Van Heflin

Black Widow (1954)

Black Widow 1954

After saying goodbye to his actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport, Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) decides to make an appearance at a party being thrown by their neighbor, Lottie (Ginger Rogers), a fellow actress. Peter really doesn’t want to go, but he finds it hard to make excuses not to when he lives in the same building as the host. At the party, he meets 20-something-year-old Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner).

Like lots of young people, Nanny has recently come to New York City full of ambition and looking to start a successful career as a writer. Peter is very happily married and has no interest in having an affair, but he likes to help people who are just getting started, so he offers to take her out to dinner, making his platonic intentions very clear. After that night, he continues his friendship with Nanny and when she says her apartment isn’t very conducive to writing, he agrees to let her work from his luxurious apartment while he’s at work during the day.

When Iris returns from her trip, she and Peter arrive at their apartment and discover that Nanny has committed suicide. But once the police get involved, it becomes clear there was foul play involved. Iris was well aware of Peter’s friendship with Nanny and never felt threatened by it…until the investigation gets underway. Once the police investigation begins, though, some evidence comes forward that makes Peter look like the prime suspect. Determined to prove his innocence, Peter has to do some investigating to clear his name.

Black Widow isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great movie, either. The story is nothing innovative or groundbreaking, but it’s entertaining enough to watch at least once. There are certainly far worse ways you could spend 95 minutes. But I have a slight soft spot for it since there’s something about film noir movies that were filmed in Technicolor that I really like (I don’t know why really, just one of my many random fixations.) Also, because it has a poster that is far more scandalous than the movie actually is. (Seriously, why does the woman on this poster have long hair? Nanny has super short hair, nor is she nearly that vampy.)

Black Widow has a lot of big stars, but none of them are at their best in it. Gene Tierney in particular is extremely under utilized in it, so if you’re watching it for her, you may be disappointed. George Raft was pretty underwhelming in his role as a detective working the case. And although I liked some of Lottie’s sassier quips, it’s not one of Ginger’s finest roles, but it’s not a terrible one, either, especially considering where she was at that point in her career.  This was one of the last feature films she made before mostly moving into television and stage roles, so while Black Widow is no Kitty Foyle, it doesn’t even come close to Trog or Sextette territory, either. The best performance of the movie comes from Peggy Ann Garner, who unfortunately, doesn’t get top billing even though she deserved it more than most of the other actors in this movie.

Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager Robert Taylor Lana Turner

Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) had been a known as a ruthless gangster, but after spending some time in prison, he’s turned over a new leaf as a cab driver.  At least that’s what he wants his parole officer to think.  When he isn’t driving a cab, he’s as cutthroat as ever, involved in illegal gambling, and is working on opening his own dog racing track.  While visiting his parole officer one day, he runs into sociology student Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner).  There’s an immediate attraction between them, but it grows into a deeper infatuation when they meet again later.  Lisabeth is much more sophisticated and intellectual than the type of women Johnny usually meets.

When Johnny suspects his friend Lew (Barry Nelson)  has been short-changing him, he and his associate Jeff (Van Heflin) go to a nightclub to confront Lew.  While there, he runs into Lisabeth again, who has been left alone after her date got drunk.  Johnny gladly keeps her company for the rest of the night, but when he brings her home, he discovers Lisabeth’s father is John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the man responsible for putting Johnny behind bars.  Farrell is also the one preventing Johnny’s dog track from opening.

Of course, Farrell isn’t happy about Johnny seeing his daughter and wants to put a stop to it.  He tells Johnny he will do anything to protect his daughter, even if it means killing or framing Johnny for something.  So Johnny decides to turn the tables on Farrell by coming up with a scheme for his friend Julio to come bursting into Johnny’s apartment while Lisabeth is there.  Julio and Johnny stage a fight, Lisabeth shoots Julio with a gun loaded with blanks, and Johnny escorts her away before she can question what happened.  Lisabeth has a breakdown over the incident, but Johnny uses gun with her fingerprints on it to blackmail Farrell into letting his dog track open.

Johnny’s dog track has a successful opening night, but after the stunt with Lisabeth, some of his closest associates are getting concerned that his ruthless behavior is getting out of hand.  One of them even offers Johnny $500,000 to close the track and leave town with Lisabeth.  It isn’t until he visits Lisabeth that he realizes just how badly he’s hurt her.  For once, Johnny feels badly about what he’s done and wants to make it right, even if it means putting his life on the line to do it.

Johnny Eager has a pretty standard gangster movie/film noir plot, but strong writing and good acting save it from being just another run-of-the-mill gangster flick.  Robert Taylor may get the star billing, and he is very good as Johnny Eager, but it’s Van Heflin who really steals the show.  Heflin completely deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for his work in Johnny Eager.  I’m a big fan of Lana Turner, but I don’t think this was her best work.  Although I did get a kick out seeing her play what has got to be the most outrageously glamorous sociology student of all time.  If you’ve never seen it before, Johnny Eager is definitely worth keeping an eye out for; it’s very enjoyable.

East Side, West Side (1949)

Brandon (James Mason) and Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) are a very happily married couple and part of Manhattan’s elite.  Things weren’t always so happy for them, though.  Brandon has a history of infidelity, but Jessie is the only woman he loves and he’s determined to leave the past behind.  All is going well for them until one night, he visits a nightclub and finds out Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), his former girlfriend, is back in town.  She wants to pick things up with him again and Brandon fights hard to resist her advances.

