Sunday, February 17, 2013

Across the Pacific: Pan-ama-demonium!

This post is part of the CMBA’s Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, running from February 17th through February 22nd, 2013. Enjoy!

After The Maltese Falcon became a hit in 1941, Warner Bros. wasted no time in following up with Across the Pacific (AtP) in 1942, reuniting its powerhouse stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, composer Adolph Deutsch,  and of course, director John Huston, this time working from a script by Richard Macaulay (They Drive By Night; The Roaring Twenties; Born to Kill), based on the serial Aloha Means Goodbye.  (Macauley was later known for testifying as a “friendly witness” before HUAC during the McCarthy era, but that’s a story for another time.)

AtP has plenty of suspense, romance, and flag-waving, what with the U.S. poised to enter World War 2 any minute.  The result was an entertaining adventure with that cheeky Huston feel, at once suspenseful and playful, while never forgetting that war is on the horizon and you can never be sure who to trust.  Only Peter Lorre was missing among the AtP cast—but he turned up just long enough to horse around, according to TCM’s Bret Wood: “Without informing his cast, Huston had Lorre enter the background as a waiter, clumsily disrupting the scene until announcing his presence with a wet kiss on the back of Astor’s neck.”  Oh, those impish Warner scamps!

Love, exciting and new! Come aboard, we're expecting you!
Would you believe I first saw AtP in colorized form?  Yes, that was back in the bad old days when Ted Turner thought people would turn up their pert little noses at black-and-white movies.  Instead, the colors looked muddy and just plain awful. Lovely Mary Astor’s lips looked grayblecch!  Give me glorious black-and-white anytime!

Even Canada, our friendly neighbor to the North,
won't let Rick fight!
Our story is set in 1941, where our hero Rick Leland (Bogart) is in the very un-heroic position of being dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army, with woman trouble indicated.  So our antihero Rick comes aboard the Genoa Maru, a ship heading toward Panama; after all, there’s always something a freelance adventurer can do to earn a few bucks!  Rick meets Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet), an American who seems to be a lot more sympathetic to the Japanese than most of us Yanks would’ve been during that era, being on the brink of war and all.  Another passenger, Joe Totsuiko (Victor Sen Yung, a.k.a. Sen Yung of The Letter; Number Two Son Jimmy Chan in the Charlie Chan movies; and Hop Sing on TV’s Bonanza, among others), is a sharp young Japanese-American who grew up in the U.S., and has almost the same hepcat lingo as Kookie from TV’s 77 Sunset Strip (*snap snap*).  But don’t underestimate his boyish charm and thick glasses; Joe’s jujitsu moves will knock you on your butt!

Romance on the high seas for Rick and Alberta...
War or no war, there’s always time for romance, by George!  Rick romances passenger Alberta Marlow (Astor, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, as she reminds me of my late Auntie Joy), who’s pretty gosh-darn glamorous for an unassuming little lady supposedly from a town called Medicine Hat.  (By the way, there really is a town called Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada!)  But hey, aren’t cruises supposed to be exciting and romantic?  While I don’t always agree with venerable New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther, I do agree with his comment about our leading lady: “Miss Astor is so beautiful a creature that you naturally know you must reserve your trust.”

...til mal-de-mere strikes! Can Alberta get a refund?
TCM’s Bret Wood goes on to say: “Once war was declared, it was difficult for the crew to hold onto their Japanese-American actors, who were suddenly considered a threat to security.  According to Astor, ‘a little indignation and some wire-pulling held them at least until the picture was finished.’ The Japanese actors were forced to endure a fair amount of racial stereotyping in the wartime film. Most speak pidgin English, while Victor Sen Yung was required to wear grotesque magnifying spectacles. In spite of this thinly disguised racism, Across the Pacific is in many ways respectful of Asian culture and in several instances attempts a serious understanding of the Japanese character and the philosophy of Judo.”

