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William Wyler’s Love Letter to His Comrades in Arms: The Best Years of Our Lives

In the opening shot of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), CAPT Fred Derry walks into an airport terminal in hopes of catching a flight home to Boone City, USA. Upon reaching the clerk at the counter, Fred learns there is a several day wait for a commercial flight, even though he’s a returning war hero. A wealthy middle-aged businessman then charges up next to Fred, interrupts his conversation with the airline clerk, and confirms his seat on the next flight regardless of the extra cost. He barely acknowledges CAPT Derry, no nod or a “thank you for your service.” The air is thick with rotten apathy, and it’s this scene that signals the audience is in for a different kind of war movie. William Wyler, himself a WWII veteran, saw America’s shift in attitude immediately following the war. The wells of patriotism had been tapped dry and those keeping the fires burning on the home front were tired of making sacrifices. Once the servicemen returned home, the warm welcome was short lived. After fighting for years in the Pacific and Europe, these soldiers were expected to resume life as normal almost immediately. Definitely easier said than done. The transition back to civilian life was difficult for many of the soldiers displaced by the war, and Wiliam Wyler wanted to pay tribute to their post-war struggles.

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Beloved Infidel from Twilight Time

In 1933, British gossip columnist Sheilah Graham arrived in New York to accept a position writing for The New York Mirror and The Evening Journal. After two years establishing herself in the entertainment scene, Graham was offered her very own syndicated column, Hollywood Today, with the North American Newspaper Alliance. Graham moved to Los Angeles so she could insert herself into the Hollywood scene, putting her in with the likes the notorious gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.

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Rage in Heaven (1941) from Warner Archive

One of the reasons I love classic film is the extensive number of “deep tracks”– those little hidden gems waiting to be discovered and shared. Alright, so maybe not all deep tracks are “gems”, but it’s still loads of fun to discover new-to-me old movies. A few years ago during a Robert Montgomery marathon on TCM, I managed to catch the strange psychological thriller Rage in Heaven. Released by MGM in 1941, and directed by W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, Rage in Heaven stars Montgomery, the charming George Sanders, and the young, delightfully fresh-faced Ingrid Bergman. Discovered by David O. Selznick after seeing her performance in the Swedish film Intermezzo (1936), Bergman was immediately signed to a contract. She made her Hollywood debut in 1939 with the remake Intermezzo: A Love Story, with Leslie Howard. Bergman instantly won the affections of American moviegoers. And although her iconic role in the romantic classic Casablanca was three years away, Bergman quickly established herself as a Hollywood mainstay.

Robert Montgomery is Philip Monrell, heir to a British steel magnate. He’s also completely insane. After escaping a mental institution in France, Philip reunites with his best friend, or more accurately his best “frenemy”, Ward Andrews (George Sanders). Ward is unaware of Philip’s mental illness and led to believe that Philip has been on holiday in “the wilds of Africa” (imagine that line in Sanders’ distinctive voice, paired with an endearing “old boy” for good measure). The two friends travel to Philip’s home to visit his mother, who has been ill. While her son was away, Mrs. Monrell (Lucile Watson) employed Stella Bergen (Ingrid Bergman) to act as a secretary and companion. Upon their arrival, Philip and Ward are greeted by the luminous Stella. Both men are immediately struck by her beauty and innocence. There is an instant connection between Ward and Stella, causing Philip’s deeply rooted jealousy of Ward to slowly rear its head.

While Ward is called away for work, Philip aggressively courts Stella in an attempt to win her affections, and ultimately her hand in marriage. Although he succeeds in both, Philip’s growing paranoia that Ward will take Stella away from him begins to manifest into full-blown psychotic obsession. Once Ward returns to England, Philip concocts a series of elaborate situations where Ward and Stella are alone, in an attempt to catch them in an adulterous act. All of Ward and Stella’s interactions are entirely innocent, but Philip’s psychosis seriously impedes his judgment. Obviously. His perpetual mistrust torments Stella, and she seeks comfort with Ward. This only fuels Philip’s neurotic belief that Stella has been unfaithful from the start. Philip’s obsession reaches a disturbing climax, and Ward and Stella fear for their love of one another…and their lives.

