Drama

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.

Jackie Robinson alskdfj askdlf Image: lskdjf

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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Sidney Lumet Directs 12 Angry Men

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These cheery jurors duke it out while deciding a verdict for a murder trial. Image: dvdbeaver.com

We wish Sidney Lumet had won the Best Director Oscar for the 1957 ensemble drama 12 Angry Men.

The poor slob didn’t have a chance. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the juggernaut that year, winning seven out of eight nominations. A black and white movie about twelve men talking in an meeting room is no match for a sweeping technicolor war epic.

Lean deserved an Oscar, in our opinion. But we like to think, had 12 Angry Men been released any other year, Lumet would have scored the top prize.

Now, we weren’t kidding about the premise of 12 Angry Men. This really is a movie about jurors debating whether an 18 year-old teenager is guilty of murdering his father. There are no car chases, no romantic interludes, no gun fights. These men sit at a boardroom table and talk.

And yet.

This movie is so riveting, you cannot take your eyes from the screen. It has a brilliant screenplay with a perfect cast, e.g. Henry Fonda, Jack Warden, and our fave, Lee J. Cobb. It also has a director who pulls you into the screen and makes you feel as though you’ve been sequestered in the same room as the jurors.

The movie opens as the trial judge finishes giving his instructions to the jury. As the jury leaves and the courtroom empties, Lumet’s camera moves in close and isolates the defendant. He’s little more than a frightened boy who looks as though he should be sitting in math class instead of a murder trial.

The remainder of the film, which centres on the jury’s discussion, is set in a hot, airless boardroom. It has a large table, uncomfortable wooden chairs and a fan that doesn’t work.

Here is where we meet the jurors, all of them white and male but very different in temperament. Included in this bunch is a stock broker, a salesman, a house painter, and a high school coach.

What we don’t realize is that Lumet has already started toying with us via camera angles. He consistently keeps the height of the camera in two positions: (A) as if you were seated at the table with the jurors; and (B) as if you were standing near the table with the jurors. He creates intimacy by never letting the characters get too far away from us.

He’s also forcing us to form quick opinions of these jurors, but we’ll get into that later.

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Lee J, Cobb (centre, with arm raised) wishes to re-enact the murder with Henry Fonda (left). Image: The Last Honest Man

The judge has instructed the jury to reach a unanimous verdict. Eleven men think the defendant is guilty; one (Fonda) does not. The other jurors become frustrated with Fonda; Warden, for instance, has tickets to a ball game and wants to quickly dispense with the matter.

As the jurors discuss the case, they reveal their personalities. Lumet has the actors unwrap each character slowly, giving them space to examine their values and prejudices. Even minor characters with few lines are notable by their silence. (Lumet often includes two men in his shots, and the one who’s listening sometimes says more than the one who’s speaking.)

On the surface, the men’s discussion centres around evidence presented at the trial, but what we’re really examining is the men and their motivations.

As the discussion unravels, the jurors divulge the truth about themselves and we realize this is what we’ve been expecting all along. What we didn’t expect, though, is how our opinion of these characters is changing.

Do you know why this movie is so riveting? It’s this: Just as the jurors see the defendant in a new way, we see the jurors in a new way. They mirror what we are experiencing as we watch the film. Lumet has cast us, the audience, as these men’s jurors.

This is Lumet’s gift to us. He hasn’t merely entertained us; he’s given us a chance to expand our thinking.

12 Angry Men Oscar Nominations (1958):

  • Best Director (lost to David Lean)
  • Best Picture (lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai)

12 Angry Men: starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Reginald Rose. United Artists Corp., 1957, B&W, 93 mins.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen,  Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club during the month of February. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions.

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Thoughts on the Ultimate Hollywood Film

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner's performance - for now. Image: The Guardian

Kirk Douglas is pleased with Lana Turner’s performance – for now. Image: The Guardian

*SPOILER & CYNIC ALERTS*

Quick! Without searching online, do you know who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year? … Anyone?

Alas, this is the downside of winning a Big Prize. In time, winners’ names become reduced to a trivia answer. (“I’ll take last year’s winners for $200, Alex.”)

There are countless movies that examine winning big prizes or, rather, winning big in life. One film, the 1952 drama, The Bad and the Beautiful, examines winning in Hollywood.