A pleasure cruise on the fab Genoa Maru!
Hope they got entertainment & all-you-can-eat buffets!
Our travelers sure do get their share of adventure and intrigue, eventually foiling a dastardly Japanese plot against the Panama Canal (keep in mind this was wartime in the 1940s, well before WW2 ended and the U.S. and Japan became chummy so everyone could make money on electronics and such.)  Happily, we discover Rick really is on the side of the angels; he’s working for amiable spymaster A.V. Smith (Charles Halton of To Be or Not To Be; The Best Years of our Lives; Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), who’s basically Rick’s spymaster for this mission. (He was gonna be reinstated once his mission was over, wasn’t he? I assume nothing!)  I enjoyed the swell repartee between Rick and Alberta. The dialogue is witty, fast, and peppery. For example:

Alberta: “I can do without money.”
Rick: “Stick with me and you’ll get plenty of practice.”

Rick notices Alberta’s comparatively skimpy cruise garb:
Rick: “I never saw anybody like you. You never have any clothes on.”
Alberta: “Well if anyone heard you complaining about it, they would put you in a psychopathic ward.”  (Note: Alberta’s so-called skimpy sea togs just looked like nice bathrobes and skirts to me, but this was 1942, so Astor’s fashions may well have seemed racy at the time!)

According to the TCM Web site, John Huston and many other Hollywood actors and filmmakers accepted commissions to become a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Huston was called into service just before AtP wrapped.  Vincent Sherman (Mr. Skeffington; The Young Philadelphians; and one of my favorites, All Through the Night) took over.

Um, this guy is just here to put
a refreshing mint on Rick's pillow, right?

Huston and his cast work together as beautifully as they did in their previous hit. Astor has always been deft at drama (The Great Lie, for which she won her 1942 Best Supporting Actress Oscar), but she’s also always had a flair for comedy, too (The Palm Beach Story being a delightful example).  Astor and Bogart are an engaging onscreen couple, whether they’re playful or serious.  In one running gag (literally), Astor’s Alberta Marlow makes a prim, hilarious victim of seasickness: “Even if I live, I’ll never be the same again.”  And don’t get her started on the ship’s bread pudding!  The action goes from sea to land, from New York City (where Alberta insists on Rick buying a new suit. Guess she never heard that line from The Spanish Prisoner: “Beware of all enterprises which require new clothes.”), and finally, from Cristobal to Panama where the action gets red hot.  No wonder Crowther had more to say about AtP: “It’s like having a knife to your ribs for an hour and a half.”  That’s in a good way, I assure you!
Careful who you drink with, Rick! Remember when you drank with that Gutman character who slipped you a Mickey in San Francisco?

Don't mind me, Mr. Leland, I'm just looking for my cufflinks!

Anyone got a compact?  My lips are delightfully schmeared after all this gunplay!

"Mine's bigger than yours." Actual dialogue from the movie!
Alberta tells Rick that passenger T. Oki is not okey-dokey! So much for all Japanese looking alike!

"Hey, hon, if we have a great time on this cruise, let's make a date at the Empire State Building a year from now!"
A great cast is worth repeating! Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Victor Sen Yung, Mary Astor

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wonder Man: Potato Salad Days!

It’s been said that our late loved ones are always with us, watching over us in the hereafter—but Danny Kaye takes the concept and runs with it in 1945’s supernatural RKO/Samuel Goldwyn comedy Wonder Man (WM)!  If you thought Danny was hilarious on his own, wait’ll you see him in the dual roles of famous nightclub star Buzzy Bellew and his brother Edwin Dingle!  As the Doublemint gum commercials, say, it’s double your pleasure, double your fun!

