About Jnpickens

Classic film lover and reporter in North Carolina.

Watching 1939: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Release date:  Sept. 27, 1939

Cast: 
Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell, James Stephenson, Nanette Fabray (as Nanette Fabares), Ralph Forbes, Robert Warwick, Leo G. Carroll

Studio: 
Warner Brothers

Director: 
Michael Curtiz

Plot:
The film is a dramatic depiction of the political and romantic relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (Davis) Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (Flynn). While Queen Elizabeth I is in love with Essex, her duty to her country comes first.

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Musical Monday: The Great Caruso (1951)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Great Caruso (1951) – Musical #341

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Richard Thorpe

Starring:
Mario Lanza, Ann Blyth, Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, Richard Hageman, Carl Benton Reid, Yvette Duguay, Angela Clarke, Mario Siletti, Alan Napier, Ludwig Donath, Pál Jávor, Mae Clarke (uncredited), George Chakiris (uncredited)

Plot:
Biographical musical about Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (Lanza). The film begins when he is a boy in Naples and follows his rise to fame. He faces struggles along the way, such as disapproval from the fathers of girlfriends and American opera audiences not welcoming him with open arms.

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Review: Friday the Thirteenth (1933)

When it comes to Friday the 13th films, audiences generally recollect horror films involving a man in a ski mask. But before those gory films came to be, British film released by Gainsborough Pictures follows a group on a bus just minutes before the clock strikes midnight on Friday the 13th.

Directed by Victor Saville, Friday the Thirteenth (1933) the film begins with the following statement:

“You hear of an accident. There are victims. Strangers to one another. Supposing we could put back the clock and see how chance made these strangers share this appalling moment.”

The film begins as we see people riding a bus on a rainy night with the clock ticking closer to Friday the 13th. Lightning strikes a crane, and the bus driver has to swerve to miss the falling debris and wrecks. Newspapers flash on the screen with headlines about the wreck and that two people were killed. Before we know further, Big Ben ticks back to the beginning of Thursday the 12th and we see what lead everyone to get on this bus.

The film is divided into six stories, which are even segmented in the credits:

On the Bus: Hale and Smith

On The Bus: This follows Alf the Conductor (Sonnie Hale) and the driver Fred (Cyril Smith) as they argue about bets and discuss their superstitions.

Max Miller as Joe

Joe of the Caledonian Market: Joe (Max Miller) is a fast-talking shyster, selling phony goods in the market with undercover cops and a detective on his tale.

Mr. Jackson

Jackson the Shipping Clerk: Jackson (Eliot Makeham) is a mild-mannered clerk who is planning to surprise his wife and take her on a cruise. However his wife, Eileen (Ursula Jeans) has another lover on the side.

Wakefield the ‘City’ Man: Wakefield (Edmund Gwenn) is an important businessman who has a very forgetful wife, Flora (Mary Jerrold). While her forgetfulness frustrates him, it may help him financially in the end.

Mr. Blake

Blake the Gentleman of Fortune: Blake (Emlyn Williams) seems good-natured when we first meet him but his intentions aren’t good, particularly when meeting up with Frank Parsons (Frank Lawton) who used to be in jail.

Mr. Lightfoot in the park with the girl who needed silk stockings

Mr. Lightfoot in the Park: Mr. Lightfoot (Robertson Hare) is a befuddled little man who is conned into buying a girl a pair of silk stockings after his dog tears her stockings.

Schoolmaster Horace (Richardson) and his girl, dancer Millie (Matthews)

Millie the Non-stop Variety Girl: Millie (Jessie Matthews) is a dancer who is in love with the schoolmaster, Horace Dawes (Ralph Richardson) and the two plan to be married. However, Horace wants Millie to give up her dancing career and she doesn’t agree with his idea.

Once we learn each of their stories, the film returns to the scenes at the beginning just before the wreck. But now, we know all of their backstories. For example, we now know the man reading the travel pamphlet isn’t as happy as he appears and the one offering to pay for another’s fare isn’t so benevolent. The crash occurs again and it is revealed where each person is and who lives and who died.

