End Credits

Posted in Uncategorized on June 1, 2014 by mchoffman

Thank you to everyone who supported our film program this spring at the Park Ridge Public Library. Though we didn’t set any attendance records in 2014, we still averaged about 69 patrons every week. It would’ve been easier to fill the meeting room with Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland movies, but this series wasn’t about that. It was about turning the spotlight on Ann Harding and Irene Dunne, William Powell (pre-Thin Man) and Warner Baxter. Most of the films we played people had never heard of, so to average that many patrons a week for movies like Night Flight and Black Moon is something we are proud of accomplishing.

We’d like to acknowledge our friends in the media. There are so many people to thank in regards to the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series, of course, but here we’d like to single out those who specifically helped us with the Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series. Thank you to Jennifer Johnson of Pioneer Press for her article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate on our Irene Dunne show.

I am grateful to Maggie Thomann and Laura Scott of the Reader Services department for their support of the program, as well as to all the staff of the Park Ridge Public Library who pitched in and got the word out about this obscure series called “The Rediscovered.”

Thank you to Annette Bochenek for guest presenting on May 8 and for introducing our guest during our last show.

Though the films themselves were mostly unknown to the general public, the series wasn’t exactly low-key since we still had several important guests. Thank you to musician David Drazin for his wonderful piano accompaniment to West of Zanzibar on Opening Night in March. Though she was unable to visit us in person due to a medical emergency, we’d like to thank the daughter of Claude Rains, Jessica Rains, for taking the time (during a difficult time) to write us an introduction for our screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (This show was the only collaboration between the Library’s classic film series and the Pickwick’s.) And finally, we’d like to express our sincere gratitude to Ann-Marie Streibich, granddaughter of Irene Dunne, who joined us with her husband on our Closing Night to speak about her famous grandmother.

The Park Ridge Public Library Classic Film Series will return next spring!

Until then, stay updated on all things classic film in Park Ridge by visiting our website:

www.parkridgeclassicfilm.com

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Remembering Irene Dunne at the Park Ridge Public Library by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 31, 2014 by mchoffman

Irene Dunne with “Jake” on the set of Theodora Goes Wild.
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Irene Marie Dunne (1898-1990) was one of the great Hollywood stars from the 1930s and 1940s. She had been a Broadway actress prior to a career in movies. She appeared opposite some of the most famous screen legends of her day including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (Roberta), Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife), and Charles Boyer (Love Affair), among others. Though she began as a star of dramas and musicals, she is best known today for the screwball comedies she appeared in such as Theodora Goes Wild— a role, ironically, she did not want to do. Throughout a career that spanned 42 films, Irene Dunne received five nominations for Best Actress.

This past Thursday night, the Park Ridge Public Library was honored to have Irene Dunne’s granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich, as a special guest prior to our screening of Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

Irene’s great screwball comedy in which she plays a small-town girl who secretly writes a scandalous best-seller!
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After the prize drawing and our introductions, Ann-Marie Streibich came to the podium and spoke at length about her grandmother– “Mimi,” as she has called her ever since she was little. She had lived with Irene in her later years and provided us with wonderful insights into the kind of woman Irene Dunne was, both on and off the screen. In the words of Jimmy Stewart, whom she quoted, she was “a woman of patrician beauty poised with regal grace.”

Ann-Marie, and her brother Mark, who also lived with Irene, have been deeply affected by their grandmother’s presence in their lives. “She spoke of having a purpose greater than herself; of living life ‘in a state of grace’ as though she could live as an instrument by which other lives might be improved through a form of divine will combined with the best of human intent.” Irene Dunne had a positive affect on other people’s spirits– “in a wavelength way beyond charisma.” Ann-Marie told us that Irene’s personal integrity has been a guiding light in her own life. Her Mimi is still with her in a very real way.

A capacity crowd lined up past the front door to see Irene Dunne!
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Ann-Marie spoke of her grandmother’s upbringing in the genteel South. Irene’s was influenced by the philosophy and wisdom of her parents. Both of whom shaped the character of the woman she would become. Her father was a steamboat inspector and her mother taught music, which opened a door to the arts. When her father passed away when she was only eleven, the family re-located to Madison, Indiana, which was the hometown of Irene’s mother. (For more about Madison and these early influences, please refer to our entry, “The Irene Dunne Pilgrimage.”)

