NaBloPoMo 2013

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Sign of the CrossAs Nero (Charles Laughton) watches Rome burn, he blames Christians for starting the whole thing rather than admit he started it.  Nero’s accusation places all Christians in Rome in great danger.  When Titus (Arthur Hohl) and Flavius (Harry Beresford) publicly admit to being Christians, they are arrested.  But when fellow Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi) tries to defend them, Marcus (Fredric March) sees her, instantly falls in love, and helps save Titus and Flavius.

Marcus is being romantically pursued by the empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), and when she hears that Marcus has fallen in love with a Christian woman, she becomes extremely jealous.  This places Marcus in a precarious position because not only does Poppaea want Mercia dead, Marcus’ rival takes the opportunity to try to push him out of favor with Nero.  Marcus does everything in his power to seduce Mercia, but there is nothing that can take distract her from her faith.

When all the Christians in Rome, including Mercia, are gathered to be fed to lions for a large crowd’s entertainment, Marcus fights until the very end to save her.  Just before she is to go into the arena, he begs her to renounce her faith to save herself, but she refuses.  Finally, Marcus decides he would rather die in the arena with Mercia than live without her.

The Sign of the Cross is, without a doubt, one of the most completely depraved pre-codes you’ll ever come across.  With Claudette Colbert’s infamous milk bath scene, hedonistic party scenes, revealing costumes, and some rather gruesome moments all mixed together with a message about religious persecution, it’s easy to see why The Sign of the Cross caused quite a commotion.  It’s frequently cited as being one of the movies that drew such a strong reaction from religious groups, it helped usher in the strict enforcement of the production codes.  Even though the movie is actually sympathetic toward Christians, religious groups couldn’t stand Cecil B. De Mille taking stories with religious themes and filling them with so much depravity.

When Sign of the Cross was re-released after the production codes were being strongly enforced, it took quite a bit of work to make it follow the code.  Several scenes had to be cut and in 1944, De Mille filmed a modern-day epilogue and prologue to frame the original movie.  Fortunately, the cut scenes were not lost and have since been restored.

Sign of the Cross isn’t my favorite De Mille movie (that title would go to Cleopatra), but I can’t deny that this movie is completely and totally De Mille’s style.  It’s big, it’s lavish, it’s over the top, it’s everything you expect from a Cecil B. De Mille movie.

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What’s on TCM: December 2013

Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time2013 is drawing to a close and TCM is ending the year in style!  If you like musicals, this is your kind of month.  First of all, Fred Astaire is December’s Star of the Month!  So put on your dancing shoes every Wednesday night and get ready for lots of fabulous dance scenes.  On December 18, there will be a tribute to Betty Comden and Adolph Green so there will be a lot of excellent musicals on during the day.  New Year’s Eve will also be very musical with rock and roll oriented movies during the day and the That’s Entertainment! series playing all night long.

This theme for December’s edition of Friday Night Spotlight is The Hollywood Costume, which is curated by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis.  If you enjoyed participating in or reading posts from the Fashion in Film Blogathon, I’m sure you’re going to love this series.

Remember how last month I said that the Story of Film series was finishing up?  Yeah, I have no idea what I was thinking when I said that.  It definitely ends this month.  I apologize for my mistake.

Since it’s December, there will be lots of classic Christmas movies to look forward to.  On December 30th, TCM will also be honoring some stars we lost in 2012 but were not already honored with special tributes including Deanna Durbin, Annette Funicello, and Karen Black.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the schedule…

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Blonde Crazy (1931)

Blonde Crazy PosterWhen Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell) tries to get a job as a hotel housekeeper, bellhop Bert Harris (James Cagney) takes one look at her and knows he wants her to work at the hotel.  The position has already been filled, but Bert fixes it so that Anne gets the job.  Even though Bert is a bellhop by day, he’s got gambling and bootleg alcohol rackets going on the side and he wants Anne to be his partner in crime.