While I would consider Jessie Matthews, Ralph Richardson and Edmund Gwenn to be the biggest named stars in this film, there is no main lead actor in this story. This film is a true ensemble cast and each story gets equal pay. All of the stories are entertaining and each has a different tone. Jackson’s story is a little sad or sorry, Blake’s story is threatening, and Mr. Lightfoot’s is light and comedic. I can easily say the Ralph Richardson and Jessie Matthews story was my favorite.

This is an entertaining and interesting movie. I usually enjoy a retrospective story. My only complaint was there were too many stories to keep up with. With seven different stories, I got a little confused at one point who was who, especially when a new character was brought into one of the stories.

Never the less, this is a clever film and is a lucky gem to find on an otherwise unlucky day.

Watching 1939: Nancy Drew…Reporter

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Nancy Drew…Reporter

Release date:  Feb. 18, 1939

Cast:  Bonita Granville, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Dickie Jones, Mary Lee, Larry Williams, Betty Amann, Sheila Bromley, Olin Howland, Betty Amann, Joan Leslie (uncredited), Charles Smith (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  William Clemens

Plot: Nancy Drew (Granville) enters a contest at the local newspaper with a group of teenagers for the best written high school story. The editor (Jackson) assigns them each trivial stories, but after overhearing a conversation about a murder trial, Nancy decides to cover a more interesting story. Eula Denning (Amann) has been charged with murder of her wealthy guardian. Nancy is determined to clear Eula and recruits her friend Ted Nickerson (Thomas) to help; sleuthing against the wishes of her district attorney father, Carson Drew (Litel).

1939 Notes:
• This is one of three Nancy Drew films released in 1939 by Warner Brothers starring Bonita Granville. The others were: “Nancy Drew…Trouble Shooter” and “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” The Nancy Drew series ended in 1939.

• Bonita Granville four films in 1939 and only one of them wasn’t a Nancy Drew film, “Angels Wash Their Faces.”

• John Litel was in 13 films in 1939.

• Mary Lee’s first film. She was in 19 films between 1939 and 1944.

Other trivia: 
• One of four Nancy Drew movies from 1938 to 1939. Three of these films were released in 1939.

Joan Leslie in an early film role (right)
Screen cap by Jessica P.

• Joan Leslie’s fourth film. She plays an uncredited role as a journalism student

• Based on Nancy Drew stories by Carolyn Keene

• In 1962, Justice Arthur J. Goldberg in a Supreme Court Decision disallowed a practice called “block booking,” where motion picture distributors required televisions stations to buy packages of films to get the ones they wanted. Goldberg named one of the Nancy Drew films in his statement:
“Station WTOP in Washington, in order to get such film classics as Casablanca and Treasure of the Sierra Madre , also had to buy Nancy Drew, Troubleshooter and Gorilla Man,” according to “Translate Nancy Drew from Print to Film,” an essay by Diana Beeson and Bonnie Brennan.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Growing up, I collected all of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew books, dressed up as her for Halloween and played all of the Her Interactive Nancy Drew computer games. I even have a Nancy Drew cardboard cut out in my spare bedroom. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

So because of my love for Nancy Drew, I sought these films out in middle school. I love Nancy and Bonita Granville, so I want to say I love these films. But my love and knowledge of Nancy Drew is what holds me back.

With the first Nancy Drew mystery published in 1930, the books were popular by the time the first Nancy Drew film adaptation was released in 1938. By 1938 and 1939, Bonita Granville was also starting to transition from child roles to teenage and young adult characters. But the script for this film doesn’t allow Granville to grow up.

In the books, Nancy Drew is cool, calm, collected and smart. The 1930s books (before the 1950s edit) depicted Nancy as self-confident, brave and kind. But the film script did not portray Nancy Drew that way. Warner Brothers’ Nancy Drew is frantic, flighty, and filled with screwball comedy. The portrayal is not only unfair and insulting to fans of the Nancy Drew novels, it’s also unfair that Granville was still pigeon-holed in her shouting and child-like characters that made her famous.

