Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hitchcock Blogathon update - lock in yer dates!

We've got 48 folks signed up for our Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made Blogathon, which is a wonderful response, and thanks to all for wanting to participate!
With two weeks to go, we want to get the schedule for everybody's posts in place.  So if you're participating in the blogathon, please send me an email and let me know what day you'd like to post your contribution.  For the folks who haven't chosen a film, do let me know your choice as well!
To keep things spread out, we want to limit it to about six posts a day. So if more than six people ask to post on any one day, we'll take the first requests we get.
The deadline to reserve a day is Friday, June 29th.  After that, we'll assume you're able to post any day, and we'll assign days randomly, and post the final schedule that Saturday. 

(If you can't get your post up on the day selected, we won't send Leonard after you; just get it up as close as you can!)
When you post your contribution, please send me an email with the address of the post, so I can update the schedule quick like a bunny!

Feel free to link to the main info page on your blog to let everyone know about the event, and share the news with everybody!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

HUDSON'S BAY: Eager for Cregar!

Take a gander at Laird Cregar as
lovable rogue Gooseberry!
To some people, the name Hudson’s Bay (HB) may simply bring to mind the famous Canadian department store, but of course there’s a rich history behind it—rich enough for 20th Century-Fox to green-light it as a lavish biopic directed by Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game; the 1935 version of She), with a remarkable all-star cast!  Hudson’s Bay’s leading man was the great actor Paul Muni, whose amazing four-decade career included stage triumphs (born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund, Muni got his start in the Yiddish theater); movies (Muni won the Best Actor Oscar for the 1936 biopic The Story of Louis Pasteur, with another nomination in 1937 for The Life of Emile Zola, and six other Oscar nominations, along with a New York Film Critics Circle award for …Zola); and an Emmy nomination for his performance in the 1956 Playhouse 90 TV drama “The Last Clear Chance.”  No wonder: Muni was a true chameleon, renowned for his amazing ability to dive into every aspect of his roles. I wonder if Meryl Streep considered him as one of her role models? (Click here for a scene from the film!) 

That said, as awesome as Muni was, I must confess that although he gets top billing in HB, it was actually a member of HB’s fine supporting cast that really made me eager to see it: Laird Cregar (Samuel Laird Cregar, for completists)! I’ve been a fan of Cregar’s ever since I first saw him as the smilingly sinister NYPD Inspector Ed Cornell in the film adaptation of Steve Fisher’s novel I Wake Up Screaming. I found myself fascinated by Cregar’s relentless pursuit of Victor Mature, wondering if there was more to it (if you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you).  I had to know more about this actor!  With each new (to me) Cregar film, I’ve been wowed by his ability to be a witty, smooth-talking adversary, or a tormented but terrifying foe. In fact, for those of you who may not have read Team Bartilucci’s Flico Suave blog post, here’s our entry about our lad Laird:
LAIRD CREGAR. Silky-voiced, Philadelphia-born Cregar looked like a fearsome mountain of a man, an image that served him well in such classics as I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and the 1944 remake of The Lodger. However, he blazed his own trail, mounting his own acclaimed stage productions of Oscar Wilde and The Man Who Came To Dinner. His smooth voice served him well in radio plays, including the role of Caspar Gutman in a production of The Maltese Falcon. But Cregar longed to leave his villain roles behind and move into romantic leading man parts, and to his frustration, his 300-pound girth stood in his way. He slimmed down on an insane crash diet in order to look as suave as his voice sounded. Tragically, the diet took a terrible toll on Cregar’s health, and he died of heart failure at the age of 31, just before the debut of the film that essentially killed him, Hangover Square (1945). Ah, the suavity that could have been….  For more about our special Flico Suave post, in which Fredrico Fabuloso of has joined forces with Team Bartilucci to craft a terrific slide show devoted to Cregar, please click this link:
The Supremes, in a command performance!
When our friend and fellow blogger Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings recently wrote about several films showing up on the Fox Movie Channel, I was intrigued when I saw HB would be among them. It seemed like a typical costume epic, certainly a departure from the film noirs and comedy-thrillers that I usually blog about here at TotED. But once I saw Cregar’s name among the cast members, I was definitely interested, especially when it became clear that both Muni’s and Cregar’s characters would be more scrappy and lighthearted, with lots of joking and brawling—and don’t forget those suave French-Canadian accents! Alfred Newman’s score understandably leans on instrumental versions of the moving anthem “O Canada.”  HB frequently uses another song whose title escapes me. It’s derived from a beloved traditional folk tune, but I keep remembering hearing it in, of all things, the Elvis Presley comedy-thriller Double Trouble, with these lyrics: “I only love one girl/The one I have my arms around/I only love one girl/One in every town!” (Just as well I never opted for a career in music—but if you need a gal who can hum or whistle, let me know!)

