Sunday, December 23, 2012

Whistling in the Dark (1933)

Whistling in the Dark is a dated little trifle. Don't let me scare you off from it, though; it can be fun if you're in the mood.

Based on a play which ran 265 performances between 1932 and 1933, the comedy/drama about two elopers who end up trapped in a mansion and forced to think up the perfect murder for a group of mobsters can be tedious. It's stage-bound and director Elliot Nugent's directing is static and blah.

The cast is good, though, headed by Una Merkel (playing her typical ditzy role) and Ernest Treux, who also played the lead onstage. His under-played, self-effacing humor reminded me of the comedic performances of Roland Young (especially in Topper). (Claire Trever played the Una Merkel role onstage)

The lead mobster is played by Edward Arnold, reprising his stage role. Also in the cast is John Miljan, who seemed to be in every other MGM film of the time and Nat Pendleton, who excelled in playing goofy, dense gangsters.

The film does have some racy, pre-code humor. Other than the pleasure you'll have in watching some talented performers, though, there's not a lot to recommend in  Whistling in the Dark

The story was remade in 1941 with Red Skelton, in a movie so successful that two sequels were made.

A bit of trivia: Ernest Truex was the lifeless body of Harry in Hitchcock's the Trouble With Harry. If you have to be dead onscreen, that's the way to do it.

Whistling in the Dark isn't available on DVD, but has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, by Donald Spoto

(This post was previously presented on my blog Eventized. Since Joan Crawford spent the first twenty years of her career at MGM, though, I hope you won't mind if I also present it here.)

The subtitle of this book could, I think, be more accurately called "A Life of Joan Crawford", due to the divergence of opinions of the people who knew Crawford.

Since many (especially younger) people's image of Crawford is the over-the-top, borderline campy maniac portrayed in the biopic, Mommie Dearest, it's fitting that Spoto has written a well-researched biography that tips the scales on the other side. Crawford's lifelong philanthropic efforts alone would give pause to most people who think of the self-made movie queen as a monster.

In the end, Crawford was, like most of us, a conundrum of flawed contradictions, albeit one with a powerful, almost mythical sense of destiny and with a commitment to the obsessive hard work required to fulfill it.

On a similar trail of thought, it's a shame that the talented Faye Dunaway was blasted by some less than thoughtful critics for her portrayal of Joan in Mommie Dearest and that she apparently took some of those criticisms to heart. Dunaway was superlative in the role of Joan Crawford. It's a memorable, startling, classic performance. She followed the script to its logical conclusions and those who don't like the movie (if, indeed, there are any now who don't) should blame the script, not those paid to carry it out. If anything, Dunaway may have played Crawford too well for the audience's comfort. That's something Crawford herself might have appreciated.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Scaramouche (1923)

Though produced by Metro, not Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Rex Ingram's Scaramouche, starring the upcoming Ramon Novarro, was released by MGM during their first year in business. Like Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, also rereleased by MGM, Scaramouche is an epic film, with huge, sixty-acre lot sets, seemingly hundreds of extras and immaculate, astonishing set design.

Scaramouche, though, is a much better film than The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's a rousing, swashbuckling spectacle that's free of most of the mawkish tendencies of many later MGM epic films (Mare Nostrum, I'm looking at you).

Set during the time leading to the French Revolution, Scaramouche is based on Rafael Sabatini's enormously successful novel released only two years earlier. Though straining credulity (Novarro is an outcast aristocrat and a law student and a playwright and actor and a master swordsman and a leader of the revolution), the screenplay and directing are smooth and captivating, the actors entertaining and the choreographed scenes full of life.

Alice Terry is Novarro's love interest and Lewis Stone, who so wonderfully played cads during this period in his acting career, plays one you especially love to hate here.

Scaramouche is filled with half-shadowed knick-knacks, ornate costumes, kids playing games and other extraneous manifestations of life. I can describe it no better than historian Kevin Brownlow: Scaramouche is "primarily a work of art in the 18th-century tradition. The period has been so beautifully evoked that it seems inconceivable that the picture belongs to this century. It looks as though the combined efforts of several 18th century painters, sculptors, scenic designers, costumiers and architects have reached a climax of rococo glory on celluloid."

The compimentary and full-bodied orchestral score (commissioned, I think, by Turner Classic Movies) used for the Warner Archives DVD-R I watched is by Jeffrey Mark Silverman. While it may not have any memorable themes, neither does it detract from the film as so many composed or hodge-podged scores for silent films do.

The same print is shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and can also be ordered from Warner Archives here: