Angela Lansbury: Mother of the Year

Angela Lansbury and her twin, the Queen of Diamonds. Image :morethings.com

Angela Lansbury and her twin, the Queen of Diamonds. Image: morethings.com

 

Warning: Spoilers

She’s a cool drink of water, Angela Lansbury is.

In the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury plays the shrewd wife of bombastic political candidate (James Gregory), a man who cannot conceal the fact that he’s an idiot.

Having a moron for a husband is a minor consequence for Lansbury. In fact, she needs a moron if she’s going to scheme her way into the White House. It doesn’t matter who the moron – er, husband – is, as long as he can take direction.

The Manchurian Candidate stars Frank Sinatra as a U.S. Army veteran, recently retired from the Korean War. Sinatra’s character is a broken man – he cannot sleep or concentrate on his work because he suffers from recurring nightmares. These nightmares always revolve around a strange event that may or may not have happened during his tour of duty.

It’s only when Sinatra reconnects with his superior officer (Laurence Harvey) that he begins to piece together the events in Korea, and what they might mean for the United States.

Meanwhile, Lansbury (who is also Harvey’s mother) continues to drag her poor slob of a husband towards the White House. Because her son came home from Korea a decorated war hero, she’s determined to use him as a prop in her husband’s PR campaign.

In this film, Lansbury is a cool, neatly-pressed blonde, with a severely-sprayed ‘do and classic strand of pearls. She is very First Lady-ish, if not downright Presidential. Even in this harshly-lit film, she is stunning in her tailored tweeds. She’s every bit the Movie Star.

And every bit the Villain.

 

Lansbury supervises her thick-as-a-post husband. Image: lkdsjf

Lansbury supervises her dim-witted husband. Image: Cinema Nostalgia

 

Lansbury is a Take Charge kind of Villain. She either barks out orders or softly cajoles you into compliance. She smiles and gently presses your arm as though she were your best friend – or she snaps you in two like a brittle cookie. She’s a detonator, this one.

But in most scenes, Lansbury is calm, regarding others with with thinly-veiled contempt. Her expressions reveal the work it takes to drive a fool in politics. In one scene she loses patience with Gregory. “You’re going to look like [an] idiot if you don’t get in there and do exactly what you’re told,” she shouts. Gregory, a seasoned political candidate (and a grown man), whimpers like a kicked puppy.

She takes a different tactic with her beloved son, Harvey, who resists everything about her. In outlining her Master Plan, Lansbury tells him, “[This] will sweep us into the White House with powers that will make martial law look like anarchy.”

Control of the White House! Power! Martial Law!

Is this a villain, or is this a Villain? Here is a woman capable of hijacking an American election and making it look like an act of democracy. Villains don’t get any more cunning than this.

Her genius lies in making everything look easy. Just look at this laundry list of duties:

  1. Single-handedly getting an idiot elected to the White House.
  2. Mastering mind-control techniques.
  3. Breaking up romances if they’re politically inopportune.
  4. Juggling her interests with those of her mysterious co-conspirators.

The Manchurian Candidate, besides being a top-notch political thriller, shows us a diabolical Mother-Villain at work. If you haven’t seen this film yet, put it on your Bucket List immediately.

The Manchurian Candidate: starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and our gal Angela Lansbury. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod.M.C. Productions/United Artists, 1962, B&W, 127 mins.

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and yours truly. Be sure to read all the villainous contributions.

 

Great Villain Blogathon Day 4

Originally posted on SPEAKEASY:

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Day 4 of the Great Villain Blogathon, brought to you by Ruth of Silver Screenings,Karen of Shadows & Satin, and myself, Kristina of Speakeasy proved unrelenting in its onslaught of offensive behavior! Here are the evildoers that were featured today. Don’t miss any of the fun and tweet along at #TheGreatVillainBlogathon

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Day 3: The Great Villain Blogathon

Mwahaha! [Insert sinister hand rubbing]

The chronicles of the dastardly and the contemptible continue on Day 3 of the Great Villain Blogathon. We have some terrific Villains featured today!

