Sunday, March 24, 2013

NIGHTMARE ALLEY: You've Got the Power!

No doubt about it:  Back in 1947, 20th Century Fox’s Nightmare Alley (NA) left movie audiences shaken and stirred in ways that would’ve startled even James Bond!  Even the ominous score by Cyril Mockridge (My Darling Clementine; The Dark Corner; Miracle on 34th Street) plays like a carnival from Hell, deftly setting the sordid tone, and I mean that as a compliment.  How ironic that producer George Jessel was a multi-talented entertainer who had a big hit with what I consider the evil opposite of Nightmare Alley, namely the heartwarming classic song “My Mother's Eyes,” one of my dear late mom’s favorite tunes. Even though the movie version of NA was softened a bit to give star Tyrone Power at least a little shot at redemption, it was still strong stuff to unnerved audiences seeing their beloved matinee idol in smooth scoundrel mode.

Jules Furthman (The Big Sleep; To Have and HaveNot; Rio Bravo) adapted the film based on William Lindsay Gresham’s controversial 1946 novel which, according to Wikipedia, had in turn been inspired by conversations with a former carnival worker while they volunteered with the Loyalist forces in The Spanish Civil War. Gresham got started on the novel, his first, while working as an editor for a “true crime” pulp magazine in New York City in the 1940s.  He outlined the plot and wrote the first six chapters over a period of two years, then finished the book in four months. Each chapter was represented by a different Tarot card.  Director Edmund Goulding’s films included The Great Lie, Grand Hotel; and The Razor’s Edge, the latter reuniting him with star Tyrone Power. I’ll admit I used to think Power was just another handsome pretty-boy matinee idol who was mostly style and little substance.  It took Witness for the Prosecution to make me realize that, to borrow a line from The Producers, "there’s more to him then there is to him," and NA confirmed my change of mind!

Forget the "missing link" - this carnival needs hot young
Stan Carlisle in a T-shirt! You're hired, kid!
We meet handsome young carnival roustabout Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Power), who’s just begun his carny career. Standing in the carnival crowd, Stan checks out the Ten-in-One, listening in almost morbid fascination to the spiel introducing the carnival’s geek.  The geek is usually a guy down on his luck who can only get work biting the heads off live chickens. Goulding cleverly keeps us viewers from actually seeing the geek show onscreen, distracting us with noisy crowds and shrieks from squawking chickens and customers, but they get the point across well.  Stan realizes he’s found his calling. As he explains to co-worker and casual lover Mademoiselle Zeena, a.k.a. Zeena Krumbein (the fabulous Joan Blondell of Public Enemy; Three on a Match; Dames and more, still looking fab to boot!), “Lady, I was made for it…This gets me.  I like it.  All of it.”

Pete predicts: "I see a little silhouette of a man...
Scaramouche! Scaramouche!"
Bruno and Molly: Beauty & the Big Lug!
Zeena takes care of her husband Pete (Ian Keith, who started in silent films like the 1935 Three Musketeers; the 1956 Ten Commandments; and many film, stage, and TV appearances).  She and Pete used to have a great mind-reading act, but Zeena cheated on Pete, breaking his heart and driving him to drink. Zeena feels terribly guilty about it, and she’s been trying to make it up to the melancholy Pete ever since, hoping to get Pete back on his feet with "the cure."  Meanwhile, Stan has his eye on Molly (Coleen Gray of Kiss of Death; Red River; Kansas City Confidienital).  She’s an innocent with a big boyfriend, Bruno, the carnival’s Strong Man  (Team Bartilucci favorite Mike Mazurki of Murder, My Sweet; The Shanghai Gesture; Some Like it Hot, and more!), who jealously tries to interrupt whenever Stan is nearby.

When Stan learns of the mind-reading act Zeena and Pete had before they joined the carnival, he tries to convince them to revive the act, but Zeena won’t go for it: she and Pete are saving the act to sell as money for their retirement, plus Pete is too drunk to do the bit well  any more.  Stan’s mind-reading act starts to catch on when even the crusty local marshal becomes convinced of Stan’s “second sight” after a poignant demonstration.  But Zeena is spooked when her tarot cards show death - and sure enough, Pete is found dead.  To his horror, Stan realizes he unwittingly gave Pete wood alcohol to drink instead of his usual moonshine!  Stan may be shocked, but he’s no fool, so he keeps his mouth shut.  By the way, I'd like to state  for the record that Joan Blondell and Coleen Gray are fabulous babes!

