Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Near the Intersection of Grant & Crawford

The title does not refer to streets in San Francisco but rather the two Hollywood legends, Archibald Alexander Leach and Lucille Fay LeSueur; better known by their stage names, Cary Grant and Joan Crawford. They never appeared together on screen. However, they appeared within a week of each other at the Castro Theater

The Castro had a week long Cary Grant series starting on August 31. I saw:

Philadelphia Story starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn & Jimmy Stewart; directed by George Cukor; (1940)
Holiday starring Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn; directed by George Cukor; (1938)
His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell; with Ralph Bellamy; directed by Howard Hawks; (1940)
Only Angels Have Wings starring Cary Grant & Jean Arthur; with Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell & Noah Beery Jr.; directed by Howard Hawks; (1939)
Notorious starring Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman; with Claude Rains; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1946)
Suspicion starring Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1941)

North by Northwest, Charade & Monkey Business are among the films I passed on because I had seen them previously. North by Northwest is one of my favorite films but I ended up seeing something else that night (a topic for another entry).

Two days after the Cary Grant series ended, the Castro ran a Joan Crawford double feature.

Humoresque starring Joan Crawford & John Garfield; with Oscar Levant; (1946)
Daisy Kenyon starring Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews & Henry Fonda; directed by Otto Preminger; (1947)

The primary reason I keep this blog is to chronicle the films I watch in theaters. I should have consulted the blog because I saw Humoresque in 2009 at the PFA. Although I didn't write about it then, it was immediately recognizable to me as a film I had previously scene. The boy who play John Garfield's character at the beginning of the film was familiar to me but I couldn't place the name. I looked him up afterwards; it was Robert Blake.


I don't really need to recap the Cary Grant films. They are all classics except perhaps Only Angels Have Wings. A few of my observations.

Philadelphia Story & Holiday were released at the tail end of the Great Depression but before WWII. There is some debate as to when the Great Depression ended but I always use Pearl Harbor Day as the cutoff. My general 20th century US timeline for history and movies are:

1918 WWI
1919 Spanish Influenza Epidemic
1920 to 1929 Roaring 20s/End of the Silent Era
1929 to 1941 Great Depression
1941 to 1945 WWII
1946 to 1952 Post WWII/HUAC-Red Scare/Korean War/Film Noir
1952 to 1960 Eisenhower Administration
1960 to 1966 Mad Men era, Kennedy/Camelot
1967 to 1973 Hippies/Counterculture/Vietnam/Social Unrest
1974 to 1980 Nixon/Watergate/1970s excess/cinema I don't typically understand or appreciate
1981 and onwards - I can remember this period so i don't need crib notes to put a film in its historical context

Getting back to Cary Grant, Philadelphia Story & Holiday were set among the ultra wealthy in the Northeast US. I wonder how many people in the audience could relate to the characters. I guess it's not much different from today with reality shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills but I have always thought that making movies about the fabulously wealthy and beautiful during the Great Depression was a in poor taste. The counter argument is that the nation needed films like that to escape their real-life troubles.

Philadelphia Story seemed to imply Katharine Hepburn's character had some psychological issues which left her frigid (I believe that was the term used at the time). In other words, the character had issues with men that left her unable to be fully satisfied with the most intimate aspects of her marriage. I can see how a woman married to guy looking like Cary Grant could have that trouble. I hadn't picked up on that although its been years since I saw Philadelphia Story.

In Holiday, Lew Ayres turned in a nice performance as Hepburn's sympathetic but constantly sloshed brother.

His Girl Friday is full of self-references. When asked to describe his ex-wife's (Rosalind Russell) fiancé, Cary Grant says "He looks like that fellow in the movies - Ralph Bellamy." Ralph Bellamy is playing the role in the film. At another point Grant says "Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." Archie Leach is Grant's real name. Grant and Russell were fully conversant in the rapid fire patois of the period. I'm not sure if people really spoke that way or it was just in the movies.

Suspicion had a horrible ending which made the film terribly disappointing. It was changed from the source material (a novel titled Before the Fact). I thought it was the hand of the Hays Code but it was the direct result of the studio (RKO) being protective of Grant's debonair image. Suspicion really left a sour taste in my mouth but it did produce an iconic image of a (presumably) malevolent Grant carrying a glass of milk to his wife (Fontaine). The audience is led to believe the milk is poisoned. The pure and creamy white milk directly contrasting with the poison and evil within; nicely done Mr. Hitchcock.

I was unfamiliar with Only Angels Have Wings prior to seeing it. I immediately recognized Sig Ruman who 14 years later would give a memorable performance as Sergeant Schulz in Stalag 17. Only Angels Have Wings is about a freight airline operating in Brazil. They have to fly through a narrow pass in the mountains because their planes cannot climb high enough to go over the top. The weather, the antiquated planes and even birds, cause many injuries and fatalities among the pilots. As a result, they develop hardened emotions and fatalistic attitudes. Cary Grant is the manager and chief pilot of the airline. He's a tough nut but seems to have a lot of ex-girlfriends including Rita Hayworth. The plot is ok but a few devices look silly 75 years later. In addition to Sig Ruman as the jovial owner of airline and Thomas Mitchell as Grant's fellow pilot and best friend, Jean Arthur shows up as a woman in love with Grant while Hayworth shows up married to another man.

