Sunday, August 21, 2016

Anna and the King of Siam

publicity for "Anna and the King of Siam"

Release date 06.20.1946

"Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera..."

In 1862, young widow Anna Owens (Irene) arrives with her son Louis (Richard Lyon) in Bangkok to teach the children of the King of Siam (Rex Harrison.) Although she was promised a house of her own she and Louis have to settle into their living quarters in the palace only to discover that they are living next to the king's harem. However, Anna starts her job not only teaching the 67 children of the king but also his favorite wives.

One class, one family!

Confronted with a king who one one side wants to modernize his country and find a place for it in the modern world and on the other side is still rooted in rather cruel traditions, Anna has to fight a lot of battles. So, we find ourselves in a story about slavery, fitting out the king's wives for a dinner party with European dignitaries, the burning of a run-away wife, and how to get along with a "barbarian" totalitarian monarch who does not know how to use a napkin. But of course stiff-upper-lip Anna manages to hold her own against him and to influence not only the king but his son and heir...

That's not the only clash of culture...

The author on whose book "Anna and the King of Siam" is based, Margaret Landon, lived in Siam for a decade and used the memoirs of the "real" Anna who taught English from 1862 till 1867 at the Siamese court. In its turn the film is full of historical inaccuracies and it's no wonder that Irene Dunne was a little bit hesitating to meet the delegation from Thailand during her time as alternate delegate at the United Nations in 1957. (Siam became Thailand in 1939.)
Even not expecting correctness from a Hollywood production the whole thing doesn't work for me. I simply don't understand the fascination of the topic which led to a musical, a TV series and a remake. So, basically not impressed by the story there are some more obstacles on my way to the film.
Firstly there is the simple fact that it was not filmed in color. 20th Century Fox did spend a lot of money on the setting and the costumes - all written elaborate production over it - which makes the decision to film in BW hardly understandable. If I could indulge in lavish Classic Hollywood colors - "Leave her to Heaven" like - fitting in the exotic surroundings and Miss Dunne in the middle of the bliss, this movie certainly would have a better standing with me.

Color, please! 

Secondly, Mr. Harrison blocks me. He started his succesful Hollywood career as King Mongkut and although he prepared meticulously for the part, his performance landed to much on the ridiculous side for me. It's partly embarrassing what I don't like and the heavy make-up to make him look Asiatic isn't helpful either. Anyway, one has to live with Asians a la Hollywood which works pretty well for Linda Darnell and Gale Sondergaard but Lee J. Cobb as the prime minister looks out of place.

Looks probably better in BW!

Even our heroine doesn't make my day! It's certainly a solid performance but Miss Dunne scores mainly with her looks in period costumes and many close-ups very well photographed by Arthur Miller who won an Academy Award for his work. For the first time Irene uses what I call her "housewife voice" (we will hear this one again in some films to come) and this partly irritates me. Avoiding sexiness and playfullness in tone is of course correct for the part but doesn't sound like the fine-tuned instrument I'm used to. 

Play of shadow and light

However, at least Miss Dunne trusted in the story because for the very first time she negotiated a deal in which she relinquised any upfront salary and would earn all of her income from the film's distribution profits. Fortunately the confidence in her star commodity turned out at the box office. "Anna and the King of Siam" is in the top ten of Irene's films when it comes to financial profit. Good for la Dunne that obviously the audience liked that flick a lot more than I do. 

Bye, Anna! Probably won't see you again!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Over 21

publicity with Alexander Knox

Release date 08.08.1945

"Over twenty-one, you don't absorb anymore... you simply don't absorb a thing."

Deciding that he needs to know about the war first hand to be able to write about it and to know what will be the the challenges of the post-war world, Max Wharton (Alexander Knox) editor of the liberal newspaper New York Bulletin, resigns from his post and enlists in the army. His wife Polly (Irene), herself a successful novelist and screen-writer, joins him at Tetley Fields officer's school in Florida.

 arriving at Tetley Fields...

Max has to live in the army barracks but rented a dilapidated bungalow for Polly where she gets her own share of simple living conditions and rationing. The former tenant told her that allegedly after the age of twenty-one folks have difficulties to learn anything new, and indeed Max, already in his late thirties, has a hard time to remember the different army manuals and to get through officer's school. 

helping Max with his army manuals...

