Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No Other Woman

Irene with Charles Bickford

Release date January 06. 1933

“I can understand you getting drunk, but that other woman…”
“Yes, I know how you feel, but you are wrong. That dame didn't mean a thing. She just happened to be a drinking partner…No woman can ever mean anything to me but you…but a dumb egg I am to take a chance on losing you!”
“I'll never let you lose me, Jim!”

plays an important role: the steel mill

Anna (Irene) and Jim (Charles Bickford) are a young couple in Pittsburgh whose fate seems to be attached to the steel mill - the life lying ahead of them a rerun of their parent's lives. Jim being content and striving for nothing more than the position of a foreman at the plant has no understanding for Anna whose goal is to better herself, leave Pittsburgh, “meet fine people and go places”. Despite their different point of views, they marry and Anna -still craving for a change of their predetermined path - takes in boarders to earn some extra money - extra money to give them the chance to leave the steel mill behind. This chance comes when Joe Zarcovia (Eric Linden) one of Anna's boarders and a chemist discovers a dye made from mill waste. Anna being convinced that Joe has developed something important tries to persuade Jim to invest the saved money in a business partnership with Joe. Jim - fed up with boarders in the house and penny pinching - reacts furiously and absconds on a drinking binge. Sober again and loving Anna enough to listen to her, he is accessible for sensible reasons and the couple decides to invest in Joe's dye business. Obviously the trio has stricken a gold mine: the plant is growing, a mansion built, servants are at hand and last not least the coveted son is born.

at last in the mansion - with another curly, cute movie-son!

Could be the Happy End but is not because Jim begins an affair with Margot Von Dearing (Gwili Andre) who urges him to divorce Anna. At last Jim agrees but Anna - being sure that this is only a fling and her husband will return to her - refuses to give him a divorce. The result that Jim sues her for adultery leads to an ugly divorce trial …

the morning after the drinking binge...

With its duration of only 59 minutes, this is a quick shot of a film moving on an incredible fast narrating trail, which is partly one of its problems. Another one is the patchy, uneven story - very strong in the first part, weak and unbelievable in the second half. As interesting as the exposition of Jim and Anna as couple and their life under the shadows of the steel mill is, as regrettable is the turning to this rather conventional story of adultery. I would wish for a film telling me how this rather diverse pair adjusts to wealth and the emerging consequences, telling me how a plain steelworker handles the investment of millions… what I get is another philandering husband sending Irene on her next suffering spree.

the wedding...

This is even more deplorable because the first twenty minutes are absolute worthwhile watching: capturing the everlasting presence of the steel mill with constantly flashing lights, inviting us to Jim's and Anna's rough wedding or making us smell the kitchen odors of the boarding house- all impressively pictured by director J. Walter Ruben.  And there is Irene - only made up with the minimal obligatory Hollywood makeup - showing new facets as plainly dressed keeper of a boarding house, busying herself over greasy pans on the hearth, or as young exhausted bride having to dance all night through with the guests while her groom gets drunk - all of which looks convincing and natural.

cooking for the boarders...

first morning as wife...after a "dancing night"!

Fitting to this naturalness and to the fact that this is still a pre-code is one aspect of the relationship of Jim and Anna. Jim's response to Anna's statement that she will never marry a steel worker is just to laugh mockingly at her, to take her in his arms and to start kissing her…of course Anna melts away and the next scene is the wedding. There is a kind of attraction between human beings which has nothing much to do with being clever or sensible or wanting to get out more than (almost) anything in the world.
Charles Bickford - though not the handsomest guy in the world - offers the required, male self-assurance almost in passing but has to fight like Irene the flaws in the script, which make him look stupid in the second half. Just when I had understood why Anna saw something more than an ordinary steel worker in him! But why he falls for Gwili Andre - another European actress who they tried to invent vainly as “new Garbo" - isn't understandable, obviously this dame is only interested in his money. The fact that Andre neither in the looks department nor in the acting department was a second Garbo doesn't help matters either.

the triangle...