We think The Bad and the Beautiful could be the ultimate Hollywood film, but not in the way you might expect.

First, let us say this is a well-crafted film with inspiring performances. It would take us at least week to describe how brilliantly cast these actors are, under the expert direction of Vincente Minnelli.

Told through flashbacks, the film is cordoned into three sections as told from the perspective of three characters, each a member of the Hollywood elite. Common to all of these characters is Jonathan Shield (Kirk Douglas), a ruthless but charming movie mogul who uses people then beats them at their own game.

Douglas’ character has been exiled from Hollywood and is languishing in Europe. In an attempt to resuscitate his career, he arranges a phone meeting with the three people he’s used the most: a film director (Barry Sullivan); an actress (Lana Turner); and a screenwriter (Dick Powell). Each of these has a heart-wrenching story of how Douglas used them and knocked them aside.

At first the trio is reluctant to have the teleconference with Douglas, let alone work with him again. But Douglas’ ally/producer (Walter Pidgeon), a smooth-talking diplomat, explains to each of them how Douglas has actually boosted their careers. The director has twice been awarded an Oscar. The actress is a top box-office draw. And the writer has won the Pulitzer Prize.

See? Douglas’ character isn’t that bad, explains Pidgeon. He’s actually helped you people. It’s not like he’s killed anyone.

Oh. Wait a minute.

Let’s look at Powell’s character. He wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about a southern woman based on his late wife; a woman who died in an accident during an illicit rendezvous that Douglas had arranged. Douglas didn’t mean for the woman to die; after all, it was her choice to jump at the bait he offered. Is it Douglas’ fault he spotted her weakness and gave her a push? But now that she’s dead, Powell ends up writing the Great American Novel. Pidgeon’s character tells Powell he should be grateful.

Grateful? For losing his wife?

Similarly, Sullivan’s character thinks he’s Douglas’ friend and entrusts him to direct a screenplay he wrote. Douglas steals the screenplay and manages to get Sullivan fired from the project. As for Turner’s character, she falls in love with Douglas; their relationship lasts during the filming of a movie, then he dumps her without warning.

Pidgeon also tells Sullivan and Turner they should be grateful, too. Being used and stabbed in the back in return for more money and fame is worth it, apparently. Why else would you develop relationships?

Is this really the underlying message here? Relationships are expendable when furthering your career? It’s all worth it if you attain greater material success?

The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfect example of a character-driven film and, if you haven’t seen it, you really ought. You may not agree with our cynical view of the film, but we think you’ll be intrigued by its steely-eyed view of Hollywood.

The Bad and the Beautiful: starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Written by Charles Schnee. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., B&W, 1952, 116 mins.

The Best Laid Plans of Lon Chaney, Jr.

Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr., left) asks George (Burgess Meredith) when they're getting the rabbits. Image: ksdjf lskdj f

Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr., left) asks George (Burgess Meredith) when they’re getting rabbits. Image: lewiswaynegallery.com

*Mild Spoilers

Lon Chaney, Jr., once portrayed the sweetest, most sensitive soul you’d ever want to meet. He was an easy-going fellow who wasn’t the least bit fussy. “I don’t need no fancy foods like beans with ketchup,” the character declared, and he meant it.

But this sweet, sensitive soul was also dangerous. If you weren’t careful, he’d kill you.

The 1939 version of Of Mice and Men is the first (and our favourite) retelling of the John Steinbeck story. It received four Oscar nominations but none for acting, which is a doggone shame considering the cast included Burgess Meredith and our man Chaney, Jr.

Of Mice and Men was Lon Chaney, Jr.’s breakout movie. It made him a star.

In the film, Chaney and Meredith are Lenny and George, migrant workers who travel throughout California. Chaney’s and Meredith’s characters are opposite to each other in every possible way. Chaney is tall and muscular; Meredith is small and wiry. Chaney’s character takes people at face value; Meredith sniffs for a motive. And, while Meredith is a fast thinker, Chaney is not. Chaney’s character has the mental capacity of a five year-old.

Chaney is utterly convincing as the sweet-natured Lenny. His goal in life is to buy a small homestead with Meredith: they will have a little house, a cow, some chickens. And rabbits. It will be Chaney’s job to tend the rabbits, as he reminds Meredith all day, every day.