She was only Frankenstein's wife,
but she had a great pair of bolts!
Meanwhile, Stan and Molly become attracted to each other.  It doesn’t hurt that Stan also loves Molly’s ability with the mind-reading gimmick!  When Bruno eventually finds out Molly and Stan have become an *ahem* item, he and the rest of the carnies force him into a shotgun marriage, literally!  But it becomes a blessing in disguise, because  now Stan and Molly have the code to themselves, launching them into the Smart Set in the swanky Spode Room (Spode Room?!) in Chicago.  That code turns out to be a mighty useful wedding gift when Stan polishes up their routine, repurposing himself as the swanky and wildly successful mind-reader, The Great Stanton, with loving Molly as his lovely assistant!

"I'm tellin' ya, there was a stage where she worked,
and some booths!"
Stan's getting're red-hot, Doc!
As I’ve mentioned in the fabulous film noir magazine The Dark Pages, Mazurki’s 56-year screen career began in his uncredited film debut, 1934’s Belle of the Nineties, and he continued to work in films and TV until his death in 1990.  His roles ranged from comedies (Neptune’s Daughter; Some Like It Hot) to suspense and film noir (The Strangler in Jules Dassin's 1950 noir Night and the City), including one of Mazurki’s earliest roles in the 1945 movie version of Dick Tracy, as villain Splitface—and in one of his final roles, the 1990 film version of Dick Tracy!  In fact, I first saw Mazurki on TV’s The Monkees when I was a kid, making him literally part of my childhood!  Fittingly, Mazurki and his old friend actor/producer Dick Powell also appeared together in several Dick Powell Theatre episodes. Mazurki even appeared in singer Rod Stewart’s 1984 music video “Infatuation,” as a bodyguard forcefully protecting alluring Kay Lenz from obsessed shutterbug Stewart.

Nightmare Alley has long since been hailed as a classic, but upon its 1947 release, it wasn’t exactly the feel-good movie of the year!  20th Century-Fox gave it a strong ad campaign, but audiences protested what was then scandalous content. 

The Great Stanton's next great feat: guessing what's
in the pinata at the fabulous Spode Room!
In the great tradition of “Six Degrees of Separation,” Murder, My Sweet and Nightmare Alley led to great changes for the better in the careers of both Mazurki and Dick Powell. As a result, neither Nightmare Alley nor Murder, My Sweet would pack as much of a punch without Mazurki!

As sordid as Nightmare Alley must have seemed back in 1947, the wily, out-for-himself Stan isn’t quite as sharp as he thinks he is.  Beneath the slick demeanor he’s created for himself, there are chinks in Stan’s armor, especially when he encounters Zeena and Bruno again.  Even with The Great Stanton’s nightclub success, the small but smoldering spark of Stan’s guilt over Pete’s accidental death, and the superstition underlying Zeena’s tarot cards, are slowly, surreptitiously wearing down Stan’s confidence, like Chinese water torture.

At the height of Stan and Molly’s success with their mind-reading act, who should drop by to say “Howdy” but Stan and Molly’s old carny friends Bruno and Zeena!  Innocent Molly is happy to see them, but Stan is less than thrilled, certain that Molly must have blabbed about using Zeena and Pete’s code for their classy act.  A friendly game of cards should loosen things up — until Zeena goes for her Tarot deck.  Stan doesn’t want Zeena to flip that tarot card, but she does so anyway.  It comes up as “The Hanged Man”— uh-oh, maybe Stan should quit while he’s ahead!  Anyone for Go Fish?  Later, Stan gets a massage to calm himself down, only to find he can’t help smelling the rubbing alcohol, reminding Stan of the wood alcohol with which he’d accidentally fatally poisoned Pete.

Dr. Lilith Ritter's a shrink,
but no shrinking violet!
An elegant woman turns up at the Spode Room and catches Stan’s act.  She looks very interested — a groupie, perhaps?  It turns out the lady in question is Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker, from Call Northside 777; The Big Combo; the 1945 version of Brewster’s Millions). The lady also happens to be a shrink, though I’m sure she’d prefer to be referred to as a psychiatrist. She’ll be called another name or two as the film goes on when she and Stan forge an unholy alliance to exploit Lilith’s patients for fun and profit!  *Tsk tsk*, what’s the world coming to when you can’t even trust your therapist to keep your confidences?  Wait’ll the AMA hears about this!  Walker makes a magnificent femme fatale, with her Mona Lisa smile hiding plenty of trouble.

