in fact, and The Garden includes itself in that bunch, say that Carlotta Valdes is the MacGuffin: Scottie is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by ‘someone dead’. That someone is Carlotta Valdes, who turns out to be Madeleine’s great-grandmother. She visits the places where she can feel Carlotta’s presence, namely the cemetery and the museum, followed by Scottie, and this, in turn, leads to the infamous Golden Gate Bridge moment, the catalyst event for everything that follows it. If we accept that the cause of concern for Gavin is Madeleine’s disposition, and that he wants Scottie to, in his own words, find out ‘where she goes and what she does’ and if we accept that where she goes and what she does and indeed the reason she feels like this has to do with Carlotta, then Carlotta can only be the MacGuffin. Although there is also a case to be made for Madeleine herself being the MacGuffin, and indeed for both of them to be a red herring. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this one – a Classic Hollywood blog discussing Vertigo, imagine that… – but there’s a reason why it’s endlessly discussable and indeed Sight & Sound’s ‘greatest film of all time’ (sorry, Orson).

The MacGuffin in The Birds (1963) on the other hand, is somewhere in between Vertigo and Psycho, in the indecipherability scale. But only one thing really makes sense: the romance between Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor). It’s the thing that appears to be the main focus in the first twenty minutes or so, and it’s the thing that ultimately brings Melanie (and doom) to Bodega Bay. It’s been argued that the very reason why the birds attack is the MacGuffin, but not only is this unlikely, but also what this does instead is provide a question that ultimately needs to remain unanswered while keeping the audience guessing as opposed to having them dismiss it halfway through, in the way that the MacGuffin does. Needless to say, this is essentially the theme of the film (Man vs. Nature) in the form of a mystery; a sort of message, if you will.

Rear Window (1954)‘s MacGuffin is an interesting one. For a long time, critics and fans have debated over what it is, and some of them have claimed that there isn’t one, a clear one anyway, considering the straight-forwardness of the plot: a wheelchair bound Jeff (James Stewart) watches his neighbors from his own apartment and eventually realizes one of them, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is up to something. The MacGuffin is a curious one, but it is there: ‘what’s buried in the backyard?’ is considered to be Rear Window’s ultimate MacGuffin, because even though one could say the very suspicion that something has happened to Mrs Thorwald could be the MacGuffin, the plot only moves forward – and outside of the apartment – when Jeff realizes the flowerbed looks different than it did a few days prior. After this, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella (Thelma Ritter) go outside to uncover the mystery, which leads them to Thorwald’s apartment… The question in the MacGuffin remains semi-answered and by that point, we’ve reached the the main point and the climax.

The more straight-forward Hitchcock MacGuffins – government secrets/the microfilm in North by Northwest, the uranium in Notorious (1946), the military secrets in The 39 Steps (1935), etc – follow the classic interpretation of a MacGuffin more closely, in the way that so many non-Hitchcockian contemporary films did – the letters of transit in Casablanca (1942), the statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941) being just some of them, whereas the more complex ones – the coded message in The Lady Vanishes (1939), the cause of Harry’s death in The Trouble with Harry (1955), etc – offer a different take on it, one that is quintessential Alfred Hitchcock and that only he could pull off. The endless debates over the MacGuffins in his films, more than anyone else’s, are proof of this. Even more interesting is the fact that the very idea of a MacGuffin mirrors the voyeurism element of many Hitchcock films: we watch the characters as they try and get out of whatever situation the MacGuffin has brought them to. One could say that that’s the very essence of movie-watching, but the unimportance we, the audience, put on the MacGuffin, this thing that matters to these characters, just to then watch and indeed revel in how they get out of it, is wonderfully wicked in itself. The irony, of course, is that a MacGuffin is ultimately important. It’s a plot device which goes from being important, to unimportant when other issues arise, and then back to important, when it turns out that the characters wouldn’t have achieved what they did had it not been for the MacGuffin, and ultimately that there would have been no movie without it. All hail the MacGuffin!

Click here for more posts on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon!

SCREENPLAY BY John C. Higgins

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A few months ago, I participated in the Dynamic Duos blogathon, with an article about director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, who are one of my favorite partnerships in Hollywood history. It wasn’t until a while later that I realized screenwriter John C. Higgins is as much part of this as Mann and Alton. Then it hit me just how underrated he is. I suppose that, other than the fact that he’s a screenwriter, his underratedness can also be explained by how little information there is about him (go on, Google him).

