Saturday, May 26, 2012

ARABESQUE: Burnoose Notice, Special 2012 Horseathon Edition!

Our great pal and fellow blogger Page of My Love of Old Hollywood created a Blogathon dedicated to great horses in movie history: the Horseathon! From May 25th through May 27, you'll find a bevy of splendid steeds for every horse-lover's needs! I'll be revising a new-and-improved post about one of my favorite comedy-thrillers, the 1966 comedy-thriller Arabesque. Hope you'll enjoy it!!
Saddle up and CLICK HERE here for the post

Friday, May 18, 2012


(Apologies in advance for the photos not being quite as sharp as I'd hoped!)

With a novel based on the work of the funniest, zaniest, most surreal mystery writer the comedy-thriller genre had ever known at that time, I would have been more surprised if I hadn’t enjoyed the 1945 film version of Craig Rice’s novel Having Wonderful Crime (HWC)!  What’s more, despite the masculine nom de plume, Craig Rice was a woman; specifically, she became the first female mystery novelist to make the cover of Time Magazine, plus she practically invented the screwball noir!  Back in high school at dear old St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx, I read and very much enjoyed several of Rice’s books, especially the Malone stories I’d found in mystery anthologies in our school library. After graduating from Fordham University, I’d been prowling used bookstores to find Rice’s books. Even now, with eBay making it easier to track down hard-to-find books, I’ve barely scratched the surface, partly from rarity, partly from poverty. All I need is a winning lottery ticket to actually afford all the vintage books I want!

But first, a little background: Rice’s original stories and novels are set in 1940s Chicago with her popular protagonist, Attorney-at-Law John J. Malone. These stories were especially popular, with their lively blend of zaniness and surrealism. If Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man showed that marriage and murder-solving was a match made in mystery fiction heaven, then consider the books showcasing Malone and his friends to be screwball noir turned up to 11!  Meet our protagonists:

  • Malone, our lovable girl-chasing hero, renamed Michael J. Malone for the film version of HWC.  (Apparently someone at RKO was fond of the letter M.)  Malone is played in HWC by Pat O’Brien (Knute Rockne All-American; Crack-Up; Angels with Dirty Faces; Some Like it Hot);
  • Malone’s breezy pal, the two-fisted (but only when necessary) press agent Jake Justus, played by George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940; This is The Army; Battleground);
  • Helene Brand, Jake’s lovely, wealthy, eccentric sweetheart, who becomes Mrs. Justus in both the novel and movie versions of HWC when the newlyweds break the happy news to Malone early on—not that these lovebirds would ever let a little thing like a honeymoon put the kibosh on their penchant for recreational sleuthing. The new Mr. and Mrs. Justus are compulsive amateur gumshoes, always cooking up new murders to solve! To borrow a line from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, these two just love “weird excitement!” Helene is played by the lively, lovely, luminous Carole Landis, dubbed “The Ping Girl” by a press agent who explained, “She makes you purr.” In happier days, Landis lent her bubbly personality, talent, and beauty to such films as Team Bartilucci favorite I Wake Up Screaming; My Gal Sal; Turnabout; Topper Returns; One Million B.C.; Four Jills in a Jeep, in which co-writer Landis and her fellow actresses Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair reenact their real-life USO tour during World War 2; and The Powers Girl, a film close to Team Bartilucci’s heart because our late mom and aunt were both John Robert Powers models back in the day! (More about Landis and Murphy shortly.)

Sweet, sassy Helene can
get on our case anytime!
If you thought The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles could put away liquor with the greatest of ease, wait’ll you get a snootful of Malone, Jake, and Helene! In Rice’s novels, when our trio wasn’t solving murders, they hung out at Joe the Angel’s City Hall Bar, where they’d good-naturedly rib homicide cop Daniel von Flanagan (he’d added the “von” so he wouldn’t seem like just another just another Irish cop. Sorry, von Flanagan isn’t in the film version of HWC). According to Tom & Enid Schantz of Rue Morgue Press, “such antics eventually earned (Rice) the unheard-of sum (for a mystery writer) of $46,000 a year by 1945.” Is it any wonder Rice’s inimitable brand of daftness made her books smash hits, with her kisser on the cover of Time in the bargain?

