What’s the Definition of a Movie Star?

I’m sure there are movie critics who have their own takes on this question.  I’ve never thought much about who the “real” movie stars were because what I was interested in was which were the good movies.  But recently I’ve been watching some old movies that were not in the top 100 movies of all time.  In fact, some of them were pretty bad.  The plots were hackneyed and the scripts were poorly written and some of the actors and actresses were pretty awful.

You might ask why I would do this.  It’s a combination of things.  Firstly, they were on Turner Classic Movies and I get that channel on my cable television subscription.  But the other reason is that I’ve just seen the good movies so often I need a break.  Even a great movie can be worn out by too frequent viewing.  So, I’ve been watching some stinkers.

I recorded a couple of movies with William Powell that I’d never heard of.  One was called “Lawyer Man” that also starred Joan Blondell.  It’s an early film from 1932 and the plot includes all kinds of stereotypical plot elements, dialog and characters that fairly scream “B” movie.  I wouldn’t recommend this movie highly although it was amusing because of the leads.

But what was obvious to me was that William Powell was a movie star.  And what that means is that regardless of the role or movie William Powell is in, he’s William Powell.  Whether he’s a lawyer or a private detective or a doctor or a stockbroker or a down on his luck everyman, he’s, unmistakably, the same person.  The persona that Powell had created is what the producers and directors wanted from him in all his films.  In one film he might be a hobo, in another a rich nobleman but in both cases, these were just the vicissitudes of life and they didn’t change his character.

This differs from a real actor like Lawrence Olivier.  When he plays Henry V, he’s a gallant hero.  When he plays Richard III, he’s a heartless monster.  And when he’s Hamlet he’s a lost soul.  Olivier becomes what the part requires.  But when we’re looking to spend an hour with a witty, pleasant, intelligent man we’d rather have William Powell.  He’ll work his way through the plot and whenever he’s on the screen we’ll be pleased.  The character William Powell plays is the man you’d wish was sitting next to you on a long train ride.  He’ll have stories to tell and probably has a deck of cards in his coat pocket and when his wife or girlfriend shows up, she’ll be a smart cute funny dame.  And if an armed robber shows up in the railway car Powell will manage to knock him out and tie him up with no apparent effort.

The movie stars I can think of were all of the sort that produced a character.  Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant always played the same part with slight differences to align with the plot and character details.  But they almost never were cast against type.  Of course, these were the pictures they made once they had reached star status.  As journeymen they had to take whatever roles they were given.  You can see this transition in someone like Humphrey Bogart.  When he started out, he had to play a lot of vicious gangsters and there was very little nuance in these roles.  But once he had done the Maltese Falcon, he was allowed to find his “type.”  He became the tough guy with a brain.  And at that point audiences knew what to expect from Bogey.

As I said, I generally am looking for a movie with a good plot and decent acting.  But there is something to be said for trying to match a movie to a mood.  If I need to relax and enjoy a reuben sandwich and a cold drink I’ll probably want a Western with John Wayne or Gary Cooper.  And If I need my spirits lifted, I’ll watch a Jimmy Stewart film or a W.C. Fields farce.  But if I’m ever homesick for the New York City that used to exist, I’ll look for a William Powell movie.  And maybe it never really existed but with William Powell to walk you through it will feel like home.  At least to me.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“The Shop Around the Corner” is an MGM movie starring Jimmy Stewart that combines elements of comedy, drama and romance to tell the story of a retail store in Budapest, Hungary called Matuschek and Company.  Mr. Matuschek, played by Frank Morgan is the owner of a leather goods store that is struggling to survive at the end of the Great Depression.  Matuschek is enthusiastic, self-important and comically hot-headed.