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (I Wake up Screaming, Sun Valley Serenade; several Charlie Chan films, among others), WM’s screenwriters included Up in Arms’ Don Hartman; Melville Shavelson from Kaye’s 1946 boxing romp The Kid From Brooklyn; Philip Rapp, creator of Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks; Arthur Sheekman, gag writer for The Marx Brothers; and Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, and Eddie Moran from Topper and Way Out West. If these fellas didn’t know their comic ghosts, I don’t know who would!  They say that too many cooks spoil the broth, but in this case, WM turned out to be a musical-comedy smorgasboard and a hip, hilarious, tuneful romp indeed!

From Borscht Belt tummler to Broadway star to multitalented movie star, Danny’s  secret weapon was Sylvia Fine, Danny’s brilliantly talented lyricist, composer, manager, and his wife from 1940 until Danny’s death in 1987.  Sylvia was truly the woman behind the man.  With her brilliant lyrics and wordplay, and Danny’s unbeatable talent and energy, they were an amazing power couple!

Sylvia & Danny:
They're so fine!
Danny’s first film, the 1944 service comedy Up in Arms, was a box-office hit. But with the theatrical release of WM in June 1945, Danny really knocked it out of the park—Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, that is!  As I’ve said in other TotED blog posts, as a native New Yorker, I enjoy watching movies where the action is set in any of New York City’s five boroughs.  I don’t even mind that WM was actually filmed at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in California and not NYC, since the cast, writers, and sets all have that New York feeling (not to be confused with that Barton Fink feeling).  Even better, the cast includes Huntz Hall, one of our favorite Bowery Boys, as a young sailer who unwittingly gets entangled in the wacky, ghostly hijinks.

We viewers first meet Buzzy Bellew (Kaye) as the star attraction at New York City’s posh Pelican Club (what the world needs now are more affordable swanky nightclubs!  But I digress….).  The brash and brassy Buzzy is as likable as he is zany and hyper, likable, bursting with energy.  To borrow a line from Steve Martin back in his stand-up comedy days, Buzzy is a wild and crazy guy (in the most entertaining ways, of course)!
Enough bad news! Where's the sports page?
Buzzy and his Pelican Club co-star, singer/dancer Midge Mallon (dynamite dancer and former Radio City Music Hall Rockette Vera-Ellen in her movie debut, followed by The Kid from Brooklyn; On the Town; White Christmas, and so much more!) have been a couple for a long time.  Although it’s clear that Buzzy and Midge are both into each other, somehow the cute, talented couple never quite manage to actually get hitched at any of their attempted weddings.  But Midge is a good sport about it, perhaps because Buzzy is always funny, sweet, and apologetic—or maybe because their Pelican Club colleague Monte Rossen (Donald Woods from Watch on the Rhine; True Grit; The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and more), is a decent, patient joe who’s willing to wait until Midge finally comes to her senses and realizes the devoted Monte is a better bet when it comes to building a life together. 

*POP* goes the marriage proposal!
Buzzy and Midge are betrothed at last!
Ah, but Buzzy’s serious this time, giving Midge a jack-in-the-box attached to a diamond ring!  Vera-Ellen is adorable as Midge, and she and Danny have delightful chemistry.  And what a dancer she was!  Ironically, according to the TCM Web site, even though Vera-Ellen had a perfectly swell singing voice, her numbers were dubbed!  I guess it was like when Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady:  they could sing, but apparently not quite well enough for the movies.  Go figure!

People can’t help loving Buzzy—except for notorious mobster, counterfeiter, and killer Ten-Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran, also making his film debut here)!  See, DA O’Brien (Otto Kruger of Murder, My Sweet; Saboteur; High Noon) and the Assistant DA (Richard Lane, best known to Boston Blackie fans as Inspector Farraday) needs Buzzy to testify in the murder trial, one of whose victims include one Choo-Choo Laverne, a fan dancer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Our antic, overly optimistic entertainer is too overconfident to let New York’s Finest provide him with police protection—not a smart move for a high-profile witness in a murder case, especially when Ten-Grand has just been released on bail!

What's this? Inspector Farraday in league with Jules Amthor?!

