Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lady In A Jam

publicity for "Lady In A Jam"

Release date 06.19.1942

"I leave everything to numerology and astrology and things like that. It's much more reliable than thinking for myself."

Mr. Billingsley (Eugene Pallette) turns for psychiatric help to the Palmer Medical Foundation. Not help for him - way off the mark - but for his ward Jane Palmer (Irene). Miss Palmer, the granddaughter of the foundation's founder, not only managed to squander her entire inheritance but also refuses to accept the consequences of her behaviour; instead she drifts through life believing in numerology and "vibrations."
The ungrateful job to try to teach Jane some responsibility goes to handsome psychiatrist Dr. Enright (Patric Knowles). Due to an accidental chance - in the literal sense of the word - Enright gets the job as Jane's chauffeur. He makes no secret of his being a doctor but claims that he is on a detour "because of a woman."

with Patric Knowles

Despite Billingsley's endeavors, Jane's possessions are soon auctioned off. Enright convinces her that she has to confront her past in Arizona. Jane grew up living with her grandmother Cactus Kate (Queenie Vassar) in direct vicinity to the gold mine Last Hope where Jane's grandfather once excavated the family fortune. The only fond memory Jane has of her life in the desert is the one of her childhood sweetheart Stanley (Ralph Bellamy). However, Enright is certain that this would be the right place for Jane to learn to do things for her and others. Together they leave for Cactus Kate's shabby shack.

arriving in Arizona...

Jane hoped that her grandmother would give her some money to prosecute Billingsley - she is convinced that he embezzled her fortune - but Cactus Kate refuses and suggests trying the old mine to Jane.
Mainly to please Enright, Jane starts digging. Meanwhile she has developed a crush for her doctor and hopes showing some self-sufficiency and pulling all female tricks would make him "vibrate." Both enterprises are not successful; Last Hope is plain and simple exploited and Enright objects to "vibrating with Jane" because of ethical reasons. She is still his patient and additionally quite a handful. 

trying to make Enright "vibrate"...

Frustrated, Jane tells her grandmother that she will give up on the mine and on Enright and just settle down with her. The prospect of living with this nitwit is so shocking for Cactus Kate that she salts the mine hoping to get rid of Jane. Maybe a little gold could pique Enright's interest in her granddaughter. Well, Enright is the first one to get that this gold rush was self-induced but can't leave now because Jane supposedly back into money certainly will turn to her old ways soon... and is she really "healed"? Allegedly, she has still spells and odd dreams; furthermore she starts babbling about a marriage with Stanley. Obliged to his Hippocratic oath not only, Enright stays, and Jane starts to parade the green-eyed monster...

Is she really sane??

Sounds a little bit confused, right? Well, that's exactly the main problem with this film. It has its moments but never really gets going; instead of a brisk stroll "Lady In A Jam" is a rather arduous path. The team under the direction of Gregory LaCava worked with an unfinished script, which was common for a LaCava project but he was repeatedly ill during production - probably one explanation for this patchy and bumby plot. As much as I liked how LaCava took advantage of Irene's image in "Unfinished Business," just throwing Irene into a mud hole - not very ladylike, indeed - simply isn't enough. This time LaCava's working method of constant rewrites and improvisation did not work.
Universal's publicity department made quite a brouhaha about the filming in the Arizona desert and especially those "mud scenes" but even that didn't help "Lady In A Jam" at the box office.

With LaCava (at the left) preparing for the "mud scene".
The mud was a mixture of dirt, water and oil... poor Irene!

This was the only time in her career that Irene stayed on location (for about 5 weeks.) "High, Wide and Handsome" was also filmed on location but Irene traveled daily back and forth. At last, sitting in the desert alternately exposed to heat and cold and waiting for LaCava's inspiration to come, took its toll. Irene lost her temper and had a sort of nervous breakdown. This is a real, real Irene Dunne rarity - sets of Irene Dunne films were known for their pleasant atmosphere.

on set passing away some time...