While at the club, Brandon ends up getting into a fight with Isabel’s date for the night.  Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) witnesses the fight and tries to help Brandon since she respects Jessie and doesn’t want to see the incident splashed across the society page.  Sure enough, though, the story makes the paper and some of Jessie’s friends are worried about what Isabel’s return could mean for their marriage.  Jessie goes to meet Rosa to thank her for helping Brandon and gives her a ride to the airport so she can pick up her boyfriend Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin).

It just so happens that Mark is the guest of honor at a party being thrown by some of Jessie and Brandon’s friends.  But just before the party, Isabel convinces Brandon to come see her at her apartment.  Although he has every intention of ending things with her once and for all, he ends up staying so long that Jessie has to go to the party alone.  But while at the party, she gets to know Mark some more and he begins to fall in love with her.

The next day, Jessie gets a call from Isabel and goes to her apartment to confront her.  Isabel swears up and down that she’s the one he really wants, and Jessie begins to worry she might be right, but then she gets a call from Brandon telling her that Isabel has been murdered.  Naturally, Brandon gets brought in for questioning, and even though he’s cleared in the matter, the incident forces Jessie to make up her mind whether or not she wants to stay with Brandon.

I was surprised that East Side, West Side got pretty mediocre reviews on my cable guide and the TCM website, because I really enjoyed it.  If it had been made with a lesser cast, I don’t think I would have been nearly as good, but everybody was completely on point here it absolutely made the movie.  I loved Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin together.  Ava Gardner was one deliciously conniving other woman; she truly revels in making you hate Isabel.  Even Cyd Charisse was good, which might be surprising to a lot of people since this isn’t a musical.

My only complaint was that I was getting bored during the scenes where Van Heflin puts on his detective hat to figure out who killed Isabel.  Those scenes didn’t seem to fit in very well with the rest of the movie.  It was almost like they came out of some other movie.  First it was a drama about marriage, then all of a sudden it turned into a murder mystery, and then it went right back to being a drama again.

But that issue aside, I was very surprised by just how good East Side, West Side was.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one, I don’t think it really gets the credit it deserves.

H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)

Harry Pulham (Robert Young) has always lived his life by the book.  He came from a wealthy background, went to all the right schools, has a respectable job, has two children, and is married to Kay Motford (Ruth Hussey), an ideal woman for a man of his stature.  Now middle-aged, he meets up with some of his old college friends for lunch one day and is put in charge of getting all their classmates’ biographies together for their 25-year reunion.  Later, he gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr) inviting him out for a drink.  He accepts, but when he gets to the restaurant and sees her again, he can’t bear to talk to her.

He goes home and starts to write his biography, but when he starts looking back on his life, he realizes that he has never lived life on his own terms.  Everything he’s done in life has been because his family expected it of him.  After graduating from Harvard, he fights in World War I, and after the war, his college friend Bill (Van Heflin) gets him a job at an advertising agency in New York City.  Marvin was working at the same agency and was kind of a 1940s Peggy Olson.  Bill had certainly never met an independent girl like Marvin in any of his upper-class schools and they soon fall deeply in love with each other.

However, Harry’s family back home in Boston just doesn’t understand his new life.  His parents (Charles Coburn and Fay Holden) wish he would just come home and settle down with Kay, who he has known since he was a child.  Harry has never had any real interest in Kay and certainly doesn’t want to marry her, but he wants to marry Marvin instead.  But Marvin isn’t ready to get married yet and she realizes she just doesn’t fit in with Harry’s privileged background.  They go their separate ways, but Marvin promises to always be waiting for him if he wants to come back to her.  Harry decides to settle into his predetermined life in Boston and marry Kay, even though he doesn’t really love her.  After looking back on it all, he decides to call Marvin back to see if her offer still stands.  They meet for lunch, but are still things still the same between them?

I loved this movie!  First of all, this is a King Vidor movie through and through.  It reminded me a bit of The Crowd in the sense that both movies deal with men who aren’t satisfied with where they’re at in life and are yearning for something more.  This is the kind of material that King Vidor was best suited to direct.  The cast in general was pretty stellar; Robert Young and Hedy Lamarr had good chemistry together.  Hedy Lamarr may seem like kind of an odd choice to play a free-spirited, independent woman, but she gave a very thoughtful and nuanced performance.  Ruth Hussey, Van Heflin, and Charles Coburn were all excellent supporting players.  My only complaint about it is that it could have stood being about fifteen minutes shorter.  But if you’re in the mood for something bittersweet, I very highly recommend H.M. Pulham, Esq.  It’s another one of those overlooked gems that deserves to be better remembered today.

What’s on TCM: August 2012

How is it already time for another round of Summer Under the Stars?!  As usual, TCM has done a great job of coming up with a nice blend of stars who are no strangers to the SUTS schedule and stars who have never been featured before.  The more I look at the schedule, the more excited I get to start my Blogging Under the Stars marathon.

Some of the days I’m most looking forward to are: Myrna Loy (August 2), Marilyn Monroe (August 4), Toshiro Mifune (August 9), Ginger Rogers (August 12), James Cagney (August 14), Lillian Gish (August 15), Jack Lemmon (August 22), Gene Kelly (August 23), Kay Francis (August 21), and Warren William (August 30).  I have seen woefully few Akira Kurosawa films, so I am really looking forward to Toshiro Mifune’s day.  As a fan of silents and pre-codes, I was thrilled to see Lillian Gish, Kay Francis, and Warren William got spots on this year’s line-up.  Lately, I’ve been really getting into Tyrone Power movies, so I’m glad to see he got a day this year.  And since I’ve always wanted to see more Jeanette MacDonald movies, I’ll definitely be tuning in a lot for her day.

The complete Summer Under the Stars schedule is available to be download here.

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