Tag Archives: Fay Wray

Black Moon (1934, Roy William Neill)

Before getting into all the great things about Black Moon, I need to talk about the racism. There’s the general thirties racism, with the black sidekick (Clarence Muse) being constantly cartoonish. But the film’s entire plot is racist–it’s about a Caribbean island full of voodoo cult natives who’ve brainwashed a white woman (Dorothy Burgess). According to Moon, American blacks are fine. The Caribbean ones? Unthinkably savage. Oh, and the Black in the title? Veiled reference to Burgess being a race traitor.

Those incredibly uncomfortable elements aside, the film’s beautifully made and often wonderfully acted. Jack Holt plays Burgess’s husband, who has no idea his wife is a sleeper agent for a voodoo cult. Holt’s excellent in the leading role; he and Muse do quite well together.

Cora Sue Collins plays Holt and Burgess’s daughter. She’s excellent too.

Burgess has the most difficult role and has ups and downs, but hits an incredible high point near the end.

As Holt’s adoring secretary, Fay Wray has almost nothing to do. She’s okay, but her character doesn’t belong in the script. Logically speaking, Muse’s character should have gotten that time.

The film’s weakest performance is Arnold Korff. He’s never able to sell the plot twists and revelations. But he’s not bad, just not on par with the others.

Technically speaking, Neill’s direction, Joseph H. August’s photography and Louis Silvers’s score make Moon an exceptional picture. The final sequence is unexpected and masterful.

The racism damages Moon, but it still deserves a look.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy William Neill; screenplay by Wells Root, based on a story by Clements Ripley; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Richard Cahoon; music by Louis Silvers; produced by Harry Cohn; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Holt (Stephen Lane), Fay Wray (Gail Hamilton), Dorothy Burgess (Juanita Perez Lane), Cora Sue Collins (Nancy Lane), Arnold Korff (Dr. Raymond Perez), Clarence Muse (‘Lunch’ McClaren), Eleanor Wesselhoeft (Anna, the nursemaid), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Ruva), Laurence Criner (Kala, the priest), Lumsden Hare (John Macklin) and Henry Kolker (The Psychiatrist).


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Wildcat Bus (1940, Frank Woodruff)

Wildcat Bus is a tepid b picture about corruption in the hired car business. A group of bad guys–they run an unlicensed car firm–go after sweet old Oscar O’Shea’s bus company. It all hinges on a bankrupted blue blood (Charles Lang), his trusty sidekick (Paul Guilfoyle) and O’Shea’s daughter (Fay Wray).

If Wildcat weren’t so earnest about its story, the film might be good for a laugh. Instead, thanks to the serious nature of its approach, it’s a frequently lame outing. There is a fantastic chase sequence in the third act, however, which shows more directorial skill from Woodruff–not to mention editing competency from George Crone–than the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the good sequence doesn’t turn Wildcat around. It’s just an island.

Woodruff’s utterly incapable of directing actors. Lang and Wray are both appealing, but neither are good. Guilfoyle manages to be both, as he apparently required less direction. Some of the bad guys–Don Costello in particular–are good. Though Leona Roberts is terrible as the lead villain.

The picture runs just over an hour and they apparently saved money by not showing any moving cars during the first act. That budget constraint at least gave Wildcat some personality; it gets worse when there’s actual action (until that great pre-finale chase).

Speaking of the finale, it’s idiotic and more appropriate for slapstick. There’s a good joke or two–definitely one, I might be misremembering another.

It’s not worth investing the hour in Wildcat.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Woodruff; written by Lou Lusty; director of photography, Jack MacKenzie; edited by George Crone; music by Roy Webb; produced by Cliff Reid; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fay Wray (Ted Dawson), Charles Lang (Jerry Waters), Paul Guilfoyle (Donovan), Don Costello (Sid Casey), Oscar O’Shea (Charles Dawson), Leona Roberts (Ma), Frank Shannon (Sweeney), Paul McGrath (Stanley Regan), Joe Sawyer (Burke), Roland Drew (Davis) and Warren Ashe (Joe Miller).


