Raoul Walsh

Sadie Thompson (1928)

When prostitute Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson) arrives on the island of Tutuila, she expects to only be making a brief stopover before going on to Apia.  But then her boat needs to be quarantined for ten days and she waits the time out by staying in a hotel along with religious zealot Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore).  Sadie quickly makes friends with a number of soldiers in the area, including Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), who is in love with her and wants her to go to Australia and settle down with him after his orders are up.

Davidson gets to work imposing his moral views on the island’s natives and particularly on Sadie, who he recognizes from her days as a prostitute in San Francisco.  Sadie absolutely despises Davidson and refuses to give into his demands to repent.  But then Davidson finds out that if she goes back to San Francisco, she will be arrested, so he goes to the governor to have him force her back to San Francisco.  He tells her that the only way to fully repent her sins is to server her sentence and then go straight.

Sadie’s spirit has finally been broken and she begins to repent the way Davidson wants her to.  She spends three straight days praying and decides to take on a more modest life.  When Tim comes to see her, he’s shocked to find the vivacious Sadie now a shell of her former self.  He does his best to get her away from Davidson, but she insists on staying.  However, Davidson, a married man, is beginning to have impure thoughts about Sadie.  He has no idea how to cope with the idea that even he can’t live up to his moral expectations so he drowns himself, leaving Sadie to make plans to leave for Australia with Tim.

Sadie Thompson was the last movie triumph for Gloria Swanson until she made Sunset Boulevard twenty-two years later.  Not only was Swanson the star, she was also its producer.  She had signed with United Artists the year before and made her first film for them, The Love of Sunya, which she wasn’t entirely happy with.  For her next film, she wanted to do something that was both cutting edge and a surefire hit.  So she met with director Raoul Walsh and they came up with the idea of doing a film version of the play “Rain.”

At the time, “Rain” was thought to be completely un-filmable.  It may have been a hit on Broadway, but with its subject matter, Will Hays would never allow it to be turned into a movie.  Not only that, a number of prominent producers in Hollywood had all agreed that they wouldn’t try to make a movie out of “Rain.”  However, Gloria was extremely clever about how she made this movie come together.

The key was not saying it was based on the play, but on Somerset Maugham’s original short story.  And then she got personal approval from the most unlikely of sources — Will Hays himself.  One afternoon, she spoke to Hays about a movie she wanted to produce and gave him a general outline of the story, the name of the author, and mentioned what she would change to make it meet his standards.  Hays didn’t notice the similarities between this short story and the play “Rain,” so he said it sounded acceptable to him.

Swanson and Walsh went to work getting the rights to the story and writing the script.  When they announced the movie, they didn’t make any big announcements to the press.  Instead, they took out a very small ad buried in the back of the newspaper and expected it to be overshadowed by the excitement of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.  But people noticed and all heck broke loose.  They received an indignant telegram from the MPAA, signed by virtually every major mogul in Hollywood.

Since so many of the signers controlled the major theater chains in America, their disapproval could have kept Sadie Thompson from being widely seen. Gloria wasn’t about to give up on Sadie, though, and personally appealed to every single name on that telegram.  The only person willing to go to bat and defend her was Marcus Loew, who was able to get the matter dropped.  Sadie Thompson went on to be a huge success and Gloria gave one of the best performances of her career.

Me and My Gal (1932)

When police officer Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy) and his partner have to jump into the water to save a man, unfortunately they let gang leader Duke Castenega (George Walsh) get away in the process.  Duke is the ex-boyfriend of Kate Riley (Marion Burns), who works at the bank in town.  Kate is about to get married, but she still carries a torch for Duke and he plans to use her to get the combinations to all of the bank’s safety deposit boxes.  But Kate goes ahead with her wedding and before long, Duke finds himself in prison, but he doesn’t stay there for long.  He makes a daring escape and instantly becomes the most wanted man in town.