Of the four Nancy Drew films, three of them were released in 1939 (which speaks to how much money Warner Brothers put into them) and all of them starred Bonita Granville. Granville was only in one other film in 1939, which was Angels Wash Their Faces (1939). Starting in the early 1940s, Granville grew into more adult, and sometimes sophisticated, roles like H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) or Now, Voyager (1942), proving she could play more than a shouting brat (though she is wonderful in those bratty roles).

In the books, Carson Drew encourages his daughter’s sleuthing and discusses cases with her, while also advising her to be careful. But in the movies, Carson Drew (played by Litel), chastises her in a “I told you time and time again not to do that” manner. Litel, who seems to show up in nearly every film of the 1930s and 1940s, was in 13 films in, 1939 including the three Nancy Drew films released that year.

Ilike Frankie Thomas in this film, though I’m puzzled why he’s Ted Nickerson rather than Ned. The character of Ted is more similar to Nancy’s novel character: cautious and sensible.

Bonita Granville and Frankie Thomas as Nancy Drew and “Ted” Nickerson in “Nancy Drew…Reporter.”

Back in 2010, I wrote a piece about my ideal Nancy Drew 1930s or 1940s film cast. But now, I realize the cast isn’t the issue (though Walter Pidgeon would have been a fabulous Caron Drew), it was the script. Bonita Granville would have been a wonderful Nancy Drew had she been allowed to play Nancy as she was written in the novels.

“Warner Brothers failed to realize that Nancy Drew’s appeal to the moppets and others familiar with her through the books was as a detective and not a screwball comedian,” according to “Translate Nancy Drew from Print to Film,” an essay by Diana Beeson and Bonnie Brennan.

The Nancy Drew films were also not successful in the theater, according to Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood by Ron Backer.

However, these Nancy Drew movies are important. Three of the films were released in 1939. And these four films are also one of the few film portrayals of Nancy Drew. For a character so famous, Nancy Drew has only been on the silver screen in these four Warner Brothers films and in a 2007 film “Nancy Drew,” starring Emma Roberts (which also got the character wrong.) After the last Nancy Drew film was released in 1939, the character did not manifest outside of the books again until the 1970s TV show, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977) starring Pamela Sue Martin. Nancy Drew didn’t even appear on radio.

I hate to be so hard on this film. I don’t dislike it, and honestly, the movies would be fine if the lead character was named Betty Harper or Susan McGillicuddy. The let down comes because the script is tied to such an iconic fictional character that so many people grew up with.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

 

Musical Monday: Clambake (1967)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Clambake (1967)– Musical #296

 

Studio:
United Artists

Director:
Arthur H. Nadel

Starring:
Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Will Hutchins, Bill Bixby, Gary Merrill, James Gregory, Suzie Kaye, Teri Garr (uncredited)

Plot:
Wealthy oil heir Scott Hayward (Presley) wants to be sure women love him for him and not his money. He switches places with Tom Wilson (Hutchins) and the two head to a luxury hotel in Miami. Tom acts like Scott and Scott acts as the hotel ski instructor. Scott falls for Dianne Carter (Fabares), who only has eyes for rich boat racer James J. Jamison III (Bixby).

Trivia:
-Ray Walker dubbed the singing voice of Will Hutchins
-Working title was “Too Big for Texas”
-Filming was delayed for 11 days because Elvis fell and had a concussion, according to The Gospel According to Elvis by Kevin Crouch and Tanja Crouch
-“Big Boss Man” and “Guitar Man” were featured on the soundtrack but not in the film.
-Filmed in Techniscope

Highlights:
-Flipper cameo
-Bill Bixby

The cast of Clambake: Bill Bixby, Will Hutchins, Shelley Fabares, Elvis Presley

Notable Songs:
-“Clambake” performed by Elvis Presley
-“Who Needs Money?” performed by Elvis Presley and Will Hutchins, dubbed by Ray Walker
-“Hey, Hey, Hey” performed by Elvis Presley
-“The Girl I Never Loved” performed by Elvis Presley

My review:
Like most of Elvis films, “Clambake” isn’t a strong film, but it’s fabulously entertaining.

