Friday, August 29, 2008

Confessions of a (Mediocre) Nazi Spy

So, onward to Confessions of a Nazi Spy. This was one of the first anti-Nazi films, and I'm hearing various things about whether it was a hit or a flop at the time. I was kind of disappointed that Robinson didn't show up until the second half of the film, but the rabid Germans were enough to hold my interest until then. When I saw George Sanders in the credits, I assumed he would be playing some suave British agent, with that great purring voice of his. Turns out he was one of the lead Nazis, with a "high and tight" haircut and fairly good German accent. In his first scene he's giving a speech to some fellow Nazis and almost frothing at the mouth. As the camera moved in tighter on his face, I kept thinking, "That looks a little like George Sanders. But it can't be. Is it? No, it can't be." It was more difficult than I would have expected to recognize him with the haircut and accent.

As for the Nazi spies...well, let's say it was no surprise they got caught (in the real life case, FBI historian John Fox pointed out, only 3 of the 18 conspirators were caught; in the film they convict about 6, and 2-3 get kidnapped back to Germany by the Gestapo to a fate, we are to assume, worse than death). They all follow the same pattern: first, hysterical denial and demands to be let go. The German consulate will protest this!

Once they realize the jig is up, they all start singing like canaries. If the spy in question happens to be confronted by his menacing colleagues, there are more hysterics along the lines of, "Oh, please, don't send me back to Germany. I can't go back to Germany!" Five minutes ago you were singing the praises of the Fatherland, and now you don't want to go back?

The spy who begins the story gets his job by writing to a German newspaper and volunteering his services. You heard me. All through the movie, he keeps asking George Sanders how much he's going to get paid. No wonder you were the first domino to fall, Schneider. I'm sure a lot of the gratification for audiences came not only with the bad guys getting caught, but getting caught because they were so monumentally stupid.

Robinson is fine as FBI agent Renard; his part is less substanstial than I would have expected, but he does a good job as an FBI agent who gets all the spies to spill their guts. One loose end the movie left was the fate of Schlager/George Sanders. He's not caught or tried, it seems, but we never really see him escape, either. He just disappears about 2/3 of the way through the film and is never mentioned again. Overall, though, it was a pretty good WWII movie, and I would recommend it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

I'm skipping ahead of myself to talk about Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. I love a bio pic if it's done well, and this one was. One of my litmus tests: after I see the movie, do I want to learn more about the person? Would I buy a biography of them, if one was available? In this case, the answer was yes. There were so many interesting bio pics back in the 30's and 40's: Marie Antoinette, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Queen Christina, to name just a few. (Yes, I realize these movies all took liberties with the facts.) And there are many more fascinating stories to be told; Hollywood, I'm looking in your direction. Why not find someone interesting and historically important, like Paul Ehrlich, and do a bio pic of them, rather than Mission Impossible 4 or a remake of a classic film that was fine in the first place, and yes I mean you, The Women. Ugh, let's not go there. I'm not even going to link it. The trailer commercials I'm seeing now make me grit my teeth.

Anyhow, back to the movie. I was really surprised that the film revealed the true subject of the bulk of Ehrlich's research: syphilis. After all, this is the Code age of Hollywood, (the film was released in 1940) when references to venereal disease were specifically forbidden (along with a bushel of other things). I can't imagine how this one got by Joe Breen, whose enforcement of the Code was "rigid and notorious." They do actually use the word "syphilis" (despite what IMDB would have you believe); there is in fact one amusing scene when Ehrlich, at a society dinner with a potential benefactress, is asked what he's working on, and he matter-of-factly says, "Syphilis." Everyone at the table stops cold and gasps; several reaction shots are shown. (His benefactress is not bothered at all, and does end up funding his research.)

While it's not stated outright that the men (and only men, although one female patient of another doctor is mentioned) Ehrlich treats caught the disease by sleeping around, it is hinted at in oblique ways; Ehrlich tells one patient he can "never get married," and the patient later kills himself.