As if this wouldn't be enough, Robert Gow (Charles Coburn), the Bulletin's publisher threatens to sell the newspaper if Max doesn't return; obviously the newspaper is failing without its editor. Polly tries to keep all this trouble away from Max to give him the chance to concentrate on his officer's exam.
 She even writes a series of editorials under Max's name taking up his ideas of a post-war world of international cooperation - of course without the knowledge of Max and Robert. 

Polly at work...

and one of the results...

However, graduation day comes and Max discovers that his wife was not only "... like all those other gals with their fellas"...

publicity with Charles Coburn and Alexander Knox

"Over 21" is my favorite of Irene's "war films." Based on a successful Broadway play by Ruth Gordon, it comes in as a sophisticated and witty piece but touches a couple of serious topics underneath. 
 It's about war at the home front and about a couple dealing with this challenge in their very own way. The Whartons are surely not "average" people - both are professionally very successful, their background is not "small town" but very metropolitan. When Max tells Polly that he enlisted he reaches her in Hollywood where she's working on the adaptation of her latest novel. 

 the Whartons in front of their humble abode...

Obviously Mrs. Wharton isn't used to homework of any kind (her fruitless attempt to explain how to bake an apple pie is one of the movie's highlights) but she mixes easily with the other tenants. 

Polly and the other gals...

Like she knows how to write, the other wives know how to handle a pot and a baking pan and each skill has its place in this world. World War II has a democratic effect: people who probably never would have crossed each other's path in times of peace, meet and help each other, even if Polly is clearly not one of "all those other gals with their fellas" - just look at her nifty wardrobe! 

Well, that's the jumpsuit for an informal cocktail hour...

The serious issues are mainly dealing with the post-war world ("Over 21" was released in August 1945) with the focus on the idea of international cooperation illustrated by the editorial "The World and Apple Pie" which is still  very much up-to-date.
 Irene felt that she "aped" Ruth Gordon's mannerisms after catching her performance of "Over 21" on tour in Los Angeles. If so, that's irrelevant watching Dunne's performance nowadays. What I see is a perfect starring vehicle for Irene Dunne: a witty script asking for a sophisticated actress who combines comedy timing with seriousness. That "Polly" allows Irene to be really sexy (for the last time) on screen is another thing I love about this film and la Dunne's performance. 

looker Dunne!

Alexander Knox is not exactly her league but he does well and together they manage a pleasant, very simpatico couple (their relationship shown here is almost at the brink of being overly idealistic), but it's clearly an Irene Dunne film. 

Obviously the Whartons are really  fond of each other...

Overall it's a solid production with an once again great supporting cast headed by Charles Coburn; Charles Vidor's direction never denies this film's stagy origin and its air of a chamber play. 
 This serious but lighthearted picture is one of my favorites of this late period of Irene's career. Certainly not in the top ten list but nonetheless a fav. 


Monday, August 11, 2014

Together Again

publicity with Charles Boyer

Release date 12.22.1944

"Oh, I knew if you came here something would happen. But, frankly, I didn't think it would end up with me being your mother-in-law."
(Anne to George)

After the death of her husband Jonathan, Anne Crandall (Irene) took over his  position as major, more because of the family tradition than because of her own desire. Five years later her life revolves aound  her work and her neurotic step-daughter Diana (Mona Freeman), much to the concern of her father-in-law (Charles Coburn) who thinks that's about time for her to find a new partner and start a life of her own.

Major Crandall at work...

Hence, when a bolt of lightning beheads the statue of his late son, he takes this as a sign that Jonathan agrees with him. Nicely enough the search for a sculptor to create a new statue makes a trip to New York necessary. Maybe Anne will meet a fitting man there? 

-And buy a new hat.
- A new hat? What's the matter with the one I have on?
-It looks like a hat, that's what's the matter with it.
When women start wearing hats that look like hats, 
they are on their way out. At your age you 
ought to be on the way in.
- In what?
 - Buy a new hat and find out.

The definitely not like a hat looking new hat that 
later on has a lot to answer for....

Well, Anne meets artist George Corday (Charles Boyer) and though they have a lot of trouble getting started - including Anne ending up in jail after a night club raid - it's obvious that George is attracted to her. Despite the fact that she decided against him for the commission, he follows her to Brookhaven and manages to start working on the statue - as house guest of the Crandalls, of course.
The presence of this male leads to a lot of entanglements - including cross-over bethrothals - and it needs a lot more thunder and lightning to bring us to the Happy End...

