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.

Ninotchka (1939)

Ninotchka, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 110 minutes.

After her three comrades are taken in by the pleasures of Paris, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is sent by the Russian government to complete their task of selling jewelry seized from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Standing in her way is suave Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is representing the woman (Ina Claire) who claims to be the true owner of the jewels. The Count finds himself falling for Ninotchka, who, in her own cool, calculating way, begins to be seduced by both his charms and the sway of capitalism.

Ninotchka is practical and analytical, Count d’Algout is ardent and idealistic. The cold ideals of communism are faced with the bright lights of capitalism, and the hearts of all are quickened by the romance of Paris.

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas star in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas

This was the first comedy for Garbo, and she was well-cast as the reserved Russian on a mission for the state. Her skills are put to good use in developing the character, and her delivery of some of the funniest lines is impeccable. As one of the finest actresses of her time, had she been given further opportunity in comedy, she may have been a shining light.

Studio executives were seeking an appropriate romantic comedy for Garbo, one with which they could use the line, “Garbo Laughs!” as a takeoff on the immensely popular “Garbo Talks!” marketing campaign used for her first talking film, Anna Christie. They approached Melchior Lengyel, who came up with this three-line synopsis of a story:

“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.”

and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch turned it into the Academy Award-nominated screenplay.

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo

In what many consider to be the best year for films in the Golden Age of Hollywood (1939), Ninotchka was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo), Best Story (Melchior Lengyel) and, as mentioned above, Best Screenplay. It won none, but this was a year when it truly could be said, “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

The timing of world events just prior to the release of Ninotchka played a part in its initial success. For years, Russia had been seen as a friend of the United States, and its anti-Nazi sympathies helped solidify the camaraderie. Being a communist sympathizer had not yet reached the point of being considered dangerous to the American way of life.

However, in August of 1939, Germany and Russia became allies, and anti-Nazi sentiment outweighed support of the Russian government or lifestyle. A political satire mocking this new-found enemy was timely.

Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Granach in Ninotchka
Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Karlach

The satire remains fresh today, and the performances of both stars as well as those of the numerous character actors, including the three men who played the Russians first sent to Paris, are strong and funny. Felix Bressart, whom Ernst Lubitsch also used with great effect in other films, such as The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, is particularly appealing. As is this film.

As of May 9, 2017, “Ninotchka” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 6:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. CT.  Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information and to receive e-mail notifications about air dates of your favorite films.

Captain Blood

Captain Blood, 1935, Warner Bros. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 119 minutes.

In 17th century Great Britain, young, brash doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is called upon to save a man injured during the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II. Arrested for treason and sentenced to death, Blood is instead shipped off the West Indies to be sold into slavery.

Once he arrives at his fateful destination, he attracts the attention of the wealthy Miss Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland). When he is rejected for purchase by her uncle, Arabella bids for Blood, and in short order owns the doctor. She later gains a measure of freedom for her only slave by having him tend to the medical care of high-ranking members of local society.

errol-flynn-olivia-de-havilland-in-captain-blood
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland

The saucy Arabella has met her match in the brazen young doctor. She endures his resentment at his situation, a fair share of which is directed at her. Despite his animosity toward the beautiful Miss Bishop, he is attracted to the young woman, and it is clear she shares those feelings.

His resentment is turned to action, as Blood and other slaves keep vigilant watch for opportunity, and grab hold of their chance for freedom when they overrun a Spanish man-of-war. They begin lives as pirates, and soon they are notorious in their ventures. When Arabella’s uncle, the Colonel Bishop, becomes governor, fate intervenes once again in the tormented relationship between pirate and lass.

Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone Captain Blood
Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone

It is famously reported that Flynn and de Havilland each had a crush on the other, hiding their feelings because neither imagined they would be reciprocated.  Olivia de Havilland spoke to those passions years later in a television interview when she described the “deep crush” she had on Flynn for three years, but expressed no regret that true romance eluded the famous pair. While they may have kept their emotions to themselves, they could not, nor would they have wanted to, hide the chemistry that lit up between them onscreen.

Future films made better use of that dynamic, as well as de Havilland’s acting skills, but Captain Blood is a fine vehicle for the impudent, virile character Flynn played so well. While he was not the first choice for the role, it launched his career, and made him the kind of movie matinée idol you no longer see in today’s crop of actors. Fans of the dashing actor will note he isn’t yet sporting his signature pencil-thin moustache, and while hardly of note today, his hair is, for the era, bad-boy long.

olivia-de-havilland-errol-flynn-in-captain-blood
Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn

Nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Picture and Best Sound Recording, the film also won significant write-in votes for Best Director, Best Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The score, written by internationally renowned composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, is stirring and a significant element in the dramatic nature of the story.

