A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun, 1951, Paramount Pictures. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 122 minutes.

The poor relation of one of the town’s wealthiest families, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is put to work in his uncle’s factory with the strict admonition not to date any of his co-workers. Eastman is in the odd position of being a working class member of local society, while at the same time, the boss’s nephew.

With no regard for company rules, he takes up with one of the women from the factory, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Alice is naïve about men and the ways of high society, not believing it’s possible for George to be an Eastman without sharing in the privileges that come with the name.

During a brief visit with his uncle at the palatial Eastman estate, George meets the stunning and vivacious Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), and is drawn to this young woman from the upper echelons of society. Yet he knows his own humble standing forces him to stay virtually hidden from sight. 

Months later, his work at the factory impresses his uncle, who, as a reward,  invites him to a prestigious party with the wealthy and stylish members of local society. There, George meets up with Angela once again, and this time, she takes charge and leads them into romance.

Alice is jealous, even though she doesn’t yet know the full truth about George and Angela. What’s more, she’s pregnant. While she expects George to marry her, he is reluctant. He is torn between his obligations to a young woman he is nominally interested in, and the passion he feels for another.

Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.png
Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor

Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, the story was inspired by the real-life 1906 trial of Chester Gillette, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Grace Brown. The two had been sexually involved, but when Brown became pregnant, Gillette left her for a wealthy socialite.

Reviews at the time of the release of A Place in the Sun were effusive with their praise. Life magazine’s film critic wrote: “Directed by George Stevens for Paramount, it gives three young actors the chance to give the most natural performances of their careers. Montgomery Clift as the confused, likable, rather stupid social climber; Shelley Winters as the dowdy working girl; Elizabeth Taylor as the dazzling rich girl.”

During filming, Taylor, a mere 17 years old, was said to be infatuated with the then 30-year-old Clift. While romance was not in the cards for them (Clift was gay, although he did become involved with at least one woman), the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Director Stevens played on their intense emotions, resulting in powerful scenes of smouldering sexuality.

Shelley Winters, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun
Shelley Winters, Montgomery Clift

Shelley Winters worked hard for her role as Alice, changing her appearance from her signature “blonde bombshell” look to that of a dowdy, lonely girl. Her work in the film won her a nomination for Best Actress, which she lost to Vivien Leigh for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The film won six Academy Awards: Best Director; Best Cinematography, Black &White; Best Costume Design, Black & White; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score; and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for Montgomery Clift, and, as mentioned above, Best Actress for Shelley Winters.

The late Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies and noted film historian, called A Place in the Sun “the quintessential drama,” one of the best films of the era. While some of the dramatic elements are weakened with time, the story holds up as a gripping tale of the power of greed, passion and perilous young love.

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To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not, 1944, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 100 minutes.

Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate making a humble living in Martinique, not long after the fall of France to Nazi Germany. He owns a small fishing boat and wryly caters to tourists looking to catch “the big one,” all the while doing his best to stay out of any political intrigue. For the most part, he’s left alone, even ignored, by locals.

Not much gets past him, and when he sees the arch new girl in town (Lauren Bacall), artfully lift the wallet of the bombastic man who has been sidestepping his way out of paying the substantial sum he owes Harry, he steps in to control the situation. But this isn’t a woman who’s easily controlled.

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

This was the film that launched the romance between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, and in later interviews Howard Hawks frequently told how he’d warned Bogart he’d found a woman who could match his insolence — and thereby match his power — on the screen. Bogart affably laughed at the idea, and any tension that might have come from playing opposite a strong woman was no doubt helped when he found himself falling in love with his co-star.

In her autobiography, By Myself, Bacall tells of the subtle yet powerful start to her romance with Bogart. Initially helpful primarily on a professional level with the young actress, after a few weeks Bogart made the first quiet move, and gradually the two began a discreet, then increasingly open, romance. Hawks was opposed to any sort of relationship between them, although he didn’t hesitate to use the intense emotions in his movie.

Bacall also recalled that when shooting scenes with Bogart, she began to shake with nervousness, well aware of her novice standing with the on-camera and behind-the-scenes movie greats who were creating the film. She learned to calm her nerves by tucking her chin down and peering up at Bogart during her scenes with him, a move that soon became known as “The Look.”

Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Dan Seymour, Humphrey Bogar

Hawks also told about a bet he’d made with his friend Ernest Hemingway, claiming he could make a movie out of any of the author’s books, even the worst, which he without reservation said was undoubtedly To Have and Have Not. From there Hawks worked with Hemingway to create a rough draft of a script, focusing on how the main characters met, but using little of else from the book. Screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner wrote the final screenplay.

Despite her character’s sophistication, it is easy to see the girl in 19-year-old Bacall. To Have and Have Not introduced her as an actress, and was also the first major role for Dolores Moran, who was 20 at the time. Moran’s career was short-lived; she appeared in several more films over the next few years, but retired as an actress in 1954.

Lauren Bacall Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

The film had elements of Casablanca in its supporting characters and secondary story lines, with the trusted piano player, the difficult political situation, and the characters bearing a strong resemblance to those played by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. It also shares a moodiness with that film, but To Have and Have Not is not a cheap imitation of other great movies. It is a classic for its own reasons.

 

As of June 10, 2017, “To Have and Have Not” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Saturday, July 15 at 10:15 p.m. ET/9:15 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

Theodora Goes Wild

Theodora Goes Wild, 1936, Columbia Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. B&W, 94 minutes.

Raised by maiden aunts in a small New England town, Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is, by all appearances, a proper, modest young woman, leading the virtuous life expected of her. Unknown to the residents of Lynnfield (the town named for her family) and for that matter, the rest of the world, Theodora is writing explicit romantic novels under the pseudonym Caroline Adams.

While visiting her publisher, Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall), her secret is revealed to his wife, Ethel (Nana Bryant), as well as Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the artist who created the risqué picture that graces the cover of her book. Against Theodora’s better judgment, the four go out to dinner that evening, where the nervous young woman drinks far too much and ends up alone with a clearly amorous Michael in his apartment.

Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne

She flees back to Lynnfield, but Michael has learned where she lives — as well as her secret — and follows her home. With some light blackmail, he ends up serving as the gardener for the Lynn family — and falling in love with Theodora. The prim author of racy novels has found the man she only imagined existed, and she, too, has lost her heart to love.

But Michael has secrets of his own, and ends up with more than he bargained for with his prank, forcing him to end any hope of a future with his new-found love. Theodora, it turns out, has a “wild” side, and she brings that out to get him back.

This film had a number of plot elements that had been smoothed over to meet Code standards, such as a clearly unwed mother (whom we’re told has a husband, but the rest of the story belies that fact) and Theodora’s move into Michael’s apartment.

Irene Dunne stars in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne

A wild Theodora is mild by today’s standards, but a lot of fun. This was the first comedy role for Irene Dunne, and she proved her comedic skills were sharp and innate. It was a career-defining role for Melvyn Douglas as well, who went on to refine the edgy, sardonic character he created with Michael Grant.

The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress for Dunne as well as Best Film Editing.

Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild
Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas

Years later in an interview, Dunne recalled initially being reluctant to make the movie, but warming up to it because “the front office was behind it, which made the whole thing a lot of fun.” She also said that for many of her friends, it was a favorite of her roles, because they felt it was the one that was “most like me.”

This is a much-overlooked but delightful romantic comedy, with an original take on a standard story line and a walk to the edge of what movie makers could and could not explicitly say in films of that day. It draws you in from the start and never slows down to the exuberant end.

 

Out of the Past

Out of the Past, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. B&W, 97 minutes.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has chosen a simple life in a small town, making his living from his gas station and dating the local sweetheart, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He is content and at ease, until a dark shadow from his past appears in the memory of Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer).

Years before, Moffatt had shot and wounded her boyfriend, the less-than-honorable Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). She fled to parts unknown, and Sterling hired a private investigator, Jeff Markham, to find her and bring her back. Markham, of course, is none other than the man now known as Jeff Bailey. His search leads him to find Moffatt hiding in plain site in Mexico, but he doesn’t let Sterling know about his discovery. He’s fallen for Kathie, and the two run off together.

They are living quietly until Markham’s partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), finds them and threatens to take Moffatt back to Sterling. Markham and Fisher get into a brawl, and Moffatt, now sharper in her aim, shoots Fisher dead. After Markham buries the body, he starts a new life, but without Kathie Moffatt.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer

Destiny steps in, and Jeff finds himself first back in Sterling’s palatial home, then in San Francisco, where he meets up once again with Kathie. The three have a few issues to resolve.