Ann-Marie said that Irene eventually left Madison to take a job teaching music in East Chicago. There, she lived with a cousin. “One morning she saw the Chicago Tribune on the breakfast table; she saw an ad for a scholarship for singing at the prestigious Chicago Musical College. She took the ad and went to go prepare for the audition. She won! The head of the school was Dr. Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Theatre in Chicago, where she would perform to get stage experience.”

Dr. Ziegfeld gave Irene a letter of recommendation to give to his son, the famous Florenz Ziegfeld of New York City. (This connection helped her two years later when she landed her first role in Hollywood.) It was in New York, too, where she would meet her future husband, Dr. Frank Griffin, in 1924. “He was her partner, co-manager and best friend,” said Ann-Marie. “In the early years of marriage, she was in Hollywood crafting her career and he was a successful businessman in New York City. They were a bi-coastal married couple for six years before he moved to Los Angeles, when it became apparent that her career had taken off.”

A movie star with style and charm: Irene Dunne.
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Irene Dunne’s first major role– and the first of her Best Actress nominations– came for her performance in the Western Cimarron (1931). She became a huge star for RKO but negotiated an independent contract that allowed her to work at other studios. Much in demand throughout the 1930s, Irene appeared in many dramas (‘women’s pictures’ like Back Street and Magnificent Obsession) and musicals (Sweet Adeline). She reprised her stage role of Magnolia in the definitive, 1936 version of Show Boat directed by James Whale. In 1937 she teamed up with Cary Grant for Leo McCarey’s screwball comedy The Awful Truth, and in 1939 she was on an ocean voyage with Charles Boyer in the romantic hit Love Affair, also directed by McCarey. In the 1940s, Irene appeared in two of her best-known films: Life With Father (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948).

Irene Dunne retired from films in 1953. In the wake of her movie stardom, she devoted herself to various Republican Party causes and Catholic charities. In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her as an alternate delegate to the 12th General Assembly of the United Nations. In 1985 she was recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors. According to Ann-Marie, Irene was thrilled when she was given the lifetime achievement award. This was an event in which she was able to accompany her grandmother.

Some of Irene’s closest friends included Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, Rosalind Russell, Loretta Young, the Bob Hopes, and others. “I used to sit in my closet peering down through a lighting hole at her guests at the dining table. They could include any or all of these people and of course many, many others. I was often invited to come down during the cocktail portion of a dinner party and say my polite hellos. At the end of the night, there would always be my Mimi singing, to the delight of her friends.”

Irene Dunne received the gifts of life her father had wanted her to have. “With her strong sense of self-reliance and independence, her father’s creed governed her actions for her family and herself until the day she died. When she drew her last breath she indeed fulfilled every word of the ethics of life he whispered to her on his dying breath.”

Ann-Marie clearly takes pride in promoting the sterling image Irene Dunne has left behind. Besides presenting us with stories and answering audience questions, she brought a wonderful photo album. Inside were many movie stills from Irene’s early films. Ann-Marie also had a very old scrapbook that featured many brittle newspaper clippings. Despite its delicate condition, it was important to her that this be shared. I know our audience was very grateful to her for bringing her grandmother to us in this way.

With Irene’s granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich.
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Irene Dunne is a name young people should remember. Though she’s been gone for nearly twenty-five years, Irene Dunne can still be a role model to today’s generation– especially young women– because of how she lived her life with dignity and intelligence. Her film career, likewise, is a legacy that can inspire younger people. Besides reminding us of the unique qualities that make a star, the films themselves offer viewers such happiness and cheer. Unfortunately, many of her early films are unavailable on dvd while others have been turned into lesser remakes. But these handicaps shouldn’t stop anyone from rediscovering the many talents of Irene Dunne.

And here is the interview with Radio Hall of Famer Chuck Schaden that I referenced on Thursday night…

Irene Dunne Introduction by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 31, 2014 by mchoffman

The following introduction was given on 5/29/14:

Regarding her acting career, Irene Dunne once said, “I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is.”

