Month: March 2012

Let This be a Lesson, Kids

Behold! Doth mine pants burn yonder?

Bobby Driscoll as a habitual liar who witnesses a murder.

Sometimes we feel life would be better if liars’ pants did catch on fire.

Wouldn’t that be handy! Instead of listening to absurd protestations of innocence by a patently guilty party, we could simply point to the fibber’s roasty pants as proof of their deceit.

But, until someone perfects that little party trick, we must be satisfied with movies about liars who get caught lying. Sort of.

Speaking of liars, have you ever seen the 1949 flick, The Window? This little-known film noir gem stars child actor Bobby Driscoll, who made a name for himself in Disney movies. (We know what you’re thinking: Pffft! Film noir with a Disney kid? Nice try.)

No, really! The Window is a gritty piece of business, completely stripped of glamour. Along with Driscoll, we see Arthur Kennedy, as a tired working-class father who’s always scheduled on the night shift. Barbara Hale (who later became Della Street on Perry Mason) is his wife, an apron-wearing woman with very large sleeves in all her dresses. And here’s a toned-down Ruth Roman with minimal makeup and homemade outfits.

The story is based on the old Aesop’s fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In the movie, Driscoll plays Tommy, a boy who constantly tells tall tales. He can’t help himself! He lies about having a ranch, claims he’s moving there, then says he’s going to shoot a bunch of Native Americans. His parents are at their wit’s end with this boy; he just won’t stop making things up!

Until the day he witnesses a murder and no one believes him.

The movie has an rough, unpolished look, which is unsettling; it seems a bit seedy and capable of showing you things you’re not used to seeing in a movie from the 1940s.

Then, when the murderers find out that Driscoll’s character Knows, the tension intensifies. The murderers need to eliminate the boy. Twisted? You bet, and the script does nothing to quell your fears. Some scenes make you feel positively panicked.

So, kids, what’s the moral of the story? Remember to always tell the truth and make it a priority to watch The Window. 

The Window: starring Arthur Kennedy, Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale and Ruth Roman. Written by Mel Dinelli. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff. RKO Radio Pictures, BW, 1949, 75 mins.

Inherit the Wind

How about this product placement?

Fredric March as prosecutor and chick magnet.

First things first: we are not getting embroiled in the creation vs. evolution debate.

However, you yourself might want to dive into this timeless dinner-party topic after viewing the movie, Inherit the Wind.

This 1960 drama is based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which schoolteacher John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution. However, a closer look at the script suggests the film might actually be a condemnation of McCarthyism.

But we digress. We are not here to discuss the origins of the universe nor the socio-political atmosphere of the post-war United States. We would much rather turn our attention to the fabulous Fredric March, who plays prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady.

March proves he’s an actor who is unafraid to appear unglamorous, both in appearance and deed. He’s a looker in his potbelly and balding skullcap; in fact, he’s a dead ringer for our seventh-grade history teacher.

We could be mistaken, but does March seem to have a bit too much fun in the early parts of the movie? He struts around crowing to the masses; his self-congratulatory manner a sharp contrast to Spencer Tracy‘s understated character, the counsel for the defense.

But, as the Good Book says, pride goeth before a fall (don’t we love it when that happens?), and we know what’s coming for March’s ego-stuffed character. Get this: not only has our blustery prosecutor not prepared for this trial, he hasn’t even defined his own belief system! Naturally, Tracy’s character takes him apart, brick by brick, especially when he calls March to the witness stand.

Now we see March as a man stripped of his confidence and – nearly – his convictions. His character is so utterly pitiful you cringe for him. He looks terrible, of course; hot and uncomfortable in his chair, failing miserably under cross-examination; clutching his Mason’s Funeral Parlor fan as though it were his only defense, the last bulwark of a world he thought he understood.

Many actors have said it’s hard to steal a scene from Spencer Tracy, but March does it effortlessly. He’s so believable as a man who grabs at the pieces of his imploding world, you can almost feel it happening to yourself.

Aha! We’ve convinced you, haven’t we, to re-hash the Scopes Monkey Trial at your next dinner party. Come on! Show your guests an evening they’ll never forget.

Inherit the Wind: starring Fredric March, Spencer Tracy and a serious Gene Kelly. Written by Nathan E. Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith. Directed by Stanley Kramer. United Artists, 1960, 125 mins.

This blog is part of the March-in-March blogathon, hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. Click here for more blogs on our man of the hour, Fredric March.