His lead salesman is Alfred Kralik, played by Stewart.  Kralik is intelligent, earnest and falling in love with a woman he’s never met.  He’s in an anonymous pen-pal relationship with a woman that he knows simply as “dear friend.”  As it turns out dear friend also happens to be his co-worker Klara Novak, played by Margaret Sullavan.  But in their real life Kralik and Klara detest each other.  In addition to this comedy of errors love/hate relationship, there are other characters and other sub-plots.  Kralik’s closest friend at the shop is Mr. Pirovitch played in a wonderfully comic turn by Felix Bressart.  Pirovitch is Mr. Matuschek’s favorite whipping boy.  His favorite statement is “Pirovitch you’re an idiot.”  To which the meek Pirovitch replies, “Yes, Mr. Matuschek, I’m an idiot.”

There is Ferencz Vadas, another of the sales clerks, played with enormous pomposity and self-regard by Joseph Schildkraut.  And finally, there is the errand boy Pepi Katona who snipes sarcastically at all his superiors and ends up as the hero of the second plot line.  For along with the romance there is a drama.  Mr. Matuschek has become aware of the fact that his wife is having an affair and he believes it is with one of his employees.  And since Kralik has had the most opportunity to meet Mrs. Matuschek he is the prime suspect.  So, whereas formerly Matuschek treated Kralik almost as a son now he hates and distrusts him.  After goading Kralik into anger, Matuschek discharges him.  But when the private detectives finish their investigation, they name Mr. Vadas as Matuschek’s rival.  With his life in shambles Matuschek attempts to end it all with a pistol.  But in the nick of time Pepi breaks in on his suicide and hands Matuschek over to the hospital for psychiatric observation.

Meanwhile Kralik discovers that on top of being fired his “dear friend” is Klara Novak.  He finds this out when he is supposed to be meeting her at a café with each of them wearing a carnation.  Spying Klara’s carnation from outside he throws away his carnation and pretends that he was just stopping at the café to meet Pirovitch.  Klara accuses him of trying to spoil her prospective date, insults him and finishes by calling him an insignificant clerk.  After this he leaves in complete dejection and misery.

But in the next act Matuschek calls Kralik to his hospital bed to apologize for his terrible treatment and to beg him to come back and manage the store while Matuschek recuperates from his nervous breakdown.  Even Pepi is rewarded for saving Mr. Matuschek by becoming a salesman.  Now with roles reversed Klara is dejected because her date never showed up and on top of that she finds that the man she insulted is now her boss.  But all ends well.  Kralik fires the despicable Vadas in royal fashion.  The store has a stellar Christmas sales total and Mr. Matuschek returns in time to give everyone a wonderful bonus.  And finally, the lovers are re-united.  But first Kralik has some fun with Klara by pretending that he had met her “dear friend” and he was fat, bald, old, and a greedy fraud.  When Klara finally discovers that Kralik is her “dear friend” she is relieved and happy.

This is a relatively silly story.  But the dialogue and the acting are remarkably good.  Even the minor parts are played skillfully and with great comic verve.  There is great heart here.  And the humanity of all the characters, even the villainous Vadas feels very real.  You believe the story.  There is a Dickensian feel to the production.  I highly recommend this story to everyone.  It’s a gem.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – A Movie Review

Jimmy Stewart is small town attorney Paul Biegler in Upper Peninsula Michigan who is defending Army Lt. Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazzara) who has shot and killed a man, Barney Quill, after he raped Manion’s wife Laura.  The prosecution in this case, Asst. State Atty. General Claude Dancer is played by George C. Scott.  Biegler is trying to prove that Lt. Manion killed his wife’s attacker while in a dissociative state because of his shock at his wife’s attack.  The prosecution has a two-fold job.  They try to convince the jury that Lt. Manion was in his right mind when he shot Quill and also that Mrs. Manion was an unfaithful wife and was voluntarily involved with her attacker.

The majority of the film is the courtroom trial and the sparring between Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott is the main attraction.  Scott delivers his dialog with his usual aggressive and nuanced portrayal.  He attacks the Manions on the witness stand with all the brutal skill of a gladiator in the arena.  Stewart is forced to use the sympathy for a brutalized woman and her outraged husband to win the jury’s sympathy.  But the prosecution is able to showcase the flawed relationship between an overly flirtatious woman and her almost insanely jealous husband to give credibility to the idea that Lt. Manion was just a jealous man killing his rival in love and therefore guilty of murder.