For those of us who were too easily distracted to give our history classes our full attention back in school (and even if we had, I’m betting 20th Century-Fox probably took liberties with the real facts anyway), the script by Lamar Trotti (The Razor’s Edge; The Ox-Bow Incident; There’s No Business Like Show Business) helpfully provides this preamble:

“In 1667 Canada, under the French flag, was a vast uncharted wilderness. Montreal and Quebec were hardly more than trading posts on the St. Lawrence River. Our story opens farther south, at the Albany Government House, in the British colonies.” Does it ever! First we viewers see Indians getting thrown in prison for alleged thievery at the hands of stern-looking upper-class twits with long curly wigs and fancy clothes. One of the stuffed shirts sniffs, “These savages must realize that New York is a British possession…twenty lashes in the public square!” I couldn’t help thinking of a sarcastic line from Witness for the Prosecution: “Lovely you all look in them wigs.…”  As the understandably sullen Indians are given the heave-ho, two fur trappers/traders arrive: diminutive Pierre Esprit Radisson (Muni) and tall, wide, bear-shaped Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, a.k.a. Gooseberry (Cregar). (I’m guessing this is where/how today’s Radisson Hotel chain got its name?) It’s clear that these French-accented, smooth-talking yet scrappy trappers have been here before, asking for the money and supplies they need for an expedition into the north country. Radisson and Gooseberry kinda freak out the stuffed shirts with their boisterous barging-in, their ruddy cheeks, handmade buckskin, and fur hats; I liked them immediately!

Pierre gets no kick from champagne,
but he’s always up for a brawl!
The bewigged bigwigs aren’t interested in our boys’ proposed expedition to Canada’s Hudson’s Bay because “His Majesty’s government is not in the fur trade,” and besides, they’re convinced that Radisson and Gooseberry must be “rogues,” if they can’t get the funding from their own government.  Humph! They say “rogues” like it’s a bad thing! Those silly “suits” in suits don’t realize our boys aren’t the types to meekly take no for an answer, especially when they’re threatened with jail. It’s clobbering time as a royal rumble breaks out! Radisson and Gooseberry get tossed in Ye Olde Holding Cell, but at least it’s a good place to make friends: Lord Edward Crewe (John Sutton from Jane Eyre; My Gal Sal; A Yank in the R.A.F.) is cooling his heels in the slammer, too!  Seems Lord Eddie was banished by Prince Charles (the great Vincent Price, one of Team B.’s favorite scene-stealers) on account of drunken pranks that went too far. Edward convinces Radisson and Gooseberry to help him blow this popsicle stand, and after our scamps hit Montreal, Radisson and Gooseberry sell Edward on the idea of putting up capital for their Hudson’s Bay expedition.
It helps that Radisson happens to be best buds with the Indians, and he’s adamant about sharing their booty with them, fair and square. In fact, Orimha (Chief Thundercloud, who graced many a Western and even comedies like The Cat and the Canary during his 21-year film career) is Radisson’s Indian foster dad. Still, it takes lots of brawling to make Edward and the other city-boy white guys get their act together, stop treating the helpful Indians like “savages,” and get it into their fool heads that you can’t just pay the Indians in trinkets and brandy if you’re serious about making Hudson’s Bay a solid nation full of decent, fair-minded human beings. As Radisson explains in his charming patois during what I like to think of as his Yoda Moments:
“Wine very bad for Indians—make him crazy like the wolf. He get one little drink, pretty soon he drunk, go on warpath, kill everybody, cut their throat, maybe get his own throat cut. Then he don’t know where he is. What he do? By and by, he don’t hunt no more, he don’t fish, he don’t catch the beaver, he don’t do nothing but make trouble. He in pretty bad fix, no?”
Frankly, I was itching to see Edward get punched in the nose in the 1660’s equivalent of a playground!  With a little help from Radisson and Gooseberry, who are already tight with their Indian pals, “Holier than Thou” Edward eventually gets an attitude adjustment, courtesy of Yoda Radisson:
This Country, this Canada, she’s like a pretty woman, waiting for big, strong fella to come live with her, raise big family. She say, ‘Look, I have fine prairie to make big farm. I have nice trees for house, rivers to fish. I have big heart to love all the world, make you very happy.’ And she say, ‘Those fellows who live in Europe, they crazy, they fight all the time, kill one another for a little dirt that don’t grow anything. (Sarcastically) They got to bow down when Edward Crewe comes in the room. But here, I give you nice big place to live in, I give plenty to eat, I not let anybody be better than you. ‘Then she say, ‘But you must not cheat my little children because they are not so strong as you. You must not make them drunk, bring war with you. You will love, like the Bon Dieu planned, or I give you big tweak in the nose…I think maybe this Canada have plenty happy people someday, feel same way. Them maybe people, they say, ‘This Radisson, he big fool, but he’s right. Now I think we talk too much.”
(Lamar Trotti not only knew how to write rousing speeches, he knew when to stop!)
As Lady Barbara, lovely Gene Tierney
is worth risking prison for!
“Think of it, darling, there are millions
of beavers waiting to be caught!”
(Actual line from the film!)
All the agita of starting a new colony is finally paying off—until French Governor  D’Argensen seizes our heroes’ furs (polyester and microfibers weren’t invented yet) as “payment” for fines enacted that very morning! So Radisson and Gooseberry indignantly steal their furs back and return to England with Edward; that’ll show ‘em!  Eddie’s nervous about being back in England—remember, he’s supposed to be banished—but Edward’s cousin Sir Rupert (Nigel Bruce—Dr. Watson himself!—not to mention Bruce’s supporting roles in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion) is willing to help sort things out, with encouragement from the intrigued Prince Charles, who admits to liking “rogues” (there’s that word again!), and is willing to help Radisson, Gooseberry, and Edward as long as they can keep it on the QT until they get their booty. Besides, news of fabulous furs from the New World goes a long way toward our guys being forgiven, especially when Edward is reunited with his beloved fiancée, Lady Barbara Hall (Gene Tierney at her most beautiful and winsome). I love the way Edward and Barbara only have eyes for each other as Prince Charles’ scolding falls on deaf ears; Charles might as well be talking in that Peanuts “blah blah blah” gibberish!  Radisson sagely notes, “These English, they like to make a little money, no?” Prince Charles gives them the supplies and boats they need, though he cautions them: “There will be no talk of a charter until we see 300,000 pelts that the Governor of New France did not steal.” Radisson sweetens the pot by naming the first Hudson’s Bay post Fort Charles after the King himself.

