Category Archives: Sum Up

Actor | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: The Dream Factory

In June 1941, right before turning nineteen years old, Eleanor Parker signed on as a contract player at Warner Bros. She had just finished a year at the Pasadena Playhouse. Parker started acting in high school and had been dodging studio screen tests since she was fifteen; she wanted to continue developing her craft on stage. Warner made an offer two days after Parker’s screen test. The studio was so enthusiastic about Parker they cast her in what would be their second-biggest hit of the year, They Died with Their Boots On.

Unfortunately, Parker’s part in Boots ended up on the cutting room floor.

Soldiers in White (1942). NOT RECOMMENDED. 2011 review
Men of the Sky (1942). NOT RECOMMENDED. 2012 review

The studio then put her in a couple of its Technicolor shorts, which, post-Pearl harbor, were now focused on propaganda. The first, Soldiers in White, came in February 1942, just over two months after Pearl Harbor. The second, Men of Sky, arrived in July. Parker played a nurse in the former and a war widow in the latter. Even with only two lines in Sky, she easily gives the best performance (as she also does, but with more material, in Soldiers). B. Reeves Eason directed both the shorts and Owen Crump contributed their unfortunate screenplays.

Parker clerks in BUSSES ROAR.

Parker’s feature debut came in September 1942, with B-picture Busses Roar; it came out fifteen months after Parker signed with the studio (and almost a year since her A picture “debut” in Boots).

Like most of Parker’s 1940s films, Busses Roar is a home front picture. Fourth-billed (of five), Parker plays a bus terminal candy girl. The story concerns Axis saboteurs using a Greyhound bus to bomb an oil field. Richard Travis is the lead, with Julie Bishop his love interest. D. Ross Lederman directs the fifty-eight minute film.

Busses Roar (1942). ★. 2014 review

Busses Roar is a busy picture; most of it takes place in the bus terminal, introducing various travelers and their subplots. Screenwriters George Bilson and Anthony Coldeway need to pad out the short run time as the film doesn’t have the budget for its action-packed finale. The terminal scenes are solidly produced however. Bishop’s not bad and Travis is likable. He’s not good, but he is likable. Parker doesn’t get a significant enough character to make any impression–despite her being higher billed than actors who get better material.

BUSSES ROAR: Richard Fraser and Elisabeth Fraser (no relation) cause a hold up in Parker’s line while Richard Travis looks on.

In general, critics liked Busses Roar. Though definitely not The New York Times. Warner’s B-picture wartime propaganda pictures are mostly forgotten–at least by the studio’s home video department. Busses Roar has never had any home video release, though it does show up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. It’s an inglorious, but not embarrassing, start to Parker’s feature filmography.

Parker looks for THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR.

Parker’s next film, The Mysterious Doctor, came out in March 1943. Another home front picture–though this time the British home front–Doctor combines propaganda with horror thriller. It’s a ghost story, with a (headless) ghost terrorizing tin miners to keep them from providing His Majesty’s Armed Forces with that valuable wartime material. Parker’s character is the practically the only one in the town who keeps her head (figuratively) when confronted with the supernatural. Benjamin Stoloff directs from a Richard Weil script. Also starring John Loder and Bruce Lester, Mysterious Doctor clocks in just under an hour. Another B picture for Parker.

The Mysterious Doctor (1943). ★★½. 2011 review

With its American actors in its British setting, not to mention the foggy moor scenery, Mysterious Doctor at first glance seems like a Warner B riff on the Universal horror classics. It’s got more going on than just that riff, however. Second-billed Parker turns out to be the lead, getting a lot to do in the film and doing it all quite well. The finale’s problematic–director Stoloff actually does worst on the thriller aspects–but Doctor’s a nice, nimble B, with a good dash of humor.

Everyone’s concerned for Parker after she’s injured, but not enough to listen to her before.

While at least one contemporary critic liked Mysterious Doctor–and Parker enough to single her out in the review–the film was not a breakout hit. Just like Busses Roar, The Mysterious Doctor has had no home video release. Turner Classic Movies airs the film. While better known than Busses Roar, Doctor seems to suffer an unduly harsh reputation, emphasizing its failures over its successes.

Parker in MISSION TO MOSCOW.

In May 1943, Parker finally got a part in another A picture and she didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. In Mission to Moscow–director Michael Curtiz’s first film after Casablanca–Parker plays lead Walter Huston’s daughter. The film’s an adaptation of Joseph E. Davies’s memoir about his time in the Soviet Union as United States ambassador. Davies’s book had been a big hit and expectations were high for the film.