Irene Dunne was one of the most down-to-earth of all classic Hollywood film stars. Like so many other greats, she was from the Midwest, hailing from Louisville, Kentucky. A devout Roman Catholic, she was the daughter of a riverboat man father and concert piano teacher mother. While her father influenced her sense of humor and self-identity, her mother acted as Dunne’s mentor for the creative arts.

After years of voice lessons, Dunne auditioned for the Met, but did not land a role. Thankfully for us, the rejection from the Met prompted Dunne to pursue other theatrical auditions, which, in turn, led to film roles.

Dunne proved to be an enormously gifted actress with a capacity for drama, keen comic timing, and a flair for musicals. Despite her many talents, she is arguably one of the most versatile actresses to never win an Oscar. However, she did not live for her acting ambitions alone. Rather, she found far more meaning in life from human relationships, faith, and the unscripted. She was a soul who was forever anchored to home and family, and ceased her acting career to become a wife and mother. She married a dentist, Doctor Francis Griffin, and the couple adopted a daughter named Mary Frances. Dunne remained married to Griffin until his death.

In the remaining years of her life, she dedicated much of her time to the Roman Catholic Church and Republican causes. Dunne lived for God and others, not for celebrity. Though a wonderful actress, her legacy is truly grounded in the Christian values and meaningful relationships she lived and cultivated.

Today, we continue to remember Irene Dunne as a lovely, unassuming soul, in perfect control of her many talents. However, we are especially lucky to have someone here today who knew Dunne on a far more personal level. It is my great pleasure to introduce Ann-Marie Streibich, granddaughter of Irene Dunne…

 

Closing Night!

Posted in Uncategorized on May 31, 2014 by mchoffman

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The Prisoner of Shark Island by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 23, 2014 by mchoffman

“Once before I was a doctor. I’m still a doctor.” ~ Warner Baxter as Samuel Mudd

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Transcript from our screening on 5/22/14:

Today, director John Ford is best remembered for his many Westerns with John Wayne. But Ford’s career is much broader than that, as most film buffs know. Though some of the films he made in the 1930s are well-known– or should be– such as Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Stagecoach, other films from this decade in his career are in need of rediscovery. For instance, the trilogy of films Ford made with Will Rogers were all considered for this program. Instead, I chose a film that I had played at the LaSalle Bank Theatre many years ago. The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of John Ford’s finest. It’s a brilliant film that reflects the obvious influence of D.W. Griffith, a filmmaker Ford greatly admired.

Tonight we finish what we began in March when we screened Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. The Prisoner of Shark Island, which stars Warner Baxter, is the story of Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg and was subsequently put on trial as an accomplice in Lincoln’s assassination. With the rules of evidence thrown out the window, Mudd is sent to Fort Jefferson, an island prison off the Florida coast. Here, in what can be described as America’s Devil’s Island, he must contend with the cruel Sergeant Rankin, played by John Carradine: “Dr. Mudd, I’ve been waitin’ for you,” he ominously intones. Harry Carey, who had starred in many silent films for John Ford, plays the commandant of the prison who will call upon Mudd when the island is stricken with Yellow Fever.

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Ford biographer Joseph McBride wrote, “Employing a visual style fully as virtuosic as that of The Informer, Ford and cameraman Bert Glennon depict Dr. Mudd’s nightmarish ordeal in military court and prison with starkly expressionistic camera angles, subtly distorting wide-angle lenses, and heavily shadowed compositions. But this film’s Goya-esque vision of torture and suffering is conveyed with greater emotional urgency and less abstractions than was displayed in Ford’s more-lauded exercise in expressionism. Shark Island does not dwell on pictorial effects for their own sake, but maintains the relentless narrative drive so characteristic of Zanuck’s filmmaking philosophy.”

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At Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox studio, the story was the star—not the director or actor. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson but based largely on an original treatment by Raymond Griffith. The story is still topical as it deals with political issues that are as relevant today, such as the erosion of civil liberties in the name of patriotism. Some commentators have drawn a comparison to the Guantanomo prison controversy in which prisoners of war were held indefinitely—even though they weren’t American citizens. But within the context of our story, the country is depicted as being on the verge of national hysteria with rioting in the streets. In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, the voice of the court becomes the voice of the people.

