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.

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.

Manhattan Melodrama

Manhattan Melodrama, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. B&W, 90 minutes.

Boyhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) survive a disaster as children when the ship they are on catches on fire and sinks, killing many on board, including their parents. They are adopted by another survivor, but their life with him is short-lived as he is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse during a protest. A life-long bond between the two boys appears to be firmly set.

As adults, Blackie and Jim have gone down divergent paths, albeit paths destined to cross each other. Jim has taken the high road as an assistant district attorney on the fast-track. Blackie, on the other hand, has turned to a life of gambling, mostly in an illegal casino that’s allowed to stay in business with regular payoffs to the police department.

clark-gable-myrna-loy-in-manhattan-melodrama
Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Blackie is dating Eleanor (Myrna Loy), but she objects to his lifestyle, and leaves him on the evening Jim is elected district attorney. By New Year’s Eve, she is brave enough to seek Jim out, despite Blackie’s predictions she would never be good enough for him. It turns out he was wrong, and Eleanor and Jim are soon engaged.

That same New Year’s Eve, Blackie shoots and kills a man who double-crossed him. Jim doesn’t know who committed the murder, but has the task of seeking out the killer, and his search leads him to Blackie, something Eleanor cannot abide.

Manhattan Melodrama marked the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, including the six in the Thin Man series. The Thin Man, in fact, was released only three weeks after Manhattan Melodrama; it was also directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Loy later recalled her first connection with Powell, “I don’t remember much about my scenes with Clark. The picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in. From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work you can see this strange kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

Her belief that the “picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in” is debatable, as Gable gives an engaging performance as the likeable ne’er-do-well.

myrna-loy-william-powell-in-manhattan-melodrama
Myrna Loy, William Powell

The ship sinking portrayed early in the movie was that of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, when the excursion steamer, carrying more than 1300 passengers, among them 300 children, caught fire below deck. Ship hands, who had never taken part in a fire drill, discovered the hoses were rotten, as were the 2,500 life preservers they tried handing out to the doomed passengers. The final death toll was 1,021, the greatest disaster in New York City until 9/11.

This film is historically famous for being the movie John Dillinger was watching just before being gunned down by federal agents outside of the theater. It won one Academy Award, for Best Original Story (Arthur Caesar).

Manhattan Melodrama is a story that has been told numerous times since the making of this movie, making the tale seem a bit clichéd. It is, however, a notable film for a number of reasons, including the horrifyingly realistic depiction of the burning of the General Slocum, the assured performances of three stars, and a decent script. It is a movie classic film fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to watch the dynamics between Powell and Loy. Magical, indeed.

 

Humoresque

Humoresque, 1946, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, John Garfield. Directed by Jean Negulesco. B&W, 124 minutes.

Violinist Paul Boray (John Garfield) has overcome family objections and the constraints of the Great Depression to achieve modest success as a musician. That’s not enough for him, however. To help his search for greater fame, his closest friend, wise-cracking Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant), introduces him to socialite and patron of the arts, Helen Wright (Joan Crawford).

The two begin a tug-of-war toying of the emotions, with Paul mindful of her married status and she, not used to being rebuffed by men, alternately playing it coy, then cool. Paul has a childhood sweetheart who is clearly better for him then the tempestuous Helen, but he is being pulled into her affections.

It is a dangerous situation, and both are aware of the potential destruction to their lives, but as happens so often, passion draws them into a deeper and wider stronghold against their better judgment. At the same time, Paul is torn by his mother’s insight into his career and tortured relationships.

john-garfield-joan-crawford-star-in-humoresque
John Garfield, Joan Crawford

The relationship between patron and musician is complex, and performances by both Garfield and Crawford are up to the task of portraying the intricacies of the dynamics between the two. This is often noted as one of Crawford’s finest roles, coming on the heels of her Academy-Award winning portrayal of Mildred Pierce.

Close-ups of Garfield playing the violin are actually the hands of famed violinist Isaac Stern, who also served as musical advisor for the film and was the solo violinist on the film’s soundtrack. Stern was only 25 at the time, and this was a huge boost to his career.

John Garfield in Humoresque.png
John Garfield

Crawford later recalled one scene, in which she performs her own stunt by falling off a horse going at full gallop, in an interview with a biographer. “I must have been crazy because I said I wanted to do my own stunt. They must have been crazier, because they let me do it.

