October 20, 2015


When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.


Hayes may have first become wary of cinema during that initial Broadway run of What Every Woman Knows at the Bijou Theater in 1926. As she was performing,  MGM’s epic WWI movie The Big Parade was screening next door at the Astor, and the live accompaniment was so loud it would reportedly startle the Bijou performers (per Ken Bloom’s BroadwayAn Encyclopedia). She would recover enough to take MGM’s money and immediately win a Best Actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and was radiantly innocent in Frank Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (’32).


What Every Woman Knows had already been filmed in a 1917 British version and a 1921 Paramount Production starring Lois Wilson. But enough time had passed for MGM to take their shot, and they had the definitive “Maggie” to go with it, so they paid Paramount $65,000 for the rights to J.A. Barrie’s play. It is set in the village of Kilburne, Scotland and concerns Maggie Wylie (Hayes), a plain, rather brilliant 26-year-old whose family fears she will become a spinster. With her mother passed on, she is surrounded by her father Alick (David Torrence), and her two brothers James (a delightfully dopey Dudley Digges) and David (a starchy Donald Crisp). A few betrothals have fallen apart, and the male Wylies become desperate to marry her off, while Maggie endures them with a twinkle in her eye. The family sees an opportunity in John Shand (Brian Aherne) when they catch him breaking into their library to study, for he’s too poor to attend school. So the Wylies propose to pay for his schooling if he signs a contract promising to marry Maggie after his graduation in five years. The contract is adhered to, and suddenly John is thrust into a race to become MP. Maggie is by his side, and his ear, guiding him to higher positions. The only threat to her ascent is the beautiful socialite and political operator Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), who has her own designs on John, but Maggie has a plan for her too.


Maggie operates in a suffocating patriarchy in which her only value to her family is through marriage, so while they love and adore her, they are desperate to get her out of the house. The early scenes are fascinating for how lightly Hayes plays them as her fate is decided by men sitting around a table. She blames her lack of “charm” for not getting a husband, and continues to flit around the house seemingly oblivious to the monumental changes her life is about to undertake. Whether she is accepting a present or a husband, her reaction is the same, with a benign, half-smiled acceptance. This false “lightness” is conveyed through her lilting Scotch burr as well as her walk. The one aspect of her that can’t lie is her eyes, and director Gregory La Cava, a wonderful director of actresses (Bebe Daniels in Feel My Pulse, Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses), has the blocking in the frame dictated by her gaze. Men are the filaments to her magnet, shifting around her as she tilts her head. While she cannot run for political office due to her sex, she can control their actions from her boudoir.


After a poor test screening in Los Angeles, La Cava brought the cast and crew back into the studio for retakes, saying, “every Joe Miller Scotch joke ever written” would be thrown in to please the audience (Joe Miller’s Jests was an English joke book from 1739), though Hayes recalled that none of the 18th century bon mots made it into the film. She was unhappy with the production, though it received decent reviews (the NY Times called it “heart-warming and decidedly effective”. She threatened to no-show her next assignment, Vanessa: Her Love Story (’35), but did the job to avoid getting sued. Through with Hollywood, she would devote the rest of her career to the stage, returning to TV and film intermittently (memorably so in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952)). What Every Woman Knows was a project La Cava and Hayes would both like to forget, but my job is to keep people from forgetting. It is a loose and amiable film with an alert, masterful performance at its center.


August 4, 2015


Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead,  a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse.  Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.


The story is prime nonsense. Barbara Manning (Daniels) is the heir to a family fortune, but her late, wildly eccentric father stipulated in his will that she be kept in a germ-free environment until she was 21. Her mild-mannered Uncle Edgar (George Irving) is to watch over her until that day. As the movie begins, Barbara could be knocked over by a feather, constantly ministered to by a flock of nurses. At the slightest cough she needs to lubricate her larynx with various tonics. But the destined birthday is around the corner, at which point her Texan Uncle Wilberforce (Melbourne MacDowell) is to take over the guardianship. Wilberforce is a cigar chomping Yosemite Sam type who tries to shock Barbara out of her passivity by shooting off his revolver into the ceiling. In order to escape this uncouth germ carrier, Barbara decides to decamp to an island sanitarium that is to be part of her inheritance. But the nuthouse has been taken over by a gang of rum runners led by Todd (William Powell) and his new protege Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen). They spend their days battling hijackers and shuffling casks of booze in and out of the former rest home. Wanting to keep their operation a secret from Barbara, they pretend to be running the sanitarium, with Todd the head doctor and the other gang members acting as patients. The absurdities build up as they desperately keep their illegal secret, and as Barbara hides out from her Uncle.