After catching hotel guest A. Rupert Johnson, Jr. (Guy Kibbee) in a compromising situation, Johnson gives Bert quite a bit of money to keep his mouth shut.  Bert and Anne go to a fancy hotel in another city to celebrate and end up meeting fellow con artist Dan Barker (Louis Calhern).  Dan and Bert plan a scam to pull together, but in the end, it’s Bert and Anne are the ones who get ripped off.  They hop on a train to try to find Dan, but on the way, Anne meets and falls in love with Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland).  Joe is more sophisticated and cultured than Bert and Anne can’t resist that.  Even though Bert confesses his feelings toward her, Anne decides marries Joe instead.

A year passes and turns out Joe is much more like Bert than Anne realized.  He’s stolen $30,000 from the company he works for and is facing a prison sentence.  Anne knows the only person who can possibly get him out of this mess is Bert, so she turns to him for help.  Bert comes up with a plan, but it backfires and Bert is the one who ends up in prison.  When Anne comes to visit him, she tells Bert that she loved him all along.

What a duo James Cagney and Joan Blondell were!  I’ve seen nearly all of the movies they made together and I’d say Blonde Crazy is one of their best, second only to Footlight Parade.  Blonde Crazy is practically tailor-made for Cagney and Blondell — snappy dialogue, pre-code antics, and plenty of chances for Blondell to be sassy and for Cagney to be his high-energy self.  They make it an absolutely irresistible movie.  Whether you’re a fan of Cagney, Blondell, or pre-codes in general, you will have a lot of fun with Blonde Crazy.

The Match King (1932)

The Match King 1932Paul Kroll (Warren William) left his home in Sweden to make a name for himself in America.  When he settles in Chicago, he gets a job sweeping the sidewalks outside of a baseball stadium.  He still dreams of making something of himself though and isn’t above breaking the rules to make it happen.  When he gets one of his fellow sidewalk sweepers fired, he convinces the foreman (John Wray) to keep him on the payroll, but just so the two of them can split the salary he would have received.  Paul and his foreman get to be good friends, but while they’re raking in the money, Paul has been seducing Babe (Glenda Farrell), the foreman’s wife.

Paul has led his family in Sweden to believe he’s already become a successful business man, so when a match factory back home is in danger of closing, his family writes to him for help.  When he makes it back home, he scams a bank into giving him a loan, uses it to buy another match factory, and merges them.  He keeps buying match factories with ill-gotten loans until he owns all the match factories in Sweden.  Then he expands his match empire to other European countries and eventually to other continents.

While in Germany on business, Paul falls in love with actress Marta Molnar (Lili Damita).  Being in love is a terrible distraction for Paul and his business suffers because of it.  Even though he has enough money to leave the business, the business is too far in the red.  He just keeps on taking out loan after loan to keep everything afloat.  On top of that, he hears about a man who has invented an everlasting match that could put him out of business.  To eliminate the competition, he has the man committed to an asylum.

When the stock market collapses, everything falls apart. The only way Paul can get a loan is to use $50 million worth of forged bonds as collateral.  Marta has since gone to Hollywood to pursue a film career and when Paul returns to America, he finds out that she has fallen in love with another man.  It doesn’t take long for the bank to realize his bonds are phony and when they do, Paul knows he is finished and kills himself.

Did anyone play unscrupulous businessmen better than Warren William did during the pre-code era?  I don’t think so.  Between The Match King, Employees’ Entrance, and Skyscraper Souls, you’ve got the perfect trilogy of bad business ethics.  Warren William had the perfect balance of being hard yet smooth that made him perfect for that type of character.  Not only is Warren William as slick ever, the entire movie is slickly produced.  It’s one of those movies that grabs your attention right from the start and doesn’t let it go.  You really want to keep watching to see how far this guy will go and if he’s going to get away with it.

If it seems like Lili Damita was really drawing on Garbo for inspiration for her performance, there’s a good reason for that — Garbo was the first choice for the role, but they weren’t able to get her on loan.  It’s easy to dismiss Damita as being a poor man’s Garbo in The Match King, but for some reason I found her endearing for that exact reason.