However Warner Bros. got this one by the censors, I applaud them for doing so, because it is a film well worth seeing. The movie is also stuffed with character actor goodness, including appearances by Otto Kruger, Donald Crisp, Sig Ruman, Donald Meek, Henry O'Neill, Harry Davenport, and Montagu Love.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dr. Clitterhouse, you ARE amazing!

Today I would like to speak of my current classic movie boyfriend, Edward G. Robinson. Between TCM's Eddie G. day on "Summer Under the Stars" and a DVD or two, it has been a regular Ed-fest around here.

Last night I watched The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. Having watched Little Caesar on Sunday, it was naturally quite a contrast to see Robinson as a character who is intelligent, urbane, cultured, kindly, and has a gentle speaking voice. From what I've read about him, this seems like a role that would be fairly close to his real life (well, except for one thing, which I'm not going to specify because it would spoil the ending). It was a treat to see him in this role after all the "Meh, see?" squealing of LC. Although that also has its place, and I love him in those roles, too.

The movie had my attention from the start; I thought I understood the premise from the summary on my cable recording, but it took me awhile to be sure one way or the other. I love a movie that keeps me guessing like that, and has a few tricky turns on the way to the ending (one plot point in particular had me very surprised). To me, this is one of the most satisfying kinds of movie viewing experiences.

The roles of the gang members and police were filled by some familiar and well-loved character actors (Ward Bond, Allen Jenkins, Donald Crisp, Maxie Rosenbloom), which always adds more to a movie for me. As corny as it sounds, it's like running into old friends to see them listed in the opening credits. You know they're going to give a solid performance, no matter what the role. I enjoyed the interactions between the gang members and Dr. Clitterhouse; I found the respect they had for their "professor" rather touching.

The movie is being released on October 21 as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4, and it's already on my Amazon wish list.

Next up on the discussion list: Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

Monday, August 04, 2008

They Met In Bombay

July was Roz Russell month on TCM, so I have a boatload of her movies saved on my DVR. Last week I watched They Met in Bombay, which starred Clark Gable in the kind of role I think he does best: the guy whom the girl thinks she hates but is really falling in love with, and he knows it. From almost any other actor, I think I might find that "yeah, baby, you know you love me" attitude annoying, but Gable pulls it off with a sideways glance and crooked grin that I love. Sort of like this, except imagine him looking down at a dame. (Can't get the image to upload, so just a link for now.)

He and Roz are competing jewel thieves who end up escaping from the law together, falling in love, and going straight. Much like the Gable/Harlow movie Hold Your Man, the beginning starts out all snazzy wisecracks and ends up kind of mushy. Roz's doe eyes couldn't have gotten any more limpid or starry, and she did lose a lot of the pizzaz that I usually love her for. I thought some interest was added to the "Gable becomes a hero" part of the story by including Roz in his adventures as a fake Winnipeg Grenadier escaping from the Japanese army; usually the women get left at home during these kinds of escapades.

Included in the cast was one of my favorite character actors, Jessie Ralph, as the raucous and tipsy Duchess of Beltravers. She is a scream in these kind of "fiesty matron" parts; she plays another duchess in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, which is another role of hers I like. My all time favorite, though, is Jessie as Aunt Katherine ("Nic-oh-las!") in After the Thin Man.

While this movie could easily fall into a "romantic caper" pigeonhole along with dozens of other movies, I would still recommend it.

On a totally unrelated note, IMDB has just informed me that they're remaking The Day The Earth Stood Still. (Keanu Reeves? Really?) Must they remake every classic movie just to jazz it up with CGI and rock music?

Friday, August 01, 2008

Canteen, get your canteen right here

Nothing like a nasty head cold to give you time to catch up on a movie or two. This week on TCM I happened to catch Hollywood Canteen, the movie I really wanted to see when I rented Stage Door Canteen from Netflix. I saw SDC last year, and looking at the cast on Netflix (Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Ray Bolger, and Ethel Merman, among others) I can't say I really remember any of them from the film. It kind of made a non-impression on me, probably in part because I was expecting it to be another movie entirely. But the main plot was three soldiers meet three girls, and I suspect the reason why all the famous faces didn't stick in my memory is because they had very little screen time.