Though the film’s story leaves the impression that Mudd’s name has been cleared, legally speaking, his name is still Mudd. Samuel Mudd has never officially been exonerated by the U.S. government; he was only pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on his last day in office. In reality, it appears that Samuel Mudd did in fact know John Wilkes Booth, but for the sake of drama and audience identification, it made more sense to have Warner Baxter as an innocent victim of circumstance.

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John Ford was a director who dealt with myth, not necessarily reality. Don’t let facts get in the way of the legend. The Prisoner of Shark Island needs to be viewed on its own terms as a work of cinema and fiction—like The Count of Monte Cristo— not as a historical document. Though based on a true story, very little of it is factual. Even the name of Mudd’s wife is wrong. In the film she is called Peggy when her real name was Sarah. But this isn’t a world history course; it’s a film appreciation program. The only things that are true in the film is that Lincoln was assassinated by Booth, Mudd was put on trial as an accomplice, he was sent to prison where he later tried to escape, and he did help combat the spread of disease on the island.

Though it doesn’t recreate history, it does conjure up the essence of those early post-war days. The use of the song “Maryland, My Maryland” and other traditional songs add to that evocation of a time and place. It is here in this vision of a genteel South where the influence of Griffith is strongest. The homecoming scene is almost a tribute to Griffith’s romanticism as it recalls a similar ending in The Birth of a Nation. Since John Ford was a Yankee, I can’t say that Griffith’s views were also Ford’s, but the film is sympathetic towards the South. With the exception of the revered Lincoln seen at the outset as a reconciliatory figure and the fair-minded Carey, who perhaps best represents the director’s own sensibilities, the North is depicted in a negative light. The Union soldiers who enter Mudd’s home are uncouth, the military commission that sentences Mudd is insanely unjust, the sergeant at the prison is downright evil, and the black Union soldiers who barricade themselves within the prison are shown as child-like. This latter scene in which they respond to Mudd only because he is a Southerner, will undoubtedly be the most offensive scene to modern viewers. Their faces are like a gallery of racial caricatures. But what’s so interesting about this aspect of the film is that the black soldiers are in charge of the prisoners who had once been their masters.

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Warner Baxter is no stranger to our classic film program. On Opening Night we saw him as a drunken doctor in West of Zanzibar. Much later in his career Baxter was the Crime Doctor in a B movie series for Columbia Studios. In between he was one of the most dependable leading men in Hollywood. Though he had played Jay Gatsby in a 1926 silent version of The Great Gatsby, it wasn’t until the late 1920s when he became a star. His performance in 1929’s In Old Arizona won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Baxter is probably best known as the producer urging Ruby Keeler on to come back a star in 42nd Street.

Producer Darryl Zanuck had originally wanted Fredric March for the role of Samuel Mudd, which makes sense since March had played a similar role of the unjustly convicted Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Miserables. (There’s a scene shortly after Mudd’s failed escape where he’s been thrown into a hole in the ground and is visited by the commandant with a plea for help. What Baxter says in this scene—and how he says it—is very reminiscent of March’s delivery. “What’s all this to me?”) But Baxter was certainly up to the challenge of this role and gives a forceful and sympathetic performance while conveying his belief in duty to his profession. The courtroom scene is the best showcase of how good an actor Warner Baxter was. Originally, he had a more noticeable Southern drawl, but Zanuck stormed onto the set and had him tone his accent down. This led to a rather contentious scene between Zanuck and Ford. Despite the arguments, they would go on to work together on a total of ten films. Zanuck, whose role in shaping Ford’s films cannot be underestimated, was the only studio executive Ford respected.

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Gloria Stuart, who plays Mudd’s wife, gained a new generation of fans when she appeared in 1997’s Titanic as old Rose, but in the 1930s she appeared in many classic films including The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man for director James Whale. She had worked with John Ford previously in 1932’s Air Mail, starring Ralph Bellamy.