My only real complaint about The Match King is that I wanted more Glenda Farrell.  But then again, I almost always want more Glenda Farrell.

The Wet Parade (1932)

The Wet Parade 1933

File this one under “misleading posters.” It really isn’t much of a romance.

In 1916, the Chilcote family is known for their wealth.  But all of that is lost when family patriarch Roger (Lewis Stone) goes on a bender and gambles away the family fortune.  Distraught over what he has done, Roger commits suicide.  His teetotaler daughter Maggie (Dorothy Jordan) wishes for prohibition, but her brother Richard, Jr. (Neil Hamilton) loves alcohol as much as his father did.  After his father’s death, Richard, Jr. heads north to write a play and moves into a hotel run by his friend Kip Tarleton (Robert Young) and his family.

 

Like the Chilcotes, the Tarleton family is also dealing with a loved one’s alcoholism.  Mrs. Tarleton (Clara Blandick) doesn’t drink and neither does Kip, but Kip’s father Pow (Walter Huston) drinks like a fish.  Richard arrives at Kip’s hotel just in time to hear the results of the 1916 presidential election.  When Woodrow Wilson wins, Pow and Richard are happy since Wilson is opposed to prohibition.  But despite Wilson’s anti-prohibition platform, prohibition soon becomes the law, and bootleg liquor becomes readily available.  When Pow drinks some bad bootleg alcohol, he flies into a rage when his wife confronts him about it and beats her to death.  Pow is sentenced to life in prison.

With his mother and father both out of the picture, Kip has no other choice but to close the family hotel.  But Kip gets a lot of support from Maggie, who he has since fallen in love with.  They get married and vow to wage war against bootleggers.  Meanwhile, Richard continues spending all his time drinking bootleg alcohol and starts dating nightclub owner Eileen Pinchon (Myrna Loy).  Kip gets a job working with Abe Shilling (Jimmy Durante) at the Treasury Department as a prohibition officer.  He does very well at his new job and the two of them even successfully shut down Eileen’s nightclub.  But Kip is so good at his job, bootleggers begin to target him and with Maggie now expecting a baby, Kip has to decide if his job is worth it.

The Wet Parade is an ambitious movie, but perhaps too ambitious for its own good.  I see the messages it was trying to convey, but the final result was heavy-handed and overly long.  I thought the character of Maggie was very underutilized. The movie opens with the story of her family, so it’s easy to think that she would be a prominent character in the rest of the movie, but no. Instead, she’s relegated to supporting character status after that and serves no real purpose other than to be on Kip’s side.  After her father’s death, she seemed quite passionate about prohibition but unfortunately, we don’t actually see her being active in the prohibition movement, it’s just talk.  It would have been nice to see her actually trying to do something about it.

But one thing The Wet Parade does have going for it is a strong cast.  The idea of Jimmy Durante the prohibition agent may sound strange, but I appreciated the comic relief he brought and will probably be one of the few things I strongly remember about The Wet Parade.

My Dinner With Zuzu

For me, no holiday season is complete without a trip (or two) to Detroit’s Redford Theatre.  Going there to see Christmas classics like White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street never fails to get me in the holiday spirit.  Not only is it a treat see my favorite holiday movies on the big screen, the theater is also beautifully decorated and there is always such a nice feeling of community in the audience during those movies.

2013-11-23 19.14.35Christmas came to the Redford a little early this year with three very special screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life. Actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, made appearances at all three shows. But before the final screening on Saturday night, Karolyn joined a small group of VIPs for dinner at the Charles T. Fisher mansion in Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison district.  The Boston-Edison district is full of beautiful old homes, many of them built by or lived in by some of Detroit’s most famous residents including Henry Ford, Joe Louis, and Berry Gordy.  My mom and I were among the lucky attendees for this event and we couldn’t have been more thrilled to be there.