That said, Rice's life wasn't necessarily a bed of roses—or maybe it was, if you count all the thorns. So many talented comedy writers and comedy novelists seem to have a “sad clown” thing going on. Alas, Rice wasn’t immune.  She was born Georgiana Craig in 1908 to a wanna-be painter and a wanna-be sculptress, who named the little girl Georgiana. Too bad her folks apparently didn’t wanna-be responsible, loving parents; poor kid! To make a long, sad story a bit shorter, little Georgiana was schlepped from pillar to post. Being unable to conceive a child of their own, Craig’s half-sister Nan and her husband Elton were happy to adopt the child, whose name officially became Georgiana Craig Rice. Still, even with all her success in her adult life as an author, it seems Rice was never quite able to get past the rejection she’d experienced during her childhood. Over time, her life was further complicated by her chronic alcoholism (what is it about renowned authors and substance abuse?!), glaucoma, deafness in one ear, blindness in one eye, and possibly bipolar disorder. With everything Rice had to contend with, I’m surprised she even made it to the age of 49! And yet with all these obstacles in her way, somehow she managed to achieve success as a popular author, blending nutzoid comedy and suspense like nobody's business!

When you smile, the world smiles with you.
When Helene and Jake are the only ones smiling,
it means you’d better get tea bags, because
they’re about to get Malone into hot water!
Rice’s novel output (in every sense of the term) ranged from her 1939 novel 8 Faces at 3, through her 1957 novel My Kingdom for a Hearse, published two weeks after her untimely death at the age of 49 from a fall down the stairs. Several posthumous Craig Rice story collections were completed by other authors and published: The Name is Malone (1958); The People vs. Withers and Malone, a 1963 short story collection completed by author Stuart Palmer, featuring his beloved Hildegarde Withers character; the short story collection Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002); and The Pickled Poodles (1960) by Larry M. Harris,  a continuation of the John J. Malone series.

A number of Craig Rice’s books were adapted for the big screen, and of course, HWC was among them!  The trio of screenwriters include:
  •  Howard J. Green (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; Morning Glory; Reveille with Beverly);
  •  Parke Levy (My Friend Irma and its sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West; TV’s Many Happy Returns; Pete and Gladys; and December Bride);
  • Stewart Sterling, a.k.a. Prentice Winchell, popular and prolific pulp author of the Gil Vine and Fire Marshal Pedley novels, as well as a producer of crime fiction for radio and magazines. For the record, I am the proud owner of a 1954 book Sterling and Dev Collans co-authored, I Was a House Detective.

Admittedly, HWC takes liberties with Rice’s plot, but the film’s frantic and funny shenanigans nevertheless have that Craig Rice feeling (not to be confused with that Barton Fink feeling), capturing the overall madcap air and good-natured goofiness of Rice’s storytelling style. With its fleet-footed 70-minute running time, its sharp and snappy comedic timing, and its great cast, I enjoyed HWC  all the way!

With composer Leigh Harline’s sparkling score in the background, we first meet Helene onscreen in media res, nervously holding a gun on an ominous thug (who looks and sounds like the guy running Florian's in Murder, My Sweet, but he's not credited) as she talks to an impatient desk sergeant who’s obviously used to Jake and Helene playing amateur detective: “Please hurry, Sergeant, I’m biting my fingernails already, and you know how hard it is to get a manicure these days!” Luckily, the long-suffering Malone manages to save his friends’ bacon in the proverbial nick of time!