Claude Gillingwater is the feisty grandfather ready to lead another charge against the Yankees. He’s a typical Ford character who provides the comedy relief. O. P. Heggie, an Australian actor best known as the blind hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein, plays the doctor in charge at the prison. This would be the last film for Heggie as he would die two weeks after filming. Ernest Whitman, an African-American stage and screen actor, gives a moving performance as loyal Buck. Audiences might also remember him from Jesse James, which we had played three weeks ago at the Pickwick. He is the one black actor in the film who doesn’t come across strictly as a racial stereotype—despite fathering twelve kids. There is a genuine bond between him and Samuel Mudd that transcends race.

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And finally, there is John Carradine, who was never more sadistic than in his portrayal of the sergeant. He is so intense that the final scene with him feels forced. But up until that point, Carradine is great as the prison guard with a fanatical admiration for Lincoln. His crazed determination registers onscreen with the close-ups of Carradine’s gaunt face. Originally, Carradine had tested for the role of Abraham Lincoln, which instead went to Frank McGlynn, who had played Lincoln before on the stage.

There’s a funny story about Carradine’s relationship with John Ford. In Tag Gallagher’s biography on Ford the author writes, “Another person Ford never could intimidate was John Carradine. The actor was terribly absent-minded and was forever messing things up. Few things made Ford more furious; over and over he would fly into a rage, and go on and on calling Carradine a god-damned stupid s.o.b. and every name he could think of. It did no good. Carradine would watch him with an indulgent smile and when Ford had finished would come over, pat him on the shoulder, and say, ‘You’re o.k., John,” and walk away. And Ford would be almost sputtering, because there was no way he could get under Carradine’s skin.”

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The Prisoner of Shark Island is composed of a series of well-written and visually engaging scenes. But if there’s one sequence in particular that encapsulates what makes the film so dynamic it’s the prison escape. Of course, in truth Mudd’s escape was nothing more dramatic than him walking up a gangplank and sneaking onboard a ship tied to the dock, but that would never do for a Zanuck production. Bert Glennon’s striking photography highlights Mudd’s escape through the gloomy and cavernous prison. The Prisoner of Shark Island stands out primarily for its pictorial qualities by Glennon, who also shot Stagecoach, and Young Mr. Lincoln among others.

This sequence, as well as the assembled whole, caught the attention of Otis Ferguson, who was an outstanding film reviewer. I’d like to end with a quote from his review, which is a fine piece of film criticism. It was published in The New Republic on March 4, 1936:

“’The Prisoner of Shark Island’ is a powerful film, rarely false or slow, maintaining the relentless cumulative pressure, the logical fitting of one thing into another until the audience is included in the movement and carried along with it in some definite emotional life that is peculiar to the art of motion pictures at its best.”

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The Unsuspected (1947) by matthew c . hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on May 16, 2014 by mchoffman

Italian poster for The Unsuspected
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The Unsuspected is a rarely-shown and largely forgotten film noir. For a long time, you could only see it on cable stations like Turner Classic Movies, but in recent years it’s been released through the Warner Archive Collection. It stars Claude Rains as Victor Grandison, a true crime radio show host who is fascinated by macabre tales of murder. The setting at the radio station, which introduces Grandison, will appeal to fans of old-time radio and mystery shows like Lights Out and The Whistler. The film offers a glimpse into the then new technology of broadcasts by transcription where live performances could be replaced by pre-recordings. This will be used as a plot point later as the mystery unfolds, but the film is really more a thriller than a whodunit since we know who the killer is early on. The only real mystery is why actress Joan Caulfield gets top billing over Claude Rains.

At this stage in his career, Rains was one of the great Hollywood character actors. He excelled in suave villainy, having previously starred in such films as Casablanca, Notorious, and Deception. There is a delicacy to his performance; like whispers in the dark, his words are soothingly hypnotic. Rains had one of the most mellifluous voices in Hollywood, and this is used to great advantage in a film partially set at a radio station. The Unsuspected offered Rains a rare leading role at this stage in his career, although director Michael Curtiz originally wanted Orson Welles for the part. Welles, of course, had first made a name for himself in radio. Curtiz had also sought Jennifer Jones and then Joan Fontaine for the role of Grandison’s shallow niece. Though both were fine actresses, Audrey Totter’s interpretation of Althea was dead-on.