Brought to you by Karen of Shadows & Satin, Kristina of Speakeasy, and yours truly of Silver Screenings, the Great Villain Blogathon runs until April 26. You can follow our exploits all week on Twitter at #TheGreatVillainBlogathon.

Let’s get to today’s fun!

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The Joy and Agony of Movies: The Godfather, Part 2 and Chinatown

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The Thrilling Days of Yesteryear: Henry Brandon in Babes in Toyland (1934) and Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937)

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Carole & Co.: C. Aubrey Smith in No More Orchids

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1001 Movies I (Apparently) Must See Before I Die: David Carradine in Kill Bill

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The Cinematic Packrat: The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

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Caftan Woman: Gale Sondergaard in The Spider Woman

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HardBoiled Girl: Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death

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Deja Reviewer: Ridiculously Lopsided Hero-Villain Fights

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Journeys in Classic Film: Terrence Stamp in The Collector

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Captain Video: Ming the Merciless is back!

Stay tuned for more baddies tomorrow!

The Great Villain Blogathon: Day 2 Wrap-Up

Silver Screenings:

Here are the wonderful posts for Day 2! We’re having too much dastardly fun here.

Originally posted on SPEAKEASY:

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Day 2 of the Great Villain Blogathon has blown through town with some huge names making appearances and leaving behind a trail of devastation; you better count your fingers, your children and your silverware.

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The Great Villain Blogathon: Day One Wrap-Up

Silver Screenings:

A recap of yesterday’s FA-BU-LOUS entries in the Great Villain Blogathon.

Originally posted on shadowsandsatin:

Gale Sondergaard in The Letter The opening of The Great Villain Blogathon – brought to you by Ruth of Silver Screenings , Kristina of Speakeasy , and yours truly – has been a most awesome day filled with despicable delinquents, creepy criminals, and icky evildoers. In other words, a veritable banquet of villainy!

Today’s lineup of larcenous lawbreakers consisted of the following – don’t miss a single one!

Mocata in The Devil Rides Out at I Love Terrible Movies

Peter Sellers and Christopher Lee as Dr. Fu Manchu by Virtual Samurai

Laird Cregar in Hangover Square at Virtual Virago

Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon movies at The Secret Sanctum of Captain Video

Waldo Lydecker in Laura at Moon in Gemini

Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much at Critica Retro

Lon Chaney in The Penalty at Movies, Silently

Otto Kruger in Saboteur at The Man on the Flying Trapeze

Dan…

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Great Villain Blogathon Reminder!

Silver Screenings:

We can hardly contain ourselves!

Originally posted on SPEAKEASY:

Attention bloggers and movie fans: this is your reminder that the revelry in villainy known as the Great Villain Blogathon (links to original announcement) will begin in little more than a week (April 20th through the 26th).

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The Jackie Robinson Story

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Jackie Robinson (centre) meets baseball fans who think only white men should play baseball. Image: ossieandruby.com

There’s something in the way Jackie Robinson holds a baseball bat.

He treats it with nonchalance; it’s almost an accessory to carry while wearing a baseball uniform. But when Robinson stands at home plate, holding this same bat, he slugs the ball with a sharp crack! that happens so quickly you can hardly believe he actually hit the ball.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) examines the life and early career of the famed Number 42, the first African-American to play in the major leagues. The story was later retold in the 2013 film 42, starring Chadwick Boseman. While the 1950 film has a more modest budget than the 2013 version, it has one huge advantage: It stars Jackie Robinson as himself.

Now, Robinson is not what you’d call a classically-trained actor, but who cares! We get to see Jackie Robinson play baseball!

The Jackie Robinson Story is like being at a ball game, with all the sounds of a game: the whack of the ball against the bat; the roar of the crowd; the chatter in the dugout. This film was made by folks who love baseball, and they’ve not skimped on footage of Robinson hitting and stealing bases.

But the film isn’t just about the game of baseball. It’s about the concept of baseball – who the game is for and who should be allowed to play.