Considering the fact, that Irene said "I believed in my roles, I lived them..." this fit of temper is at least fitting for Jane Palmer. She is a real pain in the neck - with some Dunne charm of course - but still a pain in the neck. Irene gives a clever performance in this rather stupid film: efficiently using the Dunne tool - her voice - she speaks faster than normally with a very defenite accentuation but frequently trails off in between or mutters under her breath. One can really hear how Jane's brain is moving - and it's not on a steady course!
Nifty dressed in Bernard Newman creations - one of Irene's favorite designers around that time - she manages to convince us that a nagger can be a strain but nonetheless worthwhile.

publicity with Patric Knowles

Co-star Patric Knowles leaves a rather pale impression; nowhere near Irene's league, he's a handsome guy but an actor I watch and forget. I always imagine someone like Brian Aherne or Robert Young or someone else of their ilk in this role. Some chemistry between our leads, some more elaboration on the love story would have done "Lady In A Jam" good but, alas, was not to be.
Poor Ralph Bellamy, whom I appreciate very much, has the most ungrateful role. I can't think of a single reason why Stanley isn't portrayed more attractively; especially with someone like Bellamy for this character. Do you remember his wonderful performance in "The Awful Truth" where he played another "country egg" as Irene's love interest? But Stanley is simply ridiculous and not even allowed to be good at things this cliché of a cowboy ought to be good at - to lasso cattle, for instance. I assume that the scene on the farm was meant to be funny but my risible muscle denied any action. Anyhow, I can't say that this particular muscle was very active; really challenged was only my staying power.

Ralph Bellamy singing the appropriate piece of music for this film - a lamento...

"Lady In A Jam" is one of those "could have been" films: could have been funny, could have been great. The initial idea is not bad and the one aspect about this film I really like is that Irene played for once not a completely likeable character. But unfortunately those promising beginnings are not consequently developed and the result is mere patchwork.
The only silver lining of this film and the only thinkable reason to watch it is... I'm sure you know the name.
Once again, we've come full circle.

Please, don't shoot the reviewer!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Detour (not really) - The Music in "Unfinished Business"

"I Love Thee.."

How the music in "Unfinished Business" is handled deserves some extra annotations which would have gone beyond the scope of a normal review.

Irene and her character Nancy have something in common - their wish for an opera career. 
On-screen, Irene was two-times presented as an opera singer, at first in "The Great Lover"(1931) and the second time in "Stingaree" (1934). Especially interesting for the choice of music in "Unfinished Business" is the "Great Lover." I can't imagine that the selected repertory was a coincidence because it's a "Dunne qoute." Irene gets to sing "I Love Thee" a song by Edvard Grieg in the opening sequence of "Unfinished Business" which is paralled by a rehearsal with baritone Jean Paurel (Adolphe Menjou) in "The Great Lover." Here Irene performed - fitting to the scenery - a way more operatic rendition of the Grieg and sung it higher. 

"Voi, che sapete..."

In the audition scene of "Unfinished Business" - obviously on a real stage and with opera in mind - Irene is presented with "Voi, che sapete" Cherubino's aria from Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." This aria is beautiful but not really catchy and a typical piece of music for beginners - not exactly a good choice to show your voice at an audition. Over and above she is contrasted by a coloratura soprano who starts - out of all thinkable options -  with a remarkable interpretation of the "Shadow Song" from Meyerbeer's "Dinorah." Coloratura soprano was the fach Irene studied at the Chicago College of Music, and, well, her choice for the college's annual contest was the "Shadow Song." Irene remembered this event in 1985 like this: "I was one of the three competiting medalists and sang 'The Shadow Song' from 'Dinorah.' When I hear it performed today, I can't believe I sang it because it's so coloratura."
With those brilliant coloraturas in the background, Nancy gets the following advice by her agent - "Don't be discouraged. There are a lot of places for your type of voice..." Finding those "places" was precisely what Irene Dunne did in real life.

a lot of places....

However, the next scene shows Nancy only as a singing telephone operator  which is almost a little bit fresh but very funny. This humor works because Irene could really sing - for the public in this era she was a long established singer -  and could have done better than this anytime. Thanks to the fan magazines the public knew something about the background of their stars and as for Irene a couple of years rumors about an alleged season at the MET were around. 
Those correlations between on- and off-screen are a steady, striking element in Old Hollywood films, and one reason why I love the movies of this era so very much. 
"Unfinished Business" is a wonderful example for this method of work - Old Hollywood at its best!