No, I will not recommend switching off an Irene Dunne film after the first twenty minutes but I recommend watching it because of those first twenty minutes - and maybe you want to know how Anna and Jim ended…
Nice Irene tidbit:  in one scene she plays golf,  which was Irene's sport of choice in real life - and as it was with that capable lady - she had a good handicap!

Irene playing Anna, playing golf like Irene...that's
ars imitating life!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thirteen Women

with Myrna Loy

Release date October 14.  1932

"Stop talking about it, stop thinking about it! Anyone can think themselves in anything!"(Laura)

"What have I done? What have anyone done to make you so inhuman?"
"Do I hear the very human white race ask that question?"

Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy) a Javanese/Indian half-caste who had to endure a lot from her classmates that led to her leaving school searches for revenge. Via clairvoyant Swami Yogadachi (C.Henry Gordon), she sends them terrifying horoscopes using her knowledge about them and believing that the power of suggestion will make the predictions come true. Soon the first women are victims of self-fulfilling prophecies: accidents, murder and suicide seem to be their inescapable fates. Even the Swami can´t get away from what is written for him in the stars and throws himself in front of a train - hypnotized by Ursula though. Alarmed by those premature deaths young widow Laura Stanhope (Irene), the most sensible and poised one of the whole troupe, tries to assemble the last of the sorority sisters trying to "laugh those fool horoscopes right out of our heads". However, before the gathering the next victim is to bemoan...should Laura take seriously her horoscope which predicts the death of her son Bobby? Who has sent those poisoned candies for his birthday? Can police sergeant Barry Clive (Ricardo Cortez) stop Ursula? Who will win the mental battle between Laura and Ursula...

 Laura with Bobby (Wally Albright)

That´s an interesting, odd, disturbing little film which hadn´t the luck of being successful in its time but has got some appreciation in the last years. After poor reviews, "Thirteen Women" was edited from its initial 74´minutes down to 59´minutes, which is the duration of the print we can watch nowadays. Those missing 15 minutes explain some of the discrepancies of the script - to start with the fact that there are only 10 women and not the announced 13. Two characters were deleted completely and as rumors will have it a scene of Myrna chasing Irene through a train - I´d love to watch that! Considering what is packed in the surviving 60 minutes one can only imagine what happened in this missing quarter of an hour. Even the fact that RKO held back the release of  "Thirteen Women" to take advantage of Irene´s great success in "Back Street" didn´t help matters. It seems this story of deleting one victim after the other, which reminds slightly of slasher elements of our modern films was just too brutal for contemporary moviegoers - and I assume that this film was quite a shock for Irene Dunne fans having still the impression of "Back Street" on their minds.  

Ursula (Myrna Loy) gone wild...

The most compelling role is the one of murderess Ursula which is fortunately in Myrna´s very capable hands. Made up almost unrecognizable as an exotic vamp she finds impressive, calm-sinister facial expressions making the hypnotic impact believable. In an intense scene between Ursula and Laura shortly before the climax and end of the film she hurls her accusations into Laura´s face: the rejection of the girls which led to her leaving school had the most horrible consequences for her. It´s not said directly but it seems that she had to prostitute herself. Though Ursula is brutal, sexual-manipulative, and even tries to kill an absolutely innocent child one can´t help to have some kind of understanding for her, especially because all of her former classmates - but Laura - are rather weak characters. All of them have their weak spots like Ursula had hers having to live as a half-breed with all the occurring prejudices against her - it´s implied that with one chance Ursula could have made it...an interesting mixture of crime and action elements with a social background! 

Action, action!

As Myrna is typecast in this period as exotic vamp - still some way to the "Thin Man Myrna" - Irene is typecast as being poised, behaved and sensible - the most interesting aspect being that she is totally defined through motherhood in this film. Irene´s screen persona certainly had a maternal streak through the years; she played 18 times a mother in her 41 films. I can´t imagine that "Thirteen Women" was much of an acting challenge for Irene - not after "Back Street" - but it´s surely once again a consolidating of her screen image.