It just so happens that Kate is the sister of Helen Riley (Joan Bennett), a waitress that Danny has been flirting with.  Once they finally start dating, it doesn’t take long for them to realize where Duke is hiding — in Kate’s attic.  Even though they don’t realize it before Duke’s gang pulls off a huge bank robbery, Danny is able to nab Duke, make sure that Kate’s name is kept clear, and have a happy ending with Helen.

Me and My Gal is a nice blend of romance, comedy, and gangster film highlighted by the outstanding chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett.  It took me a little while to really get into the movie since I didn’t particularly care for the all the focus on the drunk guy in the beginning. But once the movie found its footing, I really did enjoy it.  The teaming of Tracy and Bennett completely made the movie.  Spencer has said that he considered Father of the Bride to be something of an unofficial follow-up to Me and My Gal.  He and Joan played off of each other so well and Bennett absolutely nailed it with all of her witty lines.  Overall, perhaps not one of the best of either of their careers, but still a very nice gem nonetheless.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

One Sunday afternoon, dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney) gets a phone call about a man who urgently needs to have a tooth pulled.  Biff doesn’t typically work on Sundays, but when he finds out the man in question is Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), he’s willing to make an exception.  It’s not because Hugo is a big-shot business man and he thinks having him as a patient would be good for his career.  No, his reasons are much more personal.

About ten years earlier, Biff was studying to become a dentist and was good friends with Hugo.  Back then, all the guys in town would line up to watch Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) as she walked by.  One night, Hugo manages to land a date with Virginia and he asks Biff to come with him because Virginia was bringing her friend Amy (Olivia de Havilland).  Virginia is concerned with being respectable and proper (or at least appearing to be), but her friend Amy is much more forward-thinking and loves to shock people with her modern ideas.  Biff finds Amy rather off-putting and after that night, he puts all his efforts into wooing Virginia.  The two of them spend a memorable day together and Biff asks to see her again, but she can’t see him for a few weeks.

When the day of their date arrives, Biff waits for Virginia in the park, but is in for a surprise when Amy shows up instead.  Even worse, he gets word that earlier that day, Virginia married Hugo.  After talking to her for a while, Biff begins to see something in Amy that he hadn’t seen before and they start seeing each other.  Eventually, they get married and when they run into Virginia one day, she invites them over for dinner.  By then, Hugo’s contracting business has really taken off and he offers Biff a job as Vice President of his company.  However, Hugo is involved in some illegal business practices and really just wants Biff around to take the fall for it.

Biff ends up spending a few years in prison because of Hugo, but while he’s there, he finishes his dentistry program and starts practicing as soon as his sentence is over.  So when Biff gets the call about Hugo needing his tooth pulled, he knows this is his chance to get his revenge.  But when Hugo and Virginia arrive and he sees how miserable they are together, he realizes he’s truly gotten the last laugh.

I’d never even heard of The Strawberry Blonde before today, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it.  It’s funny and pretty endearing for the most part.  James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland were hilarious in this and played off each other so well.  Cagney has charisma to spare here and did such a great job of making Biff sympathetic.  You don’t typically think of Olivia de Havilland as a comedienne, but she made me laugh out loud in this movie.  All she had to do was wink and I was cracking up.  The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Alan Hale, who played Biff’s father.  Rita Hayworth didn’t really have to do very much other than act very proper.  I actually liked Rita the most in her last scene where we get to see how eight years of marriage to Hugo has changed her. Also, you might be surprised to know this was directed by Raoul Walsh.  At the time, he wanted a little change of pace from movies like High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties, and The Strawberry Blonde fit the bill perfectly for that.  Walsh proved he can direct comedy just as well as he can direct gritty noirs or gangster films.

The only thing keeping me from calling The Strawberry Blonde “completely charming” is the fact that the way Biff gets revenge on Hugo is awfully ghoulish.  Hugo certainly deserved to get some kind of punishment for his behavior, but watching him get a tooth yanked with no anesthesia while his wife and former friends laugh with delight just seemed too awful even for him.