The Charles T. Fisher Mansion

The Charles T. Fisher Mansion

Before dinner, Karolyn briefly spoke to us about her career and answered a few questions.  Once dinner got started, Karolyn came around to each table to say hello and answer more questions.  Since Karolyn also starred in The Bishop’s Wife, I couldn’t resist asking what it was like to work with Cary Grant and Loretta Young.  She said Cary was just wonderful, but remembered Loretta as being a bit aloof.  However, she and Loretta started corresponding more when they were a bit older and Loretta would often send her prayer devotionals.  While they were filming The Bishop’s Wife, Loretta put a “curse box” on set and anytime somebody cursed, they had to put money in the box.  When the movie was finished, Loretta donated the money to a Catholic church.

As soon as we were finished with dinner and dessert, we headed over to the Redford Theatre to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.  I saw It’s a Wonderful Life at the Redford a couple of years ago and there was a great crowd then, but this time, it was even better — it was a sold out house!  Before the show, Karolyn signed autographs and took pictures with fans in the lobby.  If you ever have the opportunity to meet Karolyn, don’t be shy to say hello!  She’s extremely approachable and very sweet.

Me with Karolyn.

Me with Karolyn.

When stars make appearances at the Redford, they come onstage and give an introduction before the movie starts.  Typically this lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, but Karolyn went above and beyond and spent about half an hour talking about It’s a Wonderful Life trivia, her memories of making the movie, and what it was like working with Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.  She didn’t have a single unkind word to say about working on It’s a Wonderful Life.  The experience was very stress-free for her and Jimmy and Frank made it very fun to be on the set.

Photo from the Redford's Facebook page.  This picture perfectly captures the essence of being at the Redford during Christmas.

Photo from the Redford’s Facebook page. This picture perfectly captures the essence of being at the Redford during the Christmas season.

It truly was a wonderful night, pun fully intended.  Being able to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen is always a joyous occasion, but having Karolyn there made it exceptional.  It was the perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.

IAWL Book Autograph2On a side note, I got an autographed copy of Karolyn’s book “Celebrating It’s a Wonderful Life: How the Movie’s Message of Hope Lives On.”  If you’re looking for a gift for someone who is a big fan of the movie, this book would be a great choice.  It’s a very cute little book full of trivia, Karolyn’s memories, recipes inspired by the movie, and comments from fans about what the movie means to them.

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Ten Cents a Dance 1931Barbara O’Neill (Barbara Stanwyck) is one of the best dancers in the dime dance joint she works in.  But lately, her personal life has been distracting her at work.  She’s fallen in love with her friend Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley), but she’s also being pursued by the wealthy Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez).  Barbara does her best to keep from getting too close to Bradley, but she convinces him to give Eddie a job working at his company.  She keeps Eddie in the dark about what her real job is, but eventually he finds out and when he does, he declares that he wants to marry her and wants her to quit her job.

Eddie and Barbara are married and money is tight for them.  Things get even worse when Eddie runs into some old friends and goes to play cards with them.  He winds up losing $240 and tries to keep it a secret from Barbara.  Barbara secretly goes back to working at the dime dance joint and although Eddie often claims to be working, he’s actually off cavorting with his old friends and getting even deeper into debt.  When their lights are turned off because they can’t pay the bill, Eddie resorts to stealing $5,000 from Bradley.

Eddie admits what he’s done to Barbara and plans to leave town, but she gets him to stay by going to Bradley and borrowing the $5,000 from him, even though he was the one who was robbed in the first place.  But when Eddie finds out where she got the money, he gets extremely jealous and Barbara walks out on him and heads right into the arms of Bradley.

Ten Cents a Dance is far from being one of Barbara Stanwyck’s better pre-codes.  Even though 1931 was still very early in Stanwyck’s film career, she was already capable of giving some great performances.  After all, 1931 was the same year she made Illicit, Night Nurse, and The Miracle Woman.  But what movies like The Miracle Woman and Illicit have that Ten Cents a Dance lacks is interesting material.  Those were roles that Stanwyck could really sink her teeth into and there just isn’t a whole lot of meat to Ten Cents a Dance.  It’s not a terrible movie, just underwhelming compared to some of Stanwyck’s other work from the same year.