No lackeys in Canada?
You mean I have to w-w-w-work?!
Lady Barbara is so impressed with Edward’s new success, maturity, and overall manly-man qualities that she suggests that when they return to Hudson’s Bay, they should bring her younger brother Gerald (Morton Lowry of The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Picture of Dorian Gray; How Green was My Valley). Bad move, guys! The novelty wears thin fast for spoiled baby brother Gerald Whiny-Pants;  he’s more interested in plying the Indians with brandy and cheap useless tchotchkes than in making Hudson’s Bay succeed and flourish by getting off his bratty butt and *gasp* pull his weight! When Gerald disobeys Radisson’s rules, drunken violence erupts all over the colony, and a friendly Indian tribe is senselessly slaughtered. This means war, since the Indians are understandably furious at these Eurotrash white guys making a mess of things. Having witnessed similar massacres in his time, Radisson reaches a grim decision: in order to patch things up with the warring Indians, he elects himself judge, jury, and executioner, ties up Gerald, and shoots him dead. Our heroes aren’t exactly happy campers (even though Gerald had it coming, in my opinion).  When Radisson, Gooseberry, and Edward return to London and explain the tragedy, Prince Charles fumes: “The very idea, going around shooting my subjects, and without my consent!”
Lesson learned: Don't bring troublemaking
siblings to faraway outposts!

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Radisson, Gooseberry, and Edward? Luckily for our boys, riches triumph over dead trouble-making relatives: 4,000 pelts in perfect condition is an end that justifies the means, big-time! In fact, as Edward urgently points out, if Radisson and Gooseberry are hanged, there won’t be any Hudson’s Bay Company, because Canada would then belong to France, not England! Turns out our lovable slyboots Radisson fixed it in advance with the Indians that if anything happened to them in England, the Indians would take all those lovely, expensive furs to the French, Radisson’s biggest fans!  All is forgiven; I think even Lady Barbara knew in her heart of hearts that Gerald was a little good-for-nothing creep. Our roguish heroes are the toast of the town, Radisson and Gooseberry walk off singing, boy gets girl, Hudson’s Bay is born—what’s not to love?

