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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 94 minutes.

Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) is fresh on the boat after a year-long expedition up the Amazon studying snakes and other assorted reptiles. The first evening on board the luxury liner he meets socialite Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn)…only father and daughter aren’t who they claim to be. Unbeknownst to Charles, they are card sharks and con artists, out to fleece their latest victim.

Jean, however, finds herself falling for Hopsie. She’s ready to go straight and begin a life together with her new love, when his friend and bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about the Harringtons. Charles dumps Jean and leaves her heartbroken, as well as out for revenge.

She returns to his life as the Lady Eve Sidwich, ready to break his heart just as he broke hers. But she is at risk of being sidelined by her own desires.

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Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The third film both written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve is considered by many to be his finest work. It is a smart combination of satire and slapstick comedy, with plenty of sexual innuendo and mockery of the wealthy. Sturges, who had once been married to a socialite, was known for poking fun at upper crust society.

But the fun isn’t all at the expense of the privileged. Others in this film have a moment of having his or her foibles exposed or dignity bent.

Paulette Goddard and Brian Aherne were the studio’s choices for the lead roles, but Sturges, who had clout after the success of his first two films, insisted on Stanwyck and Fonda. It was one of the few comedies Stanwyck had appeared in during her career so far, and its success led her to the starring role in Ball of Fire later that year.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times critic writing, “It isn’t often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world.”

The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story (Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original short story the final script was based on). It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Stanwyck was long known for her professionalism on the set, including always being prepared for the day’s shooting schedule, as well as her kindness to fellow cast members and crew. It was a rare actor who met the high standards she set, but Fonda appears to have been one of them. He later wrote she was his favorite co-star, and is even rumored to have had a long-time crush on her.

The Lady Eve is sophisticated despite its slapstick comedy, and a prime example of Preston Sturges at his finest. It does lose a little shine with a few details such as Stanwyck’s distinctly bad English accent, although perhaps that was a deliberate element, but overall remains sharp and funny today.

 

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.

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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.”

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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.