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The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel)

Running about an hour, The Most Dangerous Game shouldn’t be boring. But it somehow manages. Worse, the boring stuff comes at the end; directors Schoedsack and Pichel drag out the conclusion with a false ending or two.

The film doesn’t have much to recommend it. That laborious ending wipes short runtime off the board, leaving nothing but good sets, Henry W. Gerrard’s photography and Leslie Banks’s glorious scene-chewing performance as the bad guy. James Ashmore Creelman’s script occasionally has good dialogue, most of it goes to Banks. Unfortunately, Creelman’s script doesn’t have a good story.

Still, the script isn’t Game‘s problem. Simply, Directors Schoedsack and Pichel do a rather bad job. They rely heavily on second person close-ups–the actors are performing for the viewer, showing exaggerated emotion; it’s a terrible choice. Joel McCrea seems silly in the lead and Fay Wray is often just plain bad. She has a couple good moments, early on, but they’re amid some atrocious ones.

The hunt–if you don’t know what kind of animal is “the most dangerous game,” I won’t spoil it (though you should)–starts up over halfway into the film. Here Schoedsack and Pichel present a really boring chase sequence through the magnificent jungle sets. Their action is two dimensional. They also never establish their setting, which would have made the action play better… and give Game more weight.

Robert Armstrong is hilarious, but he isn’t not enough to save the picture.

And Max Steiner’s score is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Irving Pichel; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, based on the story by Richard Connell; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (Robert Rainsford), Fay Wray (Eve Trowbridge), Robert Armstrong (Martin Trowbridge), Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff), Noble Johnson (Ivan), Steve Clemente (Tartar) and William B. Davidson (Captain).


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The Vampire Bat (1933, Frank R. Strayer)

It’s hard not to be, at least, somewhat impressed with The Vampire Bat, if only because it came out in 1933 as a knockoff Universal horror pictures. Except at this point, there’d only been Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. The Vampire Bat brilliantly resembles a Universal horror picture in every way but the filmmaking. There’s the burgomaster, played by the same guy as in Frankenstein (Lionel Belmore). Dwight Frye plays a role somewhat similar to Renfield. It’s only the three principles who don’t really fit–and Lionel Atwill would go on to do a lot of Universal horror pictures.

The screenwriter Lowe eventually did write a Universal horror picture. It took him eleven years, but he wrote House of Frankenstein.

It’s a knockoff, but it’s an effective knockoff made on a lower budget without music. By Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935, music was very important in the Universal horror formula. Seeing one of these pictures without the music is very interesting–it’s a transitory step, but made by a different studio.

The film was shot on the Universal backlot at night. But the set isn’t directed like it’s a Universal horror picture. Frank R. Strayer had time to do a lot of crane shots. His interior shots aren’t impressive (way too much headroom), but the exteriors and transition shots, it looks like Curtiz shot it during his exterior movement phase.

It distracts the viewer from realizing he or she has never seen the exterior of Lionel Atwill’s house. It’s referred to as the castle, but it’s never shown.

Atwill is pretty bad. He would go on to develop a certain character and he hasn’t gotten to it here. Fay Wray’s in it, just before Kong. They don’t use her much. She’s the girl in peril, but only a little bit. The movie only runs sixty-five minutes. She’s second-billed and it’s like they couldn’t get her to stay up late to shoot.

The most interesting thing is Melvyn Douglas, being someone who went on to greater fame. He’s fantastic in this film. He’s very aware of what film he’s in, almost mugging for the viewer when he has to deliver crazy lines–actually, when the other actors deliver the crazy lines to him, you can feel his understanding of how absurd the viewer feels watching the exchange.

Maude Eburne plays Wray’s aunt. It’s never explained why Wray works for Atwill or why Eburne lives there with them (Wray probably lives here because she’s Atwill’s assistant). It’s also never explained what kind of medicine Atwill practices (or why he needs the Universal horror bubbling devices).