Captain Blood has a complex story line and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, but that hardly matters, as long as you remember the errant pirate is the true hero and all who are pulling for him are on the side of good and the future of mankind. As a swashbuckler and man of adventure, there is none better than Captain Blood.

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby, 1938, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 102 minutes.

Respectable, steadfast scientist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is engrossed in his latest project, completing the skeletal frame of a brontosaurus. He sets out to convince one Mr. Peabody of the worthiness of his endeavor, worthy, that is, of a million dollar donation from Peabody’s client, Mrs. Random (May Robson).

He’s rebuffed by Peabody while the two are playing golf, and the outing goes from bad to worse. In the middle of the game he discovers his ball has been appropriated by Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who goes on to drive off in his car. Susan can’t be convinced she’s wrong, and the scatterbrained young woman proceeds to lead Huxley on a chase for, among other things, his peace of mind.

Susan has just received a gift from her brother, a leopard with the unlikely name of Baby. She’s oblivious to the outrageous nature of this gift, as she is to much of the chaos that ensues wherever she goes. It turns out the leopard is intended for her aunt, Mrs. Random, the woman Dr. Huxley is hoping will donate to his paleontological project. Susan convinces Huxley to help her transport Baby to her home in Connecticut.

Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Bringing Up Baby did not do well at the time of its release, with critics calling it derivative and predictable. Today, however, it’s considered by many to be one of the top screwball comedies of the era.

Even director Howard Hawks was critical of the film. Years later he said in an interview, “I think the film had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from it. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball.” But he also expressed a fondness for the film in other interviews, saying once, “the most fun you can have is making fun of people…you get a doctor and get laughs out of him, like a psychiatrist, where you drive a psychiatrist crazy like in Bringing Up Baby.” That, it would seem, is a classic element of screwball comedy.

There has been much discussion over Grant’s meaning when, confronted about wearing a woman’s feathered silk robe, Huxley testily responds, “because I just went gay all of a sudden” (leaping in the air on the word “gay”). Many deem that the first time the word was used in a movie in its modern-day sense of “homosexual” rather than “happy,” while etymologists debate how common the term was, including its popularity in Grant’s circles. While the meaning may seem “obvious” to us today, and certainly the amount of innuendo in this film makes that belief laudable, it never was made clear by the director or actors what Grant intended. What does seem certain is the line was ad-libbed, which will forever leave its meaning open to speculation.

cary-grant-may-robson
Cary Grant, May Robson

The film created a great backlash of ill will for Hepburn, who was labeled “box office poison” after its release and relative failure. That never stopped this phenomenal actress, who two years later turned her luck around with The Philadelphia Story. Playing a ditzy heiress was not her best role; she did well in later roles playing privileged young women who were somewhat oblivious, but was a little irritating as one who is totally harebrained.

Definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up  Baby is fast-paced, madcap and improbable. It is not Hepburn’s or Hawk’s finest work, but it is fun, and time has proven its worth.

As of April 25, 2017, “Bringing Up Baby” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 7:45 a.m. ET/6:45 a.m. CT and Friday, June 9, 2017 at 4:45 p.m. ET/3:45 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change. For the latest information, check out TCM’s schedule. 

Marty

Marty, 1955, United Artists. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair. Directed by Delbert Mann. B&W, 89 minutes.

Kind and gentle Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is adept at handling the female customers in his butcher shop, but awkward and sensitive with ladies in a social situation. The 34-year-old bachelor lives with his widowed mother in the Bronx, and has resigned himself to the possibility he’ll be single the rest of his life.

While socially unskilled, he is a gentleman, and when a would-be Casanova dumps his date at a local dance hall one Saturday night, Marty’s sense of right and wrong compels him to approach the abandoned woman, Clara (Betsy Blair), and ask her to dance. That dance leads to a long evening of laughter, conversation and confidences.

Marty, it would appear, has met the girl of his dreams, but his — and her — social awkwardness and fears of being hurt still stand in their way. Add to that the meddling of Marty’s mother, aunt and not-so-well-meaning friends, and Marty has barriers to overcome he isn’t practiced in working through to a satisfactory end. Still, he holds fast to his hopes and dreams.