Rage in Heaven is not a top-notch film, but I place some of the blame on the confinements of the Production Code, low budget, and troubled production. Although the story suffers, the performances from Montgomery, Bergman, and Sanders make up for the inadequacies. According to the esteemed Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun, Montgomery unintentionally gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as the psychotic Philip Monrell:

Reportedly, Montgomery didn’t want to make the movie, he wanted a break or vacation from his MGM contract but was forced into the role. In retaliation he delivered his lines as flat as possible within this super melodramatic milieu. Well, his angry decision worked, and he’s just so strange that we utterly believe this millionaire is a suicidal madman, one step away from the loony bin he left at the beginning of the movie.

George Sanders is superb as the kind-hearted Ward Andrews. Known more for playing a cad in films like Rebecca and All About Eve, Sanders is delightful as romantic lead. Ingrid Bergman’s seemingly effortless and natural acting style, which we all know and love, was apparent even in those early performances. Although their pairing seems odd, Bergman and Sanders make a wonderful on-screen couple.

As with other Warner Archive titles, Rage in Heaven is a manufactured on demand (MOD) disc with limited special features. The film is remastered from the best available source material. The video transfer and audio track are quite good. Rage in Heaven is a nice addition to your home library, if only to round out your “George Sanders as a lover” film collection.

Full disclosure: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a copy of Rage in Heaven directly from Warner Archive.

This review is part of the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon co-hosted by my friend and fellow blogger Michael Nazarewycz of ScribeHard on Film.

 

William Powell in Rendezvous (1935) from Warner Archive

William Powell is one of the most lovable, charming actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. His dry wit, distinct voice, and gentlemanly disposition truly make him one of a kind. Like most of the stars of the Studio Era, Powell had to deal with his share of recycled scrips and grueling production schedules. Sometimes the result was a rough-hewn gem. Other times it was an easily forgotten misuse of an incredible talent. But when it comes to Bill Powell, just give me what you’ve got. I’ll take it all.

One year after delivering what would become an iconic performance in W.S. Van Dyke’s hugely popular The Thin Man (1934), Powell appeared in the WWI drama Rendezvous (1935), alongside Rosalind Russell and Binnie Barnes. I generally dislike typecasting, but I do prefer Powell in light comedies and sleuthing roles like Philo Vance and Nick Charles. Powell in a WWI Army officer’s uniform threw me for a bit of a loop, especially since he is most often seen sporting a tuxedo with martini(s) in hand(s).

Powell is Bill Gordon, lieutenant in the United States Army. He is days away from a deployment to the front lines overseas, which is something he is more than happy to participate in. At a dinner party before his departure, he becomes acquainted with Joel Carter, a young and spunky woman played by Rosalind Russell. Joel pretends to be annoyed by Bill’s teasing and flattery, but it’s apparent she’s smitten. The pair are virtually inseparable, and in an intimate moment on the eve of his deployment, Bill confides that he is an expert in cryptography. Unbeknownst to Bill, Joel’s uncle is a top official in the War Department. As he is about to board his train at the station, Bill receives orders to report for desk duty. Before long, Bill discovers that Joel had a hand in his change of orders.

Samuel Hinds as John Carter and William Powell as Bill Gordon
Samuel Hinds as John Carter and William Powell as Bill Gordon

Frustrated that he can’t join the fight, Bill soon realizes his experience in cracking code is desperately needed to insure the safety of his fellow servicemen. While working alongside Maj. William Brennan (Lionel Atwill) and relying on the lab research of Professor Martin (Charley Grapewin), Bill uncovers an elaborate plan by the Germans to intercept American military communications. Unaware of the location of the espionage ring or the identity of the mole, Powell fights the clock to prevent the destruction of American Naval vessels.

Binnie Barnes as Olivia Karloff and Cesar Romero as Capt. Nicholas Nieterstein
Binnie Barnes as Olivia Karloff and Cesar Romero as Capt. Nicholas Nieterstein

I wanted to like Rendezvous more than I did. Unfortunately, the film presents a confusing mix of comedy and suspense, but does neither particularly well. Russell is oddly miscast as the aggressive, flighty love interest – meddling to protect Bill, but doing more harm than good. Russell’s character is slightly reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance in Howard Hawks Bringing Up Baby (1937). However, Hepburn’s Susan is adorable and her meddling only affects David (Cary Grant), never putting him in harm’s way. Joel’s interference is destructive and places him, and others, in grave danger. Russell’s character aside, I really enjoyed the spy yarn plot-line, which had some surprisingly dark moments. William Powell is quite convincing as a military code expert, despite the boozy baggage he brings to any characterization.