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Jackie Robinson starts his MLB career in Montreal. Image: The Grio

In 1947, Robinson is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers to play for their farm team in Montreal. He is the first African-American ball player in the major leagues.

Sports reporters are waiting when Robinson steps out onto the Montreal field for the first time. They ask if he thinks there’s going to be trouble. “The only trouble I’m worried about is a ground ball to my right,” he quips.

The reporters are not asking about ground balls and Robinson knows it. He’s reminding them he has the right to play baseball.

In the scene where Robinson is initially signed by the Dodgers, the owner (Minor Watson) sits at his desk and lights a cigar as he carefully studies Robinson. For a moment, we are uncertain of Watson’s motives: does he sincerely want to hire Robinson, or is he going to humiliate him? But as Watson pointedly stares Robinson, we realize he’s analyzing the athlete, not the colour of his skin.

“We’re tackling something big here, Jackie,” Watson says. “If we fail, no one will try again for 20 years.” He tells Robinson that the going will be rough; fans will throw insults at him, and opposing players will run at him spikes first. Watson a ballplayer is needed who has guts enough not to fight back.

Robinson is that player, and he takes everything on the chin. He’s booed when he steps up to the plate. Fans shout obscenities at him and pitchers aim for his head instead of the strike zone. Yet, Robinson sells tickets. Love him or hate him, everyone wants to see him play.

The Jackie Robinson Story is a movie about breaking the colour barrier and a remarkable pioneer major league player. But it’s also a love letter to a game made better by Robinson.

The Jackie Robinson Story: starring Jackie Robinson, Ruby Dee, Minor Watson. Directed by Alfred E. Green. Written by Lawrence Taylor and Arthur Mann, Samson Raphaelson. Jewel Pictures  Corp., 1950, B&W, 77 mins.

This post is part of the Big League Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Films. Be sure to read all the contributions celebrating the great game of Baseball.

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Judy Garland’s Comedic Gifts

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Judy Garland wears her Sunday Best to impress her new fiancé. Image: denverlibrary.org

Judy Garland made everything look easy.

She could sing and dance and make you believe she flew to an emerald city in a tornado. Combined with her dramatic talents, it’s easy to forget how funny she was.

We marvelled at her comedic gifts when we screened The Harvey Girls (1946), a delightful musical-comedy Western.

Garland plays a young woman travelling from Ohio to the Wild West to marry a man with whom she’s corresponded, but has never met. On the train, she meets a group of spunky-but-respectable gals who are training to be waitresses at a Harvey House restaurant in Arizona. (These railroad-stop restaurants, established in the 1870s, are regarded as the first restaurant chain in the U.S.)

Garland is utterly charming. In an early scene, she sits on the westbound train, glancing enviously at the fried chicken the Harvey girls are eating, while she pokes at a single leftover crust in her lunch basket. Nevertheless, she spreads her napkin with a flourish over her lap and peers into her basket as though she can’t decide which imaginary delicacy to eat first.

When she arrives in town and sees her rough, unglamorous betrothed (Chill Wills), she is horrified. This man is the opposite of his letters, which are romantic and full of curlicues. She realizes she can’t hide forever from her husband-to-be, and she’s too stubborn to get back on the train, so she swallows her alarm and disappointment. But Wills ain’t no dummy; he gracefully asks Garland not to marry him.

Garland promptly joins the Harvey Girls and dons the employee uniform:

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Judy sings and serves steak in the Old West. Image: Sweethearts of the West

However.

The Harvey House is not welcome in town because it represents Manners and Keeping Elbows Off The Table. The saloon across the street, the feather-boa Alhambra, hates the starched-white Harvey House because townsfolk might turn into Respectable People. (You see, the Harvey House is to Civilization what the Alhambra could be to Vegas.)

And yet.

The Alhambra is owned by Ned Trent (John Hodiak), a smirky fellow whose greatest pleasure is sabotaging the Harvey House generally, and Judy Garland in particular.