Although Myrna only gets third billing behind Irene and Ricardo Cortez, her role is the most extensive one. For me this film is more interesting as a Myrna Loy film and an early representative of its genre than as an Irene Dunne film - but of course having two of my favorite actresses at hand playing an impressive scene together is a real treat!
This time the last word is reserved for Miss Loy - she deserves it:
"The only one who escaped me in this picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted."("Being And Becoming" by Myrna Loy)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Back Street

Release date August 28.  1932

"What can a man like that do for you?...all he can do is tug you away some place in a side street and let you wait..."

In the good old days before the 18.Amendment we encounter Ray Schmidt (Irene) with one of the salesmen she meets at her father´s shop in a beer garden. Very flirtatious and pleasure-loving Ray seems to be one of
"those girls", but as so often the first impression is wrong. Though being popular with men and enjoying male company Ray is decent and waiting for "the one": "It´s all the way or zero for me. And heaven helps the man I do fall in love with!"

                publicity for "Back Street" - as young Ray Schmidt

Soon this man enters the screen in the person of Walter Saxel (John Boles) who seems to look for a last fling before he marries his childhood sweetheart Corinne. Whereas things grow serious between Ray and Walter, he doesn´t cancel his wedding but arranges for an "accidental" meeting at a band concert between Ray and his mother - hoping that this would change matters. This encounter never happens...years later Ray and Walter run into each other in New York. He is married now, with two kids and successfully working as banker, Ray has a good job in a shop. The sparks are still there and soon Ray lets herself be installed as Walter´s mistress - waiting for him in a humble apartment, thus starting her life in the backstreets of Walter´s existence...

first encounter...                                              

                                            and fate strikes again...

I´m really twisted about this film: what a painfully to watch story - and I don´t mean the delightful sort of pain which makes a weepie so enjoyable from time to time. But one and a half hour watching female, self-imposed enslavement is rather emotionally exhausting. It´s a story about a woman completely disintegrating in a relationship and a caddish man grabbing the best out of two worlds - all of which is called love. Long talk short - a rather annoying soap opera!

Walter´s shadow...
And here comes the BUT and the second part of my twisted feelings: it´s a darn well made film - thanks to Irene and director John M. Stahl. That very first scene - we only hear Irene´s laughter, we see her hands and than a smooth move upwards to her face, she laughs, takes a sip of beer...but we don´t stay long there moving on to the next table in the beer garden. Such a clever slipping into the scenery and inventing of Irene´s character! But the person who makes the whole thing work is definitely Miss Dunne - it´s a superb performance from young, frivolous Ray to the mature woman with a light layer of sadness about her. Absolutely on the spot and as believable as such a wobbly character can be. Looking at Irene I know why I´m around, watched that film several times, read the novel and consumed both remakes of "Back Street" - all on the search for some kind of enlightenment about the content - but in vain. I still can´t stand that story!
But I´m in best company: according to James R.Parish (The RKO Gals) though enjoying the work with Stahl Irene called the film´s message "trash" - good to know!

Irene at the premiere of "Back Street"

John Boles - certainly handsome to look at - gives a pale impression and is completely overshadowed by Irene´s performance. This doesn´t make it easier to understand why he is THE guy, but Walter in the novel is similar unimpressive - anyhow love is where you find it!
Nonetheless this Fannie Hurst filmization was an important film for Irene´s career. Being very successful and earning Universal a lot of money "Back Street" manifested Irene as star - and as suffering heroine (at least for the time being). And in a way - considering screen time and concentration on her character - it´s the first "real" Dunne film which makes it a must see for in Irene interested folks. Soapy, wobbly, trashy - but 100 percent Dunne!

                   there is always time for a little music...

Last not least: I got an extra again! No, Irene doesn´t sing but she does hum/whistle while dressing for that never taking place meeting. And what does she hum? "After The Ball" which was a popular song in the 1890s (that´s when the novel starts, the film begins around 1917) and that song is performed in "Show Boat". Who came to Hollywood because of "Show Boat"? Irene! And what are the lyrics of "After The Ball"?