It starts no differently than any other Elvis film: with Elvis driving down the road in a convertible car. Whether he’s rich or poor, he is always driving in some sort of convertible at the beginning of perhaps 70 percent of his films. It turns out he’s a rich guy in this film and he’s fed up with living life the way his dad wants him to. He also isn’t sure if a girl would want him for his personality, or for his money. So we have a take on “The Prine and the Pauper” when Elvis switches places with Will Hutchins. They both head to the same resort where Elvis will work and Will plays.

What makes this film so entertaining is the cast that the two guys meet at the hotel resort: Bill Bixby, Shelley Fabares AND Gary Merrill. Bixby is a rich playboy who all the girls flock around, Fabares is a gold digger and Merrill is the sage boat builder who takes Elvis under his wing and helps him build a race boat.

Bill Bixby is charming and really the person who I was cheering for in this film. Shelley Fabares is lovely with fantastic, mod clothing but I’m disappointed that she doesn’t get to sing. But the real surprise was seeing Gary Merrill pop up in this. Gary Merrill in an Elvis movie?!

He even is semi in a song and dance number as Elvis and a bunch of girls paint “goop,” experimental boat sealant so the boat won’t break apart during the race.

This movie isn’t an Academy Award-nominated film, but “Clambake” is colorful and fun. If you want a lighthearted, clear your mind hour and 39 minutes, this isn’t a bad way to spend it.

Note: There are on actual clambakes held during this film.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

Watching 1939: These Glamour Girls

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  These Glamour Girls (1939)

Release date:  August 18, 1939

Cast:  Lew Ayres, Lana Turner, Tom Brown, Richard Carlson, Ann Rutherford, Jane Bryan, Marsha Hunt, Anita Louise, Mary Beth Hughes, Owen Davis Jr., Sumner Getchell, Ernest Truex, Peter Lind Hayes, Tom Collins, Gladys Blake (uncredited), Nella Walker (uncredited), Robert Walker (uncredited), Henry Kolker (uncredited)

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:  S. Sylvan Simon

Plot:
During a night in New York City, drunk, rich college boy Philip S. Griswold (Ayres) and his friends head to a taxi dance hall (where people pay 10 cents a dance to dance with girls who work at the hall). Philip dances with Jane Thomas (Turner) and asks her to the Kingsford College House Parties, an exclusive party where New York debutantes are invited by the college “glamour boys.” When Jane arrives at Kingsford, she isn’t welcomed with open arms.

The female Kingsford House Parties attendees include:
Ann (Hughes): Invited to the House Parties by Greg Smith. Her mother doesn’t think it’s proper that he may not be in the social registry.

Daphne (Louise): Uppity debutante who receives three invites to Kingsford and calls up all the other debutantes to humble brag. Throughout the course of the weekend, she is snobbish to everyone but especially Jane.

Carol (Bryan): Carol is sweet, understanding and comes from a wealthy family whose father has recently lost his money and without servants. To keep up appearances, she pretends to be servants when she answers the phone. Carol was invited by Philip (Ayres) and they are childhood sweethearts, but she is really in love with Joe (Carlson).

Mary Rose (Rutherford): High strung debutante who says she’s a social outcast when she isn’t invited to Kingsford like all the other debutantes. Her mother has to call her usual date Homer (Brown) to invite her.

Betty (Hunt): Betty is older than the other girls at the old age of 23. They called her the prom queen of 1936. She is over the top to get attention.