Thinking about The Vampire Bat at all, it collapses–which isn’t to say it holds up. It’s an interesting debacle. It ends on a joke and it’s one of the most unfunny jokes you could end on. There’s a whole comic element to the film. Eburne’s played for laughs and it makes no sense.

For a sixty-five minute film to be as meandering and as loosely constructed as this one, it’s impressive.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Edward T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Otis Garrett; produced by Phil Goldstone; released by Majestic Pictures.

Starring Lionel Atwill (Dr. Otto von Niemann), Fay Wray (Ruth Bertin), Melvyn Douglas (Karl Brettschneider), Maude Eburne (Aunt Gussie Schnappmann), George E. Stone (Kringen), Dwight Frye (Herman Gleib), Robert Frazer (Emil Borst), Rita Carlyle (Martha Mueller), Lionel Belmore (Bürgermeister Gustave Schoen), William V. Mong (Sauer), Stella Adams (Georgiana) and Harrison Greene (Weingarten).


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Fay Wray and George Bancroft star in THUNDERBOLT, directed by Josef von Sternberg for Paramount Pictures.

Thunderbolt (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

Thunderbolt has some excellent use of sound. It’s a very early talky and I’m hesitant to say any of its uses were innovative, because the word suggests others picked up on the techniques and developed them. Most of Thunderbolt‘s singular sound designs didn’t show up again in Hollywood cinema for over twenty years. The way von Sternberg uses on camera singers, showcasing them as a performance for the characters to watch, not for the audience to see, doesn’t resemble any of the ostensibly similar scenes in the 1930s. The overall sound design–the street scenes, the edits–resembles German film a lot more than American; there’s a particular lack of flash to von Sternberg’s tone.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of flash in the screenplay. In terms of plotting, Thunderbolt is exquisite. The first half of the film operates without a protagonist. All of the films scenes are long, but those first forty-five minutes play even longer due to the passage of time (a couple months). There’s the initial setup, with Fay Wray and Richard Arlen as young lovers who get picked up by the police. It seems Wray’s got an infamous paramour, played by George Bancroft (as the titular Thunderbolt, a moniker describing his lethal right). There’s some stuff with Wray and Bancroft, then a very pre-code scene with Wray staying with Arlen and mother Eugenie Besserer, and finally the development into the second half of the film.

During the first half, Besserer and Arlen are good together, Wray is mediocre (she has some effective scenes, but the dialogue’s clunky for most of her performance) and Bancroft is overblown. There are some noisy police detectives too.

The second half of the film, with Bancroft on death row, is where Thunderbolt starts to pick up. The character–going into the second half–is already supposed to be somewhat endearing, because he cared for a stray instead of promptly murdering Arlen (and, presumably, Besserer). The second half doesn’t try to rehabilitate him. Instead, it’s a goofy prison movie with Bancroft as the gangster (who we never actually see commit any crimes in the running time). There’s some decent stuff, a few good scenes here and there; really, it’s about Bancroft all of a sudden becoming the film’s lead. His performance is occasionally shaky, but it doesn’t matter. He commands the screen.

The melodrama soon kicks in (Bancroft, from prison, frames Arlen and Arlen ends up on death row and there’s conflict) and the film can’t narratively recover from it. There are still some decent scenes, some excellent shots from von Sternberg, and Bancroft maintains. Arlen, on the other hand, is silly and awful. It’s a bit of a surprise too, because he was fine during the first half.

There’s also Tully Marshall as the absurd prison warden. It’s a movie about an innocent man on death row and there’s this goofy prison warden running around, aping for laughs. Bancroft’s got some funny observations too, but Marshall’s something else entirely. He belongs in a different picture.

Thunderbolt foolishly tries to rehabilitate its protagonist (and inevitably, I suppose). It just goes about it in the worse way possible. It removes the agency from the character, making his salvation a passive event. Instead of being interesting, it’s de facto.