How to Get Away with Murder (sort of)

Don't make me do it again

Bette Davis has deadly aim.

Oh boy! Do we ever love how this movie begins.

Scene: Night at a rubber plantation near Singapore. The camera lazily pans across the sleepy plantation…

Suddenly: A gunshot. A man staggers through the front door of a house, followed by a grim-looking Bette Davis, steadily firing a pistol. Six bullets she puts in the man and, after the gun is emptied, there is no doubt he is dead.

Whoa! Isn’t that a kiss-hello! If this isn’t the most unforgettable opening scene ever, we don’t know what is. Because you have all these questions: Why is Bette Davis shooting? Who is that man? Why does she have to shoot him so many times?

Any movie that opens with Bette Davis shooting the crap out of someone has to be great. And so it is with The Letter. Here’s a movie with clever plot twists, a mesmerizing storyline and a tension that grabs you and doesn’t let go.

You’re probably wondering what happens after Bette Davis finishes killing the man. Sorry, not telling. We are so insistent that you should watch this movie that we aren’t even going to tell you the basic plot. Nope. Not one thing. Besides, you wouldn’t believe it if we told you.

The Letter is based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, and is directed by the brilliant William Wyler. Wyler’s use of darkness and light almost steals the show; it’s as if the shadows are part of the supporting cast.

This is a top-notch movie with top-notch actors. The fabulous Herbert Marshall plays Davis’ husband, a loyal man who’s determined to fight for his wife’s cause. Victor Sen Yung is On Chi Seng, a legal assistant who exhibits the utmost courtesy with a chilling menace. Steely Gale Sondergaard plays a hardened Eurasian woman who utters very few lines and is completely sympathetic.

There’s a bit of humour, too. In one scene, Marshall’s character meets his lawyer for drinks in Singapore. It is night, but sweat is still gushing out of everyone’s forehead. A waiter brings drinks and dryly asks, “It’s a shame rubber won’t grow in a more civilized climate, isn’t it, sir?”

We’ve gotten you intrigued, haven’t we? Admit it. You want to know why Bette Davis would empty a pistol into someone. Well then; you know what you have to do.

The Letter. Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Written by Howard Koch. Directed by William Wyler. Warner Brothers, 1940, 95 mins.

Wallowing Becomes Electra

Watch my head spin around!

Evil Katina Paxinou refuses to listen to yet another Rosalind Russell speech.

Gentle Reader, if you adore Eugene O’Neill and/or Greek Tragedies, please do not read any further.

We try to like Eugene O’Neill and the Greek Tragedies – we really do – but, sadly, the merits of each are wasted on us.

Such is the case in O’Neill’s play-become-film, Mourning Becomes Electra. Here is the exquisitely-titled but dreary tale about people who constantly yell at each other and continually fiddle with a set of sliding doors in their house. (How many times were those sliding doors opened and closed anyway? We found this very distracting, and even did an online search while watching the movie.)

We don’t really care about how or why Eugene O’Neill wrote this play, which is an updated version of Oresteia, written by Hollywood’s favourite ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus. Both the original Greek play and O’Neill’s version are trilogies, in case that little tidbit makes a difference to you. It didn’t to us.

Now, dear Reader, you are probably thinking we are uneducated rubes, unable to appreciate the finer points of Greek literature, and you would be correct. In our opinion the best thing about a Greek tragedy is that everyone dies, and for that we are grateful.

Even the fabulous Rosalind Russell is no help in this dreadful film. She self-righteously stomps around her big house in her big dress, condemning her mother for stealing her boyfriend. (Okay, who wouldn’t be upset about that; but do you really want a boyfriend who’s after your mother??) The thing is, Russell greatly, er, admires her father (she is the Electra from the Greek play), while her brother (Michael Redgrave, the Oedipus) naturally worships his mother.

The one shining spot in this movie is Katina Paxinou, who plays the exotic and creepy mother. Paxinou has a terrific Greek accent and is so bent on ruining everyone’s life that you can’t help but cheer for her. Of course she has to die, and the movie feels lonely and adrift without her.

Well, after 500 hours of yelling and the sliding door business, all the characters become neatly disposed of. Only Russell’s character remains alive. She delivers a sanctimonious speech at the end of the movie that includes the cheery line, “I’ll live alone with the dead and keep their secrets.”

You do that, Electra.

Mourning Becomes Electra: starring Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave and Katina Paxinou. Written and directed by Dudley Nichols. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947, 173 excruciating minutes.