But.

It was Hodiak who wrote those letters for Wills, the same letters that made Garland fall in love and board a train to the middle of nowhere to marry someone she’d never met.

Oh boy, we’ve gotten off topic. We were talking about Garland’s comedic talents. We’ve only time to describe one more scene, the one where John Hodiak steals all the Harvey House steaks!

Don't mess with Judy. Image: lskdjf a

Don’t mess with Judy. Image: YouTube

When Garland discovers the famous Harvey House steaks are missing, she decides to get ‘em back. She snatches two pistols and grimly marches across the street to the Alhambra, guns drawn. She’s All Business, yet she shrieks when she accidentally drops her weapons.

Garland reaches the Alhambra as someone is being forcibly removed. She squats under the saloon-style doors, surveying the territory, pistols cocked in the air à la Yosemite Sam. She finally musters the courage to stand and enter the bar. “Stick ‘em up,” she announces, and is almost knocked flat by bouncers trying to eject another patron. “Come on,” she pleads, “stick ‘em up now.” But everyone is having too much fun to notice.

If you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, we urge you to do so. It is a wonderful film that showcases the very amusing and charming Judy Garland.

The Harvey Girls: starring Judy Garland, John Hodiak, Chills Wills. Directed by George Sidney. Written by Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, Harry Crane, James O’Hanlon, Samson Raphaelson. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1946, Colour, 105 mins.

Leo G. Carroll: Prophet of Doom

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Leo G. Carroll (left) tells James Mason resistance is futile. Image: film-cine.com

Sometimes you discover a minor character who embodies the soul of a movie.

The 1951 WWII bio-pic The Desert Fox has a perfect example of such a character, as portrayed by British actor Leo G. Carroll.

The Desert Fox is the story of famed German General Erwin Rommel, who pummelled Allied forces in North Africa before transferring to Western Europe to prepare against the D-Day invasion. James Mason plays Rommel, a sympathetic man who’s a curious mix of strategic logic and unquestioning devotion.

As the film opens, we see Rommel is at the peak of his military success in North Africa. But his troops lack equipment and fuel because these items are being saved for the higher-priority Russian front. A frustrated Rommel does not blame Hitler for this mismanagement; he is convinced a virtuous Fuhrer is being led astray by imbeciles in Berlin.

Nevertheless, there are those who try to convince Rommel that Hitler is the reason for the problems. For example, Cedric Hardwicke is Karl Strölin, a man who tests Rommel’s views re: the function of a soldier versus the duty of a soldier. There is also Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt (Carroll), the barometric character in this film.

Von Rundstedt is a weary figure who is no longer surprised at incompetence or stupidity. He has no illusions about the outcome of the war or the state of politics in Berlin, to which he slyly alludes with caustic wit. (He refers to Hitler as “the bohemian general”, and warns Rommel that he’ll be under surveillance by “friends of the management”.)

Undoubtedly, von Rundstedt’s most meaningful scene is his last. He and Rommel are in a fortified situation room near the west coast of France. Von Rundstedt is D-O-N-E, meaning he’s done with inept leadership and self-delusion and killing. He tells Rommel that Adolf Hitler does not actually believe there will be a large-scale Allied invasion of continental Europe.

In that moment, the whole of WWII unfurls before us like a banner. Here is the actor Carroll, as von Rundstedt, clad in the costume of a once-great army that shocked the world with dazzling military prowess. But now, in its place, stands an isolated Field Marshal with the pallid demeanour of a prisoner of war.

It’s over for him, and for Germany. There’s no more conquering to be had.

The phone rings; it’s Berlin requesting updates, and they’d better be good. Von Rundstedt gamely tries to persuade his superiors to station more troops near the beaches where he (correctly) assumes the Allies will land. When he is asked for another suggestion, he snaps in frustration and his words are like gunfire: “Make peace, you idiot!”

We dare not believe the consequences of those four sharply-spoken words. Von Rundstedt calmly places the receiver in the cradle, as though he had just spoken to his adjunct about a routine errand. He picks up his hat, drapes his coat over his arm, and tells Rommel that within 24 hours he will be named his successor.