Going Hollywood (1933)

Basically, Going Hollywood is an ode to the stalker fan.  It all starts when Sylvia Bruce (Marion Davies) realizes she just wasn’t meant to be a French teacher at Briarcroft School.  With the uptight principal running things, there’s just no life in the place and Sylvia can’t stand it anymore.  That all changes one night when Sylvia breaks the rules and turns on the radio and hears Bill Williams (Bing Crosby) singing.  She is so enthralled by hearing him sing that she decides to pack up and head out in search of a more exciting life.  But first, she wants to thank him for inspiring her to change her life.  She manages to find him at his hotel, but she doesn’t get the chance to see him long enough to say what she wants.  Bill is too busy getting ready to head to the train station so he can go to Hollywood and star in a movie.

Not willing to give up so easily, Sylvia follows Bill to the station and gets on his train.  This time she succeeds in telling Bill how he feels, but considering he’s currently seeing the actress Lili Yvonne (Fifi D’Orsay), he lets her down nicely.  But Sylvia doesn’t know that Bill is seeing Lili, and when she faces being thrown off the train because she doesn’t have enough money, she applies to be Lili’s maid so she can stay on longer.  When she does find out Lili and Bill are a couple, she can’t resist slapping her boss and is fired.  After the train arrives in Hollywood, Sylvia resumes stalking Bill and even though they won’t let her see him at the studio, at least she ends up making friends with Jill, an aspiring actress, who agrees to let her live with her and split the rent.

Even though Sylvia was shut out of the studio the first time, she’s even more determined to get in the next day and manages to sneak onto the set by putting on blackface and disguising herself as a maid (I’m not making this up).  Bill tries to let her down nicely again, but Lili isn’t as subtle and demands that Sylvia be thrown off the set.  In a last-ditch attempt to get close to Bill, Sylvia talks to Ernest, the film’s financier, and gets him to give her and Jill jobs as extras on the movie.  Of course, having Sylvia and Lili working together can’t end well and after Sylvia starts making fun of Lili when she starts with her over-the-top diva behavior, the two of them get into a fight.  Sylvia manages to give Lili a black eye and rather than fire Sylvia for injuring the film’s star, Ernest gives Sylvia Lili’s part instead.  In true movie fashion, Sylvia ends up being a big hit in the movie and she finally begins to have a romantic relationship with Bill.  But when Sylvia thinks Bill is seeing Lili again, she distances herself from him, which leads to Bill using alcohol and Lili to console himself.  After some time apart, Sylvia tries to convince Bill to come to Hollywood with her so they can finish their next movie together.  Bill is torn between Lili and Sylvia, but in the end, of course he is happily reunited with Sylvia.

I think it’s safe to say that Going Hollywood is a movie that simply did not age well.  This may have been charming in 1933, but in 2011, it’s just stalker-riffic.  In addition to that, there’s the fact that it’s a pretty early musical so its rather awkward in a lot of spots.  I usually love Marion Davies, but I don’t think she was really used to her full potential here.  She was a brilliant comedienne and except for the scene where Sylvia is making fun of Lili, I didn’t think she got enough opportunities to show off her comedic skills here.  I much prefer Marion’s silents.  On the plus side though, at least the movie gives you plenty of chances to hear Bing Crosby sing, which is something I’m sure not going to complain about.  Overall, unless you’re a big Bing Crosby fan, I can’t highly recommend Going Hollywood.  Why it is currently ranked above Footlight Parade and Meet Me in St. Louis on IMDB’s list of top musicals is beyond me.

What’s on TCM: September 2010

I Hope everyone had fun with Summer Under the Stars 2010!  I know I sure did.  I saw a lot of great stuff for the first time and I’ve still got lots to catch up on.  September feels a little slow in comparison, but there’s still some great stuff coming soon.  Vivien Leigh is the star of the month, so you know there will be lots of great movies featuring her this month.  In addition to Vivien, fans of Kim Novak and Mickey Rooney will have a lot to look forward to.  Thursday nights are dedicated to looking at films with the theme of revenge.  Anyone with an interest in Mexico or Mexican films will be interested in TCM’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution.  All of this month’s TCM Import selections for this month come from Mexico, plus a night of movies about Pancho Villa, in addition to a few other selections.  Now, onto the highlights:

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