Because he is mentally challenged, yet physically strong, Chaney’s character is fascinatingly complex. Chaney gives a remarkable portrayal, and never slides outside of character. Even when he’s not in the foreground, he’s still Lenny-esque, watching other characters with eager but slightly vacant eyes.

When Chaney’s character is given a puppy, his face glows. This giant of a man sits cross-legged in the barn with the wee pup, cuddling it and scratching its ears. The puppy is his whole world, and he couldn’t be happier.

We think it’s a scene of joy and we say, “Aww.” But it’s not. This is Chaney setting us up.

It’s a mean trick he plays on us. All through the movie we suspect disaster is going to kneecap us, but we shove it aside. Chaney is guileless and trusting, and he suckers us into believing everything will be all right.

Except it’s not. We are given a sudden, shocking glimpse into Chaney’s darker side when the boss’ churlish son (Bob Steele) attacks Chaney by hitting him in the face. Chaney, who’s been told to never fight back, covers his face with his hands and wails, “George, make him stop!” When Meredith gives him permission to defend himself, Chaney seems to fall into a trance. He simply reaches for Steele’s hand and crushes it. He doesn’t let go; he neither sees nor hears nor feels, while Steele writhes below him, shrieking with pain.

You see? Chaney has led us to believe that something like this could never happen, not on our watch. But it does – and much worse, too, before the film is over.

There have been four other versions made of the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men. But for our money, no other actor comes close to capturing Lenny’s charming innocence as Lon Chaney, Jr. He is riveting as a man who is too dangerous for his own good.

Of Mice and Men: starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Screenplay by Eugene Solow. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1939, 104 mins.

This post is part of the CHANEY BLOGATHON, hosted by The Last Drive in and Movies, Silently. Be sure to check all the other entries!

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We [heart] Ernest Borgnine

Marty (Ernest Borgnine) listens as his mother asks - AGAIN - when he's getting married. Image: bbc.co.ukEsther Minciotti asks Ernest Borgnine – AGAIN – when he’s getting married. Image: bbc.co.uk

We know what cynics say about the 1955 drama, Marty - and we don’t care.

Marty is a movie about an ordinary man, a butcher, who is unable to find love. If that weren’t bad enough, he’s continually scolded for his unmarried state by those in his Italian-American community.

But one night he meets a plain, unglamorous schoolteacher (Betsy Blair), with whom he begins an unsteady romance, despite – get this! – protests from those same family and friends.

Cynics would say Borgnine’s and Blair’s characters are drawn to each other out of sheer desperation and, once the excitement dies down the relationship will, too. That may be true but who cares? This is a movie, darnit, and we want a happy movie ending because this unremarkable butcher is touchingly portrayed by Ernest Borgnine.

Borgnine, born Ermes Effron Borgnino in 1917, spent 10 years in the navy before becoming an actor. He played a variety of characters during his 60-year career, including soldiers, cowboys and, famously, Commander Quinton McHale in McHale’s Navy. But Marty remains our favourite Borgnine performance.

Marty is a tender, thoughtful movie that tears at the most vulnerable part of our psyche – the fear of rejection and abandonment, the fear that we’ll never be loved for who we are. Marty is the embodiment of this. As a result, we become very protective of Marty, and are thankful that Ernest Borgnine gives us such an honest portrayal.

Borgnine wins us over in the first minutes of the film. Here he is, at the butcher shop, cutting and wrapping meat for Italian women who want to know why he isn’t married. “What’s the matter with you?” they ask. “You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”

Borgnine remains pleasant and helpful, but we can see that these words are barbed. Yet, he doesn’t bark at these women; no, he is calm and patient, and we marvel at his self-control.

In one scene, we see Marty at home with his mother (Esther Minciotti), a tiny woman with a disposition as flexible as cement. She nags her son and continually bosses him around, but he takes it all in stride. Borgnine shows us a man who has lived like this for years and has resigned himself to it.

He’s also a man trying to make peace with his fate. “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother. When she presses him a bit too much, he explodes: “I’m just a fat little man. Just a fat, ugly man. I’m ugly. I’m ugly!” Then, calming down, he pats his mother’s hand and assures her everything will be okay. (Honestly, we can hardly think of this scene without a little lump in our throat.)