Slipping out of their firearms and into a nearby theater once Malone points out he’d withheld important evidence to crack their current case, our heroes have no sooner found three on the aisle than it’s announced that the show won’t go on: it seems someone’s misplaced the star attraction, The Great Movel (George Zucco from My Favorite Blonde; Topper Returns; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as Professor Moriarty; The Mad Ghoul with Lady on a Train’s David Bruce; and Team B’s fave, After the Thin Man, as  Dr. Adolph Kammer)! You’d think that since Jake and Helene are on their honeymoon (heck, they seemed to be truly into each other even without the homicide angle), they’d surely be more interested in, as the song says, the “sweet mystery of life” rather than scampering around solving other people’s murders. (Maybe it’s the lovebirds’ idea of foreplay? Hey, whatever floats their collective boat!)

With Chili Williams around,
everyone has spots before their eyes!
Jake and Helene are spending their honeymoon at charming Lenhart Lodge, with Malone aiming to take a separate room and check out the single girls, including a cutie with a polka-dot wardrobe (model/actress Chili Williams, a nice bit of eye candy). However, a fender-bender involving our merry trio changes everyone’s plans when the hot young couple from The Great Movel’s act, French-accented Gilda Mayfair (Lenore Aubert from the Bob Hope/Dorothy Lamour comedy-thriller They Got Me Covered; Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein; and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff), and her hunky hottie, Lance (Richard Martin, seen in The Bamboo Blonde and such Westerns as West of the Pecos with Robert Mitchum) find themselves in a trunk full of trouble, literally. Soon the exasperated Malone and our kooky newlyweds find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery involving the fussy hotel manager (Charles D. Brown from The Killers; The Grapes of Wrath; and Team B’s favorite among Brown’s roles, Norris the butler in The Big Sleep), the Lenhart sisters, one of whom signs checks in vanishing ink (silent film actress Blanche Ring); sleepwalking after practically each member of the cast unwittingly doses Gilda with a sedative (The Great Movel sees a lawsuit in the Lenhart Lodge’s future!); falling ladders; hairbreadth escapes; a lovely swimming champ (Anje Behrens, better known as Gloria Holden of Dracula’s Daughter; The Life of Emile Zola; The Corsican Brothers) and speedy, snappy patter that makes His Girl Friday sound tongue-tied!

Poor tearful Helene! It’s no laughing
matter when you're cornered by a killer.
Yikes! Has The Great Movel
played his final matinee?
Not to be a downer, but it’s such a shame that Craig Rice and Carole Landis both ended up being “sad clowns” who died too young. Landis had so much charm, beauty, and screen presence, yet somehow her career began to flounder in the mid-1940s. Only 29 years old, Landis had already been married and divorced twice, and her third marriage was already going down for the last time.  She had an adulterous romance with Rex Harrison, who was apparently was also about to end their relationship. What happened? Did poor Landis have emotional problems in addition to the health issues with malaria and pneumonia she’d been battling since her days of entertaining the troops during World War 2?  Whatever contributed to Landis’ downward spiral, it all tragically ended for her in July of 1948, when she left a suicide note and took a lethal overdose of Seconal; Rex Harrison reportedly found her body. Landis’ pallbearers included HWC co-star Pat O’Brien, actor Cesar Romero, director Eddie Sutherland, actor Willard Parker (A Slight Case of Murder; Kiss Me Kate); and Carole’s close friend and personal make-up man William Nye. Aw, man! It’s times like that that I wish I had a time machine and could help folks like Landis to get their lives turned around live in joy and triumph. Incidentally, author Jacqueline Susann based tragic character Jennifer North partly on Landis in her best-seller Valley of the Dolls.

As for Rice, The April Robin Murders was her final novel after her fatal fall. In fact, the novel was only two-thirds finished at the time of Rice’s death, so the rest was completed by the great Ed McBain, a.k.a. Evan Hunter, author of the 87th Precinct novel series and screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds, among other triumphs. I remember reading and enjoying The April Robin Murders years ago and finding it quite entertaining, with a nice balance of comedy and sentiment. Several posthumous Craig Rice story collections were completed by other authors and published: The Name is Malone (1958); The People vs. Withers and Malone, a 1963 short story collection completed by author Stuart Palmer, featuring his beloved Hildegarde Withers character; the short story collection Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002); and The Pickled Poodles (1960) by Larry M. Harris, a continuation of the John J. Malone series.