HC, by comparison, was a treat. The cast includes almost all of the Warner Bros. stars, with the "notable exceptions" (says Robert Osbourne) of Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan (and, I note, James Cagney). Ann was offered the lead (played by Joan Leslie) but refused it, because she didn't want any part of a movie that would make a GI think he could come to the canteen and marry a movie star. I guess I see your point, Ann, but come on, do you really think many people would actually believe that? It's for the war effort! Well, Joan did a nice job, and I think she is a better match for Robert Hutton as Cpl. "Slim" Green. Joan has that girl-next-door quality, and Ann I would consider more of a siren, so in this case I think Joan works better in the role. (Although Ann can be quite a good ingenue, as evidenced by her performance in Angels With Dirty Faces. But I tend to think of her more like this.)

The story is based on the actual Hollywood Canteen, founded by Bette Davis, although I don't know if it was actually filmed on location. It was made during the war, so I guess it's possible. During the film John Garfield, another founder, gives a speech about the origins of the canteen, which you can read about at the link above.

(Side note: I was horrified to learn that something called the Hollywood Canteen was reopened in 2001, and "caters to some of Hollywood's biggest names including: Paris Hilton, Marilyn Manson, Keith Jardine, Vince Vaughn, and Lindsay Lohan to name a few." Oh, vomit. Where do I start? If you're going to call it a canteen, then it should be free for service members, like the original was. Oh, wait: Wikipedia tells me that a canteen doesn't necessarily refer to a military eating place, but is rather a type of food service location in which there is little or no table service, whether a restaurant or within an institution such as a large office building or school. Point taken. But still. There's a lot of history behind that name. That sound you hear is Bette Davis spinning in her grave.)

The list of movie stars who volunteered their time to the original canteen is lengthy and impressive. I doubt very much you would see many of today's "stars" (and I use that term loosely) doing anything like this. But maybe that's just cynical me.

(Somewhat related aside: I admire Kathy Griffin for going to Iraq with the USO to entertain the troops, and I love it when she uses that fact to shame loudmouths like Bill Maher who bust on her: "I recently got back from Iraq, when are you going?")

Anyhow, the movie. While the romance between Slim and Joan Leslie is rather hokey, it's still cute and not overplayed. The stars who appeared in the film seem very natural, and you see them not just performing (Andrews Sisters, etc.), but waiting tables (Jack Carson) and washing dishes (Paul Henreid). From the little I've read on the canteen, it seems they really did get out there and mingle with the troops quite a bit. (Another aside for a funny story: a soldier at the canteen bet his friend $5 he couldn't get a kiss from Bette Davis. Bette kissed the soldier when he asked and gave him $5 to pay the bet. Then she gave the other soldier $10 and said, "thanks for believing in my virtue." Heh.)

One of my favorite moments from the film is when Dane Cook, as Sgt. Nowland, is dancing with a woman and says to her, "Has anyone ever told you you look just like Joan Crawford?" The couple pans around as they dance..."By the way, I am Joan Crawford," Joan Crawford says. Another funny moment was the bit with Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

[after unintentionally scaring away a marine sergeant]
Peter Lorre: [sadly] All I wanted to ask him is to join me in a cigarette!
Sydney Greenstreet: He didn't trust us, Peter.
Peter Lorre: No... and we are such gentle people!
Sydney Greenstreet: Are we? [
bugs eyes out in menacing manner]

(<-- as close as I could get)

Peter Lorre: [Backs away, frightened]

Overall, this movie was a combination of several thing I love to see in a classic film: behind the scenes glimpses of Hollywood, a ton of stars and character actors, a morale boosting WWII movie, and a good portrayal of the times. I would definitely recommend this one.