Mission to Moscow (1943). ★★. 2006 review

Curtiz’s direction is excellent, Huston’s performance is excellent, Howard Koch’s script is fine. It’s just too much of a propaganda piece–Huston, wife Ann Harding, and (sometimes) Parker tediously tour the Soviet Union (as shot in Hollywood U.S.A.)–there’s nothing else to it. No subplots, no drama, no nothing. It’s an artificial marketing travelogue. Parker is fine and appealing in a minuscule part. The film occasionally even forgets about her. Fellow Warner contractee Richard Travis (from Busses Roar) shows up as Parker’s occasional chaperone.

Upon release, Moscow was far from a success. Despite the Office of War Information signing off on the finished product, the United States public had changed its mind about the Soviet Union in the year and few months between the release of the book and the film. Contemporary critics particularly disliked the overt propaganda as well as the historical inaccuracies. In the late forties, the film and its producers would come under fire from the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Ann Harding, Walter Huston, and Parker travel for work in MISSION.

The film remained out of circulation until the 1970s, when it started airing on television. It has had some critical reevaluation since, though it still remains more a curiosity than anything else. Warner Archive released the film on DVD and it airs on Turner Classic Movies. Another inglorious propaganda picture for Parker, though at least this one is on home video.

Paul Henreid and Parker in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.

The following year, 1944, would be Parker’s busiest of the forties. She would appear in four films before it was over, starting with May’s Between Two Worlds. Directed by Edward A. Blatt and costarring John Garfield, Paul Henreid, and Sydney Greenstreet, Parker got the last of the four top billings. She plays top-billed Henreid’s wife, though second-billed Garfield’s the real star.

While the film’s based on Sutton Vane’s 1924 play, Outward Bound, Daniel Fuchs’s screenplay updates the story to the modern day. A group of travelers are on a ship escaping the bombings in World War II London and headed to the United States. Or are they? Are they perhaps headed somewhere else entirely? With Warner notables in the supporting cast–Edmund Gwenn, Faye Emerson–Between Two Worlds might not have had the street cred of Mission to Moscow but it’s an A picture and Parker’s in a big part.

Between Two Worlds (1944). ★★. 2005 review

Between Two Worlds runs too long–almost two hours and it’s a bumpy voyage throughout. Henreid, who anchors Parker, can’t keep up with Garfield, who takes over the film despite coming in late. Parker has some good scenes, a solo one towards the end in particular. The supporting performances are good. Sydney Greenstreet’s real good. Between Two Worlds is lucky to have a built in character winnowing, which propels it when Fuchs’s script and Blatt’s direction don’t.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: Sydney Greenstreet, Dennis King, Parker, Edmund Gwenn, and Henreid.

Until Warner Archive put it out on DVD, Between Two Worlds had never had a home video release. Turner Classic Movies has played it regularly over the years and the film’s gotten itself an audience. When I was first discovering Eleanor Parker movies, Between Two Worlds was the only one of her early films anyone else was familiar with.

Parker gives ex-husband Jerome Cowan as much consideration as he deserves in CRIME BY NIGHT.

Parker’s next film, Crime by Night, arrived in September. It was back to B pictures for Parker and Two Worlds costar Faye Emerson; it’s also one of Parker’s smallest Warner parts. She plays ex-wife to lead Jerome Cowan, a New York detective who’s in a small town investigating a case. Jane Wyman plays Cowan’s secretary and sidekick. William Clemens directs the seventy minute picture–so a longer B anyway–from a script by Richard Weil and Joel Malone. Weil wrote The Mysterious Doctor, which mixed home front propaganda with a horror picture. Crime by Night is also another Warner mixer–this time murder mystery and home front propaganda.

Crime by Night (1944). ★★. 2007 review

Crime by Night is a serviceable B mystery. Not all of the performances are good–Faye Emerson and Charles Lang aren’t–but Jane Wyman’s a great lead. Cowan’s drunken, corrupt, philandering detective occasionally amuses. Parker does quite well implying a lot more depth to her character than ends up on screen (she and Cowan have a child together, who inexplicably never shows up). Even with Crime’s problems, Wyman’s so incredibly appealing, it’s too bad Warner didn’t do a series with she and Cowan’s characters.

CRIME BY NIGHT: Parker and Charles Lang.

Contemporary critics received Crime by Night well enough. It had been in the can for two years before its theatrical release and was not a major box office success. No home video release for Crime by Night. It too shows up on Turner Classic Movies. Hopefully Jane Wyman fans are familiar with it. It’d be a fine finish to Parker’s B days at Warner–her performance, loving mother slash femme fatale, is neat. There’s one more B to go though.

THE LAST RIDE’s ostensible love triangle: Travis, Parker, and Lang.