And here is the music!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Unfinished Business

Irene as Nancy Andrews Duncan

Release date 09.12.1941

"You see, Tommy, you just won't understand that in the lifes of all women there's some unfinished business. Don't ask me why. Is that clear?"

After marrying off the sister she raised, Nancy (Irene) decides that's her turn now and that she won't stick to the plans her family made for her. It's about time for some adventure in the big city. Hoping for a singing career, Nancy leaves her hometown Massina, Ohio, for New York. On the train she meets wealthy playboy Steve Duncan (Preston Foster). Steve has a nice little 50-bucks-bet running with his buddy - who will pick up the more beautiful girl on the train - and Nancy just comes in handy. Despite Steve's obvious line she soon surrenders to his kisses ... 

No Little Red Riding Hood but Redhead and the Wolf
(wolf at work)

Well, the next morning Steve hopes that he would get away without having to talk to her but gets trapped.
S: "I'll give you a call..."
N: "You won't forget?"
S: "What do you think?"
N: "I love you!"

The end of the affair...

The next weeks bring two revelations for our small town girl: Steve won't call, and her voice isn't trained enough for an opera career. The only job Nancy lands is as singing telephone operator at a nightclub. An accidental meeting with Steve and his fiancée at the club ends with tears for Nancy. Not knowing why she is so upset, Steve's brother, Tom (Robert Montgomery) tries to comfort her. Tom is a boozer, a good-for-nothing fellow feeling overshadowed by his older brother but nonetheless a nice guy. At the night of Steve's wedding Tom and Nancy get terribly drunk and not so terribly married with Tom still not knowing about the train fling between his brother and his bride.

Tommie and Nancy on their way to marriage...

 Get this down!

The main occupation of the young couple during the next time is frequenting nightclubs and showing socially not accepted behaviour but one evening they strand at the domiciliary grand piano with Nancy fulfilling Tom's request for "When You and I Were Young, Maggie." Tommy has it bad; despite their original intentions he has fallen in love with his wife. Nancy - though not totally over her feelings for Steve - isn't immune to his confession and starts to show some wifely qualities.

The Duncans - this time sober and happy

All of this could end as a strangely started "nice boy meets nice girl" story if Tommy wouldn't have the idea to invite some family and friends for dinner. Nancy trying to find a sort of closure for her "unfinished business" kisses brother Steve which observed by Tommy's former girlfriend arouses a lot of attention at the party. The unfinished business is still unfinished, and perhaps it never will be finalized ...

Not such a good idea...

"Unfinished Business" is an underestimated little gem - an intelligent, very "adult" movie which switches between different genres. It's not a real comedy but witty and funny in between, and it's too funny and witty to be called a drama. The person who makes this hybrid of a film mainly work is Irene Dunne. Her Nancy is quite a character - naive, a person with an agenda of her own, not exactly flawless, with pathetic moments but in the final analysis blessed with an amiable down-to-earth quality. Nice stuff for an actress who was not only the mistress of the melodrama but also the queen of the comedy timing. Miss Dunne gets the chance to show a lot of facets - including her singing voice - and as you ought to know by now, La Dunne was no diamond in the rough; she knew how to glitter exquisitely.

Fitting background for Li'l Diamond
(publicity from 1941)

The film doesn't beat around the bush - small town girl was seduced in the train. Listening to Irene's "I love you..." the next morning you simply know that this night was not merely about holding hands (btw after the "wedding night" in "Penny Serenade" the second sexual encounter in a train in a row.Of course we don't get to see anything but the stopping down to the moving wheels of the train symbolizes the "forces at work") The plot is unusual for a film of this era because small town girl is not punished for her one night stand; she doesn't get pregnant, doesn't die, doesn't lose her rich husband but she moves on and even gets to terms with the nice guy in the end. Every time when you have the feeling that you are on the steady course of a Hollywood story, "Unfinished Business" steers in an unexpected direction. Or was stupid me the only one thinking that we were heading in the direction of a glamorous career as nightclub singer when Nancy-Irene was invited to audition? Instead she gets to "rehearse" a jingle and stupid me almost died laughing. Of course this hilarious scene only works because Irene Dunne really could sing. "Unfinished Business" boldly takes advantage of Irene's off- and on-screen image; plays around with it and spoofs it which is a lot of fun for folks with some Dunne knowledge.   