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Musical Monday: Children of Pleasure (1930)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Children of Pleasure (1930) – Musical #588

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Harry Beaumont

Starring:
Lawrence Gray, Wynne Gibson, Helen Johnson, Kenneth Thomson (as Kenneth Thompson), May Boley, Benny Rubin, Cliff Edwards (uncredited), Jack Benny (uncredited), Mary Carlisle (uncredited), Ann Dvorak (uncredited), Polly Ann Young (uncredited)

Plot:
Danny Regan (Gray) is a songwriter and meets society heiress Pat Thayer (Johnson). The two plan to marry until Danny figures out that Pat is marrying him as a replaceable novelty.

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Watching 1939: Nurse Edith Cavell

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Nurse Edith Cavell

Release date: Sept. 22, 1939 (NYC premiere)

Cast: 
Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver, George Sanders, May Robson, Zasu Pitts, H. B. Warner, Mary Howard, Robert Coote, Henry Brandon, Jimmy Butler, Rex Downing

Studio:  RKO

Director:  Herbert Wilcox

Plot:
Starting in 1913, English nurse Edith Cavell is the matron of a small hospital in Brussels. The Germans occupy Brussels when World War I begins. With the help of three other local women — Countess de Mavon (Oliver), Mme. Rappard (Robson) and Mme. Moulin (Pitts) — Nurse Cavell shelters Belgian, French and English that are wounded or prisoners of war and helps them escape to the Netherlands.

Awards and Nominations:
• Anthony Collins was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score

1939 Notes:
• Released Sept. 22, 1939, only a few weeks after Germany invaded Poland, beginning World War II on Sept. 1, 1939.
• The first film that Anna Neagle made for RKO in the United States
• “Nurse Edith Cavell” (1939) is a remake. Director Herbert Wilcox first directed the story of Edith Cavell in te film Dawn (1928). He remade the film in 1939 with his wife Anna Neagle as the lead.
• One of 5 films Zasu Pitts made in 1939; one of seven films May Robson made, one of four films starring Edna Mae Oliver, one of 8 films made by George Sanders
• Anna Neagle’s only film in 1939
• 1939 news briefs said this was Anna Neagle’s first American film.

Anna Neagle and Edna May Oliver in “Nurse Edith Cavell”

Other trivia: 
• One of five versions of Edith Cavell’s story. The others are: Nurse and Martyr (1915), Nurse Cavell (1916), The Woman the Germans Shot (1918), Dawn (1928)
• Jimmy Butler plays Jean Rappard, a runaway Belgium prisoner of war, fought in World War II and was killed in action in France.
• The screenplay was written based on Nurse Cavell’s personal papers including letters, notes in Nurse Edith Cavell’s Bible and in her diary from 1913 to 1915, according to an April 20, 1939, article.
• Herbert Wilcox wanted Wendy Barrie to play one of the supporting characters, according to an April 21, 1939, brief.
• A film brief on April 24, 1939, also mentioned Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was going to be in the cast. Fairbanks Jr. did not end up in the film.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Nurse films are one of my favorite types of films. And in the classic age of films, telling the biographical stories of brave nurses caring for patients was nothing new. For example, Kay Francis had already played Florence Nightingale in “White Angel” (1936) and the story of Nurse Edith Cavell had been told four times before this movie’s release.

But there is something different about “Nurse Edith Cavell” (1939). In comparison to some medical films that can be rather melodramatic, “Nurse Edith Cavell” is a very quiet film that has some tense moments.

English actress Anna Neagle plays Nurse Cavell as a level-headed character who is very calm and collected and rarely speaks above a low, soft voice. Even when she faces danger, she doesn’t yell or scream. The plot solely revolves around Cavell and three other women helping British, Belgian and French soldiers escape occupied Belgium to the Netherlands.

Knowing nothing about this film, you glance at the cast and see Zasu Pitts, May Robson and Edna May Oliver and could assume this is a comedy. While there are slightly funny parts involving Zasu Pitts, this is a serious film. This was one of Edna May Oliver’s last films and she passed away in 1942.