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Of working with Michael Curtiz, Totter told film noir historian Eddie Muller, “He liked my work, and wanted to put me under personal contract. He’d started his own company and Doris Day was the only other one he’d signed up. But Metro wouldn’t let him have me. I’m glad they didn’t, because his company didn’t pan out, and was folded into Warners. Bette Davis was there, Ida Lupino—people who would have played my parts.”

Totter, who was born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1917, passed away just last December at the age of 95. She is best known for the many film noirs she starred in such as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lady in the Lake, The High Wall, The Set-Up and Tension, among others. By the end of the 1950s, however, her film career was in decline and she turned to television. Films like The Unsuspected best showcase her talents as a femme fatale with an acidic tongue. It doesn’t hurt that the screenplay, written by Ranald MacDougall and Bess Meredyth, offers Totter some great lines to work with.

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In his biography on Claude Rains, John T. Soister writes,

“Rains and Audrey Totter, too, are almost too broad to be real, but they differ from the others in that they are mirror images, and each complements and fills out the other. Totter had come to find a comfortable niche in noirish thrillers, where her gold-digging propensities and eye-popping figure usually led some poor schnook straight to perdition. Here, her motives are always and everywhere transparent, while Rains, of course, is the unsuspected. The shapely actress is always lit well, her assets (and her actions) solid, seductive, and readily apparent; the actor is frequently a shadow or a reflection during his more reprehensible moments. Totter is the flesh, Rains is the spirit; together, they are one, with identical goals (if disparate methods). Rains’ several tete-a-tetes with Totter are the highlights of the film…”

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Also starring is the aforementioned Joan Caulfield as Matilda. She was a former New York fashion model who did mostly television work in later years and, like Audrey Totter, made her acting swan song in a 1987 episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Constance Bennett was one of the great stars of the 1930s, having appeared in films like What Price Hollywood? and Topper. Here, she has a supporting role as Grandison’s radio producer, Jane. Michael North plays Steven Francis Howard—a character whose appearance in the film is about as mysterious as the disappearance of the man playing him. North had appeared in movies prior to this under the name Ted North—he was in The Devil Thumbs a Ride that same year– but The Unsuspected was his last film. Little is known about what became of him. Hurd Hatfield (The Picture of Dorian Gray) has a small role as Althea’s drunken husband, and Fred Clark stands out as the police detective, Richard Donovan.

The Unsuspected recalls another film noir—Laura— and both films feature an oil painting of a young girl believed to be missing. It’s interesting that Dana Andrews, who starred in Laura, was supposedly sought by Curtiz for the Steven Howard role. As with Laura, The Unsuspected has a number of eccentric characters—well-to-do socialites with their own intrigues and financial desires. But it’s hard to say they are red herrings. The audience already has one person of interest in mind, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of seeing the murderer’s cat and mouse game unfold. The Unsuspected is not the recognized classic that Laura is, but in many ways, it’s a superior film noir with some extremely unsettling moments, such as the scene in the sound-proof studio in which Grandison has Matilda dictate a script idea. The words she transcribes will become an ominous note.

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If mystery is all you’re looking for, you’d probably be better served with an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Story is not everything, especially in regards to films like this. We appreciate these films more for their visual dynamic. The Unsuspected is one of the most strikingly photographed film noirs of the 1940s. Of course, when we use the term film noir we are referring to a visual style prevalent in crime films throughout the 1940s and 1950s. These films were very dark both in terms of theme as well as their look with their use of shadows and low-key lighting.

Primarily due to economy, many low-budget films at this time used the stylistics of what years later would be called noir. Studios like RKO especially made so many B movies that fit into this category. What’s interesting about The Unsuspected is that, like Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, it’s a major film made under the studio system that applies the same stylistic principles. What separates The Unsuspected from so many other crime films is the cinematography of Woody Bredell.

The English-born Bredell had been an actor in silent films before becoming a still photographer and then a cinematographer. In the early 1940s he worked at Universal where he photographed films like The Mummy’s Hand and The Ghost of Frankenstein. His work on Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror was a clear indication of how atmospheric his work could be. Two exceptional examples of his visuals can be found in the films he made with Robert Siodmak, Phantom Lady and The Killers. In both, you’ll find the kind of single-source lighting seen in some of the best noirs of the era. An example of this in The Unsuspected comes early when we hear Claude Rain’s voice over the airwaves and we see an unsavory-looking character (Jack Lambert) sitting on a bed in the seedy Peekskill hotel; the neon light from the hotel sign outside illuminates the interior of the room. The letters flashing in the window spell out “KILL.”