The film gets long during its lengthy scenes, especially after the more interesting technical methods cease. It’s decent instead of interesting.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Josef von Sternberg; screenplay by Jules Furthman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Charles Furthman and Jules Furthman; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Helen Lewis; produced by B.P. Fineman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring George Bancroft (Jim Lang), Fay Wray (Mary), Richard Arlen (Bob Morgan), Tully Marshall (Warden), Eugenie Besserer (Mrs. Morgan), James Spottswood (‘Snapper’ O’Shea), Fred Kohler (‘Bad Al’ Friedberg), Robert Elliott (Prison chaplain), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. McKay), George Irving (Mr. Corwin) and Mike Donlin (Kentucky Sampson).


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Below the Sea (1933, Albert S. Rogell)

Below the Sea really should be good. It’s got a great–somewhat startling when viewed today–opening, it’s got excellent special effects and Albert S. Rogell has some fantastic composition. But it all goes wrong.

The opening is set in 1917 on a German U-boat. It’s carrying gold through the Caribbean and gets sunk following a battle with an American ship. Why the ship’s carrying gold is never explained–not in English anyway. That startling opening is the lack of English. The whole scene on the U-boat plays in German, which makes Below the Sea very different and very unexpected. The prologue’s just great.

Then the descent begins. Frederick Vogeding–the U-boat captain who survives–teams with deep sea diver Ralph Bellamy to recover the gold. There’s a useless sequence with their first attempt to get it, which fails. What’s so strange about this part of the film is how it’s just a time waster. It’s got some impressive storm at sea special effects, but there’s no narrative value.

But it’s a lot better than what follows.

For all the great shots Rogell can compose, he can’t direct actors. Vogeding’s the only principal who turns in a good performance. Fay Wray and Bellamy are both terrible. When their romance begins, their performances only get worse. Writer Jo Swerling seems to think his characters are charming, but neither are. Swerling establishes Bellamy early on as a violent, murderous thug. Exactly the protagonist one wants to spend a movie with. Wray’s character is just annoying and poorly written; she’d be likable if Wray’s performances was any good.

The film’s moderately watchable just because of the treasure hunt aspect, with the fine underwater photography and the nice special effects sequence at the end–Bellamy, in diving suit, versus a giant octopus (to save Wray, of course)–the gravy. And Rogell never disappoints in terms of composition. He’s always framing something beautifully, but the movie just gets worse and worse.

The predictability is a real problem, but worse is the lack of interest in the film’s story. While the treasure hunt aspect is the main plot, there’s a rather interesting subplot about scientific exploration of the ocean. Maybe it isn’t interesting, maybe it only is compared to the terrible romance.

And the romance is a real problem. Wray is presented as a headstrong, independent woman–who needs the rough and tumble Bellamy to break her of that independence. The lack of sympathy the movie tries to kindle for Bellamy is kind of interesting, but not really worth any examination or consideration. Every chance the movie has to excel, it fails. The script’s poor, the leads who should be good are quite the opposite and the director doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.

It’s a disappointment to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s surprising for anything other than the bad performances from Wray and Bellamy, both of whom I expected to be good. I don’t even want to think about how badly they failed chemistry.

That German language opening, however, is real interesting.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert S. Rogell; written by Jo Swerling; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Jack Dennis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Steve McCreary), Fay Wray (Diana Templeton), Frederick Vogeding (Captain Von Boulton), Esther Howard (Lily), Paul Page (Bert Jackson), Trevor Bland (Horace Waldridge) and William J. Kelly (Dr. Chapman).


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Navy Secrets (1939, Howard Bretherton)

Low budget filmmaking–both today and in the past–has always been the most successful when the narrative takes the budget into account. Navy Secrets takes place over one day, with most of the locations being in cars, apartments or restaurants. In other words, easy sets. There’s one slightly more complicated scene in a park. The scenes are all competently lighted and, in general, the film never reveals its b-movie status. The lack of recognizable actors does a little.

What’s so smart about the film is its structure. That one night, with two main characters who the viewer knows relatively nothing about–all the viewer knows, five minutes in, is not to trust Fay Wray. The viewer isn’t necessarily supposed to distrust her, just be wary of her actions. It makes the film an almost interactive experience, with each line of dialogue, each look between characters possibly revealing information (or not). It’s a smart way to do a low budget film, to make the whole thing as quiet as possible.