Before Mitchum was cast in the lead, the part allegedly was offered to Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell, three of the most popular actors of the time. It was said to first have been offered to Bogart because the story on which the film is based, Build the Gallows High, and the movie itself, both strongly echo elements of The Maltese Falcon.

It is brooding, classic film noir, with tension that builds and a resolution that leaves its own questions. As the femme fatale, Jane Greer does a fine job, but her acting doesn’t match the quality performances by Mitchum and Douglas, nor is the interaction between her and either of those men half as interesting as the interplay between the male lead characters.

Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum

Filming took place primarily in a small town in northern California, with most of the cast and crew arriving a week or so before Mitchum appeared. He almost didn’t make it at all when the brakes failed on the four-seat plane he arrived in. The pilot was able to avert disaster, and while the two passengers in the back were unconscious after the emergency landing, Mitchum is rumored to have crawled out and hitched a ride to the set.

It was only Kirk Douglas’ third film role, the first being The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and he is sharp, cunning and unlikable as the unscrupulous Whit Sterling. Mitchum, also a rising star at the time, shines with his typical low-key style in one of his finest roles.

In 1984, Out of the Past was remade, with a significantly different script, as the film Against All Odds. The remake starred Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role, Rachel Ward in Greer’s role and James Woods in Douglas’ part. Jane Greer played Ward’s mother, and Paul Valentine, who had a small part in the original film, played a councilman.

Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum

For fans of film noir, Out of the Past is a must-see, with most of the classic elements of that style seen in this movie. The snappy dialogue, the moody lighting, the sharp contrast between good and evil, all play a role. Mitchum, with his laconic style and brooding appearance, is the quintessential film noir star. And for classic film fans in general, this is one to add to your list of movies worth watching.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, William Powell. Directed by Stephen Roberts. B&W, 81 minutes.

Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) and Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (William Powell) are divorced, yet enjoy a cordial relationship — perhaps enjoyed a bit more by Paula than Brad. The ex-Mrs. Bradford believes the two should re-marry, and to that end, she’s moved back into his roomy apartment.

But that isn’t the only conflict in their relationship. Paula is convinced the recent death of a jockey, who mysteriously fell off his horse during a race, is murder. Brad sees no reason to think this, until someone close to the situation confirms it is, indeed, suspicious.

The two are drawn into the case, with their relationship evolving just as the clues do. But Paula’s meddling truly gets Brad involved when her “work” on the case leads authorities to make him their number one suspect.

William Powell, Jean Arthur star in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell, Jean Arthur

Clearly playing on the popularity of The Thin Man (none of the sequels had been made at this point), this film holds its own and was one of the most popular comedies of the year. It was the last film for director Stephen Roberts, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 40 two months after the movie’s release. Roberts had directed more than 100 films in his 14 year career, including Star of Midnight just one year before, with Powell and Ginger Rogers.

Powell and Arthur had both worked for Paramount studios several years earlier, where each got his or her film career start in silent movies. While the transition to “talkies” was easier for Powell, in part because of his smooth voice, both were a hit in Arthur’s first major talking film, The Canary Murder Case (1929). That was also one of Powell’s first detective roles, a type of character he went on to play in numerous films, including The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell

The film also features Eric Blore, the character actor who appeared in more than 80 films throughout his career, including such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films as Swing Time and Top Hat.

This is a charming, albeit lesser-known mystery-comedy with an outstanding cast, a plot that, while not of the calibre of Dashiell Hammett, is nonetheless clever, and a number of the elements of popular comedies of the day, including a divorced couple whose reunion we eagerly anticipate right from the start, a scatterbrained yet ultimately clever female lead and a convoluted, improbable path to resolution and reconciliation. Fans of screwball comedies of this era will thoroughly enjoy this film.

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday, 1950, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 102 minutes.

Brassy Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) is the girlfriend of boorish junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), who has taken her with him to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to influence various Senators in a bid to strengthen his business. Brock is convinced Billie’s unrefined ways will harm his efforts, and he hires newsman Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach her culture and improve her image.