In another scene, Borgnine phones a girl for a date. Borgnine is nervous, and becomes increasingly so as the girl rebuffs him. The camera moves in slowly towards Borgnine as he stutters and grasps the telephone receiver. The camera chokes off his world, isolates him, intensifies his anguish. Welcome to Marty-Land.

The movie shifts when Borgnine reluctantly goes to a dance hall, and bumps into a man anxious to fob off his date on someone else. Borgnine is repulsed by this callous proposal, but he watches as the man gives his date (Blair) the brush-off. Blair runs from the room, and a sympathetic Borgnine follows her to ask if she’d like to dance. Blair, sobbing, collapses against the stunned Borgnine as he awkwardly comforts her. With this kind gesture, he gives hope to Blair – and to us.

Borgnine won an Oscar for his portrayal of the unpolished but warm-hearted Marty. His unfeigned performance makes us believe we can overcome any obstacle.

Surely even the most cynical would agree.

Marty: starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti. Directed by Delbert Mann. Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1955, 93 mins.

This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

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Ingrid Bergman’s Exile

Ingrid Berman smells some leaves. Image: jdf

Ingrid Berman takes a time-out from self-pity to pick some leaves. Image: thefashionspot.com

When married Ingrid Bergman went to Italy and began an affair with married film director Roberto Rossellini, it created a huge scandal. HUGE!! Get this: Bergman was actually condemned by the Congress of the United States. (Because, as you know, no member of Congress ever had an extra-marital affair.)

We don’t know if Bergman went to Italy to have a torrid affair; she initially went to star in the Italian neo-realism film, StromboliItalian neo-realism was an emerging film genre after World War II – a sparse, unglamorous style of filmmaking that feels like a documentary.

Stromboli is a small volcanic island off the coast of Italy. It is to this island that Bergman comes to live with her new husband (Mario Vitale), a fisherman she met in a displaced person’s camp in Italy. They arrive at a village of mostly aged inhabitants, a group of clique-y villagers who are disapproving of Bergman and her modern ways.

Bergman hates the island and it’s not long before she’s begging Vitale to take her Away From All This. Vitale refuses; this is his home, these are his people. Of course, this creates friction in their marriage and, adding to their troubles, is the lighthouse keeper’s attraction for Bergman. Not only that, she attempts to have an, uh, unorthodox friendship with the village priest.

Bergman is radiant in this film; she’s almost too groomed to be a refugee. Her acting here seems more organic than in her previous roles. Yes siree! Bergman is all I’m-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar in her portrayal of a desperate person stuck on an actual and metaphysical island.

Yet. One of the problems we have with Stromboli is that none of the characters are likable. We want to feel sorry for Bergman, stranded on this island with no electricity or running cars; where brush and scrub pass for foliage; where people speak in Italian that is rarely translated. Plus there’s that volcano, and you know how they get sometimes.

We suspect Rossellini isn’t as concerned with our empathy for his characters as he is with showing us life in post-war Italy. One of his themes is abandonment and loneliness; another is violence.

Even though there are hints of brutality between humans, it’s Rossellini’s gritty footage of animals that really makes us flinch. For example, in one scene a ferret attacks and kills a rabbit, a graphic reminder that life on the island is cruel.

Another problem is Rossellini’s exploration of the many faces of Bergman. He indulges her excessively: Bergman cries, Bergman is lost, Bergman feels sorry for herself, Bergman sulks, Bergman smells some leaves. (Oops! We may have just given away the whole movie.)

Ultimately, the thing about Stomboli - and Italian neo-realism in general - is the point, as in: What is it? Rossellini doesn’t spell it out for us. He allows us to take what we will from the film. Neo-realism refuses to be sharply defined or placed neatly in a package. Isn’t that the way life is, sometimes?

Stromboli is not a light-hearted movie; you have to be in the mood for it. But if you want to see the film that ignited the Bergman-Rossellini scandal, and if you’re interested in Italian Neo-realism, then you must make time for Stromboli.

Stromboli: starring Ingrid Bergman, Mario Vitale, Renzo Cesana. Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Bero Films & RKO Radio Pictures, B&W, 1950, 80 mins.