Is it all just nerves, or is fate messing with Stan, or is it payback time for all of Stan’s chicanery? Things come to a head when Stan collapses while doing a reading in his act about a young girl named Caroline, now deceased.  Now it seems the resourceful Stan has branched out again and become a mentalist (where’s Simon Baker when you need him?) with the ability to talk to the dead — so versatile!  Of course, it helped that Stan’s new cohort Dr. Ritter has joined forces with Stan to get her unsuspecting patients’ files for authenticity.  The rich, powerful Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes), who misses his late daughter terribly, is interested in what Stan has to say, explaining to Molly, “I told him he wasn’t ready yet for spiritual communion. He should prepare himself a little more with prayer and good works.  He gave me enough to start building the finest tabernacle in the country…and he’s going to buy me a radio station of my own.”
Stan, you've let yourself go!
Life ain't pretty when you're a carny geek!
There’s always a catch, of course.  Stan’s catch is that Grindle wants proof.  So Stan fixes Molly up to look like his beloved “Dory,” despite Molly’s misgivings.  The ruse is nearly completed when Molly’s guilty conscience gets the best of her.  Dr. Ritter swaps Stan’s money from the scam for a measly $150, and she tries to convince Stan that he’s losing his mind because of his guilt complex — as if!  Trying to do the right thing for Molly’s sake (for once!), Stan puts Molly on a train, and he lives the hobo life.  Sooner or later, all roads lead to Rome, er, home eventually, and Stan finds the only job available in the carnival: the geek!  Oh, how the mighty have fallen!  But there’s hope for redemption and love after all when it turns out Molly is working at this carnival as well.

Vinnie games the rig - It's amazing how good a look at the world of a carnival sideshow this film is, and from so many years ago.  It's fun to hear them talking about the "Ten-in-one", a classic setup of carnivals where they promise ten unique acts or performers for one fee, a dime back in the day.  Of course, in a classic ten-in-one, each act would be selling souvenir photos, or pamphlets on how to juggle, or the like, and a ten-cent admission could end up costing you a couple dollars at the end.  It's also always fun to hear the original definition of "geek" as well.
One of the things about this film that just amazes me is the fact that they explain, clearly and distinctly, for all to see, how carny psychics (a term which here means "all psychics") con people.  Stan is briefly fooled by a fortune telling that seems to speak to him personally, only to learn that he's just had a "cold reading."  The psychic will drop a bunch of very generic statements onto the table that could refer to anything.  The mark will do all the work for them, figuring out what the vague clues mean.  Saying "I see an 'M'..." will get the mark to pore through all the dead people they know for one whose name starts with M.  It's easy to learn, as Stan does in the film, and soon he's got people wrapped around his finger.
Of course, people will ever claim that yes, sure there are some fraudsters out there, but THIS guy is the emis.  And all I say is to watch any of the TV psychics, like the guy on the Sci-Fi channel (a delicious irony), and watch how they throw out only the most tenuous of feelers, and the person being read will grab onto them, inferring meaning where none was implied.

Here's the address for more of this awesome film noir magazine:

The Dark Pages
P.O. Box 2716
Chicago, IL 60609-2716

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Mary Astor Blogathon is Coming in May!

May 3rd through May 10th, 2013
Co-Hosted by Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci of Tales of the Easily Distracted
and R.A. Kerr of Silver Screenings.

It all started in February with the CMBA’s recent Fabulous Films of The 1940s Blogathon.  For my TotED post, I blogged about one of my longtime favorites, the World War 2 comedy-thriller Across the Pacific (1941), starring three of my favorite classic film stars, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet.  (They were all awesome in The Maltese Falcon, too, of course, but I’m sure others would love to tackle this classic; don’t want to be greedy!)  As the comments rolled in, it became clear that many of us participating in the Blogathon also love the witty, beautiful, versatile Ms. Astor!  (As a bonus, Mary has always reminded me of my Auntie Joy, my wonderful Mom’s older sister; but I digress…)  I began to joke with other bloggers about the possibility of a Mary Astor Blogathon, and people were liking the idea, and happily, a Blogathon was born!