A very young Lee Remick as Mrs. Manion is remarkably beautiful and her flirtatiousness throughout the movie does make it more likely for us, the audience, to also believe that her husband murdered Quill in a fit of jealousy associated with her habitually provocative behavior.

The supporting cast that includes Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden as Jimmy Stewart’s small town legal team and a cameo by Orson Bean as an army psychiatrist add touches of humor to the film and there are even a couple of cameos by Duke Ellington as a jazz musician that reinforces the jazz musical theme for the film.  Not being a jazz-fan, this theme music actually isn’t a big positive for me.

I think the film intentionally leaves open the question of whether Lt. Manion was temporarily insane or not.  But the courtroom action clearly deprives the jury and the audience of the film of any sympathy for the prosecution.  Even believing Manion was not insane when he killed Quill doesn’t force these spectators to sympathize with either the prosecutor or the murder victim.  As flawed as the Manions are we still sympathize with them.  They are human to us.

This is not a great movie.  But it is interesting.  I can recommend it.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 9 – Rope – A Classic Movie Review

This is a very strange film, even for Hitchcock.  It’s an adaptation of a stage play that Hitchcock turns into a claustrophobic one set crime drama.  Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan (played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are upper class New Yorkers living together in an East Side apartment with a panoramic view of the city.  They are the products of a prep school and Ivy League education and are convinced that they are Nietzschean supermen who thereby have the right to murder ordinary men with impunity.  As the movie opens, they are seen strangling one of their school chums David Kentley with a piece of rope in their apartment.  After hiding the body in an antique wooden chest, they go about setting up their apartment for a dinner party that will feature David’s father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and aunt and David’s fiancée Janet.  The other cast in the play and party attendees are Mrs. Wilson who is Brandon’s housekeeper, Kenneth Lawrence who is another school friend and also a former boyfriend of Janet’s and Rupert Cadell (played by Jimmy Stewart) who was Brandon and Phillip’s prep school housemaster and the inspiration for their Nietzschean philosophical justification for murder.

Brandon brazenly uses the chest that David’s body is hidden in as the buffet table for the dinner that the guests feed on during the party.  Brandon makes several sly allusions to Kenneth that maybe Janet may be available again for his romantic interest.  All the guests are acutely aware that David is unexpectedly late for the party and unaccounted for.  Phillip from the start of the movie is extremely nervous about the prospect of being caught.  And as the party proceeds, he becomes more and more agitated and begins drinking heavily.  In the middle of the proceedings Brandon steers the conversation to his Nietzschean theory of the superman and his right to kill with impunity.  When Rupert agrees with this logic at least theoretically Brandon gets heatedly enthusiastic about its validity and this elicits a response from Mr. Kentley to the effect that he is offended by the disrespect for human decency and morality.  This snaps Brandon back into a more normal mode and alerts Rupert that something very strange is going on at the party.  Rupert starts to put together the various threads of the scene.  He recognizes that Brandon is trying to bring Janet and Kenneth together romantically in David’s absence.  He recognizes the anxiety in David’s friends and family at his very unusual disappearance and he keys in on Phillip’s anxiety, anger and drunkenness as the way to pry into what was going on below the surface of the gathering.

Rupert corners Phillip as he is playing the piano to cross-examine him about David’s absence, Brandon’s strange behavior and Phillip’s own anxiety.  And as the climax of his investigation he witnesses Phillip’s panic when he sees that Brandon has used the murder weapon, the piece of rope to tie up some old books that Brandon is giving as a gift to Mr Kentley as the old man is leaving to go home to his panicked wife.  Right before everyone leaves, Rupert has a talk with Mrs. Wilson, who is an old friend of his.  She tells Rupert about the fact that her employer told her to take the afternoon off and then decided at the last minute to serve the dinner off of the chest instead of the dining room table.  As Mrs. Wilson is cleaning up and about to open the chest to put some books back into it, Brandon hurriedly stops her from opening it and tells her to hold off her cleaning until the next day.  And finally, as Rupert is leaving, he takes the wrong hat from the closet and looking into it he sees a monogram DK (David Kentley).