Well, apparently he was born in 1908 in Winnipeg, Canada and he went to Hollywood in the early 1930s, where he began his career by writing murder mysteries, including The Murder Man (1935), starring Spencer Tracy (and a not-yet-famous Jimmy Stewart), as well as a number of shorts, such as The Public Pays (1936) and Come Across (1938). The 1940s were undoubtedly his greatest period, during which he frequently collaborated with Anthony Mann in numerous films noir, including T-Men (1947), Railroaded! (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) and Border Incident (1949). Looking back at these, one wonders why John C. Higgins isn’t more widely celebrated, not only beacause of how great they are, but also how unique they are. The importance of male friendship in a dark underworld in T-Men, the unlikely progressiveness of Raw Deal regarding its female characters, and the inclusiveness and sympathetic character portrayals in Border Incident, particularly, should have been groundbreaking enough for Higgins to have a permanent place in the Classic Hollywood grand pantheon. Higgins understood people. He gave noirs and their characters a heart, compassion and empathy. Anthony Mann and John Alton may have created visual poetry with their shots, but John C. Higgins tugged at your heartstrings with his words.

He continued to write films throughout the 1950s and 60s, including Shield for Murder (1954), The Black Sleep (1956) and Impasse (1969), before passing away in 1995.

Gilda (1946) and my greatest love affair

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I created The Old Hollywood Garden because I wanted to express my love for the classics. I wanted to make people want to watch them, and I wanted to share my undying fascination with Hollywood’s Golden Age with the world. I’ve shared stories with you guys, more recently about how I underestimated Detour (1945) the first time I watched it and how a second viewing of it completely changed my mind about it, but one thing I never wrote about is how I became a classic movie buff. More precisely, what my very first classic movie was. Well, it was Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). All the way back in 2007 when I was fifteen years old. I was flipping through the channels, and I stumbled upon it on an retrospective type of channel which shows old films and TV shows. Its black and white cinematography caught my attention straight-away and I put the remote down and watched it. I had no doubt in my mind this would be the start of something great for me and I couldn’t wait for it. I was barely half way through it and I already knew that I wanted to consume as many of these wonderful movies as possible. I was mesmerized by Rita Hayworth – who isn’t? – and I loved the love-hate relationship between Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford). It was hot. It was exciting. It was a masterclass in screen chemistry. Years later, I still think it’s the sexiest movie ever made. I was drawn in by them mostly, but right from the start, I thought Gilda was so fascinating. Johnny’s voice-over narration in the beginning (‘To me, a dollar was a dollar in any language…’) was everything I’d imagined these things to be. Great lines, no non-sense attitude; straight-up cool. The plot was interesting enough – small-time gambler Johnny is hired by Ballin Mundson (George Macready) to work in his casino, not knowing Ballin’s wife is his ex-lover Gilda – and the performances were fantastic. Especially Rita Hayworth’s. Her most iconic role was also her greatest. A flawed character, multi-layered and yet mysterious. Confident and yet vulnerable. A sort of anti-heroine that no doubt paved the way for many female characters that followed it. It is still one of my favorite performances of all time and the reason I couldn’t take my eyes off Gilda the first time I saw it. A ‘femme fatale’, I later read. I was transfixed by this. Film noir was intriguing. Years later, of course, I realized that Gilda isn’t quite a film noir (noir melodrama?) and Gilda isn’t really a femme fatale. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Looking back, Gilda was ahead of her time, in many ways. But back then, I just knew that this was endlessly fascinating. I had to watch more of these. So many more. I had to watch more stuff with Rita Hayworth in it. And Glenn Ford. I had to watch all of these films noirs. And the screwballs and the Pre-Codes. And the musicals! I had to watch all the Golden Age of Hollywood had to offer. Needless to say, I’ve been doing just that for twelve years and it has been absolutely blissful.

COMEDY GOLD #11: The conga from Ball of Fire (1941)

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Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941) seems to be one of those movies that everybody loves. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s sweet, it’s romantic, it’s funny and it’s got Barbara Stanwyck singing ‘Drum Boogie’, not to mention the ‘yum-yums!’

In it, a group of professors have been working on an encyclopedia for a few years while living together in the same house. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), professor of English, decides to take a day trip around New York in order to update his modern American slang. He goes to a joint where he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer who is wanted by the police. Not knowing this, he lets her stay at their residence, and soon their lives begin to intertwine. Sugar’s street-smarts and carefree attitude is a wonderful contrast to the booksmart nature of the professors (in particular, Potts), and the conga scene is the best example of this: summoned by Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), Sugar comes down one morning to find the professors trying to learn new dance moves, chalk markings on the carpet and all. Prof. Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka) tells her he can’t figure out the ‘common denominator between the steps and the music’, to what she says is because they’re trying to learn the conga while playing the polka. She then proceeds to show them the moves, to the right beat, in a moment that is both funny and endearing.

Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire might just be one of, if not the sweetest screwball ever, which is saying quite something for a picture that has gangsters in it – Dan Duryea and Dana Andrews, no less!