La Diva rehearsing a jingle - one of those great LaCava frames
(and look out for what Irene does in the background during this scene... )

But let's talk about the source for some unfinished business in Nancy's life,  the males.
Preston Foster is okay for me - no less, no more. I don't find him overwhelming attractive but that mirrors nicely how desperate Irene's character is for some, any kind of romance in her life. "Steve" is a rather ungrateful part with not much to do except being quite unsympathetic - a not overly interesting "wolf."
Robert Montgomery is another league but I had to acquire a taste for his acting. Considering the fact that he worked frequently with all my favorite MGM gals I just didn't get around the guy and finally developed a real liking for him. Nowadays his presence is a convincing reason to watch a film. "Tom" is a sort of typical Bob Montgomery role - he was always good at portraying frivolousness with an option for seriousness - and he creates a complex character who manages to finish some issues of his own. He and his co-star have some wonderful scenes together which show how impressive underacting can be. Kindly enough, Robert Mongomery has a very competent valet at his side embodied by character actor Eugene Pallette who gives a great performance as "butler Elmer."

La Dunne with Eugene Pallette - this was the last time that Irene smoked on-screen.
(Elmer and me don't like that hat!)

"Unfinished Business" is based on an original story by director Gregory LaCava. He not only leaves room for his story and his actors but manages remarkable staging. Especially the scenes which change between privateness and public - in the restaurant with the silver wedding anniversary in the background, the party at the Duncan's or the nightclub scenery for instance - are very well done. To figure on the player's personality was a typical LaCava method of work which explains the Dunne tailored tidbits. As for Robert Montgomery, they had to start filming earlier because of his commitment to active service in the U.S. Navy; and once again art imitates life! If those tidbits are the "LaCava touch", I certainly appreciate this approach.

Cheers! Almost done! 
(and Mr. Montgomery really deserved another pic...)

An intelligent, unusual story, great actors, remarkable directing, an in all her facets glittering Irene and music - that's the Dunne formula which makes me happy!


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Penny Serenade

La Dunne as Julie Gardiner Adams 

Release date 04.24.1941

"... for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part."

At the brink of leaving her husband, newspaper man Roger Adams (Cary Grant), Julie (Irene) starts listening to records they collected through the years. Each song reminds her of a stage of their life together...

first encounter...



telling Roger the good news...

an earthquake and...

miscarriage and childlessness...

talking about adoption...

the first time meeting Trina ... 

at last the adoption becomes final...

happy times with Trina...

 and wordless after the blow of fate...

After these reminiscences we are back in the somber here and now with Julie waiting for old friend Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) to take her to the train. But when Roger comes home, it's obvious that they are not yet finished with each other, and maybe they'll get another chance...

The story of "Penny Serenade" radiates amiable normality. This is how life goes: happy and funny, sad and tragic, with lighthearted times and periods in which we get a lot more than we bargained for. Simply for a change it's nice that we are not with the rich folks, but with common people struggling financially. As much as I like the main part of this plot, I simply love how exemplary well filmed it is. What a gifted team and what a wonderful result!
A bunch of laurels - or more appropriate a bay wreath - goes to director George Stevens and cinematographer Joseph Walker. According to Irene, Stevens was a perfectionist who prepared meticulously each scene with his crew but did not need many takes. This precision and attention to details become apparent in the most interesting perspectives. 
One example is the scene in the train. At first we don't follow the newlyweds into the compartment. The door is half-closed, and we are in the situation of an almost voyeuristic onlooker which gives this scene intimacy and eroticism.

They are in, and we are out where we belong...