Rendezvous is a manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive. This edition does not have any special features and is struck from the best available source material. The transfer is decent, with an equally good audio track.

If you’re a William Powell completist, Rendezvous is a must. If not, take a furlough and pop in your Thin Man DVDs.

Disclaimer: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a review copy of Redezvous directly from Warner Archive.

Wife vs. Secretary (1936)


Well dear, men are like that. So honorable and able and wise in some things, and just like naughty children in others. You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left alone in a room with a box full of it, would you?

I am ashamed to say that I haven’t watched many “new to me” classic films lately. I’ve been so incredibly exhausted that whenever I snag a spare moment I fall back on my tried and true favorites. Lots of Wyler, Wilder, and Hitchcock. Not a bad group to fall back on, but it’s not like me to go this long without discovering something new. Maybe I’m still bitter about losing everything on my DVR and that’s why I’ve been so unenthusiastic. Whatever the reason, my dry spell is over! I don’t know if I picked the best for my movie watching homecoming, but it feels good to be back regardless.

As you will come to realize, I have many favorite actors and actresses. Four of them are in this movie (well, one has a relatively small role. The horror!): Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and a really young and adorable James Stewart. Wife vs. Secretary is a perfect example of the typical run of the mill studio production: top talent under contract forced to make 3 or 4 movies at a time and regurgitated story lines. Definitely not the most memorable film in terms of film quality or story, but memorable because of those involved.

I don’t think anyone would deny the incredible chemistry between Gable and Loy and especially between Gable and Harlow in all of the movies they made together. Wife vs. Secretary is no exception. Gable is Van Stanhope (V.S.), a successful publisher and devoted husband to Linda, played by Loy. Harlow is “Whitey”, Van’s secretary and go-to gal. V.S. and Whitey’s relationship is purely business. Linda acknowledges Whitey’s importance to V.S. and his business affairs and never shows any shred of jealousy. She even expresses gratitude at Whitey’s helpfulness…until V.S’s mother Mimi (May Robson) suggests her son and Whitey are having an affair. Linda scoffs at the idea until a series of suspicious circumstances leads her to question V.S.’s fidelity.

Although I enjoyed Wife vs. Secretary, I had no real investment in the story or the characters for that matter. Gable is charming, as he is in every role, but his performance falls flat. I don’t think it is his fault, but rather because of poor writing. Harlow, known for her more seductive roles, is actually playing against type for a change. According to comments made by Myrna Loy, Harlow desperately wanted to be taken more seriously and wanted to shake the loose lady image. As Whitey she accomplishes that, which is completely refreshing to see. It’s also sad because she had a long career ahead of her and it was tragically cut short. I’m torn about Myrna Loy’s character. I love the sex appeal she brings to the role. It’s not often we see a wife with sex appeal who is also faithful. However,  I do not love Loy as the weakling. I like my Loy to be sensible and independent. Doesn’t everyone? James Stewart has a minor role as Whitey’s dopey-eyed boyfriend Dave. He wants to marry her but does not support her choice to continue working once they are wed. Stewart’s performance is effective and there are glimpses of the grand actor we know and love today.

One thing I always love about Depression-era films is their portrayal of the wealthy and elite classes. At the beginning of the film, V.S. and Linda are celebrating their wedding anniversary. V.S. surprises Linda with a diamond bracelet inside her breakfast fish. 1) Who eats a whole damn trout for breakfast and 2)who puts ridiculously expensive jewels inside a fish to be discovered? Apparently Myrna Loy was not too fond of that scene and tried to have it removed from the film. I also love the solution to a dissolving marriage: Take an ocean voyage! Nothing like the slow boat to Europe to think about your life. I guess it’s to avoid the prying eyes of the gossip columns and the social set. I must remember that if my husband and I ever have marital problems, I should book a cruise immediately.