Parker’s final B-picture, The Last Ride, came out a month after Crime by Night and fittingly culminates her filmography to this point. D. Ross Lederman, who directed Parker’s first film, Busses Roar, directs The Last Ride. Parker is third-billed, after Busses Roar’s Richard Travis and Crime by Night’s Charles Lang. They’re brothers–one’s a cop, one’s a rubber runner (wartime rubber shortages, so another home front picture)–and Parker’s the girl they both love. Jack La Rue and Cy Kendall costar.

The Last Ride (1944). ★. 2007 review

The Last Ride’s not an abject failure, but it’s got a clunky script from Raymond L. Schrock. There are constant continuity problems, which is should be impossible in a fifty-six minute movie but Last Ride manages. Parker had Lang for a love interest in Crime by Night and Travis in Mission to Moscow so the love triangle should register. Except Parker only gets two scenes; hardly time for reunions or anything else. Travis is all right. There’s nothing anyone could really do to improve Last Ride… the tires are just too low.

Parker serves the boys dinner; before she gets to eat, she answers the phone and exits the picture.

The film apparently didn’t make much impression on release and has never been out on home video. None of the aforementioned B pictures are on home video and nothing makes The Last Ride stand out. Sorry, Richard Travis and Charles Lang. More, of all Parker’s early films (her sixth after starting three years before), The Last Ride doesn’t even manage to be a curiosity. And if you do watch it hoping for a nice early role for Parker, you’ll be disappointed when she’s barely in the film, regardless of billing.

Dennis Morgan and Parker in THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU.

Just a few weeks later, Warner released The Very Thought of You, featuring Parker’s first leading role in an A picture. It’s a home front picture, with more drama, less propaganda. Parker’s a munition factory worker who has a whirlwind romance with GI on leave Dennis Morgan, culminating in marriage. Her family doesn’t support Parker or the marriage; dating soldiers is a no no. The timely subplots include wartime infidelity and temptation. Dane Clark and Faye Emerson play the sidekicks (Clark to Morgan, Emerson to Parker). Very Thought would be Parker and Emerson’s last Warner film together, after Between Two Worlds and Crime by Night.

The Very Thought of You (1944). ★★★. 2006 review

The Very Thought of You is a deliberate family drama. Director Delmer Daves and Alvah Bessie’s script is better than Daves’s direction, but the cast is first-rate. Save leading man Dennis Morgan, who looks his part but doesn’t have any depth. Parker’s good but her part’s a bland “good girl”. Everyone else gets more, whether it’s being awful, unfaithful, or just funny. The film drags–mostly because its not dramatic enough–but it’s still quite good.

THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU: Every time Henry Travers has to calm Beulah Bondi on Parker’s behalf, an angel gets its wings.

Very Thought of You also isn’t out on home video. Apparently Warner–not even Warner Archive–thinks there are enough Parker or Dennis Morgan fans out there to warrant a release. Like all of Parker’s film’s to this point–feature and B–Very Thought does show up on Turner Classic Movies.

Parker and John Garfield in THE PRIDE OF THE MARINES.

After the four film year of 1944, Parker slowed down. Her one film in 1945, Pride of the Marines, arrived almost exactly a year after Very Thought of You. Marines, based on a true story, pairs Parker with John Garfield; while they shared scenes in Between Two Worlds, they didn’t share story arcs. In Marines, Parker again plays the good girl. This time she cures Garfield of his aversion to romance and commitment. Then Pearl Harbor happens and Garfield joins up, distinguishing himself in the Pacific. He comes home wounded and lashes out at everyone, Parker included. The film reunites a lot of Very Thought of You principals, including director Delmer Daves, producer Jerry Wald, and main costar Dane Clark.

The Pride of the Marines (1945). ★½. 2016 review

Overall, Pride of the Marines isn’t successful. There’s some excellent work from Daves–the sequences in the Pacific Theatre are a spellbinding nightmare–but Albert Maltz’s script is thin. It’s thin on Garfield’s character, then it’s thin on his rehabilitation. As a result, Garfield’s nowhere near as effective as he needs to be and the film itself doesn’t have enough heft. Parker’s good, of course, having played this kind of part most of her career to this point. Sidekick Clark also does well, mixing dramatic with comedic.

THE PRIDE OF THE MARINES: Garfield, Parker, and the metaphor of a fallen Christmas tree.

The film was well-received on release–lots of praise for Garfield and Maltz’s script was Oscar-nominated–but Marines fell into obscurity. Well, more forced into obscurity after the House Committee on Un-American Activities went after both Maltz and Garfield. The film never had a VHS release, but aired somewhat regularly on Turner Classic Movies. The film finally got its first home video release on DVD from Warner Archive, one of that label’s first releases.