Ernest Borgnine, Augusta Ciolli, Esther Minciotti in Marty
Ernest Borgnine, Augusta Ciolli, Esther Minciotti

This film was a remake of a live television broadcast from May, 1953, starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand in her television debut. Marchand was considered for the same role in the movie, but Blair, with the help of her husband, Gene Kelly, lobbied hard for and won the role. Blair had been blacklisted for her suspected Communist sympathies, but the influence of Kelly, who was immensely popular at the time, was a significant help in getting her the part.

Director Delbert Mann, who first made his mark with live television dramas, also had directed the television broadcast of Marty. He was the first director to win an Academy Award for his motion picture debut, and it was 25 years before that achievement would be accomplished again, for Robert Redford and Ordinary People.

Joe Mantell, Ernest Borgnine in Marty
Joe Mantell, Ernest Borgnine

In addition to Mann’s award, the film won Best Picture, Best Actor for Borgnine and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, who expanded his original script from the television program for the feature-length film. It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell), Best Supporting Actress (Betsy Blair), Best Art Direction/Set Direction – Black & White, and Best Cinematography – Black & White.

Marty is a sweet and poignant tale of an average, hard-working couple in an ordinary, yet heartwrenching, situation. Add to the two stars several supporting characters who are well-defined and familiar, facing clear and recognizable dilemmas, and the film’s appeal is timeless.  With achingly realistic settings, a fantastic script and understated direction, you have a movie well worth the watch.

As of April 18, 2017, “Marty” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, May 14, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. ET/3:00 p.m. CT and Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 10:15 p.m. ET/9:15 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest info and to receive email updates about air times of your favorite films.

The Male Animal

The Male Animal, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson. Directed by Elliott Nugent. B&W, 101 minutes.

Earnest professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), are preparing to celebrate Homecoming (which happens to land on Ellen’s birthday), along with the rest of the fictional Midwestern University campus. They’re having a small gathering before the big game, and among the guests are Ellen’s former beau, Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), and one of the school’s narrow-minded trustees, Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette).

Tommy isn’t thrilled Ed is going to be there to start with, and his mild concern turns to great dismay when he learns one of his students has commended him for his “bravery” in reading a literary piece by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the self-proclaimed anarchist convicted of first-degree murder in one of the most controversial court cases of the twentieth century. Tommy plans to read it simply because it’s a fine piece of writing, not because of any political stand, but he’s in trouble. The trustees are ridding the school of “reds” — anyone suspected of communist sympathies.

Jack Carson, Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal
Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson

Add to his concerns his growing conviction Ellen would be happier with the recently separated Joe. Ellen, for her part, is doing nothing to dissuade him from those thoughts. Only Joe seems uncertain about the potential of a future with his former girlfriend. Joe, it turns out, isn’t as dumb as Tommy would like to believe he is, and sees the situation with a fair amount of clarity.

The Male Animal is light satire about serious issues such as censorship and racism. While the objects of these concerns may be different than today, the rhetoric is much the same, making this film relevant to audiences 75 years after its release.

The movie premiered in Columbus, Ohio, with James Thurber, co-author of the popular play on which the film is closely based, in attendance as a special honoree. The occasion focused on the collegiate theme of the story, including a huge dinner at Thurber’s old fraternity house. Honoring Thurber, who didn’t directly work on the film, was legitimate, as screenwriters Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Stephen Morehouse Avery kept their script true to the original play, and the star of the Broadway production, Elliott Nugent, directed the film. It was as close to a Thurber screenplay as you could get without having the man actually work on the script.

Henry Fonda, Jack Carson in The Male Animal
Henry Fonda, Jack Carson

The studio promoted the film as a love triangle between Tommy, Ellen, and Ellen’s sister, Pat (Joan Leslie), but Pat barely makes an appearance and has nothing to do with the tension between the Turners. Apparently, the provocative nature of the other woman was thought to be needed to sell this film, even though it was actually the other man at issue.

Thurber had a sly wit, and that’s reflected in the dialogue. This is a smart movie poking fun at a serious topic, with a talented cast (down to Tommy’s student, Michael, played by Herbert Anderson, who would go on to be best known as Dennis the Menace’s father). Both stars are at their comedic best, and while these may not have been their most challenging roles, they brought extra depth to the characters lesser actors or actresses may have failed to do. The film moves at a good pace and manages to deliver a serious message in a natural manner. The Male Animal is well worth the watch.