George and his two fiancees... music's in the air! 

The title of this film has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the plot but sums up what this is all about - Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer "Together Again." That steady correlation between on-and off-screen is one way how the classic Hollywood studio system worked, and after their colloboration in the acclaimed "Love Affair"and "When Tomorrow Comes" (both from 1939), the fans of both stars certainly waited for another co-work. It's a pity that they only got this ridiculous story to work with, but the chemistry of our protagonists makes up for the weaknesses of the script.

 Miss Dunne and Mr. Boyer having a good time...

Actually they carry the whole enterprise; in Irene's case elegantly dressed for this task in Jean Louis' creations. Recommended by Miss Dunne, "Together Again" marks the beginning of Jean Louis' career in Columbia's wardrobe department. 

How's that for a quiet evening at home outfit? 

Wouldn't you know that I find this film rather foolish with all its thunder and lightning? But nonetheless it's fairly charming and entertaining. After the heavy dramatics of "The White Cliffs Of Dover" it's nice for a change to see Irene in a comedy again. Beyond the reunion with Charls Boyer and the concomitant on-screen chemistry, the whole film is built around her. She proves once again her star quality by ennobling this mediocre script to a satisfying piece of entertainment. Her lively face, her multi-variant voice, and even the Dunne typical mannerisms  - the waggling shoulders, touching her teeth with her fingers, for instance - are used effectively. 

That's a typical Dunne gesture...

Technically there is nothing wrong about "Together Again." Charles Vidor's directing and the whole supporting cast are fine; especially Charles Coburn as Anne's father-in-law deserves an extra mentioning. 

This little hat has really a lot to answer for...

If there's something to really  complain about it's the fact that obviously some scenes of Irene and Charles Boyer ended on the cutting floor. An elaboration of the Happy End would have been pleasant too. 

both scenes are not in the film...

In a nutshell: this movie is not a classic comedy prime example but it presents Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer "Together Again" - and sometimes that's simply enough! 

The End

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The White Cliffs Of Dover

publicity for "The White Cliffs Of Dover"

Release date 05.11.1944

"Yes, John, I see them. My people and your people, only their uniforms are different... how well they march together. They'll help bring peace again..."

While waiting for a transportation of wounded soldiers at a London military hospital during World War II, American-born Red Cross volunteer Lady Susan Ashwood (Irene) worries about her son John, who is fighting overseas. Her thoughts bring her back to the year 1914 when she came to England on vacation with her father (Frank Morgan), a small town newspaper publisher. In opposite to her father who detests everything English, Susan is instantly taken by the country. 

with Frank Morgan

On the last night of her visit, Colonel Forsyth (C. Aubrey Smith), an elderly boardinghouse resident, takes her to a ball where due to a mistaking she meets Sir John Ashwood (Alan Marshal). They spent a wonderful romantic evening together but the next day Susan has to return to America with her father. However, their departure is interrupted by John who persuades Mr. Dunn to allow Susan to visit his mother and family at their country manor.

first encounter - and that's not Bertie's cousin Nancy!

The English country site turns out to be as beautiful as Susan expected it to be but still John's family and their traditions are new and strange to her. Thus, when John proposes she is reluctant to say yes although she loves him. Irritated by remarks of John's mother (Gladys Cooper) and some friends of the family which Susan takes as anti-American and feeling that she doesn't belong and never would fit in, she decides to return to America. But once again John averts her departure and literally sweeps her off her feet.

John and Susan up in the clouds (that's so beautiful staged!)
and here's the result...

The newlyweds blissful honeymoon is interrupted by the outbreak of World War I and John, according to the family tradition an Army officer, is sent off to fight. After three years of separation, they are reunited in France for a couple of days and relish every moment of their stay. 
A year later, Susan, on visit in London, watches with her little son John Ashwood II as American troops march through the streets. Thrilled that the Americans have joined World War I, Susan is hopeful that John will soon return to her and see his son for the very first time.
But this is not to be and John is killed in action just before peace is declared.

Susan in mourning...

As the years pass by, John Junior (Roddy McDowall) grows up to a decent sympathetic boy, and Susan's father fearing another war urges her to bring him to the United States. But John doesn't want to leave his tenants and his country.

with Roddy McDowall

And then comes the day when World War II breaks out and John - according to the family tradition - joins his father's regiment...