Carroll exits the scene and is gone. But he’s not just gone from the scene, he’s gone from Mason, from the movie, from us. “Come back!” we want to cry, but it’s too late. His character has just told Berlin to surrender. There’s no rebounding from that.

Now the movie feels small and narrow without Carroll; his abrupt disappearance weighs on us and follows us from behind. For the first time, we feel actual despair and a little panicked.

The Desert Fox is an absorbing examination of war and deception, and the collapse of a military empire. Leo G. Carroll, in his brief scenes, underscores this tale brilliantly.

The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel starring James Mason, Cedric Hardwicke, Jessica Tandy. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1951, B&W, 88 mins.

Ginger Rogers, Ace Detective

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 Ginger Rogers can’t believe her luck sometimes. Image: What Ginger Wore

Tell us this is not one of the best opening scenes ever:

It is night on a deserted street in New York. The camera is positioned as though you were leaning out a window of an apartment building, looking down at the sidewalk.

There is a scream and a man’s body falls, from above you, onto the pavement.

This, in our opinion, is the best kind of introduction to a movie. No chit chat, no how-do-you-do nonsense. Let’s just get down to business of murder.

Such is our introduction to A Shriek in the Night (1933), a clunky but charming pre-code murder mystery/comedy. The premise is something that wasn’t new then and is still familiar today: a rich man who may have shady dealings with criminals meets an unexpected end.

Fortunately for the police (and for the deceased), a newspaper reporter (Ginger Rogers) is On The Case. She had been investigating the man’s ties to the underworld but, now that he’s dead, she realizes she’s got a Bigger Story.

Except.

Her ex-boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) works for a rival newspaper. Talbot may not be as smart as Rogers but he has an audacious charm – and scoops her front page story to publish it in his own newspaper!

Despite this treachery (or because of), Rogers is determined to solve the mystery while trying to out-maneuver Talbot. BUT! Sinister forces discover Rogers is snooping around and, naturally, they feel they must dispose of her.

This movie was made in 1933 and, frankly, you can tell. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the scenes aren’t staged as smoothly as we’d like. However, A Shriek in the Night is still a barrel o’ fun. It winks at famous detectives (e.g. Philo Vance) and pays tribute to the popular detective magazines of the day.

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Lilian Harmer loves to read about grisly murders before going to sleep. Image: Old Films in Pictures

A good movie detective, like any detective, needs brains and guts. Rogers has both, and is très amusing in a smart-alec kind of way. In one scene, the lights suddenly go out in the rich man’s apartment. The maid (Lilian Harmer) shrieks.

Harmer: “There’s a man in the apartment!”

Rogers: “He’s a friend of mine. Keep your hands off him.”

There’s also fantastic Gangster Speak in the script. Look at this note sent to one of the characters:

“You don’t know me but I know you – and you and the mob that pinned the rap on Denny Fagan are going to get what he got – the juice.”

(Getting “the juice” means going to the electric chair. Fantastic stuff, no?)

Rogers and her nemesis, Talbot, have great chemistry; an entire movie could be made from their banter alone. One evening, Talbot arrives at the rich man’s apartment with plans to stay the night so he can protect Rogers and Harmer. An amused Rogers asks him not to wake her if he needs saving, then tells him not to drink all the scotch.

However, the movie soon gets tense as Rogers finds herself alone with the murderer – and it’s not anyone we suspected. We, as the audience, are genuinely fearful for Rogers. How will she escape?!

A Shriek in the Night may not be the slickest mystery ever produced, but it’s still a terrific film – and an excellent showcase for both Ginger Rogers’ and Lyle Talbot’s comedic talents.

A Shriek in the Night: starring Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark. Directed by Albert Ray. Screenplay by Frances Hyland. Allied Pictures Corp., 1933, B&W, 70 mins.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions in this Celebration of the Big-Screen Detective.

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