I slightly regret that we are allowed to enter the room now, but the whole mise-on-scène is a convincing proof why Old Hollywood didn't need nakedness to picture sexuality - of course allowed, marriage blessed  post-code sexuality. For all of us who didn't get that they did not solely hold hands on the train, we learn in one of  the next scenes that Julie is pregnant. Though our couple did not manage a honeymoon trip because of Roger's professional obligations they indeed succeeded in a partial wedding night - 100 miles long that is.

the end of the "wedding record"

Another of my favorite scenes is of course the first night as parents - have a look at how the doors between the two rooms are used as props here - and I'd like to add the scenery when they prepare for the legal adoption assuming that they'll lose Trina. Stevens keeps us consequently at a distance utilizing an angle from the stairs which only shows moving legs. All are very busy packing Trina's things; we don't see their faces, but only moments later we are confronted with Irene's face in close-ups. She runs to the window, and while    we can't see what's happening outside, her face tells the sad story of her daughter's departure. 

Did I ever tell you that I am very appreciative of Irene Dunne?

This mixture of distance and nearness is utterly effective. Moreover, cameraman Walker spoils us with a lot of beautifully photographed close-ups - which made selecting the screenshots for my Irene Dunne site a real difficult task. 

Did I ever tell you that I have a weakness for close-ups of Irene Dunne? 

I already gushed a lot about Cary and Irene - or Irene and Cary - and I certainly could go on about their performances in "Penny Serenade."
Grant's gained him his first Academy Award nomination, and the scene with the judge surely provides some of the most remarkable Cary Grant onscreen minutes. The guy really touched me, made me laugh, and convinced me completely in the whole rest of the story. Is there anything else I could expect from an actor?

The magnificent Mr. Grant really deserves a pic of his own. The close-ups were mainly reserved for Miss Dunne though. She had first billing, you know...

The idea of music as the golden threat for this story is not only a structure after my own heart, but gives Irene the opportunity to foreshadow each episode. These are the perfect moments for this fine-tuned actress with her expressive face. She and Cary Grant - both more on the restraint side of acting - avoid any maudlin. This story could have been a  rich source of schmaltz but what "Penny Serenade" offers is beautiful sentiment. 
Edgar Buchanan has some great scenes as Applejack - the nicest of scene-stealer's -and Beulah Bondi as head of the adoption agency throws in another solid performance. Maybe they could have found a better child actress for "Trina, age six" (Eva Lee Kuney), someone with a more convincing smile would have been nice. This fake of a grin looks scary, little Eva!

Mr. Buchanan at work...(and this is a typical ID gesture)

Up to this point I am really happy with this film, but here comes a personal difficulty. Normally, I don't watch the last minutes of "Penny Serenade" because I can't stand this phony Happy End. To "replace" one kid by another, and the assumption that this would "solve" all problems simply gives me the creeps. We just followed Julie and Roger for about two hours, learned that they were "meant for each other" (to stick to the songs), and when they start doing what they should have done a couple of days earlier - talk and share their loss and pain - the darn telephone rings and Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) offers a blond boy. Oh dear! 
I would have preferred a semi-open end; they start talking, descend the stairs, leaving us without any easy way out but with the awareness that they are once again on their way - together.
Well, as long as all I need to get my personal version is the stop button, that can't be a real problem, right?

The End à la Susanne

Monday, February 27, 2012

My Favorite Wife

Our magnificent leads in a publicity clinch   

Release date 05.17.1940

"Oh, by the way... how was my funeral?"
"Lovely! Dr. Blake preached a wonderful sermon."
"Oh, I wish I've been there!"

After seven years, Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife Ellen (Irene) who allegedly drowned at sea declared legally dead because he wants to marry Bianca (Gail Patrick). Shipwrecked and by an off course boat rescued Ellen returns just in time to thwart the honeymoon. She follows the newlyweds in their hotel and as soon as Nick lays his eyes on her again he is sure that she is still the one and only. 

Who on earth is Bianca??

But how to break the news to Bianca who is preparing for the wedding night upstairs? "Sorry, marriage is off!" probably won't do ... poor Nick wanting to do the right thing for everybody just doesn't come around to utter the adequate words. Ellen decides to give him some more time and to billet on her own family as an "old friend from the South." 