Asterix and Obelix

Vinnie imagines Laird Cregar
and Paul Muni as Obelix & Asterix!
My husband Vinnie is a big fan of the Franco-Belgian series of Asterix comics created by René Goscinny and illustrated by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Asterix, click this link), and he noticed that Muni and Cregar had a striking resemblance to Asterix and his big pal Obelix! Anyway, just hearing the cheerfully boisterous Cregar doing a French-Canadian accent made me smile.

It was fun to see another side of our lad Laird, since I’d seen him showing a flair for comedy even in his bad-guy roles. To my surprise and delight, Muni and Cregar turned out to be a rollicking comedy team, stealing their scenes and my heart!  With their rambunctious, devil-may-care shenanigans and great buddy chemistry, Muni and Cregar make a totally appealing pair! Muni has a playfulness about him, and a clever way of talking around things when the suits in London and France get restless; nevertheless, when push comes to shove, he does the right thing when it counts most.  HB has great production values, too, with Travis Banton’s costumes including posh threads at the palace and buckskin in the wilderness, as needed. For my money, Muni and Cregar are so good together, I was wishing 20th Century-Fox had figured out a way to make one or more sequels about Radisson and Gooseberry’s exploits. Even their accents and mischievous grins had me laughing and smiling (for all the right reasons)! In particular, Vinnie and I thought it was tons of fun to watch Cregar launch his monstrously huge body at smug, unsuspecting fops and dandies, knocking those pretty-boys over like bowling pins!  Go, Team Gooseberry!

"Poor lady!" (Another actual line from HB!)

It's Spring Break in Canada, and they're gonna party like it's 1667!

You can meet the most interesting people at these pot luck dinners!
(Left to right: Laird Cregar, Nigel Bruce, Vincent Price, and Virginia Field)

Hey, Gooseberry cleans up pretty good!
He's going do-me-do-ing in his do-me-do duds!

Radisson's livin' on a wink and a prayer!

Iron bars do not a prison make — when the prisoner is Gooseberry!

Hey, just imagine Laird Cregar, Paul Muni, and John Sutton cleaned up some, wearing musketeer garb. Would Laird have been an awesome Porthos, or what?

Friday, June 8, 2012

MINISTRY OF FEAR: The Cake is a Lie!

I proudly proclaim that as of this writing, it's my birthday!  I’m now a fresh-faced lass of 49 summers!  Director Fritz Lang’s 1944 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1943 suspense novel Ministry of Fear (MoF) struck me as the perfect movie to blog about today. It’s got everything this birthday girl could want in a suspense movie blog post: suspense; paranoia; atmospheric lighting and cinematography by Henry Sharp (Duck Soup; The Crowd; It Happened on Fifth Avenue); offbeat comedy, and most importantly for any celebration, cake!

"I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth...."
Stephen's thrilled to be free to
eat tasty cake again!
The setting is wartime 1941 England, and our hero, Stephen Neale, is played by Ray Milland, always awesome whether he’s in comedies such as Easy Living or The Major and The Minor; suspenseful yet urbane thrillers like The Big Clock and Dial M for Murder; chilling science fiction like X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes; and of course, his Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend. I’ve always particularly liked Milland’s sensitive side. For me,  MoF works so well because the character he plays seems so likable and poignant, especially considering what he’s been through. Milland should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for MoF.  The script by screenwriter/producer Seton I. Miller (Scarface, The Dawn Patrol; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Adventures of Robin Hood) is pretty wild, but it had me hooked!

We first meet Stephen sitting in a dimly-litroom as he waits for parting advice from Dr. Norton (Niagara; The Prize; TV’s 77 Sunset Strip). As Stephen literally watches the clock, the dialogue sets the scene:

Stephen: “You know, it’s interesting to watch the last minutes crawl by, after so many of them.”
Dr. Norton: “I always meant to speed it up.”
Stephen (wryly yet ruefully):
“Fine time to think of it.”

Although the good doctor urges Stephen to make his fresh start in a quiet town far from the madding crowd of Blitz-plagued World War Two London, Stephen says thanks, but no thanks: “I’m gonna spend the first month being pushed and jammed by the biggest crowds I can find. I want to hear people talk and laugh…seeing faces will be a good tonic.” We finally see the name of the place Stephen’s leaving: Lembridge Asylum! Dr. Norton kindly but firmly advises Stephen not to get involved with the police: “A second charge wouldn’t be easy.”  Um, we’re not talking about a ticket for jaywalking here, are we, Stephen?