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The basic setup for Daniels’ performance is that Barbara believes herself to be a delicate flower, when in reality she has a physical prowess that reveals itself in moments of high stress. When Wilberforce shoots off his revolvers, she leaps to the ground with alacrity, and when her medicines fall out of a speeding car, she hurls herself down to the road and chases after them with the spring of an Olympic vaulter. She doesn’t know the power of her own body, or how to relate to the world outside. Most of the gags are built off of her alienation from the world. She doesn’t know how cars work, and drinks rum as if it were a new healing tonic. One of the funniest bits involves her sitting with an old drunk, trading belts of hooch, while they mangle the lyrics to “Sweet Adeline” (i.e. “You are the hower of my flart”).


While at first Todd seems like a lovable kind of criminal, he reveals himself to be a ruthless and abusive operator. William Powell, in a fetching curly moptop and bushy ‘stache, uses his natural charisma to hide the grim calculus going on inside his head. On one late night, under the ruse of a regular checkup of Barbara’s health, he proves himself to be a predator, Powell raising his lips to reveal his incisors in a vulture-like grin. Barbara has not yet recognized her own physical strength, so she lets Wallace bail her out of that threatening situation. Wallace is the sympathetic rum runner, with a gentle All-American corn-fed handsomeness (he has a Tom Brady thing going on).

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The film builds to a fever pitch when hijackers attack the sanitarium just as Barbara realizes the truth about her hosts. An enormous brawl of non-stop pratfalls erupts, as if the Keystone Kops were drafted into Upstate New York bootlegging wars. It is here, finally, where the body and mind of Barbara align, and she begins to realize her own power. In the aftermath of the fight, Barbara is being chased by the remnants of Todd’s gang, whereupon she flips out. Her body turns into a weapon, a flailing, whirling dervish of pain that knocks out the entire rum gang. She knocks them out with their own barrels of booze, as well as a handy bottle of chloroform she finds on a shelf. In the most brilliant gag in the film, she smashes the chloroform on Todd’s head, and La Cava uses extreme slow-motion to represent the gang’s slow descent into oblivion. It is so slow that is acts as an analytic breakdown of a pratfall, as each man collapses in a ballet of unconsciousness. One man does a header towards the camera, while Powell does a controlled, slow slide down, suave even while blacked out.


Barbara’s Uncles then come rumbling up the stairs with some cops, only to encounter Barbara’s still roiling defense mechanisms. After she has expended her energies smashing a few officers, the film gets down to business of wrapping up the Barbara-Wallace romance and send the audience home happy (which I most certainly was). What would make me happier was greater access to Bebe Daniels’ silents. Also in 1928 she acted in The Fifty-Fifty Girl, which the New York Times wrote involved a man and woman jointly owning a mine, and as “Kathleen has ideas about the equality of woman with man, so our two friends make an agreement that she is to do the leading, he is to follow with all ‘the courtesies’ ordinarily given to the fairer sex.” Though this feature is said to end with the man regaining control, Bebe Daniels is clearly cultivating an image of New Womanhood in this period, testing boundaries before bowing to the conventions of the period. Along with Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks, Daniels was redefining the image of women onscreen in the 1920s.


December 4, 2012

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Clive Brook with a bottle in his hand is the most memorable image in Gregory La Cava’s Gallant Lady, an unusual melodrama that skews from an engaging women’s picture into an unrepentant celebration of alcoholism. A recent release from the Fox Cinema Archives, their DVD burn-on-demand service, the film continues to alter my understanding of La Cava, following my consideration of Bed of Roses and The Half Naked Truth in last week’s post. The more I watch of his work, the more it becomes clear how little I knew. An anti-authoritarian rage bubbles beneath his dry humor, coming out in full force in Gallant Lady, pushing it off its genre moorings and becoming a vagrant’s statement of purpose. Far less personal is Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982), which arrives in the first batch of Warner Archive Blu-rays (alongside Gypsy, while The Hudsucker Proxy and others are promised in the future). An adaptation of Ira Levin’s hit play, it’s an actor’s showcase in which Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve duel in a battle of crime fiction writer wits, a clever bit of meta-Agatha Christie.

Gallant Lady was filmed in one month, from October to November of 1933, four months after the release of Bed of Roses. The script by Sam Mintz, later elaborated on the set by La Cava, begins as a classic melodrama, as Sally Wyndham (Ann Harding) watches in horror as her stunt-flying husband-to-be dies in a crash. Unwed and secretly pregnant, she gives up the child for adoption, while making ends meet thanks to the help of disgraced doctor and heavy drinker Dan Pritchard (Clive Brook). Sally yearns to get her baby back when she learns that the original adoptive mother has died, and that the stepmom is a bit of a bitch. Pritchard, cast aside in her pursuit of hearth and home, becomes a bitter drunk, and rather enjoys it.