While it is set during World War I, the film doesn’t condemn the Germans. Nurse Cavell’s sentiment was that “patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart.” Because of this, she cared for German soldiers who were brought to her hospital, along with the British, French and Belgians that she helped escape. If anything, the message of this film is pacifism. With the political climate in 1939, director Herbert Wilcox was asked if the film would reflect that:

“Our job is entertainment, not propaganda,” Wilcox is quoted in the “Around Hollywood” column by Robbin Coons on May 29, 1939. “The film will be anti-militarist, not anti-German.”

“We will show Edith Cavell as one of war’s victims, as the great woman she was,” Neagle is also quoted in the article.

George Sanders has a surprisingly small role as a German officer, entering into the story 50 minutes into the 100-minute film. The Germans suspect that someone is aiding prisoners of war and enlist a soldier, played by German actor Henry Brandon, to investigate.

Portrait of the real Nurse Edith Cavell

Before seeing this movie, I had never heard of Nurse Edith Cavell, but she became a prominent figure during World War I, particularly in 1915. I’m not sure if everyone knows the history of Nurse Cavell and what became of her and I don’t want to share any spoilers. But I will share that her story shook the world and was shared internationally. Her story was used in her home country of England for military recruitment and to rally the United States into joining the war. The United States did not enter World War I until 1917.

A few notes I thought were particularly interesting:
– In regards to history and 1939, this film is interesting because it shows homefront conditions in Europe during World War I. And it was released only weeks after England and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland. During film screening and a personal appearance in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 21, 1939, Anna Neagle said:
“Over here, the war is so unreal, that I actually cannot believe that it affects my country, my people. I am on my way home, but I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m returning to.

– Many biographical films have dramatic elements added to the real story, but from what I have read, much of what was portrayed in the film was factual. This would have been an easy story to exaggerate and the Germans could have been portrayed as “barbaric,” as they were in news stories in 1915, but they are not. The story shows Germans occupying the town and searching the hospital, but nothing is over the top. The main realistic difference is that Anna Neagle was 35 when she performed this role, and Nurse Cavell was 49 in 1915.

– “Nurse Edith Cavell” differs from many films revolving around a woman made at this time. There is no contrived love story what so ever, which is rare. Anna Neagle has no suitor or lover in the film, nor do her three “underground” accomplices. (Though Zasu Pitts is married, her husband is only seen in a few scenes helping soldiers escape).

– Director Herbert Wilcox is remaking his own film. In 1928, Wilcox told the story of Nurse Cavell in the film “Dawn” starring Sybil Thorndike. Neagle and Wilcox were married when this film was made.

“Nurse Edith Cavell” is not a well-known movie today and not terribly easy to find (I watched it on Amazon Prime, but the sound is garbled for 20 minutes in the middle). But while it was being made, it received a great deal of news coverage in 1939. It is a quiet film that I enjoyed and delivered a great message of strength.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

 

Musical Monday: Huckleberry Finn (1974)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Huckleberry Finn (1974) – Musical #583

Studio:
United Artists

Director:
J. Lee Thompson

Starring:
Jeff East, Paul Winfield, Harvey Korman, Gary Merrill, David Wayne, Arthur O’Connell, Natalie Trundy, Odessa Cleveland, Lucille Benson, Kim O’Brien, Jean Fay, Ruby Leftwich, Linda Watkins

Plot:
A musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s story of “Huckleberry Finn.” Huckleberry Finn (East) is an orphan after his father (Merrill) is dead and is living with two elderly women. Huck’s father turns out not being dead and kidnaps him after hearing Huck found some treasure and he wants the money. Huck stages his death and travels down the river with Jim (Winfield), a slave running to freedom.