Bredell’s photography in The Unsuspected rivals the best of another great noir cinematographer, John Alton. Bredell and Curtiz make this one of the most cinematic films you will find with their mobile camera and brilliant compositions. The lighting turns an upscale mansion into a shadowy den of hidden secrets and dark reflections. The mood and Gothic quality of the story is further enhanced by the brooding musical score of Franz Waxman. All these elements make this one of the most underrated of all film noirs. The Unsuspected was released in 1947, so it’s easy to see how this film got overlooked. It was a year that also saw the release of Out of the Past, Kiss of Death, Crossfire, T-Men, Desperate, Nightmare Alley, and others.

Claude Rains was honored this spring with two films, a short, and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
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The Unsuspected was not a hit with critics. Even Michael Curtiz was rather dismissive of it when he said that, “It looks as though I tried to make a great picture out of a story that wasn’t basically a great story.” But there’s so much more here than just story.

There are some films that manage to be great even with weaknesses. (Joan Caulfield and Michael North are not exactly Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.) But The Unsuspected rises to the heights because everything else around Caulfield and North is so good. This is easily one of the most disturbing performances Claude Rains ever gave. Over the years, fans who have rediscovered this film rank it as one of the best of the period. I suspect you will feel the same.

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The Key (1934) by annette bochenek

Posted in Uncategorized on May 15, 2014 by mchoffman

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William Powell once said: “There is more money in being liked by an audience than in being disliked by it. The biggest thing about movie audiences is the sympathy they give characters on the screen. But the art of acting and the talent of selecting what one will act are divorced qualities.”

Tonight’s film, The Key, presents actor William Powell in a dramatic role, prior to his more familiar portrayal of wry and witty detective, Nick Charles. Although we may know him as sharp-tongued, charismatic, and comedic, this particular film is evidence of Powell’s incredible versatility as an actor.

To be frank, this was Powell’s last film for Warner Brothers, and the one that left him dismissed from the studio as “washed up.” However, it wasn’t until his years at MGM that his star really began to shine in some of his most notable Thin Man films. Yet, when one watches Powell in 1934’s The Key, one can see gradual nods to his future comedic persona.

In The Key, Powell portrays another highly confident character, brimming with wit and excellent quips. His one-liners act as a great equalizer in this drama of the Irish rebellion. Powell’s character of Captain Bill Tennant pays close attention to people from varying social classes, regardless of which position they support. A romantic at heart, he brings notice to the downtrodden, explores the depth of duty to an overarching cause or personal relationship, and does not grant a sense of authority to the egotistic. Rather, Powell’s character aims to rekindle a sense of humanity in a time of political turmoil, and illuminates a dark atmosphere by self-sacrifice, love, and laughter.

In addition to Powell, The Key brings together a delightful cast, including Colin Clive, British actress Edna Best in her first American film role, Donald Crisp, and budding star Anne Shirley, still billed as Dawn O’Day. The film comes to life under the direction of Michael Curtiz, who is especially known as the director of Casablanca—a film that has striking parallels to the plot presented to us in The Key.

In the Curtiz style, this film is particularly captivating in terms of its atmosphere. The tension of the time is evident in extremely dark tones, but shining with nationalistic pride and determination to establish an independent identity. The setting portrays bustling streets that realistically portray Irish life in the 1920s, with a vibrant culture and community that bring the lugubrious town to life.

The more minor characters in this film also possess an understated charm, as they offer a sense of hope and happiness against the gloomy tones of this film. Whether it is a dancer in the background, a romantic Irish folk tune, or a woman selling small bouquets of flowers, these nuances of life and light shine in the conversion of Powell’s political allegiances to the personal.

I invite you to enjoy this often-overlooked dramatic film, and the fine performances of this immensely talented cast.

Colin Clive, Michael Curtiz, and William Powell
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