Brock is ignoring his own shortcomings, however, while Billie becomes increasingly aware of them. His belittling manner toward her doesn’t go unnoticed by Verrall, who is falling for Billie. What Verrall doesn’t yet know is how important she is to Brock, not because of love so much as financial interest, for most of Brock’s holdings are in Billie’s name.

Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday
Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday

The film was based on the popular play by Garson Kanin, which also starred Holliday in its Broadway run. The film’s producers were reluctant to use her in their production, and first considered a number of other actresses. The turning point in their decision to cast Holliday apparently was her performance in Adam’s Rib, also co-written by Kanin. Katharine Hepburn, star of that film, made sure Holliday’s scenes were essentially a screen test for Born Yesterday.

Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. While she did a wonderful job with the role, it was not of the calibre of other nominees, in particular, Bette Davis for All About Eve. Davis was expected by many to win the award, but Anne Baxter, whose role in that film was a supporting, not lead, actress part, was also nominated for Best Actress. Many believe fans of the movie split their vote between the two actresses, costing Davis the award. Gloria Swanson was also nominated (for Sunset Boulevard), and while her performance was more award-worthy than Holliday’s, the dark nature of the film may have worked against her.

William Holden, Judy Holliday star in Born Yesterday
William Holden, Judy Holliday

In addition to Holliday’s award, the film was nominated for four other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing — Screenplay, and Best Costume Design, Black & White. It lost all four to All About Eve.

It is difficult at times to watch Brock’s violent treatment of Billie, and it can be uncomfortable watching Billie awkwardly try to fit in when she clearly does not. Those latter scenes were played for comedy, but don’t always work as intended. What does make this movie worth watching are the scenes between Holliday and Holden; they are sweet and poignant, and pivotal to the change in Billie.

Born Yesterday is a good film, and one with a strong presence in popular culture. It, sadly, remains relevant today in its portrayal of an abused young woman, but her growing strength and awareness of her own worth makes it worth the watch.

The Constant Nymph

The Constant Nymph, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a concert pianist, is in a slump, and for inspiration he seeks out his friend Albert Sanger (Montagu Love) in Switzerland. Sanger has four daughters, all of whom adore Dodd, but Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is particularly enamored of him.

Shortly after his arrival, the Sanger girls’ worst fear is realized when their father dies. They are left penniless, but in the care of their wealthy uncle, Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn). Creighton visits Switzerland with his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), who also becomes enchanted by Dodd, and he returns her feelings. Florence and Dodd are married, leaving Tessa heartbroken. For Tessa, who has a heart condition, this stress is a serious problem.

The life of ease and wealth proves uninspiring to Dodd, however, and the newlywed couple soon discover they are no longer happy together. Equally dissatisfied with their lives are Tessa and her sister Paula, who have been sent to boarding school.

Tessa has never gotten over her feelings for Dodd, and through his music, he appears to now be returning them. But she is young, and he is married, and any union between the two seems unlikely to be destined.

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith

The Constant Nymph was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Actress for Joan Fontaine, who lost to Jennifer Jones for her role in The Song of Bernadette. The nomination was deserved; Fontaine created an engaging and memorable character, one that is said to be among her favorites. She was cast after director Goulding had conducted a difficult search for a star who could play a 14-year-old convincingly and with depth, rejecting Joan Leslie, the studio’s choice.

Charles Boyer wasn’t as happy with his part, saying he felt the character lacked strength and sensitivity. Peter Lorre is also featured in one of his most “normal” roles, as the new husband of Tessa’s older sister Toni, and an excited father-to-be.

Charles Boyer Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine

The movie had been out of circulation from 1951 to 2011 as rights to the story reverted back to Margaret Kennedy, the author of the book on which it was based. This was an unusual situation for Warner Bros., who typically bought story rights in perpetuity. Kennedy stated in her will the film could only be shown in universities and museums, and it was rarely seen even in those venues. In 2011, Turner Classic Movies introduced a restored edition at its annual Classic Film Festival.

This is a fine film, with a story that is well-told and realistic despite its melodrama, and sharp performances from the entire cast. It has a more esoteric approach than most films of its day, focusing a bit more on the ethereal (and perhaps ephemeral) aspects of life, yet it brings the audience into the realities of one of life’s most painful situations, the loss of love.