Once the guests and Mrs. Wilson have left Brandon and Phillip have an argument.  Brandon upbraids Phillip for getting drunk and about his fear over being caught.  Phillip angrily blames Brandon for risking discovery by throwing out hints that Rupert was able pick up on.  Suddenly the phone rings and Phillip panics when he finds it’s Rupert returning to find his cigarette case.  Brandon tells Phillip to get ahold of himself and before Rupert arrives Brandon puts a revolver in his jacket pocket.  When Rupert comes in, we find out he hasn’t misplaced his case but instead hides it behind some books on the chest and “discovers” it.  He takes the excuse of a drink to continue his questioning of Brandon and Phillip.  He shows pretty quickly that he thinks they are responsible for David’s disappearance and reasons how they could have knocked out David and hidden him.  When Rupert confronts Brandon with the fact that he has a gun in his jacket, Brandon laughs it off as just the protection he will be taking with him to his house in the country.  Brandon throws the gun on the piano and Rupert continues his cross-examination and suddenly takes the piece of rope out of his pocket.  Phillip screams out that Rupert knows everything and grabs the pistol.  Rupert and Phillip fight over the gun.  The gun goes off and grazes Rupert’s hand but he gets control of it and takes control of Brandon and Phillip.  He opens up the chest and finds David’s body.  Brandon tries to justify the murder by virtue of their mutually acknowledged Nietzschean philosophy.  Rupert rejects Brandon’s justification and reviles as a monster whose inhumanity would ensure that he and Phillip would both be executed by the law.  Rupert goes over to the window and opens it.  He fires three rounds into the air and all three wait for the police to arrive.  Rupert moves a chair next to the chest and places his arm and the gun on it as if to protect David from his killers.

As I stated at the beginning, this is a very strange movie.  The only character that I found altogether admirable is Mr. Kentley.  He represents normal human feelings and ordinary sensibilities.  The worst characters are of course Brandon and Phillip.  But only slightly less objectionable is Rupert.  His elitist attitude toward his supposed superior intelligence is contemptible.  The rest of the characters are shallow characters with various foibles and ticks.  During the argument over Nietzschean superiority only Mr. Kentley displays the strength of character and humanity to revolt at the cruel indifference displayed by Brandon, Phillip and Rupert.

With respect to the success of the movie as entertainment I’ll have to say I can only watch this movie every few years.  It’s a fictionalized account of the Leopold and Loeb “thrill killing” from the 1920s.  From that point of view, it holds interest as an almost sociological and psychological statement.  It’s depressing, annoying and as noted above claustrophobic.  One of the more annoying aspects of the film is the tune that Phillip plays almost endlessly on the piano.  I grew to really hate that tune rather quickly.  Another annoying aspect of the movie is the homosexuality of Brandon and Phillip.  It’s never mentioned, of course because this movie was made in 1948.  But the dialog between them makes it clear that they don’t have a normal friendship.  And their personalities, especially Brandon’s are extremely unpleasant in a catty womanish way.  It’s not fun to see.  I would have to say I would only recommend this movie for a fan of Hitchcock who is interested in his technical skill.  The way the scenes are melded together at the film cuts is interesting but the story as I’ve described is a mess.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 2 – Rear Window – A Classic Movie Review

Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film.  There are any number of things to complain about.  But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film.  It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February.  But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect.  The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him.  Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks.  Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”

The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo.  Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him.  Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her.  Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected.  And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald  played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.

The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks.  Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements.  There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress.  We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last.  She’s the alleged victim.

The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife.  In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance.  Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.

I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime.  It’s a lot of fun.  And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to.  I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.

Now for the down side.  Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age.  At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time.  I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort.  The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts.  I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste.  And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene.  I think it’s terrible.  It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out.  But those are the only faults.  And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.

See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night.  That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound.  Highly recommended.