Meet Mildred Rogers – Parker in OF HUMAN BONDAGE.

Parker’s next film–her first of 1946–was Of Human Bondage. It came out about a year after Marines and introduced audiences to an Eleanor Parker much different than the Warner home front ingénue. As a cruel, vulgar Cockney waitress, Parker inadvertently bewitches medical student Paul Henreid, who’ll do anything to win her. Once she realizes how much she can profit from his lust, she takes full advantage. Within some limits. He does disgust her after all. Director Edmund Goulding wasn’t sure about Parker for the part (he’d wanted Ida Lupino) and tested Parker three times before casting her. Bondage sat on the shelf for a couple years. It was in the can in 1944 and could have provided a far more immediate contrast to Parker and Henreid’s devoted lovers in Between Two Worlds. Another Two Worlds cast member–Edmund Gwenn–is in Bondage, but never onscreen with Parker.

Of Human Bondage (1946). ★★★. 2006 review

Of Human Bondage, much like the source novel, is a slow moving affair. Parker’s magnificent. Henreid’s good–especially since he’s never trying to make himself likable–but it’s all about Parker, who sadly doesn’t get as much attention as she should. She’s not the protagonist, after all, just his main foil. Goulding gives Henreid and Parker a whole lot of room to work. His direction is patient and deliberate (though apparently much of the composition is the result post-production tinkering at Henreid’s request). Gwenn’s great in his supporting role, imbuing Of Human Bondage with a most unlikely quality–hopefulness.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE: Parker and Henreid.

Contemporary critics didn’t think much of the film, though Parker got good reviews. When MGM adapted the novel again in 1964, they bought up the rights to the 1946 version and kept it off television, effectively letting it become lost. Turner Classic Movies has been airing Of Human Bondage for many years, though apparently it’s never gotten enough viewers to get a Warner Archive release. That lack of release is unfortunate; Of Human Bondage is Parker’s first dramatic role of depth and the first time it’s clear there’s no way to cast her against type; she doesn’t have one.

NEVER SAY GOODBYE: Errol Flynn and Parker.

Four months after Of Human Bondage came out and fizzled, Parker’s next film arrived. Never Say Goodbye, a romantic comedy, with Parker and Errol Flynn playing a divorced couple with a great daughter (Patti Brady) who both maybe want to fall in love again. With each other. James V. Kern directs the film, which is one of those late forties post-war screwball comedies.

Never Say Goodbye (1946). ★★. 2017 review

Never Say Goodbye has a strong open and a charming cast. Not just Parker and Flynn, but S.Z. Sakall and Hattie McDaniel. After the strong open, things aren’t as good. Parker and Flynn don’t have much to work with and despite both being charming, they don’t have much chemistry. Both are quite glamorous, however. And Brady’s adorable. It’s a perfectly okay comedy. Nothing more.

NEVER SAY GOODBYE: Parker isn’t sure about Patti Brady’s attempt to fix her up with Forrest Tucker.

Contemporary critics were lukewarm but positive in their reviews of Never Say Goodbye, though it wasn’t a hit on release. No doubt thanks to Flynn’s presence, the film actually had a VHS release. It was Parker’s earliest film to be released on that format. Like everything else, it airs on Turner Classic Movies. Warner Archive has also got a DVD out. So Never Say Goodbye is reasonably accessible. Or, at least, it’s been accessible for longer.

Ladies can’t resist a man with an accordian; Flynn and Parker in ESCAPE ME NEVER.

The following year, 1947, Parker appeared in two films. The first, reuniting her with Goodbye costar Errol Flynn, was Escape Me Never. Parker is third-billed–behind Flynn and Ida Lupino–and plays the other woman to Lupino; they both want Flynn’s attentions. Flynn’s a struggling composer. Lupino’s a broke single mother. Parker’s a wealthy bachelorette. Gig Young is Parker’s other romantic interest and Flynn’s boring brother. The action takes place in turn of the century Europe. Peter Godfrey directs from Thames Williamson’s script.

Escape Me Never (1947). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2006 review

Escape Me Never is terrible. Lupino’s annoying, Flynn’s bad, Parker’s lost, Young’s probably the best. Williamson’s script is awful. Terrible dialogue–which can’t help the actors any–but also terrible characterization. The parts are too thin. It’s impossible to take Flynn seriously as moody, broke, and irresistible to all women. It’s additionally impossible to take him seriously as a composer. The film’s a complete misfire; no one can survive it.

ESCAPE ME NEVER: Ida Lupino and Parker face off.