Sim Sala Bim! Now you see
The Great Movel, now you don't!
HWC co-stars Pat O’Brien and George Murphy had much happier endings to their life stories. O’Brien had a long career and lived to the ripe old age of 84. George Murphy served as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, and retired from acting in 1952. He was eventually elected Senator of California in 1964 and served for six years.

With so many Rice books and films I haven’t caught up with yet, I think it’s time for a Craig Rice renaissance, in both books and films! Who’s with me?

We crown Helene the Queen of Screwball Noir!

I don't know about you guys, but
I'm a sucker for a romantic ending!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

LADY ON A TRAIN: The Singing Detective

My interest in the Christmas-season 1945 comedy-thriller Lady on a Train (LoaT, not to be confused with SoaT, the abbreviation of Strangers on a Train) and its beloved star, singer/actress Deanna Durbin, began with our friend and fellow classic movie blogger Michael Troutman of I Shoot the Pictures. In December 2011, Michael had innocently let it slip that that he wasn’t acquainted with the winsome Miss Durbin’s movies. Three of our awesome fellow bloggers felt strongly that it was time for Michael to become acquainted with Durbin’s work: whistlinggypsy of Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows; Page of My Love of Old Hollywood; and Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood. Together they, shall we say, encouraged Michael, and the result was a delightful six-part series of blog posts titled My Deanna Durbin Punishment (see links at the end of this post).

I’ve always loved comedy-thrillers ranging from Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers and My Favorite Brunette, to Charade, to Foul Play and so many more, so when I read Michael’s blog post about LoaT, I couldn’t resist tracking it down, and I’m glad I did, because it was great fun!  So I thank Michael—and by extension, whistlinggypsy, Page, and Jessica—for helping me discover another comedy-thriller to add to my collection. I’m delighted to say it was well worth seeing—again and again, at that!

As heroine Nikki Collins, Deanna Durbin
has great pipes and great gams!

LoaT’s script was based on a story by Leslie Charteris of The Saint fame, with a screenplay by Edmund Beloin (My Favorite Brunette; My Favorite Spy; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; The Great Lover; Donovan’s Reef) and Robert O’Brien (By the Light of the Silvery Moon; Fancy Pants; The Lemon Drop Kid; and many TV series, including The Red Skelton Hour; Here’s Lucy; and The Lucy Show). That’s a fairly long way from the classic 1936 short Every Sunday” that put both Durbin and Judy Garland on the map (more about that here, at the TCM Web site)!  By 1945, the young girl with the amazingly mature, operatic coloratura singing voice had blossomed into a lovely young woman. To this reader, Durbin proved to have legs in every sense of the term, showcasing her gorgeous gams and her flair for fast-talking comedy in the opening scene on the titular train, where we meet Durbin’s character, San Francisco debutante Nikki Collins. While Nikki waits for her cross-country train to stop at New York City’s Grand Central Station (yay, another comedy-suspense movie set in my hometown!), she’s devouring another page of the juicy mystery novel she’s been reading, The Case of the Headless Bride by best-selling mystery author Wayne Morgan. And what a page-turner it is, as Nikki reads aloud:

"'I killed him. I had to kill him. I thought I’d be safe.’ Over and over, the words droned through her mind. And yet, with a cold, horrible certainty, she knew that death was outside….”

Is there any shadow of a doubt that Nikki saw
a rear window murder? (Note the telltale slippers!)

