Category Archives: Classics

Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SPENCER TRACY & KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


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The Voice of the Turtle (1947, Irving Rapper)

The Voice of the Turtle runs an hour and forty minutes. There’s a split about forty minutes in and, in the second hour, leads Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan are playing slightly different characters. Screenwriter John Van Druten adapted his play (with additional dialogue from Charles Hoffman) and had to “clean things up.” The play was very controversial on release in 1943, dealing with affairs and sexual desire and the like; the movie’s sanitized. There’s one shockingly direct mention but it goes by so fast, it’s like it never happened. And then there’s a clothing malfunction scene, which seems risque, but isn’t explored. Maybe it was a big moment in the play and they wanted to keep it?

A faithful adaptation of the play is, frankly, unimaginable with the cast and production of the film. Voice of the Turtle plays like a strange attempt at big budget slapstick. The production values are mostly great. The sets, the backlot street scenes. The frequent projection composites, transporting Reagan and Parker to New York City locations, don’t come off. But Sol Polito’s photography is nice regardless. And Rapper isn’t a bad director. He does really well when Turtle isn’t in its “stage setting,” Parker’s apartment. Once they’re in the apartment, Rapper directs everything like its funny, even when it’s not. Nothing when it shouldn’t be, but the script introduces Parker’s eccentric neatness tendencies (way too late) and Rapper seems to think it’s the best physical comedy ever.

It’s not. It’s not even funny. In the context of the narrative, given how upset Parker is during some of the sequences, it’d be insensitive if Rapper weren’t generally oblivious with how to direct the apartment sequences. Reagan and Parker share sad faces, hugs, kisses, and comic setpieces. Everything comes off contrived, which Reagan and Parker help counteract.

Second-billed Parker is the lead. Reagan only gets one real scene to himself–a walk in front of a projection of Central Park–but neither of them gets much to do. Parker gets more because she’s also got this subplot involving getting a role with a lecherous middle-aged actor and being oblivious. It’s diverting, because Parker playing a solvent but unsuccessful actress is interesting, while her being sad over scummy ex-boyfriend Kent Smith dumping her isn’t interesting. For the first forty, Parker nevers get to lead a scene, she’s always playing backup to Smith, Eve Arden, or Reagan. But the first forty minutes are somehow more successful, just due to lack of ambition. It’s a comedy of errors.

Sure, the errors involve Arden dumping visiting soldier Reagan because a better prospect is in town (Wayne Morris) and Parker getting stuck entertaining him, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be risque. Arden gives it the right amount of wink and Parker plays along.

Parker’s good. She never has a particularly great moment. The third act is particularly rough, with Reagan getting better stuff to do. Parker just gets to clean. One can only imagine how good she would’ve been in the play.

Reagan’s likable without ever being particularly appealing. He does slightly better with romantic sincerity than he does with the initially jilted booty call. He has no sense of comic timing, which doesn’t end up hurting the film since Rapper doesn’t have any either.

The supporting cast is either fine or negligible enough not to make a difference. Arden’s fine–she’s good in the first twenty, but the script turns her into a caricature (as far as dialogue, maybe not intention) for the last hour. It’s too bad. Morris is a little too absurd. Smith doesn’t have his full part–in the play, he’s married and Parker’s his mistress; in the movie, he’s just a moustached jerk. Still, if he did have more of a part, Smith probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s doltish.

John Emery has an awesome scene. It probably would’ve been great if he and Parker could have implied premarital sex existed, but instead, it’s just fun.

Max Steiner’s score is way too much. He goes overboard trying to give the romance some melodramatic musical flare, amping it up to the point it comes off inappropriate. It’s too much, given how lightly Rapper and the script approach things.

The Voice of the Turtle is charming thanks to its leads and the nice production values. Knowing about the play explains many incongruities, but doesn’t excuse Rapper, Van Druten, and Hoffman’s failures to fix them. With Parker, Reagan, and Arden, it wouldn’t have been hard to produce a solid, innocuous, slight comedy.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Rapper; screenplay by John Van Druten and Charles Hoffman, based on the play by Van Druten; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hoffman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Sally Middleton), Ronald Reagan (Sergeant Bill Page), Eve Arden (Olive Lashbrooke), Kent Smith (Kenneth Bartlett), Wayne Morris (Comm. Ned Burling), John Emery (George Harrington), and John Holland (Henry Atherton).