Contemporary critics were not kind to Escape Me Never, though Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times did take a moment to send his “deepest sympathy” to Parker for having to be involved in the picture. Also presumably thanks to Flynn’s presence, the film did get a VHS release. Warner Archive has out a DVD as well. And Turner Classic Movies plays it. So it’s been accessible over the years, it’s just no one should ever see it.

Though Parker is probably at her most glamorous in the Escape Me Never; definitely of her Warner forties roles.

Future “family values” man Ronald Reagan helps Parker into her dress (in hopes of getting her out of it) in THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE.

Parker’s second film of the year, The Voice of the Turtle, came out on Christmas Day (in New York, it went wide in early 1948). Irving Rapper directs the picture, an adaptation of John Van Druten’s extremely popular stage play. Parker plays a variation of her “good girl” home front role. Instead of being all good, she’s having an affair with Kent Smith (though, thanks to the Code, it’s never clear Smith’s married). He dumps her and Parker mopes until her free-living pal Eve Arden sticks her babysitting soldier-on-leave Ronald Reagan. Will he and Parker fall in love before their weekend is over?

The Voice of the Turtle (1947). ★★. 2017 review

Turtle’s screenplay, from Van Druten and Charles Hoffman, neuters the original stage play, which was all about Parker’s character not wanting to get horizontal with Reagan after her affair went badly. The result is a strange mix of screwball comedy and muted melodrama. Director Rapper doesn’t seem to know how to do either. Parker’s good, but the film gives a lot more material to Reagan (and Arden and even Smith). Reagan’s fine. The film’s got excellent production values, so it always looks like it ought to be better, even when it isn’t. Without knowing about the stage play, Turtle is a kind of confusing, talky romantic comedy. Knowing about the stage play… well, it’s a shame Parker didn’t get to play the role as written for stage.

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE: Parker’s blissful, Eve Arden’s not convinced.

Voice of the Turtle was well-received on release. Good box office, good reviews. It was sold to television in the fifties under the title One for the Book and remained identified with that reissue title for decades. So long, in fact, it aired on Turner Classic Movies under that title (and is still listed as such in their database). The Warner Archive DVD release restores the original, Voice of the Turtle title. The film never had a VHS release. Despite its contemporary popularity–and quick sale to television–Turtle’s mostly a footnote in Parker’s filmography. As in, she made a movie with Ronald Reagan.

Alexis Smith and Parker in THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

The Woman in White, released in May 1948, reunited Parker with two Escape Me Never principals–director Peter Godfrey and actor Gig Young. The film’s set in the nineteenth century on an English country estate, making it one of Parker’s three Warner films not set in modernity. Alexis Smith, who costarred in Of Human Bondage but never shared a scene with Parker, is second-billed. Parker, after six years and twelve films, finally gets top-billing for Woman in White. And she definitely earns it, playing two roles in the film. Sydney Greenstreet, who was sympathetic in Between Two Worlds opposite Parker, plays her scheming, odious nemesis in Woman. The only times he isn’t plotting against or tormenting Parker, he’s tormenting his own wife, played by Agnes Moorehead. John Emery, who had a small part in Turtle, appears in the film as well.

The Woman in White (1948). ★★★. 2007 review

For the most part, The Woman in White is a phenomenal film. Great performances, particularly from Parker (who you get to see toggle between two different yet intricately tied roles) and Greenstreet. Moorehead’s excellent as well. Godfrey brings some humor to the dark psychological terrors. After opening with a fine romance for Parker (in one of her roles) and Young, Woman skips ahead to Young romancing Smith with far less chemistry. Even Max Steiner’s outstanding score takes some hits as the film winds down. Shakiness aside, The Woman in White is a success, with exquisite performances and filmmaking.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE revealed to Smith, Parker, and Gig Young.

The film wasn’t well-received–at least, not by The New York Times–in 1948. The Woman in White never had a VHS release. For a long time, Turner Classic Movies was the only way to see it. Now, however, Warner Archive has put the film out on DVD, allowing people to see one of Parker’s finest forties performances. Sorry, two of Parker’s finest forties performances. She’s superb in both roles.

A couple months before Woman in White, Parker had her first child; she took time off to be a mom, indifferently racking up suspensions from Warner for refusing roles. As a result of the break, she didn’t have any movies come out in 1949. She was supposed to do The Hasty Heart, which would’ve reunited her with Turtle’s Ronald Reagan; Patricia Neal took the role instead.

Parker looks to Roy Roberts and Roberts looks to the sky in CHAIN LIGHTNING.