Pre-Code Perfection: Three on a Match (1932)

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Three on a Match (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) might just be my favorite movie from what is possibly my favorite year in cinema, 1932. A Pre-Code masterpiece that stays with you long after the credits roll and I, for one, can never help but get a lump in my throat every time I watch it.

Three on a Match follows the lives of three women from their days as elementary school girls to adulthood, in the present day. As it turns out, Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Ruth (Bette Davis) have led very different lives: Vivian was always the most popular girl in school and is now married with a child, living in a big, beautiful house; Mary went to reform school and now works as a showgirl under the name Mary Bernard; Ruth was always the smartest of the three and is now a stenographer. The three meet for lunch after not having seen each other for a number of years, and Vivian confides in them that, despite everything, she is not happy. Later on, she tells her husband, Robert (Warren William) that she needs to get away for a while. She decides to go on a cruise with the boy, Junior (Buster Phelps) and, while there, she meets Michael (Lyle Talbot), a smooth-talking gambler, who persuades her to go away with him. What follows are some of the most heart-pounding, gut-punching and downright brutal moments in all of Pre-Code as Vivian’s life takes a turn for the worse…

Three on a Match is the perfect example of why Pre-Code was so utterly fascinating. Clocking in at just 63 minutes, there is more than enough in it for a three hour picture. Everything from substance abuse, to depression, to extra-matiral affairs, to kidnapping. And that’s before Humphrey Bogart even makes his entrance, as the two-bit hood hired to take care of things. Three on a Match makes the most of what it has to offer, and it is glorious. I suppose the most notable aspect of it is the message; whichever way you look at it, there’s something to take away from it. Vivian, seemingly the most successful and presumably happiest of the three, is utterly miserable for reasons that she herself doesn’t even know. She has everything she could ever have hoped for, and yet she’s unhappy. Maybe she never hoped for this. Maybe she never fought too hard for it either. Maybe that’s it. Things have always come easy for her, and now she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She probably never has. And now she’s craving something else. Anything else. Some excitement. Some fun. Somewhere away from her current life. This leads to her ultimate destruction and her punishment for it is one of the harshest lessons in a film. Her poor decisions led her to this point and there is no going back now. Her life spirals out of control in a matter of weeks and if she didn’t know who she was before this, she certainly won’t be able to find out now. In fact, when it gets to this point, she is a shadow of her former self, virtually unrecognizable in every way. And just when you think you’re ready to sympathize with her again, she lets us down. The main message is clear, but what if there is another message behind it? There is not doubt she was suffering from a severe depression, and sadly it went undiagnosed and untreated. It’s no secret that this kind of stuff wasn’t as talked about back then as it is today, but one can’t help but think that there might be something in it. Maybe Vivian needed help all along. Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe we can sympathize with her again?

The recurring theme of Three on a Match is reflected in all of their lives, not just Vivian’s. Mary, for example, went to reform school right after elementary school, and is now working as a chorus girl in what we can assume is a relatively stable career. At the very least, she’s learned from her mistakes and she’s made a life for herself. Her time in reform school gave her the social tools she needed in order to survive in this world, and led the way for her to become an independent, intelligent and confident person. She goes from rags to riches, whereas Vivian goes from riches to rags. The way the lives of these two women mirror each other and switch places so drastically is poignant and it makes you think. Ruth, on the other hand, was the smartest girl in school and everybody knew it. She went to business school and started working as a stenographer, and her current life is seemingly uneventful, which also mirrors Vivian’s life in a way. Ruth is the least showy character of the three (something Bette Davis never had to worry about after this!), but her few moments onscreen tells us all we need to know about her: her life is rather boring and when she reunites with her former friends, their rekindled friendship and her subsequent attatchment to Vivian’s child seem to give her life some meaning. By the end of the picture, the lives of these three women have turned around completely and we’re left with all the ‘what ifs’ that come with it, but also a sense of closure.

Pre-Code is fearless and Three on a Match is a testament to it. An emotional roller-coaster, with a beautifully delivered message and a brutal, heart-breaking climax. Not to mention the tremendous performance by Ann Dvorak, who might just be the most underrated actress of her generation.

SCREENPLAY BY: Morrie Ryskind

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2019 is here and The Old Hollywood Garden is starting it off with the first installment of a new series of posts, SCREENPLAY BY. As a screenwriter and playwright myself, I thought I would pay tribute to the much-overlooked geniuses that craft the stories of so many of our favorite movies. And who better to start it with than with screenwriter, dramatist and song-writer Morrie Ryskind?