The other main character, played by Grant Withers, is also suspicious. So is the entire supporting cast after a while. Navy Secrets‘s resolution is one of the obvious possibilities, but it’s never confirmed until the final moment and until that confirmation, there’s always a chance of something else. It keeps the whole narrative unsteady, especially since for the majority of the film, it isn’t even clear if there’s a mystery to be solved.

The chemistry between Withers and Wray has to do well to sustain the film, since there’s little action (there’s one decent fight scene towards the end, which is a surprise, given the one early is awful). The film only runs an hour and two minutes, but it actually seems to go much longer, a combination of it being all dialogue and all in one night. It’s not real time, but–for the most part–the viewer only misses eating scenes and some traveling scenes. The film seems to relate the rest of the characters’ evening… omitting, eventually, some story points to later surprise the viewer.

There’s one particularly nice scene–that park scene–where Wray and Withers kill five or seven minutes of the running time. The flirtation between the characters is rather nice, with Wray’s performance the most engaging. Withers is no slouch, but Wray assumes the lead in the film–the script doesn’t assign it to her–just because of her performance. In some ways, from what I’ve seen of her films, it’s her best performance.

The supporting cast is okay, unless they’re doing accents. Even if the accents are real, they come off poorly. But accent-free Dewey Robinson is solid. Maybe it’s simple–with the accents, the characters are automatically suspect, while without, there’s some added doubt.

The film ends somewhat nicely… a little too neat, a little too style-free. The majority of the film takes place at night with some well-produced street scenes. The last scene, an interior, lacks any flavor. The street scenes–with the rear projection of locations–give the film a real mood, one they should have kept.

Navy Secrets is a fine diversion–the title doesn’t really work for the content–and it’s a nice role for Wray.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Bretherton; screenplay by Harvey Gates, based on a story by Steve Fisher; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; released by Monogram Pictures Corporation.

Starring Fay Wray (Carol Evans), Grant Withers (Roberts), Dewey Robinson (Nick Salado), Wilhelm von Brincken (Cronjer), Craig Reynolds (CPO Jimmy Woodford), George Sorel (Slavins), André Cheron (Joe Benji), Robert Frazer (Peter), Joseph Crehan (Captain Daly), Duke York (Babe), Arthur Housman (Singing Drunk) and Joseph W. Girard (Navy Captain).


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k33

King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)

King Kong is a perfect film. I don’t think I’d realized before. It’s always hard to talk about films like Kong, influential standards of American cinema. I want to talk about how its structure still sets the tone for modern films–the gradual lead-in (it’s forty-some minutes before Kong shows up), the non-stop action of the second half, how establishing characters well in the beginning means they can go without dialogue for twenty minutes and still be affecting. Or the special effects. I’d love to talk about the special effects, like how I’d never noticed the absolutely brilliant sound design–the most effective stop motion moments are the ones with the people Kong interacts with. Murray Spivack’s sound brings them fully to life–best evidenced as Kong’s rampaging through the village and attacks a house. It engenders concern for the inhabits, who must have been six inch dolls.

But Kong isn’t a perfect film for its impact. It’s perfect because of itself. The film opens with the scene on the docks, quickly establishing the peculiar tone of the first half. Everyone sort of takes Robert Armstrong’s gung ho filmmaker with a grain of salt. They’re bemused by him. Armstrong’s perfect for the role, big and amiable, it’s hard to be mad at him when he does something selfish and stupid. Just like the characters, who get themselves into the mess by listening to him and knowing better, so does the audience. Armstrong’s like a big kid for lots of Kong, always coming up with the best action after the consequence.

That first scene also goes far in establishing Bruce Cabot. Cabot’s character is Kong‘s most interesting–as is the way the film handles him. The scene with Cabot ranting to Fay Wray about women not belonging on ships–we’re supposed to understand it’s Cabot who’s off, not Wray. Regardless of whether or not he’s right, the first forty minutes of Kong are about Cabot learning to stop acting like a little boy (which Armstrong never has to do). It makes the romance between Cabot and Wray a wonderful one to watch unfold–that “Yes, sir” following their first kiss elicits a fantastic mood.