When Parker did return, it was for a role opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1950’s Chain Lightning. Bogie is a WWII bomber pilot who goes from running a flight school to testing a top secret new fighter jet. Parker plays the love interest, who knows Bogie from during the war and they never resolved their romance. Now they find themselves in a love triangle with fellow test pilot Richard Whorf. Raymond Massey plays Bogart’s demanding boss. Stuart Heisler directs the film, Bogart’s final picture for Warner Bros.

Chain Lightning (1950). ★★½. 2006 review

Lightning has a lazy script and runs too short–ninety-five minutes–but it’s perfectly fine. Good special effects, solid direction from Heisler, good acting from Bogart, Parker, and Massey. There’s little character development and the whole thing hinges on Bogart’s star power. He delivers, with Parker holding her own opposite him; it’s a shame their only pairing is such wanting material. The action-packed ending is particularly tense thanks to the filmmaking (and Bogart’s performance).

CHAIN LIGHTNING: Parker and Humphrey Bogart.

Even on release, critics recognized Chain Lightning’s general competence, lack of ambition, and passable quality. It doesn’t appear to have made much impression at the box office, however. While both Bogart and Parker were nearing the end of their time with Warner Bros., Bogart’s career was slowing as Parker’s was about to pick up. Thanks to it being a Bogart movie–albeit a lesser one–Chain Lightning got a VHS release in the early nineties. The film airs on Turner Classic Movies, like all of Parker’s Warner movies. Warner Archive has put out a DVD. Chain Lightning has been readily accessible for years, though it seems to still make as slight an impression as it did on release.

Parker with her newborn in CAGED.

Four months after Chain Lightning, Warner released Caged, featuring Parker’s first Oscar-nominated performance. She plays a naive, pregnant young widow who ends up in a woman’s penitentiary. Parker’s top-billed (with Woman in White costar Agnes Moorehead getting second). Moorehead’s the understanding warden. Parker finds sympathetic fellow inmates, but runs afoul of Hope Emerson’s corrupt, vicious matron. John Cromwell directs the film, Jerry Wald produces; five years earlier, Parker starred in Wald productions Very Thought of You and Pride of the Marines.

Caged (1950). ★★★★. 2016 review

Caged is a phenomenal film. Parker’s performance is exhilarating as the prison slowly and irrevocably crushes her. Cromwell’s direction is outstanding, the supporting performances are outstanding. The film smartly works social commentary into its constraints–the entire thing takes place in the prison, except maybe the opening titles. Excellent script from Virginia Kellogg; it circles Parker as it regards her, then closes in to make her protagonist. It’s great.

CAGED: Parker.

So it’s unfortunate instead of being remembered for Parker’s performance or Cromwell’s direction or Kellogg’s script, Caged’s initial legacy was as a camp “classic”. When Warner Home Video put out Caged (not Warner Archive, making Caged Parker’s only non-MOD–made on demand–DVD release of her Warner films), they released it in their “Cult Camp Classic” series. The film had developed a reputation over the years as a campy “women in prison” picture. Hopefully enough people have seen Caged to correct its reputation, which was never easy to find before the DVD (until Turner Classic Movies started airing it). When Warner Archive rereleased the film on DVD, they thankfully did so without the “Cult Camp Classic” banner.

Contemporary critics were somewhat cool to Caged, but it still received a number of Academy Award nominations in addition to Parker’s. While she lost the Oscar, Parker did win the Venice Film Festival’s best actress award for her performance.

Ruth Roman, Patricia Neal, and Parker share their THREE SECRETS.

Three Secrets, Parker’s final film of 1950 came out in October, four months after Caged. Parker is top-billed followed by Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman. There’s a plane crash and a little boy is stranded on a mountain. All three women put a baby up for adoption; one of them is his mother. Parker’s the good girl with a past secret. Neal’s a divorced reporter. Roman’s a former chorus girl. The film goes into flashback for each woman’s story, comes together for the big finale reveal. Robert Wise directs.

Three Secrets (1950). ★★. 2006 review

Secrets is an okay lower budget melodrama. While a Warner Bros. release, it was a United States Pictures production, which apparently means less money. And in bad places too, like sets. The acting from the leads is all good. Parker’s secret is a home front related one so she’s back in that role, which appropriately caps her Warner career. Wise’s direction could be a lot better. But the script’s not great either.

THREE SECRETS: Parker and Neal.

Three Secrets wasn’t Parker’s biggest hit of 1950 (turns out Caged was the most successful at the time) and it didn’t thrill critics, but it was a very easy Parker film to find on VHS. Warner either didn’t keep or have home video rights. Republic Pictures put Three Secrets out on VHS in the late eighties and kept it in print for over ten years. The rights issues also meant it took Three Secrets a long time to get a DVD release, but it got a blu-ray release the same day. The film also had a TV movie remake in the late nineties (making it the only Parker film with any kind of remake).