Susan and her grown-up son (Peter Lawford)

"I don't think it smacks of propaganda, but if it does, I'm glad. I feel everything possible should be done to cement the friendship between two nations that are most alike and speak the same language." (Hollywood Studio Magazine) was Irene's comment on "The White Cliffs Of Dover."
The Merriam Webster gives the following definition for propaganda: "...doctrines, ideas, arguments, facts or allegations spread by deliberate effort trough any medium of communication in order to further one's cause..."
That's exactly what this film does. The relationship between the two allies, England and the United States, is the golden threat of the picture and "... how well they march together... they'll help to bring peace... a peace that will stick"  is its bottom line. The things in common and the enemy in common will overcome all cultural differences. The film effectively pleads its wartime cause.

"... I see well they march together..."

Many people call "The White Cliffs Of Dover" a tear jerker but it doesn't really work as such for me. It's almost too slick; everything is almost too beautiful, too perfect. In the 70s, James Bawden asked Irene about "The White Cliffs..." and one thing she said - "Everything was lavish, too lavish if you ask me" - exactly expresses my feelings.

our leads dancing through a lavish production...

However, let's contemplate on the lavish aspects of this production; starting with Miss Dunne of course. Though surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast - including such illustrious names as Van Johnson, Gladys Cooper, Roddy McDowall, Dame May Whitty and a very young Elizabeth Taylor - "The White Cliffs Of Dover" is truly an Irene Dunne film concentrating on one woman and her fate in challenging times. The picture gives Irene once again the chance to show the development of her character through decades and how she pulled off the young Susan Dunn is simply astonishing. She and Alan Marshal - btw ten years her junior - are the most handsome couple and their love story is simply beautiful. 

from Susan Dunn arriving in England...
to Lady Susan Ashwood, Red Cross volunteer...

Besides Mr. Marshal, the whole cast holds his own against our leading lady and the direction of Clarence Brown and the camera work of George Folsley do the rest. In a word, "The White Cliffs Of Dover" is under all aspects a high-level production and Irene justifiably considered it one of her best films. She is spendidly photographed and one wonderful close-up follows the other.

Quite a handsome couple, aren't they?

Nonetheless, this film definiteley didn't make my list of Irene Dunne favorites; I appreciate how utterly well done it is, admire Irene's and the whole cast's performance, loved to see Irene and Gladys Cooper together but as a whole "The White Cliffs of Dover" is never tempting for a re-watch. 
One of my rules for this blog is that I always watch the film again before I write about it - no matter how many times I've already seen it. The session for "The White Cliffs..." took two evenings; in its wartime related effectiveness this picture is rather dated, and, well, rather long. It's no weepie for me, and the whole movie doesn't really touch me beyond the intellectual reflection that I am fortunate to live in a time of peace in Europe.

La Dunne's back of the head and the great Gladys Cooper

Obviously, I am not too fond of Irene's "war films" but as for La Dunne they are simply a must!

Here is the poem by Alice Duer Miller on which "The White Cliffs..." is based. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Guy Named Joe

on the set of  "A Guy Named Joe"

Release date 12.24.1943

"...anybody who's a right chap is a guy named Joe."

Pete Sandridge (Spencer Tracy) is a chance taking American bomber pilot stationed in England during WW II. His skills as a flyer are only matched by his daredevil attitude, much to the chagrin of his girl-friend Dorinda Durston (Irene), herself a cargo flyer. After an especially dangerous mission Colonel 'Nails' Kilpatrick (James Gleason) decides to transfer Pete and his best buddy Al (Ward Bond) to a relatively safe reconnaissance in Scotland. While visiting, Dorinda has the hunch that Pete's "number is up" and tries to persuade him to take a teaching position in the United States. At last Pete agrees but only on condition that she'll take a desk job too. But the next dangerous mission ends with Pete's death.

at last Pete (Spencer Tracy) agrees...

He finds himself in after-life with a new order on his hands. The General (Lionel Barrymore), a long dead pioneering flyer, gives him the assignment to help young Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Subconciously guided by Pete, Ted turns out to be quite an aviator himself, and gains poise both on and off the airfield. At last Ted and his heavenly guardian are transferred to the Pacific where Al and Dorinda enter the picture again.

Ted (Van Johnson) and his heavenly guardian...