A frequent collaborator of George S. Kaufman and George and Ira Gershwin on several Broadway several in the 1920s and 30s, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Of Thee I Sing in 1933. By then, he’d already made his Hollywood debut, with the screenplay for The Cocoanuts (dir. Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, 1929), the Marx Brothers comedy, which he adapted from the Kaufman play. Animal Crackers (dir. Victor Heerman, 1930) and A Night at the Opera (dir. Sam Wood, 1935) followed, and in 1936, he received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936), along with Eric S. Hatch. The following year, he received another screenplay nomination for Stage Door (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1937), with Anthony Veiller. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the satirical tone and social commentary of both of these films – the upper classes and showbusiness, respectively – still stands to this day, and both of them are considered to be some of Ryskind’s finest work in Hollywood. He and La Cava were known for their ability to hold a mirror up to society and Ryskind’s scripts, particularly, take no prisoners – who can forget William Powell’s scathing monologue to Gail Patrick about her upbringing in Godfrey?

In 1938, he wrote the film version of Room Service (dir. William A. Seiter, 1938), the last of the Marx Brothers vehicles he would write for, and three years later, he wrote the screenplay for the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne drama Penny Senerade (dir. George Stevens, 1941). Throughout the 1940s and 50s, he continued to write, mainly story outlines and additional dialogue, before dedicating the rest of his life to political activism. Morrie Ryskind passed away in 1985 at the age of 89.

Goodbye 2018

As we approach 2019, The Old Hollywood Garden enters its fourth year (!) and I, for one, cannot believe it. Four years! A lot of stuff has happened, and I feel like 2018 has been the best year so far, blog-wise. Looking back, I have written some of my best stuff, if I can say so myself, and I have broaden my tastes – horror season in October was particularly delightful. And while Double Bill has ended, there will be another series of posts starting next month, about something that is particularly close to my heart. Once again, I would like to thank you all, especially Mike, Denise, Mark, Virginie, Troy, Brian, Jon, Maddy, among many others, for your continuous support,  friendship, likes and comments. Have a great 2019, everyone!

 

 

5 reasons why Meet me in St. Louis (1944) is my favorite musical

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I thought I’d kick off the Christmas festivities this year with my favorite musical of all time and a great Christmas movie in its own right, Vincente Minnelli’s Meet me in St Louis (1944). Here are five things I love about it:

The Trolley Song – It is, in my opinion, the most glorious moment in 1940s movie musicals. It is full of wonder, joy and excitement and it is the main reason Meet Me in St Louis always tops my ‘classics I’d love to be in’ list.

Margaret O’Brien’s performance – This might actually be my all-time favorite child performance. Her Tootie is the cherry on top of the Meet Me in St Louis cake; she embodies every emotion that we, as the viewers, feel throughout the film, in particular in the Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sequence, which is always heart-breaking.

Sisterly love – I love sibling relationships in movies. And one of the things that always warms my heart in this movie is the loving, supporting relationships between all five of them, especially the four girls. No matter what happens (and it’s a lot!), Esther, Rose, Agnes and Tootie are always there for each other. In fact, the whole family are one of the most endearing and loving there has ever been in a film, despite their differences.

The way it looks – Aesthetics were always a key aspect of MGM musicals and their importance should never be under-estimated. Meet me in St Louis is no exception. It looks beautiful. It looks appealing and warm and sweet. Its colors jump out of the screen and for two hours, St Louis looks like the place to be.

There’s something for everyone – One of the many things that makes Meet Me in St Louis so special to me is that it can fit into any category. It’s a musical, a romance, a family dramedy, a suburban tale, and a holiday movie – Halloween and Christmas, no less. Talk about iconic!

Happy Holidays, folks!

What a Character! Blogathon – Charles McGraw

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There are tough guys, there are bad guys, and then there is Charles McGraw, the toughest, baddest, most terrifying of them all. With his raspy voice and his cold, piercing eyes, Charles McGraw meant business. Mean, meancing, murderous business. From the moment he steps out from behind Henry’s Diner in the opening scene in The Killers (1946), in what has to be one of the greatest entrances of all time, you just know he’s not one to mess with. This was his break-through role and throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, he was a constant presence in some of the screen’s greatest films as well as some of its most treasured cult classics, whether in bit parts or leads, with Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952) finally giving him top billing. In 1947 alone, he appeared in eight films, most notably T-Men (1947) and Brute Force (1947). If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s because there is one. Noir was his genre, and, like Neville Brand or Dan Duryea, he was one of its greatest cads. But unlike Brand or Duryea, McGraw wasn’t one you ‘loved to hate’. His characters weren’t misunderstood or even charming. He was just utterly, unashamedly terrifying. I don’t know about you, but I love seeing his name on the credits. I gasp every time he comes on, whatever the movie is. I know I’m going to be rocked to my core with just one line or even a look. I know that whatever bad stuff happens, it will be because of Charles McGraw. It’s perhaps no surprise that he is the one responsible for the most horrifying death in film noir history, that of George Murphy’s character in Border Incident (1949). It’s a truly horrible moment and one that only McGraw could pull off. He wasn’t just good at being bad. He was the best. For more posts on the What a Character! Blogathon, click here.

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