"Hey Nicolas, honey!"

This not only gives her the opportunity to keep an eye on Nick and Bianca but to get acquainted with her two kids who are too young to remember her. When the right time comes, she'll tell Tim (Scotty Beckett) and Cinch (Mary Lou Harrington) that she is their mother. 
Probably even this confusing situation would be settled soon, if Nick wouldn't learn that Ellen was not alone on her island. She was kept company by handsome Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) - quite an "Adam" to Ellen's "Eve". The second round in the battle of sexes begins ... 

Adam, Eve and Nick

"My Favorite Wife" always does the trick for me - it makes me laugh and puts me in a light-hearted mood, which is certainly something very nice and pleasant to write about a film . The story is not exactly believable - not even Irene Dunne would look like Irene Dunne anymore after seven years on a desolate island, especially considering Irene's delicate skin - and Nick's and Bianca's relationship is kind of odd from the beginning. That guy doesn't have to think for a second to give her the boots, but, well , if somebody can make this plausible, it's Irene Dunne! However, this rather silly story provides the most wonderful vehicle for all kind of absurd, madcap situations, is nicely spiced with slapstick elements and handled by a cast in a genial mood. 

The radiant Irene

According to La Dunne, the idea behind "My Favorite Wife" was a sort of sequel to "The Awful Truth" which makes absolute sense and turns the last ten minutes when Irene once again ends seductively lolling in bed into an appropriate quotation. Because of an accident Leo McCarey was not in charge of the direction - this task went to the more than capable Garson Kanin - but produced "My Favorite Wife" and was in general around. Though not as sophisticated as its predecessor - the dialogue in "The Awful Truth" is simply wittier - they are both obviously products of the same spirit. 
Thus our protagonists pick up where they left off; mumbling there, come-hither glances here, repartee back and forth, long talk short - onscreen chemistry in full swing. No wonder Cary Grant described acting with Irene Dunne more like a long flirtation than work.

Well, we already know each other...

One Cary Grant mystery for me is that he stumbles from one ridiculous situation into the other without ultimately making a fool of himself; the entire time he is still absolutely attractive, adorable and no irritation arouses why Ellen wants her hubby urgently back, although he's a little bit slow and complicated about the "Bianca issue". That Nicky beats her with her own weapons and gets her eventually with a laugh leads to a nice tied game, and they end in the room in which direction they were moving all along - the bedroom.

Let's be serious about life...

Irene has a field day as Ellen Arden jumping on the sofa for a "how to tell Bianca" rehearsal - one of my favorite scenes - parading her thick Southern accent, and ogling Cary's Nick - this intelligent and sexy lady knows how to handle the male species! Quite wonderful about Irene's presentation is that she consequently seems to share her amusement with us. She had anyway a tendency to "tongue in cheek" performances - something which was not always appreciated by the critics, but an important reason why I love actress Dunne - and Irene's Ellen is the mistress of this tone. She obviously enjoys the situation - at least partly - which makes us accomplices because we share some fun while the other parties concerned still have to fight  the absurdity of life. When the script asks for some sentiment - for instance the scene in which Ellen tells her kids about her true identity - Irene quickly switches back to the general mood which defines her characterization. Her Ellen embraces the absurdity of her situation and laughs about it, which is almost irresistible. Anyhow, who does not want to share complicity with Miss Dunne? 

...but not heavy about it!

Beyond enjoying the cooperation with Cary Grant and Leo McCarey, Irene had another valuable reason to like this film - and as we know by now, she was a little bit particular about her pictures - but this one made her list because she liked the performances of the bit players. Especially the hotel clerk (Donald MacBride), the judge (Granville Bates) and the little shoe salesman (Chester Clute) create real showpieces. Their roles are almost more grateful than the parts of Gail Patrick and Randolph Scott, and if I regret anything about this film, it's the fact that two scenes were cut that probably would have been a chance for these two actors to show some more of their competent presence.

 Okay, Irene, you got me! Once again!!

"My Favorite Wife" this most delightful "prelude to a kiss" is one of my Dunne favorites and I bet this statement just took you entirely by surprise!