These scenes all happen long before Kong shows up, long before the roller coaster starts. I didn’t even get to the coffee shop scene, where Armstrong’s enthusiasm even gets the viewer going–promising everyone, viewer and Wray alike, the wait will be worth it.

And when Kong does show up, it’s clearly worth it. King Kong doesn’t really make the monster a sympathetic character. He tends to chomp on people and his curiosity usually leads to someone dying in a horrific manner, but they do make him into a real character. Utterly insensitive to the chaos he causes, Kong still has these wonderful, inquisitive moments. He’s frequently confused by the little people and it rounds out the film, bringing about emotional concern for him without having to light it in neon. The film reduces Wray’s part to victim at the halfway mark–and she certainly never shows any concern for Kong–which is narratively reasonable. It also puts the onerous on the viewer–if he or she wants to care for Kong, it’s because of his or her response to him, not because the film’s dictating.

Once Kong gets back to New York, the whole thing seems to wrap up in fifteen minutes. There’s the interesting monologue from Armstrong though, regarding what he’s done to Kong. He’s fully aware he’s been culturally insensitive, as well as zoologically, but he doesn’t care. The people don’t care what they’ve done to Kong and Kong doesn’t care what he does for people. It creates an interesting, ego and superego free narrative. Anything the audience wants to bring to it or attribute to it, they’re bringing themselves.

King Kong‘s a lot of things audiences and critics had to come up with new adjectives to describe back in 1933–a romance, an adventure being the two easiest–but it’s simply just a fantastic way to spend a hundred minutes.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, based on an idea by Cooper and Edgar Wallace; directors of photography, Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker and Kenneth Peach; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Max Steiner; production designer, Carroll Clark; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fay Wray (Ann Darrow), Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham), Bruce Cabot (Jack Driscoll), Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn), Sam Hardy (Charles Weston), Noble Johnson (Skull Island native chief), Steve Clemente (Witch King), James Flavin (Second Mate Briggs) and Victor Wong (Charlie).


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King Kong series:

One Sunday Afternoon (1933, Stephen Roberts)

One Sunday Afternoon suffers from some of the standard play-to-film problems. The scenes go on too long, especially in the first half, which only contains three real scenes. The opening, which is a lengthy, seemingly direct adaptation from the play, features Gary Cooper and Roscoe Karns talking to each other as way of establishing the characters and setting. It’s problematic to say the least, since their dialogue isn’t particularly interesting and because it just drags the film down, right from the start.

What’s strange about the opening is the make-up. One Sunday Afternoon is told mostly in flashback, with the opening and end in the modern day. The film establishes Cooper and Karns in old age make-up at the start. It’s a conventional narrative move and what’s strange about it has nothing to do with it as a storytelling device. The strange thing is the fantastic make-up work. I can’t find any credits for it, but whoever came up with it did an amazing job. It’s more of a shock seeing Cooper without the make-up on than it is seeing him without.

So after the three or fourth lengthy scenes, the film skips forward a couple years and drastically changes. The scenes are shorter, more filmic, and it has a lot more weight. The long, early scenes seem more like foundation for the brief middle section. It doesn’t seem like an intentional, deliberate move, just fortuitous pacing.

What makes the film is Cooper’s performance. He’s not playing a smart guy here or even a nice one. Cooper does a great job of it, never making his character amusing in his denseness or self-absorbtion. He never makes him entirely bad either, the stupidity excuses just enough of the inconsideration.

It leads to some good scenes with Frances Fuller, who starts the film with a weak character, but–no shock–she strengths in the middle section.

Unfortunately, both Fay Wray and Neil Hamilton are weak. Wray, just like most everyone, is more interesting in the middle, but she’s barely present. The plotting for the first part of the flashback is too melodramatic for Wray’s character in particular. Even though she’s amusing as she leaves the film, she really never brings anything to it. Hamilton’s generally bad throughout, though he’s a little better in the present day setting. His excellent make-up probably helped out a little.