A Portrait of Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish gives Joseph Cotten the cold, unvarnished Truth. Image: Metropolitan Museum

Lillian Gish gives Joseph Cotten the cold, unvarnished truth. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s the thing about Lillian Gish.

In the 1949 drama, A Portrait of Jennie, Gish’s total screen time is about 10 minutes. TEN MINUTES. And yet, in many ways she is the pivotal character, the fifth column, as it were; the one who brings Truth to the story.

A Portrait of Jennie is a film about Truth, judging by the endless quotes presented at the beginning of the film. (Here is an example.) This is a bit much, because since when does Hollywood care about Truth?

A Portrait of Jennie is also an Art Film. We know this because some establishing shots are transposed on a canvas texture. This is highbrow stuff, see?

However. For all the schmaltz in the script, we are treated to some amazing performances in this film, not the least of which is by Ms Gish.

Briefly, the plot: A poor and unknown New York artist (Joseph Cotten) meets a slightly strange but pleasant young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones). She is cheerful and friendly, but disappears without warning. As the film progresses, Cotten has more chance meetings with the girl, but each time she has grown older. He begins to sketch the girl and then, finally, paints her portrait. As he does so, he begins to fall in love with her.

This film messes with your mind. Jones grows older – perhaps as much as ten years older. Yet, in “real” time, the movie takes place over a single year. It’s a terrific time manipulation trick.

Now, on to Ms Gish, who plays Sister Mary Mercy, a nun at the convent where Jones attends college. Jones says the sister is her favourite because she brings – are you ready? – Truth to things.

Gish, known as “The First Lady of American Cinema,” was a huge star during the silent era and had a career that lasted over 70 years. In A Portrait for Jennie, Gish would be in her fifties, and she’s almost too beautiful to be a pious nun. Through her conversation with Cotten, you can see that she is every bit as spiritual and other-worldly as we expected.

Gish has some antiquated lines, but delivers them with charm. “What vision has been vouchsafed to you, I can’t say,” she tells Cotten. (Who TALKS like that?) But Gish speaks with such care that we feel a little sad words like “vouchsafed” have been removed from everyday conversation.

Her character is a cultured, gentle soul, but strong enough to rival Cotten’s screen presence. She has to be; she is the pivotal character who tells us What It All Means. It takes a seasoned professional to count for this much in under 10 minutes.

Gish knows how things will end, and gives us a clue with her soulful eyes. We think we can guess the ending – but we can’t! The ending has a twist that we do not see coming.

A Portrait of Jennie is a special film, despite all its self-aggrandizing. It’s a haunting story with pitch-perfect performances. And even if it weren’t, it would be worth seeing for Lillian Gish alone.

Portrait of Jennie: Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish. Directed by William Dieterle. Written by Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis. Selznick Releasing Organization, B&W and Colour, 1949, 86 mins.

This post is part of The Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures.

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The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck is waaay too happy to see Van Heflin (right). Image: Biography

Barbara Stanwyck is waaay too happy to see Van Heflin (centre). Image: Biography

Dear Reader: Today we are going to gush – GUSH! – over Barbara Stanwyck.

Stick with us and you’ll be gushing over her too. Just see if you don’t.

We realized Stanwyck was gush-worthy when we screened the 1946 drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. This, to us, is the perfect example of why Ms. Stanwyck is a legend.

The film opens as Stanwyck’s teenaged character, a rich and fiesty gal, plans to run away with a boy from a poor family. However, the sudden death of Stanwyck’s aunt/guardian upsets her plans and sets a new trajectory for her life.

Nearly two decades pass, and the grown boy (Van Heflin) returns to discover that Stanwyck is rich and powerful, and is married to their meek childhood friend (Kirk Douglas). An old flame is re-ignited when Heflin and Stanwyck meet, but Douglas suspects Heflin’s “friendliness” masks uber-sinister motives.

This is all we’re going to tell you about the plot, which is more far complex and intriguing than we’ve described here. We don’t want it to get in the way of our gushing.

Here’s something about The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: Stanwyck doesn’t make her first appearance until at least 20 minutes in. And when she does, she suddenly bursts onto the screen in a fur stole and a crystal-embroidered evening gown. It’s quite an entrance! There is no doubt in our minds that she is The Person In Charge Around Here.