Notorious was my favorite film of the series. Claude Rains delivers Oscar nominated performance as Bergman's Nazi husband. Bergman plays the part of a confused and conflicted woman well; not altogether different than Ilsa in Casablanca. Grant dispenses with his persona to play a callous spy handler. Notorious was daring for its sexually provocative plot. Ilsa basically sleeps with and marries Rains' character to infiltrate the Nazi spy ring. Less than five years later, Bergman caused a scandal by having a public affair with director Roberto Rossellini and comparisons were drawn to the character she played in Notorious.


I should have given Humoresque some commentary back in 2009. I appear to have been more taken by No Man of Her Own and A Letter to Three Wives; both of which I vividly recall with fond memories. I don't recall my initial impression of Humoresque. The most lasting impression is of John Garfield. While he was only 33 years old at the time of filming, it was a hard 33. Garfield wouldn't live out his 30s; dying at age 39 in 1952. Allegedly, the stress of being blacklisted (he was called before HUAC and refused to "name names") contributed to his death. However, six years before his death in Humoresque, Garfield was looking worn out.

Ironically, Garfield was in the midst of the most productive period of his film career. Humoresque opened on Christmas day 1946. Earlier in the year, Garfield starred opposite Lana Turner in the noir classic, The Postman Always Rings Twice. In 1947, Garfield costarred in Gentleman's Agreement, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Garfield also made Body and Soul in 1947, for which he received an Oscar nomination. That film, which played at the 2007 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, was a hard hitting exposé of the corrupt boxing rackets and an ambitious fighter (Garfield).

In Humoresque, Garfield plays Paul Boray, a concert violinist from a working class family. Unable to get a break, he is introduced to Helen Wright (Crawford) a wealthy matron of the art. Despite her being married, a dozen years older than him and an alcoholic, Boray & Wright begin a tempestuous romance. As Boray's musical career improves, his relationship with Wright falters.

The best part of Humoresque is the talented Oscar Levant. A skilled pianist and composer, Levant plays Sid Jeffers, Boray's piano accompanist whose wry and alcohol induced comments serve as a Greek chorus for the audience. My favorite is after watching Boray & Wright frolic at the beach, Jeffers asks Mrs. Wright, "Does your husband interfere with your marriage?"

The second best part of the film is the music. I have read that Levant performed on the piano for all the pieces whereas a violinist were just off screen for Garfield's pieces. There are several extended musical pieces including "Flight of the Bumble Bee" and portions of Bizet's "Carmen." The musical performances were top notch and drew applause from the Castro audience.

The film falls into the category of a mid-century, sophisticated drama. To me, that is shorthand for a film made in the 1940s and 1950s, typically set in New York, where wealthy people and artists live and party in tastefully decorated apartments and penthouses. Usually everyone drinks to excess although they are never sloppy drunks. Most of the dialog sounds like it was quipped at the Algonquin Round Table. Although the characters are so witty, the dialog barely conceals deep-seated resentment and hostility between the characters. That pretty much sums up Humoresque. The film looks like a dinosaur in 2011 but its always nice to see Joan Crawford being Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque and Daisy Kenyon, Crawford hadn't quite reached überbitch status. Although she throws in some catty comments, it's very clear that Helen Wright and Daisy Kenyon have insecurities which they cope with by verbal sparring. The title character in Daisy Kenyon is a interior designer who is in a long-term relationship with a wealthy lawyer (Dana Andrews). Although dissatisfied with the relationship, Daisy doesn't move off the ball until Henry Fonda shows up. He plays a former yacht designer, current NCO in the US Army and a widower who quickly falls for Daisy despite the presence of Daisy's married lover.

A love triangle develops and ultimately leads to Kenyon marrying Peter Lapham (Fonda), O'Mara (Andrews) leaving his wife and cuckolding Lapham. That's quite a bit of wife swapping for 1947. O'Mara's wife (Ruth Warrick) is a particularly pathetic woman who resorts to beating their daughter. None of the three leads had much in the way of self-respect and the ending left was a bit outlandish.

Unlike Helen Wright in Humoresque, Daisy Kenyon puts up little defense and is essentially at the mercy of the men in her life. It didn't feel like a Joan Crawford role. Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino are two obvious casting choices I would have chosen before Crawford. Daisy breaks down and weeps on a few occasions and never shows the inner strength or bravado one associates with a Joan Crawford role.

A few weeks ago, I watched Mildred Pierce which was the film Crawford made immediately before Humoresque. Neither Humoresque or Daisy Kenyon were as satisfying as Mildred Pierce but they were still worthwhile films of the era. One definitely needs to be a fan of the Golden Age to enjoy Humoresque or Daisy Kenyon. Otherwise, the absurdity of the situations become distracting.

So Cary Grant and Joan Crawford's screen personae haven't aged that well but Grant's alter ego was so mischievous and exuberant while Joan Crawford played a bitch. The Castro series hewed closely to Grant's image while presently something fundamentally different for Crawford's films.

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