Dorinda is still shattered by Pete's death and tries to get over it by throwing herself into her work. Old friend Al urges her to go on with her life again and invites her to the officer's club. Dorinda meets Ted and little by little their relationship deepens. She even accepts Ted's proposal which leaves Pete conflicted about his mission.

Pete is not amused...

But he isn't the only one of two minds. Dorinda isn't sure about her feelings for Ted. Is she still in love with Pete? Will she ever be able to really love somebody else? She breaks off the engagement and when she learns that Ted was assigned to a very dangerous mission takes over herself. Guessing the target from her experience as a flyer in this region, she leaves the airbase to destroy the Japanese ammunition dump. But she is not alone. Safely guarded by Pete Dorinda is successful and survives, and before they return to the airbase Pete tells her that he is leaving her heart and setting her free for Ted.

Triangle with love couple in the distance...

I have really mixed feelings about this film; I see what people probably like about it and understand why it was a huge box office hit in 1944 but yet don't like it very much myself.
It's this kind of genre mix. Is this a fantasy, a love story, a war film, an aviator picture? Or is the war the mere setting for the love story?
Considering the historical background and watching "A Guy Named Joe" as part of the war effort the corny music - with the one exception of Irene's in its simplicity very beautiful and touching rendition of "I'll get by" -   and the at times pathetic dialogue are tolerable but not for a mere fantasy. Additionally, the fact that neither war films nor movies on aviation are my favorite genres isn't helpful either.

Filming in the pre-computer era... 

The end irritated me completely. If the general bottom line of this film is that we have to live with loss - not only in wartimes but of course particularly aiming at a wartime audience - and got to move on and live with the inevetiable parting, isn't it strange that Pete sets Dorinda "free" in the end? Shouldn't it be the other way round? Aren't the living the ones who ought to move on? Do even the poor guardian angels have to fight jealousy and to work on their self-improvement as human beings? And, for heaven's sake, why do they have to improve as human beings when they are already heavenly guardians? I know, I know this film was not meant for that kind of "cerebral tearing apart."
To put it in a nutshell, the story of  "A Guy Named Joe" doesn't really work for me.

An absolute glamor free publicity for "A Guy Named Joe"

However, there is a lot on the positive side. Spencer Tracy's and Irene's onetime co-work proved difficult; decades later those problems caused the following remark by Irene: "...Spence was rude, brusque and even made a pass at me. Me!" (interview with James Bawden)
Nonetheless these two pros created an appealing love couple. It's not the Dunne/Grant - Dunne/Boyer chemistry but beautiful enough to watch.

Dorinda and Pete

Anyway, in general there is nothing to complain about. Equipped with the high production standards of a MGM show off production, "A Guy Named Joe" offers all at this studio available virtuosity. Tracy's old buddy Victor Fleming occupied the director's seat, and the supporting cast glitters with names like Esther Williams - in her fourth screen appearance - Lionel Barrymore and Ward Bond as sidekick Al. Van Johnson, in his first major screen role, holds his own against screen veterans Dunne and Tracy, but naturally the duo Dunne-Tracy is way more interesting than the pairing of Irene with Johnson.

Dorinda and Ted

Irene accepted second billing for this production and this reflects partly her status. It's more a Spencer Tracy film with Irene Dunne as leading lady than a downright Irene Dunne film. I didn't count their respective screen time but assume that Tracy would win. Nonetheless is Dorinda an interesting female character who stands her ground in a world of males and obviously is a first class flyer. Pete is a typical Spencer Tracy part - the tough guy with the heart of gold - but it's a rather complex character and Tracy gets the chance to show some sublety.
His performance is more than matched by Irene. Especially outstanding are the scenes when she "subconsciously" listens to Pete and in the last five minutes - reduced to facial expressions - she provides a master piece of screen acting. Typical for La Dunne this difficult scene looks effortless and easy.

This is my 32th review...
and I'm still...
 very impressed by Irene Dunne! 
(Spencer Tracy is quite impressive in this scene,too) 

 How smoothly she floats over the age gap between her and Johnson - he was 18 years her junior - is one of the  other Dunne miracles. I already mentioned her lovely version of "I'll get by" and listening to Irene I know once again why one great regret of mine when it comes to her career is the fact that she didn't film another musical in the fourties.
The upshot: I highly recommend a film that's simply not my cup of tea!