This wouldn’t be strictly a CMBA blogathon, but simply a fun, casual affair open to all who love Mary's movies, and wish to participate.

While we won't keep people from doing the same films, we will let everyone know what films have been "taken" on this page, so you can keep track. 

Young Mary Astor anxiously awaits the Blogathon in her honor!
To sign up, visit the main Blogathon page and leave a comment with your info, or contact either myself, Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci or R.A. Kerr to ask any questions!

Click for more details about signing up for our Mary Astor Blogathon HERE!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dangerously They Live - Garfield and Fiends

This post is part of the John Garfield Blogathon, hosted by Patti of They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To, running from March 1st through March 4th, 2013. Enjoy!

In 1941, John Garfield’s often-turbulent life was in transition—and this was before World War 2 sent the whole world reeling!  Having achieved stage stardom in New York City’s Group Theatre with his performance in Awake and Sing, then moving on to bigger Broadway success as the title character in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, and then becoming a movie star with the Lane Sisters in Four Daughters in 1938, Garfield was on a roll—until William Holden got the the Golden Boy role in the 1939 movie version that our man Garfield had created on the Great White Way!  Warner Bros. stepped in with the sweet consolation prize of a long-term contract.  But according to Richard Harland Smith at TCM's Web site, Garfield wasn’t really feeling it with his next projects, such as The Sea Wolf, in which Garfield was billed below co-stars Edward G. Robinson and Ida Lupino.  So Garfield kicked his agents at Lyon & Lyon to the curb, joining forces with super-agent Lew Wassermann and business manager Bob Roberts to help Garfield set up his own production company.

Smiling Jane Graystone, visiting the U.S. for the first time, looks forward to a vacation chock full of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolets….
…until Eddie Mars turns up! Didn’t that bounder
learn his lesson in The Big Sleep?!
Smith makes an excellent case that Garfield was eventually drawn to Dangerously They Live (DTL) (1941) because the script by writer/producer Marion Parsonnet (Gilda; My Forbidden Past; I’ll Be Seeing You) surely would have appealed to him because he was a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League long before America entered World War 2 in December, 1941.  No doubt Garfield enthusiastically approved of the film’s uncompromising depiction of German agents wreaking havoc in the free world; I sure would!

Directed by Robert Florey (from Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Cocoanuts; Meet Boston Blackie; TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Dick Powell Theatre), we meet our heroine, Jane Graystone (Nancy Coleman in her film debut; she also co-starred in Kings Row; Mourning Becomes Electra; The Gay Sisters; and TV’s Ryan’s Hope), a lovely lass with a slight British lilt in her voice.  Jane seems to be checking out the sights and sounds of The Big Apple as she checks in with another British gent. What’s with all the U.K. visitors? Is there a Doctor Who Con in town?  But judging from the men giving Jane the hairy eyeball as she innocently grabs a cab, our heroine will be forced to confront the aforementioned Big Apple's worms lurking in our otherwise fair city!

Hmm, I’m kinda liking the way Dr. Mike Lewis
displays his bedside manner!
Before you can say, “Where’s Traveler’s Aid?,” a henchman identified as John (John Ridgely of The Big Sleep; The Man Who Came to Dinner; Air Force) hangs around the the British Export Bureau.  Somehow I don’t think John's there to buy Travelers Cheques. Sure enough, Jane’s cab driver deliberately smashes the car into a wall, with a little help from from the fiendish cabbie.  Pandemonium reigns, and Jane is brought to the hospital as evil John and his cabbie cohort beat a hasty retreat!

Enter chipper, cocky-yet-likable Dr. Michael “Mike” Lewis (Garfield), as he gives Jane a through examination:

Jane: “I’ve got all my arms and legs and everything?”
Mike: “Yes, and believe me, they’re worth keeping.”
Dr. Mike looks forward to treating temporary amnesia victim Jane
like other doctors look forward to Christmas!
Nice to know he’s serious about his work!
As Mike admits Jane to the hospital, our anxious damsel-in-distress can’t remember a thing about herself.  Mike’s examination of his pretty new patient indicates temporary amnesia all right, giving Mike a perfect opportunity to fully examine a temporary amnesia patient, something he’s apparently been wanting to do for ages. How’s that for on-the-job training?