"After the ball is over
After the break of morn
After the dancers´ leaving
After the stars are gone
Many a heart is aching
If you could read them all
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball"

Just perfect for that scene...these are the kind of details I love! Thanks, Irene for humming this tune - no coincidence, I´m sure!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Symphony Of Six Million

Publicity for "Symphony Of Six Million" with Ricardo Cortez

Release date April 29.  1932

"I dedicate these two hands in service...That the lame may walk, the halt be strong...lifting up the needy, comforting the dying...This is my oath in the Temple of healing."

In every Hollywood career seems to be at least one film which makes you wonder ,well, this is one of those. It´s a small role, it´s back to second billing again and if there is a Dunne film in which she is miscast that´s the one.
Some possible reasons: studio politics? There is always a star rooster to consider...
Putting the increasingly popular Irene in as many vehicles as possible? It seems that Pandro S.Berman - new associate producer under Selznick  - was determined to do so...
Trying go give Cortez a boost by pairing him with an established leading lady? Cortez doesn´t look excactly like a newcomer to me...I personally remember him mainly as being killed off early in several of Kay Francis´ films and erotically dancing Tango with Joan Crawford in "Montana Moon".

                                           as Jessica

And why did Irene accept that? In that period  she is described as being "pliable in accepting roles handed to her"("The RKO Gals", James Robert Parish). I imagine that this was partly due to her private situation: Irene and her husband Francis Griffin lived bicoastal from 1930 till 1936 and she tried to spend as much time as possible with him in New York. Irene had a clause in her contract that the studio had to provide her with a ten days notice before the beginning of the next film. The sheer amount of work - she made about half of her films in her first six years in Hollywood - and keeping a relationship alive from coast to coast must have been quite a task without fighting about every film...but who knows? Not me, but I know about the result:

                      family evening...

Jessica (Irene) - handicapped by a limp and the inability to use her right hand - and Felix (Ricardo Cortez) grew up together in Manhattan´s Lower East Side in the Jewish quarter. Since his childhood days Felix had dreamt of becoming a surgeon and at last - with a lot of hard work and the loving support of his working class parents - this dream came true. He practices happily and sucessfully in his poor Jewish neighborhood and spends his little spare time with Jessica who found her place in life working as a Braille teacher. The disturbing influence in this setting is Felix´ brother Magnus (Noel Madison) having the idea that his brother´s profession ought to gain the family some money. Loving his family and feeling a deep obligation towards them Felix moves on to West End Avenue and ultimately to Park Avenue. The more money comes in the more Felix loses his Hippocratic ideals and the track of what he really wanted to do in life - which certainly was not to take care of rich hypochondriacs.
The real crisis comes when Felix isn´t able to rescue his father who dies on his operating table. In his sorrow and feeling that he can´t go on with medicine Felix turns back to Jessica, who takes a vital step to help him...

                                working in the "ghetto".....

                              Felix´new clientele

The best about this filmization of a Fannie Hurst novel is the description of  Jewish life in the Lower East Side "ghetto". We get a wonderful look at young Felix´ family life, just a normal evening, the family members all trying to do the things they like, neighbors popping in and out - a bunch of atmosphere.
Just to mention it all of this takes place before Irene even enters the screen.

                      all the family members together...

My secret stars of the film are Mama (Anna Appel) and Papa (Gregory Ratoff) handling their family affairs or chatting with acquaintances - all well directed by Gregory LaCava. This film has a full-fledged score which wasn´t common in 1932, and though I love Max Steiner in latter years, his music distracts me this time. It´s just too pathetic interpreting Felix´ emotions, which brings me to Ricardo Cortez who is rather strained carrying a film like this. Irene - with dark dyed hair but still somehow looking out of place in this Jewish ambience - hasn´t much to do here but offers us a foretaste of what is lying ahead of Miss Dunne and us - a lot of on screen suffering...

                   taking a vital step...and some suffering!

My bottom line: interested in the portrayal of Jewish life on screen? This film is a must see!
Interested in medical issues? Watch it and don´t miss "The Citadel" and "Men In White" either!
Only interested in Miss Dunne? Well, only recommended for human beings who like me have an urgent desire for completeness. For the rest of mankind: move on to more interesting Dunne movies!