The film greatly suffers from being too short in the good parts and too long in the middling. Cooper’s performance does wonders for it–and the fine production values as well–but there’s no creative direction. As a director, Stephen Roberts is entirely passive. I can’t remember seeing a single surprising frame of film. But the positive elements–running high off the middle–bring the film nicely to its conclusion. The end’s a little stretched, as the film suffers from wholly deceiving the audience until the last act, but it’s solid.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt, based on the play by James Hagan; directors of photography, Victor Milner and Karl Struss; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by John Leipold; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Biff Grimes), Fay Wray (Virginia Brush), Frances Fuller (Amy Lind), Roscoe Karns (Snappy Downer), Neil Hamilton (Hugo Barnstead) and Jane Darwell (Mrs. Lind).


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The Cobweb (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

A more appropriate title might be The Trouble with the Drapes, but even with the misleading moniker, The Cobweb is a good Cinemascope drama. Cinemascope dramas went out some time in the mid-1960s. Vincente Minnelli is great at them. In The Cobweb, he turns a little story (I can’t believe it’s from a novel–it must have had a lot more on the characters, since the present action is incredibly limited) into a big movie. Richard Widmark doesn’t hurt. Even as a caring psychiatrist, Widmark amplifies the film. Nothing he does–except for one scene, his performance is understated–but something about his presence. His and Lauren Bacall’s. They signal big Cinemascope drama. So does Leonard Rosenman’s score. Rosenman brings the music up for all the characters’ emotions and, since some of the characters do a lot solo, there’s quite a bit of the music. Only once does it get a little too much, when Gloria Grahame (as Widmark’s wife; Bacall’s the nurse he likes too much) is freaking out. Oddly, the dialogue plays against the omnipresent music. The Cobweb has very delicate–and very good–dialogue. It’s one of the reasons the film succeeds: good dialogue performed by good actors makes even the most banal story involving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt The Cobweb pulls itself out from its third act spiral.

There’s not much going on in the film–it really is all about the fallout of buying new drapes for a psychiatric clinic–and it’s the characters keeping it moving. At the end, there needs to be a resolution and so–I assume it’s from the book, but it’s funny enough it might be a filmic innovation–things get resolved. Cinemascope dramas always resolve nicely at the end, part of the genre requirements. But The Cobweb‘s resolution is too easy. It’s too abbreviated. But at the last moment, in a very nicely timed scene, it pulls off a great close.

John Houseman produced the film, which might account for Mercury Theatre member Paul Stewart’s too small role, and maybe Houseman’s involvement accounts for some of the gentleness in the picture. The scenes with Widmark and his son playing chess or talking are some of the film’s most effective, because they’re–for the majority of the running time–the only real insight we get in to Widmark’s feelings. The rest of the time, until he and Bacall get inappropriate, he’s too busy worrying about his patients. Grahame’s really good in a difficult, unlikable role, and managing to keep the character sympathetic by the end of the film is a real achievement on Grahame’s part. Bacall’s good tog, but her character gets reduced into an “other woman” role (but she has a great exit). Other exceptional performances (they’re all good) are Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. Boyer has a slightly more difficult role, but Gish is more impressive, maybe just because I’m unfamiliar with her work.

There’s a little bit too much going on in The Cobweb. There’s easily material for three films in here–Widmark and Grahame, Bacall’s character needs a whole picture, and John Kerr and Susan Strasberg’s mental patient romance deserves one too (Kerr’s real impressive and it’s he and Grahame who get the film off to its good start). It’s an imperfect Cinemascope drama, though a great example of one, but still a satisfying experience.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, from a novel by William Gibson; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Widmark (Dr. McIver), Lauren Bacall (Meg Rinehart), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Charles Boyer (Dr. Devanal), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), John Kerr (Steven Holte), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Paul Stewart (Dr. Wolff), Jarma Lewis (Lois Demuth), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb), Edgar Stehli (Mr. Holcomb), Bert Freed (Ave Irwin) and Fay Wray (Edna Devanal).


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