Before long, Mike gets a visit from Jane’s dad, John Goodwin (Moroni Olsen of The Glass Key; Pride of the Marines, also starring Garfield; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious) turns up to aid his darling daughter.  Looks like a real fatherly, pillar-of-the-community type…but Jane doesn’t recognize him, either, and she swears the photos he brought to help kick-start her memory aren’t doing the trick, either.  It’s gradually dawning on our stalwart sawbones that Jane’s scared, and not just because of this alleged amnesia!  She finally gets alone with Mike — no, not because of his bedside manner or his attractive tush:

Jane: “You’re a good doctor, but you weren’t there when I was born, and I was.  That’s not my father.”

Mike (humoring her): “Now take it easy.  Everything will be all right.”

Jane:  “Yes, if you’ll stop humoring me and listen!  I work for British Intelligence, and that man is not my father.  He and his gang are trying to find out what I know.  Would you do me a favor?  Keep your eyes and ears open, and please never be far away from me?”

Call me paranoid, but Jane’s Dad strikes me as creepy,
not fatherly. Maybe he needs cuddlier glasses!
Mike does so, and during Jane’s hospital stay, she and Mike get to know and become increasingly fond of each other during their otherwise increasingly sinister predicament. But now Jane must keep the amnesia gambit going, or it’ll be curtains for both of them—and we don’t mean the drapes in the Psychotic Game Room! In the meantime, at least Mike and Jane can enjoy the lovely melody “You’re Not So Easy to Forget” in the background.  If fans of MGM’s Thin Man movies listen carefully, they’ll hear that song in the final Thin Man movie, Song of the Thin Man (1947).  It’s a nice touch, considering the film’s amnesia motif!

Dr. Mike and Head Nurse Johnson (Lee Patrick from The Maltese Falcon; Auntie Mame; Vertigo) discuss who’s going to pay for Jane’s hospital tab:
Mike: “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.”
Head Nurse Johnson:   “With what?”
Mike:   “Don’t tell me you prefer blood.”
Head Nurse Johnson: “Not yours; I like it red.  Did you find out who she is yet?”
Mike: “No, she can’t remember a thing.”
Head Nurse Johnson:
“I don’t know what a brilliant student of mental diseases would do to find out a girl’s name, but I’d check her laundry mark.”

Mike:  “Not bad, Sherlock—but they may be in Chinese.”
Hmm, could it be mere coincidence that Jane’s laundry mysteriously goes AWOL soon afterward?  Are Head Nurse Johnson and/or the other busy little elves at the hospital just being unwittingly overzealous about putting away patients’ clothes, or is there something more sinister afoot?  If this story wasn’t set in 1941, I bet there would be lawsuits galore!

When it comes time for Jane to leave the hospital, it seems she and Mike just might catch a break:  Mike’s older colleague, Dr. Ingersoll (Raymond Massey from Abe Lincoln in Illinois; The Woman in the Window; Arsenic and Old Lace) agrees to let Mike come home with Jane to help her emotional healing—where we find out for sure that Dr. Ingersoll is, to borrow a line from cartoonist Mark Martin of CBG’s 20 Nude Girls 20, a “bad mans!”  Mike and Jane’s lives get more fearful and paranoid every day.  Seems Jane’s faux dad Mr. Goodwin and Dr. Ingersoll are really Nazi scum, and they’re tormenting the poor groundskeeper,  Mr. Steiner (Christian Rub from You Can’t Take It With You; he’s also the voice of Geppetto in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio), who’s under these creeps’ collective thumb.  With the villains packing heat and doing a fine job of keeping our heroes under control and away from anyone who could help them  (their most potent weapon seems to be the aforementioned Hairy Eyeball), the war of nerves alone makes escape harder than getting Alicia Huberman out of Alex Sebastian’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious!  Where are Humphrey Bogart and his tough yet lovable Runyunesque pals from All Through the Night when you need them?!

Jane and her protector Mike couldn't be safer in Dr. Raymond Massey’s care; after all, he’s Honest Abe Lincoln! Then again, he was also evil Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace! Yikes!

Aha! It’s the ol’ Halifax trick, like in Across the Pacific!

In today's news, minor accident on Fifth Avenue leads to romance!