As our hero awaits the next train, he finds himself at a jolly village fete with games, kids, and food, particularly a tasty-looking cake set to be raffled off for a local charity, The Mothers of the Free Nations. The fortune-teller, one Mrs. Bellane (Aminta Dyne), gives Stephen unusually specific weight and measurements for the cake in order to win that tasty dessert. Who knew innocent charity fetes were fixed? But it’s easy to understand why the cake is so coveted, considering flour and butter weren’t easy to come by during wartime.  In fact, the ladies in charge of the fete get awfully anxious when it appears Stephen won the cake in error, to the visible annoyance of another apparent cake-lover, a gent named Cost (Dan Duryea, the man people loved to hate in other Fritz Lang noirs, including Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window, not to mention Duryea’s funny/menacing henchman in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire). No wonder Cost and Mrs. Bellane look pretty darn peeved when Stephen leaves with the cake.
As our friend and fellow blogger Yvette of …in so many words put it so well in her own 2010 MoF post:

That's the second-biggest scissors I've ever seen!
“(Duryea is) everyone's favorite sleaze of a villain, so you know right away something is definitely up. The thing about the 'country fete' is this: the place appears 'normal' but with a very sinister vibe, seriously creepy. Yet Milland, just released from incarceration, pretends, I suppose, that he doesn't notice or maybe he thinks this is the way the world acts on the 'outside'. Hard to tell. The war is a burden on everyone and maybe this is the new normal.”  For the record, my favorite bit in this scene is when Stephen guesses right about the cake’s weight; suddenly everyone and everything goes silent, as if it was one of those E.F. Hutton commercials from the 1960s and ’70s!  It’s a brief, deft blend of comedy and foreboding.  Talk about a strange twist of fete! 

Figuring out the tasty treat's weight
is a piece of cake!
“Jai Guru Deva. Ommm…
nothing’s gonna change my séance…”
War is hell, but at least
they have slumber parties!
I hope Miss Penteel's pad won't be hard to find!
Stephen’s sudden journey down the rabbit hole gets progressively more surreal when he boards his train to London. A blind man (Eustace Wyatt of Gaslight; Journey Into Fear; Madame Curie) sits there, and they share the cake. Too bad Stephen doesn’t notice that the supposedly-blind man keeps darting glances at our hero! When the guy tries to kill Stephen and grab the cake, things start blowing up real good, and that’s only the beginning of Stephen’s suspenseful, nutzoid ordeal! Increasingly paranoid, our beleaguered hero retains irascible, mercurial private detective George Rennit (Erskine Sanford, who performed with Orson Welles and his Mercury Players in Citizen Kane; The Magnificent Ambersons; The Lady from Shanghai), only to find Rennit's office ransacked.  The strange trail of clues leads to Mrs. Bellane—but not the one we viewers met at the fete! This new Mrs. Bellane is a babe, played by the ever-slinky and mysterious Hillary Brooke (Invaders from Mars; The Maze; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much; and quite a few Sherlock Holmes films and Abbott and Costello comedies).  Too bad this rather glamorous séance ends up in murder, with Stephen the victim of the biggest frame-up since Whistler's Mother! Without giving too much away, I can sum up Stephen’s plight in two words: Nazi scum!   Even with everything Stephen goes through in this cinematic rollercoaster ride, he often manages to be saner than the oddball characters (including Alan Napier in his pre-Batman days) who are out to get him! At least Stephen seems to have found allies in Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds of His Kind of Woman; Holiday Inn; and The Time of Their Lives, not to mention playing Peg Riley on TV’s Life of Riley) and her brother, Willi (Carl Esmond of Sergeant York; The Dawn Patrol; Her Highness and the Bellboy), good-natured Viennese refugees who are helping The Mothers of the Free Nations. Need I say romance between Stephen and Carla isn’t far behind? My heart really went out to poor Stephen, and he truly engaged my sympathy as he did his best to hold onto his hard-won sanity in the midst of chaos not of his own making. I was especially touched by the scene where Stephen confides in Carla about the tragic circumstances surrounding the “mercy killing” of his beloved wife, resulting in his two-year stint at Lembridge Asylum.

If, like me, you love fast-moving, complicated, convoluted plots, chases, and eccentric touches, I think you’ll find MoF worth celebrating anytime!

For more MoF fun and info, check out these links:

* From the TCM Web site
* From Yvette’s 2010 …in so many words blog post about Ministry of Fear

Er, I’m not into nonfiction. Where’s your mystery/suspense section?

Even in life during wartime, there's always time for romance, by George!

Stephen takes a shot at making Mrs. Bellane v.2 confess!

One of my birthdays during high school.
Note the movie motif, including a plastic film reel!