Alas, Buzzy realizes too late that he should’ve taken advantage of that police protection, or at least taken the time to read those ominous newspaper headlines splashed all over the news.  Instead, Buzzy makes a fatal splash as Ten-Grand’s strong-arm boys Chimp (Allen Jenkins of Ball of Fire, but this time in funny-yet-sinister-villain mode, as he was in Lady on a Train) and Torso (Edward Brophy, ditto, as he was in The Thin Man and All Through the Night) send Buzzy to sleep with the fishes in Prospect Park’s lake. You have to hand it to the writers for being able to make cold-blooded murder funny without being depressing!

Onstage, Buzzy and Midge are on a Bali high!
Enter Buzzy’s twin brother Edwin Dingle (also played by Danny, natch), a quiet, bookish librarian and researcher.  Edwin and Buster (Buzzy’s real name) haven’t been in touch since young Buster ran away to try his hand at show business, rechristening himself as Buzzy Bellew.  Well, the Dingle boys are about to have a family reunion to catch up with each other, avenge Buzzy’s death, and put Ten-Grand Jackson behind bars for good—but that doesn’t mean ectoplasmic Buzzy won’t liven things up with merry, macabre hijinks along the way!  This isn’t Hamlet, you know! What’s more, romance is blooming between Edwin and his charming co-worker Ellen Shanley (Virginia Mayo, my favorite among Danny’s leading ladies since I saw her in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).  Keep your eyes peeled for Natalie Schaefer—yes, Gilligan’s Island’s Lovey Howell herself!—appearing briefly and amusingly as a pesky patron of the local library who’s both bewildered and fascinated by Edwin’s ambidextrous abilities.  But Edwin’s date with Ellen takes a hilariously crackpot turn when Buzzy’s ghostly music gets Edwin all farshimmelt on the way to pick up potato salad for their dinner date, and…well, you may never look at deli food with a straight face again, especially with the hilariously frustrated S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the deli proprietor!   Another highlight: Danny’s madcap sneezy rendition of the classic Russian song “Otchi Chornniya,” and the climactic opera that collapses into a side-splitting free-for-all!  Hey, wouldn’t WM and A Night at the Opera be a swell double-feature? 

I love a man who can cook and wear an apron with confidence!
Fun Fact:  In addition to WM, Steve Cochran and Virginia Mayo also co-starred in such Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning classics as White Heat and and The Best Years of our Lives.  Cochran also co-starred in many of Chester Morris’ aforementioned Boston Blackie movies (a favorite here at Team Bartilucci HQ).  I love the charming chemistry between Kaye and Mayo!  WM was Virginia Mayo's first leading lady role with Danny; before that, she had a brief uncredited role in Up in Arms.

"You can lose your mind/
When brothers are two of a kind!"
Exasperated S.Z. Sakall is his usual "Cuddles"-some self! 
WM did very well indeed come Oscar time, winning for the Best Special Effects for John Fulton’s cinematography and A.W. Johns’ sound effects. Leo Robin and David Rose’s number for Vera-Ellen, “So in Love,” got an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Song, as well as Best Music Scoring for a Musical Picture, under Ray Heindorf’s direction.  But I can’t complain about  Heindorf losing, considering the Best Music Scoring Oscar that year went to another of my all-time favorites, Miklós Rózsa for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound!   According to the TCM Web site, at one point in WM, Buzzy impishly slips his torso (no, not Edward Brophy’s character!) on a bust at Prospect Park, quipping, “What is this, trick photography?”  Definitely not “palpably inadequate!”  WM is one of  Danny Kaye’s very best movies!

Dead or alive, Buzzy sure knows how to make an entrance! Hiya, Bro!
Sailor Huntz Hall & pals are gobsmacked at Edwin's supernatural powers, courtesy of Buzzy!

All right, opera singer dame, give someone else a turn!

Aw, don't you just love a happy ending?