In his essential NY Times home video column this past Sunday on the Fox Cinema Archive, Dave Kehr wrote that the “sensitive and self-destructive director Gregory La Cava” offered ” a self-portrait in Clive Brook’s supporting performance”. Being unfamiliar with La Cava’s reputation, I did some quick research that revealed him to be a notorious souse, with W.C. Fields among his favorite drinking partners. Director Allan Dwan recalled that:

When he got the alcohol in him, he got mean, and sometimes got himself into jams. He got into jams with studio heads. He was insulting, let’s put it that way. He had a great capacity for saying something sharp that would hurt people, but that he’d think was funny.

It is the hurt behind the humor that is so striking to me in these early 30s La Cava films, whether it’s the loneliness masked by Constance Bennett’s zingers in Bed of Roses, or Sally’s mournful crack, “Why do animals become ill? To escape affection.”

Pritchard is desperately in love with Sally, and even makes furtive attempts to go straight to win her admiration – going so far as to start a veterinary clinic. But her eyes are only for her child, so she sets upon seducing and marrying the adoptive father – without him knowing her true identity. The majority of the film is taken up by Sally’s pursuit, but the most seductive figure here is Pritchard, played in one long, exhausted sigh by Clive Brook. He’s a broken man briefly conjured back to life by Sally, but whose rejection forces him to back into himself. What he discovers, in a line that could have come straight out of the tippling La Cava’s mouth, is that, “I like bumming around and I like to drink”. Exit stage right. Left agog, Sally must return to the family she so desired, with her real son and fake husband, who still is unaware of her story. The film ends on her half-hearted smile as she agrees to marry him, entering a contract of duties that Pritchard has abandoned. La Cava’s sympathies are clear – he would rather die young and free than old and cooped up. As his boozing took its toll, he only directed five features in the 1940s, before dying on his own terms at the age of 59.

Gallant Lady is the film of an artist, while Deathtrap is that of an artisan. Lumet, the son of a Yiddish stage actor who quit performing on Broadway in his 20s, had a deep and abiding respect for the theater, and in Deathtrap he treats Ira Levin’s play as a sacred text. He told Michel Ciment in 1982 that:

For someone like me, with a tendency to be introverted, it’s important simply to film an action-packed story, just for fun. My latest film, Deathtrap, falls into that category, a crime story with a tight plot, one of the best I have ever read, based on a Broadway play. Everything takes place in an enclosed space, after a first sequence that takes place in a theater. For me, these films are like the parallel bars in gymnastics. They are for practicing and maintaining your technique.

Deathtrap is a useful exercise for him, plotting ways to make the interior of a living room engaging for two hours. He partway succeeds, thanks to the the fiendishly clever Ira Levin play, which artfully masks its nested series of reversals, and the ferocious performances of Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Reeve is especially lithe and menacing as Clifford Anderson, the one-time student of once famed thriller playwright Sidney Bruhl (Caine). Bruhl, after a string of flops, is eager to kill Anderson and steal his sure-to-be hit play. But there are enough feints, double-crosses and twists to sustain their pas-de-deux through its bloody climax. The title is a nod to Agatha Christie’s stage whodunit Mousetrap, which had the longest initial run of any play in history. Levin adds layers of self-consciousness, but at its heart it’s a densely plotted descendent of Christie.

Lumet takes a curious approach to the enclosed space – he shrinks it rather than enlarging it. He establishes the full space in a 360 degree tracking shot of Bruhl inviting Anderson over to his home, but then fixes his camera to a different side of the room for each movement in the plot. It shifts from a backyard facing camera to a front-facing one, after the initial twist is revealed. This is effective in activating new spaces for the unfurling activities of the plot, but his style is as equally mechanical as Levin’s play. Although it does happen to be one fine tuned machine.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray was not made with their on-demand technology, but manufactured in the regular “pressed” manner as the rest of WB’s discs, only in smaller quantities. The transfer is crisp and pleasing, and bodes well for future entries in the series. The Fox Cinema Archives disc is soft and fuzzy, although Fox is dealing with older and inferior elements. And in any case, La Cava would probably prefer you get as fuzzy and faded as the print before watching his ode to the demon rum.


November 27, 2012

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One of the advantages of being home for the holidays are the huge gaps of time that open up when work and other daily annoyances fade from view. In the lazy hours surrounding Thanksgiving I hunkered down in front of my family’s DVR and monolithic tube TV, searching the TCM schedule for something to while away the hours with. One particular item caught my eye, an early morning screening of Gregory La Cava’s Bed of Roses (1933). The description mentioned steamboats and female con-artistry, two of my favored subjects, so I clicked record in sweaty anticipation. The film turned out to be far more than an amiable time-killer, but an astoundingly subversive pre-code with some of La Cava’s finest lowdown dialogue. Wondering what other gems lay hidden in early 1930s La Cava, I also tracked down The Half Naked Truth (1932), which was a looser but still uproarious bit of scam artist screwball.