“The powers-that-be had decided it was too racy to have Johnny Garfield lay on top of me. We had to re-shoot the scene so I ended up on top of him. That passed. I couldn’t really understand what was the difference, him on top of me or me on top of him.

“Well, the difference was I had to fall off the horse again. I did, and I lived to tell the tale.”

joan-crawford-in-humoresque
Joan Crawford

The film was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring (Franz Waxman).

A musical term, “humoresque” means “a short, lively piece of music,” and while that is heard throughout the film, it is perhaps not the strongest title for the film, nor does it give much of an indication of its plot or tone.

One of the few movies ever made that features classical music in a key role, Humoresque is a compelling tale of a complicated relationship with flawed characters and an uneven path to romance, a path that ultimately leads to tragedy born of emotional, and likely distorted, decisions.

 

Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.

Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.

Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.

They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.

The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.

jennifer-jones-louis-jourdan-in-madame-bovary
Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan

Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.

Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”

van-heflin-jennifer-jones-in-madame-bovary
Van Heflin, Jennifer Jones

The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.

Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barabara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed. While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.

A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.

john-boles-barbara-stanwyck-in-stella-dallas
John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.

Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.

anne-shirley-barbara-stanwyck-in-stella-dallas
Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.

The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.

Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.

This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.

Gentleman’s Agreement

Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947, Twentieth Century Fox. Starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield. Directed by Elia Kazan. B&W, 118 minutes.

Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) has moved with his mother (Anne Revere) and ten-year-old son Tom (Dean Stockwell) to New York to take on a new job as a magazine reporter. When he’s given an assignment on anti-semitism, his editor confidently tells him his particular skills will give the topic a strength it hasn’t had in the hands of lesser writers.

He struggles with the idea, uncertain at first if he even wants to tackle it. A few searching questions from his son and some dry observations from his mother change his mind, however, and he decides writing the story is the right thing to do. Trying to find a fresh, workable angle is proving impossible, until Phil, who is not Jewish, hits on the idea of living as a Jew in New York City for however long it takes to get the story he needs.

gregory-peck-anne-revere-in-gentlemans-agreement
Gregory Peck, Anne Revere

He’s met and fallen in love with Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), a seemingly liberal woman whose deeply ingrained prejudices start to show as he begins to face the realities of bigotry. She is among a handful of people who know his real identity, and she’s careful to make sure the right people also know that truth.

Added to the mix is Phil’s childhood friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who’s just moved to New York after serving in the war and is struggling to find a home for himself and his family. Dave, of course, knows the truth about Phil’s heritage, and as a Jew, he lends insight to the research.

The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm, as the magazine’s fashion editor and Phil’s confidante). It was nominated for five others, including Best Actor (Peck) and Best Actress (McGuire).

john-garfield-gregory-peck-celeste-holm-in-gentlemans-agreement
John Garfield, Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm

John Garfield, who was Jewish, generally played leading men, but accepted the supporting role because he believed in the importance of the film. The role of Phil’s son, Tommy, was played by Dean Stockwell, the veteran actor with one of the longest careers in Hollywood.

Gentleman’s Agreement was made in the years immediately following the Holocaust, when Americans were learning increasing amounts about the persecution of Jews and becoming sensitive to bigotry in their own country. Filmmakers, too, after the horrors of World War II, began to focus on more serious issues and take on “real”topics, such as alcoholism in The Lost Weekend and the trials facing returning veterans in The Best Years of Our Lives, and audiences responded well.

Interestingly, however, the film never mentions the Holocaust, a deliberate decision on the part of the film’s producer and director. Another point of interest is the use of racial slurs; words that are considered on par with profanity today were used in the movie without reservation and any apparent objection by censors.

dorothy-mcguire-gregory-peck-dean-stockwell-in-gentlemans-agreement
Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, Dean Stockwell

The movie is still noteworthy for its ability to bring forth intelligent discussion of anti-semitism. Critics note that it focuses on only one region in the country, that is, the upper-crust society Philip Green is part of, but whether or not that is a fault of the film is debatable. This is one movie’s take on the topic, and it can’t be responsible for portraying the whole of the problem.

Gentleman’s Agreement is complex, as is its topic, well-acted and thought-provoking. It remains a worthwhile movie for anyone interested in what a film can do for shining light society’s ills, as well as those who enjoy classic movies at their best.

As of February 7, 2017, “Gentleman’s Agreement” is available on Netflix streaming service as well as DVD rental. Availability is subject to change.