Stanwyck’s character is as cold and canny as any we’ve seen on film. But she practically sparkles when she’s on screen with Heflin. She becomes a young girl again, looking admiringly at him, eager for his approval. However, in the second it takes to shift her gaze to Douglas, she becomes full of contempt and meanness.

She and Douglas are phenomenal in their scenes together. She controls his actions with one icy look; he, in turn, is the perfect blend of desperation and resignation. In one scene, Douglas says Heflin is coming to the house. Stanwyck replies, meaningfully, “I’ll go and change. I don’t want him to see me in the same outfit twice.”

Stanwyck has far less screen time than other players. But even when she’s not in a scene, you feel her presence. You find yourself thinking, “Uh oh. What’s she going to say about this?”

Stanwyck is one of those actors who can make you believe anything she wants you to believe. She has contempt for Douglas, so we have contempt for Douglas. She practically worships Heflin, so we do too. It’s almost as though she tells us what to think, and we do – even when we feel we shouldn’t.

The last scene in this movie is carefully done and we feel it shows Stanwyck at her best. We won’t tell you what happens, but we will point out that only Stanwyck could have played it the way it was written. In the hands of a lesser-skilled actor, the scene would feel contrived. Not only does Stanwyck create a believable outcome, she makes us realize this is the finale we’ve been expecting all along.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a rather twisted story that asks some pointed moral questions. Still, it is a redemptive sort of film that lets us experience, in a small way, the healing properties of forgiveness. It takes someone like Stanwyck to carry a movie with these heavy undercurrents and make it look easy. It is her movie, as it should be.

Go on, now. Gush. You know you want to.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers: Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Robert Rossen. Paramount Pictures, Inc., B&W, 1946, 117 mins.

This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Girl with the White Parasol. For more fab posts, click HERE.

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Billy Chapin Coaches the Big Leagues

This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented Comet Over Hollywood. It runs May 24-26, 2013.

Billy Chapin (right) tells Lloyd Bridges what's wrong with his swing.

Billy Chapin (right) tells Lloyd Bridges what’s wrong with his swing.

Some kids are born with old souls. You know these kids – they act in an oddly responsible manner and they look at you as though they feel a little sorry for you. (Which they probably do, who are we kidding.)

This is the type of kid Billy Chapin portrays in the 1953 comedy-drama, The Kid from Left Field. Chapin plays Christy Cooper, a nine year-old who gets a job as a bat boy for a losing major league baseball team.

In an early scene, the team’s owner (Ray Collins) reveals his discouragement about the team’s record, and lets us know how bleak the situation is.

Collins: Ty Cobb. There! There was a ball player.

Chapin: No one’s ever gonna beat all the records that he set.

Collins: Nobody in my ball club is, I’ll tell you that.

Eventually, with the help of his father, Chapin begins to coach these hapless players.

Okay, we can tell by the raspberry you’re blowing that you’re not buying the idea of a child coaching professional ball players.

But this is exactly where Chapin’s performance makes the plot believable. Chapin wears a serious expression and has slightly sad, soulful eyes; when he says you’ve gotta choke up on the bat, you find yourself taking his advice.

Chapin’s father/mentor (Dan Dailey) is a failed major leaguer who was sent down to the minors and never made a comeback. Even though he is relegated to selling peanuts, he is a brilliant baseball analyst. He easily identifies the team’s weaknesses and shares practical solutions with his son.

Chapin and Dailey have a respectful, tender, father-son relationship. (The screenplay makes no mention of Chapin’s mother.) Dailey is a flawed but sympathetic character: he sometimes disappears in the evenings to drink at the bar, and he has a testy relationship with his boss. It pains us a little to see how much love Chapin displays for his father because it can’t be long before disillusionment whacks the poor kid in the gut.

Chapin is a serious boy with a serious job. He doesn’t mug for the camera or do anything to draw undue attention to himself. He may not be the best child actor Hollywood has ever produced, but he has enough integrity to comfortably carry the movie.

(Digression: Chapin’s more famous role was as the defiant John Harper in the uber-creepy The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton.)

The movie loves to poke fun at Chapin’s age. In one scene, Chapin and the umpire get into a heated argument during a ball game. The umpire orders Chapin off the field and, when the lad refuses, the ump simply picks him up by the waistband and carries him off the field.