The Half Naked Truth was the fifth film Gregory La Cava directed for RKO, and the third straight produced by David O. Selznick. Following two dramas on which he didn’t receive a screenwriting credit (Symphony of Six Million and Age of Consent), La Cava was handed The Anatomy of Ballyhoo, the 1931 memoir of press agent Harry Reichenbach. Filled with outrageous incident, La Cava and Corey Ford’s script is a marvel of escalatingly elaborate scams, testing the limits of American gullibility, although much was probably re-written on the set. In a 1937 letter proposing La Cava be hired as a director-producer, Selznick wrote: “La Cava would drive me crazy as a director with the rewriting he does on set, for as you know I don’t like any projection-room surprises or shocks, but if he were his own producer we could take chance that he would shock himself.” Selznick never made him producer, but conveyed the kind of on-set improvisation that led to La Cava’s freest movies, which crackle with possibility.

Changing the name to The Half Naked Truth, the movie follows Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy) on his rise from carnival barker to Broadway impresario. Eager to prove that not only is there a sucker born every minute, but probably every second, Bates invents outrageous backstories for his gal Teresita (Lupe Velez) and pal Achilles (Eugene Pallette) at every stop, from scorned orphan to Turkish Princess, and it makes him money every time. He states his position to the carnival owner: “the world wants excitement, sensation, baloney!”. Part of a spate of comic con man movies that flowered during the Depression, including Hard to Handle (’33, with James Cagney) and The Mind Reader (’33, starring Warren William), The Half Naked Truth made light of the fact that the only possible way to make a living was to lie, cheat or steal.

Lee Tracy is ideal casting as the motormouth promoter (despite later being sued by Selznick for repeatedly showing up late to the set). He spits out hilariously ridiculous lines with a mix of bravado and self-absorption, as when he tells Lupe Velez to, “stick with me baby, the next stop is Broadway”, as the fair burns down behind him due to his previous scheme’s spectacular failure. By the time he brings a lion into a hotel room or invents a nudist colony that parades through NYC, it becomes clear he can sell anything to anyone.

After directing the bizarre liberal fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House (1933, read J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms on that one), La Cava was assigned another scamming Depression-era character in Bed of Roses (1933), this time a cynical prostitute hustler played by Constance Bennett. The original script by Wanda Tuchock was spruced up by La Cava and Eugene Thackrey (both receive “dialogue” credits), and is a boozy dip into the world of drunk-rolling Johns and blackmailing rich patrons. Lorry Evans (Bennett) is a jaw-droppingly amoral character who uses her formidable sexual allure to rob a boll weevil exterminator and cotton barge captain (Joel McCrea), before having herself installed in high-rise luxury by publisher Stephen Paige (John Halliday).

While Jimmy Bates bent the law to climb the ladder of success, Lorry is an out and out criminal, and Constance Bennett’s buzzed, almost slow-motion performance makes it seem positively alluring. The strengthening Production Code had just begun, and some were concerned about the film’s tone. In April of ’33,  Studio Relations Committee head Dr. James Wingate urged the film’s producer Merian C. Cooper to, “show some positive qualities of retribution and regeneration that will counter-balance this apparent glorifying of an unscrupulous adventuress.” It is unknown what changes were made to the original script, although later scenes of Lorry living an ascetic lifestyle to “prove” she could go straight were likely added due to urgings such as these.

The role of “unscrupulous adventuress” was a departure for Bennett, with The Motion Picture Herald describing it as, “quite different from Connie’s usual society stuff”, and Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote in his review that it was, “disconcerting to see her emerging from a reformatory”. But Bennett seems to relish the opportunity to go slumming, with a shoulder raised and back arched, as if a bow pulled taut before flinging itself at its target. Bennett is aided in her tawdry crimes by Pert Kelton, who plays the even seamier Minnie with a spot-on imitation of Mae West, her suggestive nasal drawl and thunderous hip swagger enough to bring a few middle-western rubes to their knees.

What gives Bed of Roses an emotional kick, however, is the no-nonsense romance between Lorry and the cotton barge captain, Dan. Their meet-cute has Dan fish Lorry out of the bay after she escapes from the cops, with Lorry then tossing him into the drink for impugning her virtue. The romantic climax is no top of the Empire State Building affair, but a charged exchange of sharpened words in a shabby tenement.

The mix of McCrea’s open-hearted sweetness and Bennett’s world-weary resignation elicits not sparks but genuine warmth, and their courtship is without illusions. Neither care for past improprieties – Dan brushes off the revelation of Lorry’s whoring past with a shrug – both are only concerned for what the present may bring. It’s a tough and loving and uproarious work, and should be placed alongside My Man Godfrey (1936) as Gregory La Cava’s best. And after forcing my parents to watch it the day before Thanksgiving, my mother would agree. She said it was her new favorite movie.