Yeah, outside the elevated window of another passing train, where Nikki sees two men: an older, white-haired gent, and an apparently younger man in a hat. The men argue, and then Hat Man pulls down the window shade, and *WHAM*, here comes death by crowbar!  Naturally, nobody believes Nikki, especially when she’s toting The Case of the Headless Bride to read while she’s waiting for someone to take her seriously. Nikki’s credibility is apparently often in question since she tends to jump to conclusions, like the time she was sure a buck-toothed gent at the Golden Gate Bridge was in fact a Japanese spy. It’s up to our spunky, adorably sly (if somewhat naïve) heroine to take the initiative, solve the case, and redeem herself!

Wayne Morgan demonstrates the stark realistic
storytelling that keeps thriller readers eager for more!
Nikki is visiting her Aunt Martha in The Big Apple for her Christmas vacation. Her busy but loving dad in San Francisco has provided her with an Assistant in Charge of Keeping Nikki Out of Trouble: the jittery Mr. Haskell from the New York office. Haskell is played by one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite character actors, the ever-delightful and effortlessly funny Edward Everett Horton, whose long career ranged from films such as The Gay Divorcee; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; Arsenic and Old Lace; and even the Fractured Fairy Tales narrator on TV’s animated Rocky and His Friends. Poor Mr. Haskell is always being charmingly and hilariously bamboozled by Nikki, and/or being knocked out by no-goodniks; I hope they pay him well!  Even when poor Haskell gets a little down time, Nikki’s still on the case, dashing around New York and environs, getting mixed up in hairstyles and Howard Greer fashions ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (one of her hairstyles is a double-bun Princess Leia would have been proud to wear).

Mr. Haskell may feel fresh as a daisy
after being clobbered by bad guys,
but he looks like a black-eyed susan to us!
Amateur detective Nikki attempts to contact mystery author Wayne Morgan for help, and she gets a break when she tracks down the increasingly bewitched, bothered, bewildered  and eventually happily besotted Wayne (David Bruce from A Dispatch from Reuters; The Sea Hawk; Sergeant York; a bit part in The Letter; and the dark holiday noir Christmas Holiday with Durbin). She catches him in a movie theater where she tries to talk about the murder with Wayne, much to the annoyance of the moviegoers—especially Wayne’s fiancée, self-centered fashion model Joyce Williams (Patricia Morison from The Fallen Sparrow; the 1946 Sherlock Holmes mystery Dressed to Kill; Without Love; and ironically, two films you’d think might be musicals but weren’t: Song of the Thin Man and the Oscar-winning The Song of Bernadette), who’s trying to enjoy a newsreel of herself modeling the latest fashions. Nikki’s persistence pays off when she sees a newsreel about the dead man! The deceased is ship magnate Josiah Waring (Thurston Hall of The Great Lie; Theodora Goes Wild; and the role he’s best known for here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.: blustery credit-stealing boss Mr. Pierce in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). And wouldn’t you know the newsreel mentions the whereabouts of The Willows, where the Waring estate is? (Nowadays, the joint would probably be crawling with armed guards and other kinds of security!)

Did you know Nikki is a master of disguise?
Here she is as an unusually
pensive Pippi Longstocking!
When Nikki trespasses and finagles her way into The Willows, she arrives just in time for the reading of Josiah Waring’s will. We find that Waring was not only a ship magnate, but also a chick magnet when our amateur sleuth Nikki is mistaken for nightclub entertainer Margo Martin, Waring’s beloved mistress. (I was rather touched when we finally met the real Margo Martin, played by Maria Palmer from By the Light of the Silvery Moon. In her scenes, she truly seems to be heartbroken over Waring’s death.)  Samuel S. Hinds, who played Edward G. Robinson’s retired pal in Scarlet Street, appears briefly as the Waring family’s lawyer in the gathering at The Willows. Before Nikki knows it, she’s embroiled in all manner of suspense and zaniness, with incriminating bedroom slippers and two Waring heirs making eyes at her: Arnold (Dan Duryea of Ball of Fire, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street, in a more likable mold), and his brother Jonathan (versatile Ralph Bellamy, best known for never getting the girl but always charming about it in comedies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, as well as thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby, not to mention Team B. fave Trading Places).  As you can see, LoaT is brimming with great character actors, including Elizabeth Patterson (best known by TV fans as babysitter Mrs. Trumbull on TV’s I Love Lucy, but also a memorable character actress in Intruder in the Dust; Hail the Conquering Hero; Miss Tatlock’s Millions; I Married a Witch; Remember the Night, and more) and George Coulouris (Arabesque; Murder on the Orient Express; Citizen Kane, appropriate considering the Citizen Kane shoutouts in LoaT).