The Kid from Left Field has a more complex script than many baseball movies. Lloyd Bridges plays an aging ballplayer who benefits from Chapin’s coaching. Anne Bancroft, in one of her earliest film roles, is the front office secretary in love with Bridges. And Richard Egan, in a Golden Globe-winning role, is superb as the slick manager who takes all the credit for the team’s winning streak.

This film was remade in 1979 as a made-for-television movie starring Gary Coleman, and a similar story was produced again in 1994′s Little Big League. The 1953 version, however, is a thoughtful look at fathers and sons, forgiveness and missed opportunities. The Kid from Left Field is a warm, hopeful film that reminds us redemption comes in unlikely ways.

Another review of The Kid from Left Field is available at Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise.

The Kid from Left Field: starring Dan Dailey, Anne Bancroft, Billy Chapin. Directed by Harmon Jones. Written by Jack Sher. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953, B&W, 80 mins.

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Mary Astor Spills the Beans

This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, co-hosted by yours truly and the lovely & talented Tales of the Easily Distracted. It runs May 3-10, 2013.

Mary Astor (right) is sick of Bette Davis' cheerful smothering.

Mary Astor (right) is sick of Bette Davis’ cheerful smothering.

Don’t you love a clever and witty antagonist?

In a pivotal scene of the 1941 drama The Great Lie, the antagonist, Mary Astor, is handed a cocktail. She responds brightly, “Oh, I shouldn’t. But how I love to do things I shouldn’t.”

Her demeanor is light, but her words are heavy. She’s directing her comments to her on-screen rival, Bette Davis, who sits across from Astor in this scene, worried that Astor is going to publicly reveal a secret.

The Great Lie offers us a refreshing casting switch. Davis is the self-sacrificing protagonist, while Astor, in her Oscar-winning role, is the unpredictable antagonist. (We’d love to call Astor a villain, the way she sports her glitzy I’m-An-Important-Musician cape.) She relishes the thought of taking everything Davis cares about, then squishing Davis with designer heels.

The Great Lie is a melodrama about two smart and capable women who vie for the affections of the unremarkable George Brent. Brent spurns Astor in favour of Davis, but Astor holds the mother of all trump cards: she’s pregnant with Brent’s child.

No sooner does she reveal this juicy morsel to Davis than Brent disappears while travelling on official government business to South America. Believing Brent to be dead, a grieving Davis convinces Astor to let her raise his child. This would allow Astor to remain unencumbered so she can concentrate on her career as a concert pianist.

It was Davis who insisted Astor play the part of the callous, self-absorbed musician. Astor, who was a pianist in her own right, was the perfect choice for this role. When she plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, she attacks the piano keys as though she’s beating them into musical submission.

(Digression: Composer Max Steiner had fun with this concerto, weaving elements of the piece into the film’s soundtrack.)

Astor is fascinating as the temperamental artist who can be charming with those she likes or wants to use. She is the very definition of a spoiled, indulged celebrity. In one scene she sniffs, “Take this tray away. I hate the smell of food.”

Part of the movie takes place in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Arizona. To preserve the reputation of Astor’s character (she is a single woman in the 1940s, after all), Davis whisks her away to Arizona to await the arrival of the baby. Davis is over-the-moon excited; Astor becomes increasingly bad-tempered. She’s on a dreadful diet, she can’t drink, she has no diversions. Control-freak Davis is even keeping track of the number of cigarettes smoked per day. We, as viewers, start to feel a little sympathetic towards Astor. Those conditions would drive anyone crazy.

Our favorite scene is the one where Davis visits Astor and pitches the idea to raise Astor’s child herself. Astor’s face is an exquisite study in acting: you can see her disbelief, then skepticism, and finally her reluctant agreement. Astor says very little in this scene – Davis does most of the talking – but you can feel what Astor’s thinking. Davis’ plan is ridiculous and improbable, even for 1941, but because Astor believes in it, we believe in it.

The Great Lie may not have a storyline that appeals to everyone. (For Pete’s sake – they’re fighting over George Brent??) However, we encourage you to see an exceptional actress in her well-deserved Oscar-winning performance.

The Great Lie: starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Mary Astor. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Written by Lenore Coffee. Warner Brothers, 1941, B&W, 110 mins.

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