Eleanor Parker’s Warner Bros. career produced a great film (Caged), some good ones, some okay ones, a number of phenomenal performances, and a lot of good ones. It only produced one abject stinker (Escape Me Never) and the failure had nothing to do with Parker.

After Parker’s return for the 1950 releases, it became clear Warner didn’t have the projects Parker wanted. She was out of her contract before her first film of the year, Chain Lightning was released. The studio had cast her right off in the naive home front good girl part and left her there for almost her entire career. Sure, Chain Lightning at least made her a wartime nurse, but Three Secrets stepped it back again. In between, Parker ripped apart the naive good girl in Caged. She’d already shown she could do entirely different kinds of roles–Of Human Bondage and The Woman in White–but she’d never gotten to do naive home front good girl in a great movie. Voice of the Turtle should have let Parker do something amazing with the trope; shame it doesn’t.

Then Parker went full costume melodrama with Woman in White and Chain Lightning adequately sidestepped her previous Warner persona. Parker’s Caged performance meets her Warner persona head-on. Caged isn’t just a great performance, it’s Parker showing how much further she could have taken any previous part, if the films had just been there for her.

And now it’s actually pretty easy to watch Parker’s development as an actor. All of her films available on DVD feature good or better parts for Parker. Well, not Escape Me Never. Unfortunately, it’s still Turner Classic Movies-only for Of Human Bondage. Maybe someday.

Caged is the place to start though. Seeing Parker progress isn’t near as important as seeing her in Caged.

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Quartet | Maugham adaptations

When I was in undergrad, I discovered the existence of Secret Agent. I was on a thirties Hitchcock kick and a Maugham kick. The idea of a Hitchcock Maugham adaptation? Should be something. At the time–sixteen years ago–Secret Agent was a major disappointment. I’ve still got an interest in Maugham adaptations, but I don’t expect much.

I worked up the Stop Button’s Quartets theme based a Google-facilitated discovery of a “Quartet film series.” Calling it a film series is a bit of a stretch–starting in 1948, Antony Darnborough produced three W. Somerset Maugham “anthology” films. Quartet, Trio, and Encore. I had a slight awareness of Quartet and Trio existing; I knew they were British, black and white, possibly acclaimed at the time of their release. I didn’t know they were anthologies of Maugham short stories.

Quartet has four stories, Trio and Encore both have three. Maugham introduced each of the stories; title card, with director credited; the same unseen, uncredited narrator (in all three pictures) starts reading the source short story.

The films were well-received, both by audience and critic. Though original production company Gainsborough Pictures only hung around for the first “sequel,” Trio, with another company–Two Cities Films–doing the second, Encore. It’s a shame Two Cities Films didn’t do all three, as Encore is easily the best of the bunch. It also has better screenwriters.

In none of the three films is it clear if “host” W. Somerset Maugham has actually seen the film segments. He doesn’t come off well. He’s awkward and disinterested in the film medium. The introductions range from pointless to discouraging.

George Cole and Susan Shaw star in “The Kite,” from Quartet

Quartet has four directors–Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin–and one screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff. The stories involve, respectively, a Continental seductress exploiting a young British man, a rich kid who just wants to play the piano, a man whose new bride doesn’t like his kite enthusiasm, and a retired army man who discovers his wife writes explicit poetry.

Quartet (1948). ★½
Quartet (1948). ★½. 2017 review

At least two of the stories–first and third–have a framing device, which might work fine in prose, but just needlessly crowds the segments with characters here. Three of the four directors amble clumsily through their segments, doing nothing for Quartet as a visual narrative and even less for their actors. Annakin, in the last segment, finally shows something more than rote competence–it’s almost enough to turn the film around, or at least bring it above water.

Nora Swinburne and Cecil Parker star in “The Colonel’s Lady,” from Quartet

It’s not, of course, because there’s only so much one part of an anthology picture can do to make up for the rest of it, but Annakin’s effort is a good one. The other three just make it seem like Maugham stories shouldn’t be adapted into short films.

Jean Simmons and Raymond Huntley star in “Sanatorium,” from Trio

The first sequel, Trio, reduces the story adaptations by one. Three stories, not four. Ninety minutes, not two hours. Unfortunately, the adaptations don’t get equal time. The first two stories, directed by Ken Annakin, are gentle comedies. The third story, directed by Harold French, is a lengthy melodrama better suited for feature-length expansion, not being forced into an anthology.