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Watching 1939: Ninotchka

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Ninotchka (1939)

Release date: Nov. 29, 1939

Cast: 
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Bela Lugosi, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye, Dorothy Adams (uncredited), George Tobias (uncredited)

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: 
Ernst Lubitsch

Plot:
Three Russians, Comrade Iranoff (Ruman), Comrade Iranoff (Bressart) and Comrade Kopalski (Granach) travel to Paris, France, from Russia on official business – to sell the jewels of Grand Duchess Swana (Claire) that the Soviets confiscated. When Swana gets wind of this, she sends her boyfriend Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas) to intervene so she can reclaim her jewelry. To trick the comrades out of the jewelry, Leon changes the point of view of the three comrades, showing them what life is like in Paris. When the Soviet government hears that the sale is not moving forward, they send Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, or Ninotchka, (Garbo) to Paris to clean up the mess. Rigid and serious when she arrives, Ninotchka soon is also warmed and changed by Paris and falls in love.

1939 Notes:
• Ernst Lubitsch’s only film in 1939
• Greta Garbo’s only film of 1939 and her first comedy. This was her second to last film.
• Melvyn Douglas made four films in 1939.
• Ernst Lubitsch’s first assignment as a producer for M-G-M

Garbo (and Melvyn Douglas) laugh in Ninotchka (1939)

Other trivia: 
• Remade as the musical “Silk Stockings” (1957) starring Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire and Janis Paige. The 1957 film version was an adaptation of a 1954 stage musical with music by Cole Porter.
• Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
• Greta Garbo wanted Cary Grant to play the lead, according to a Sheilah Graham column published on Jan. 3, 1939.
• For Greta Garbo’s first talking film, “Anna Christie” the slogan “Garbo talks!” was used in advertisements. Mimicking that advertising, this movie used the slogan “Garbo Laughs!”
• Adapted in 1950 as a stage play.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Ninotchka” is a glittering example of the perfect 1939 film:
1. It was Greta Garbo’s first comedy and her only film of 1939.
2. Was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, so it has that “Lubitsch touch.” (Also his only 1939 film)
3. Includes a script written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

All of these factors add up to create a charming film.

The satirical comedy was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and is chockful of hilarious one-liners and back-and-forths.

This was Greta Garbo’s first film since 1937’s Conquest. Newspapers in 1938 announced her return to film with two films to be released in 1939: Ninotchka and Madame Curie. The latter wasn’t released until 1943 and starred Greer Garson. After Ninotchka, Garbo didn’t make another film until 1941, “Two-Faced Woman,” which was her last film.

Greta Garbo is a performer revered as one of the best actors of all time. Garbo’s film career began in 1920 and spanned 21 years with 32 films. This is my favorite Greta Garbo film. For much of her career, we saw Garbo brood, suffer or fall in love. But in Ninotchka, we get to see how funny she could be, even when she’s playing the very dry and mechanical Nina Ivanovna Yakushova, before she loosens up to be Ninotchka.

In her first talking film, Anna Christie (1930), the advertising slogan was “Garbo talks!” Playing off of that, MGM advertised the comedy with “Garbo laughs!” Her performance here is just as joyous as that advertising line captures. It’s amazing that Ninotchka was her second to last film. With the right comedic material, you can’t help but wonder what other films Garbo could have made had she stayed in Hollywood.

As production was beginning, Sheilah Graham reported that Garbo had picked Cary Grant “to make love to her” in her new film, Ninotchka. And as wonderful as Cary Grant is, I’m glad Melvyn Douglas was the final selection as the male lead in this film. Douglas brings his understated charm and also his sense of humor to the movie.

Outside of our leads, the supporting cast practically steals the show. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the three comrades who blunder the business deal are hilarious and adorable as they explore the joys of life outside of Soviet Russia.

Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach

Set in France, “Ninotchka” was released on Nov. 29, 1939, as the landscape of Europe was rapidly changing. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. The film begins with a bittersweet intro:

“This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm…and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!”

Though our allies at this time, this film was banned in Soviet Russia because of the way Soviets were portrayed.

It’s difficult not to gush over this film (as I already have). Watching it is such a cheerful experience. It is a great example of the sparkling 1939, and it may be a perfect film (if not pretty darn close).

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