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The Seventh Sin (1957, Ronald Neame)

The Seventh Sin has three problems. The first is the third act; it’s too rushed. Given the constraints of the film production–a shot-in-Hollywood production about a cholera outbreak in a rural Chinese town–there’s not so much to be done about it. The film has a limited cast, especially once the action moves from Hong Kong to that town, and the roles are restrictive. The second problem is Miklós Rózsa’s music. It’s occasionally perfectly good melodramatic stuff, but Rózsa also has a lot what he must have considered Chinese themes. Regardless of their origin, they come off as trite or condescending and completely alien to the film’s narrative. They’re as patiently false as the rear screen projection shots, only without the actors there to get the scenes through.

The third problem is the big one. It keeps The Seventh Sin down, even when everything else is working (though, obviously, not much of Rózsa’s score). “Leading man” Bill Travers is awful. He’s mediocre at the start, seemingly unable to fully handle the part of a vindictive cuckold, but once he actually has some character development to essay? Travers butchers it even worse.

Now on to the good. Lead Eleanor Parker. She starts the film desperately unhappy, floundering, angry, and completely transforms through her experiences. The Seventh Sin is front-loaded. The most dramatic story stuff is at the beginning, when dull Travers learns Parker’s having an affair with charming Jean-Pierre Aumont. By the time Travers drags Parker to the cholera outbreak, there’s not much drama left. They’re both resigned and burned out. Parker’s already gone through one entire dramatic arc with the character and then she has to build another one, only without any outside incitement. Despite Travers singlehandedly turning the tide of the cholera epidemic, Sin’s all about how Parker experiences it and how that experience changes her. And a lot of her experience is just sitting around miserable.

Sometimes she does have George Sanders, playing an Englishman who’s settled in the town to occasionally run an import and export business, but mostly to get drunk and snoop into people’s personal lives. He finds a kindred spirit in Parker and much of the second act involve his attempts to discover her secrets and then what to do with those discoveries.

All of Parker’s development comes in these quietly composed wide shots; she’s often alone in them, negotiating her place in space. When someone else comes into the shot–specifically Travers–it’s an intrusion. The subdued tension explodes. Parker argues magnificently in the film. The script never really gives Sanders a chance to keep up, which seems a missed opportunity (but not once the narrative plays out). At the beginning of the film, Travers actually does hold his ground for a moment or two but he quickly gets lost. It’s impossible to imagine how The Seventh Sin would’ve turned out with a better performance in his role.

While Ronald Neame gets the sole credit, Vincente Minnelli directed much of it–most of it? And given Neame left because he (incredibly and stupidly) disliked Parker’s performance, maybe Minnelli’s responsible for all the great direction of Parker.

Besides Parker and Sanders (who plays a soulful drunk just like he’s a soulful drunk), Aumont is pretty good. Françoise Rosay is excellent as a Mother Superior who gives Parker quite a bit of advice; it’s mostly from a humanistic standpoint, not a religiously influenced one, which makes the scenes particularly effective.

Good black and white photography from Ray June. He does a lot better with the matte paintings than with the rear screen projection.

Karl Tunberg’s script holds strong for almost the entire film, until the third act rush. That last minute stumble is mostly Tunberg’s fault, but Minnelli (or Neame) could’ve tried to do something to save it. The finale manages to have Parker in every second but lose the character’s depth. Her personal journey becomes perfunctory, which is a big problem given it’s the entire picture.

And most of the picture is quite good.

Except Travers. Travers is terrible.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ronald Neame; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Miklos Rozsa; produced by David Lewis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Carol Carwin), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Paul Duvelle), George Sanders (Tim Waddington), Bill Travers (Doctor Walter Carwin), Françoise Rosay (Mother Superior) and Ellen Corby (Sister Saint Joseph).


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