Clever Nikki sneaks onto the
Waring estate disguised as a weather vane!
And of course, with Deanna Durbin as the star, you know music will fill the air!  The songs really do fit smoothly into the plot. My favorites among her numbers here include her soulful performance of “Silent Night” sung to her dad—while Waring chauffeur/henchman Danny (Allen Jenkins from Ball of Fire; The Falcon Takes Over; Pillow Talk; TV’s animated Top Cat) waits to strangle her, only to find himself all teary-eyed as Nikki sings. Music soothes the savage beast—at least until Danny knocks out Wayne and Mr. Haskell well after Nikki is safe! Then there’s our heroine’s hot, playfully sexy rendition of “Gimme a Little Kiss, Will Ya, Huh?,” sung to Wayne at The Circus Club, a theme nightclub that’s bigger than a Hollywood soundstage (with equally big doormen, including Lock Martin, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still). I got a kick out of that dreamy look in Wayne’s eyes! I must confess, however, that I thought Durbin’s torchy rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” could have been more torchy and less operatic; somehow I felt like she needed to cut loose a bit more with her rendition. Speaking of music, as a Miklos Rosza fan, I really enjoyed LoaT’s musical score; its blend of suspenseful notes and comical touches was perfect for the film. And I love that final scene; wonder if it’s where Alfred Hitchcock got the idea in North by Northwest?

Born Edna Mae Durbin on December 4th, 1921 in Canada (where my dear hubby and Team Bartilucci computer whiz Vinnie was born), in the 1930s and ’40s, wunderkind coloratura Durbin became to Universal what Judy Garland eventually became to MGM: a wholesome, wildly popular singing movie star. Durbin also proved to be a compelling actress in a Screen Guild Players radio version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt on CBS.

According to Margarita Landazuri’s TCM article, producer Felix Jackson married Durbin soon after making LoaT, but they divorced in 1948. Durbin retired from movies in 1950 and moved to France with her husband and LoaT director Charles David, who’d also been the production manager on La Chienne, remade in the U.S. as Scarlet Street. Durbin and David reportedly lived happily together until David’s death in 1999 at 92. As of this writing, Durbin is still alive and well and, by her own choice, happily out of the spotlight. Update: She died in her adopted country, France, on April 20th, 2013 at the age of 91.

Santa, baby, hurry down the chimney tonight!
(And bring me a blackjack in case of unexpected visitors, OK?)

Wanna follow Michael Troutman's My Deanna Durbin Punishment series? Here are the links!

Part 1 of Michael Troutman’s My Deanna Durbin Punishment series:

Part 2 of Michael Troutman’s My Deanna Durbin Punishment: First Love:

Part 3 of Michael Troutman’s My Deanna Durbin Punishment: It Started with Eve

Part 4 of Michael Troutman’s My Deanna Durbin Punishment: Can’t Help Singing

Part 5 of Michael Troutman’s review of Lady on a Train from I Shoot the Pictures: My Deanna Durbin Punishment
This joint has everything, even free bagels in your hair!

Turn around, Nikki!
There’s a clue in the newsreel

This time master-of-disguise Nikki goes undercover
as the chair-woman of the board!
Wayne and Nikki don’t care what people say about them
as long as their names are spelled right!
Nikki, I know we’re all economizing these days,
but hold out for the glass slipper instead!