Trio (1950). ★★. 2017 review

The stories in Trio are about a fired church verger’s small business success, an annoying cruise liner passenger, and life in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

The screenplay this time comes from Maugham (himself), R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley. Oddly, even though Maugham has more involvement, his introductions to each of the stories gets cut. All three times, the music and narration come up before Maugham has finished talking about these stories’ adaptations, which again it seems like he definitely hasn’t seen.

Nigel Patrick, Anne Crawford, and Naunton Wayne star in “Mr. Know-All,” from Trio

There’s a lot of good acting in Trio and a lot of good direction (from Annakin mostly). But the film lacks any bite–the relative cuteness of the first two segments don’t soothe the third’s hopeless melodrama, it just plunges Trio further into blandness.

Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan star in “Gigolo and Gigolette,” from Encore

Then, shockingly, after two disappointing entries, the Quartet series ends on a high point with Encore. It’s from a different production company, Two Cities Films, it’s got an entirely different set of screenwriters–T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler–and it’s got two new directors for a couple of the segments, Pat Jackson and Anthony Pelissier. Harold French is back again to direct the last story.

Encore (1951). ★★★. 2017 review

Encore’s got the best scripts too. Best scripts and best concepts. The first story is about a lazy brother exploiting a successful one, the second is another cruise liner story (and Encore’s weak spot), with the finale being a high dive performer’s martial troubles.

Nigel Patrick and Roland Culver star in “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” from Encore

Lots of great acting, lots of good direction. Even French, who previously had problems with his direction, comes through on his entry. Encore just has a better feel to it, mostly thanks to the screenwriters, but also the directors. It doesn’t feel constrained like the previous two.

So three movies in the Quartet film series, three posts for The Stop Button. Only Quartets is a monthly scheduling theme, posted every Friday, meaning I needed one more title. And I’ve been wanting to see The Moon and Sixpence for a long, long time. George Sanders in a Maugham adaptation? What could be better.

George Sanders stars in The Moon and Sixpence

Sadly, many things could be better. The Moon and Sixpence is underwritten–by its director, Albert Lewin–which leaves Sanders and lead Herbert Marshall (playing a Maugham analogue, something Marshall would do more directly in The Razor’s Edge a few years later) with very little to do. The parts are just too thin; Marshall and Sanders can imply all the depth they want, but if Lewin isn’t going to acknowledge it, it doesn’t do any good.

The Moon and Sixpence (1942) .★½. 2017 review

Moon and Sixpence isn’t an easy novel to adapt–it’s a period piece, there are multiple locations in multiple countries, it would do well with a big budget. And Lewin doesn’t have one. There’s an even more fundamental issue. The source novel is loosely based on real-life painter Gauguin and Marshall’s Maugham analogue is the guy who wrote that novel. There are literary things at play, along with some grown-up, Hayes Code unfriendly content; Lewin tries to be faithful but he’s too obtuse. There’s nothing to bring it to a different medium, not even the simplest things. When Lewin finally does get around the showcasing what film can do, it’s way too late to do any good. It’d be more of a disappointment if Lewin ever exhibited any competency.

So another middling Maugham adaptation.

Elena Verdugo and George Sanders star in The Moon and Sixpence

As of 2017, there have been over a hundred Maugham adaptions to film and television–fifty-eight film adaptations during Maugham’s lifetime, two television series dedicated to adapting just his stories–and when a Maugham adaptation is good, it tends to be real good. It’s unfortunate the Quartet series didn’t work out better. It’s unfortunate The Moon and Sixpence didn’t pan out. But they were a fine kick-off to the Stop Button’s Quartets scheduling theme.

At least I got middling Maugham movies done early.

Series | The Thin Man

Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.

Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.

In the first THIN MAN, Nora (Myrna Loy) still has to encourage Nick (William Powell) to take cases.

So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.

The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man (1934). ★★★★. 2014 review

Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.

Powell impresses Loy and perplexes Nat Pendleton.

Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.

The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”

Ace assistant detective Asta eats a clue in AFTER THE THIN MAN.

MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in AFTER THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After the Thin Man (1936). ★★★½. 2014 review

And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.

After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.

Sam Levene, Powell, and Loy inspect.

When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.

The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.

Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.

Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.

The happy parents and Nicky Jr. in ANOTHER THIN MAN.

Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.

It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in ANOTHER THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Another Thin Man (1939). ★★★. 2014 review

Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.

Powell and Loy brief returning copper Pendleton and DA Otto Kruger.

As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.

Presenting the Charles family, 1941 edition, in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN.

Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.

Myrna Loy, Richard Hall, and William Powell star in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). ★★★. 2014 review

Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.

Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.

Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.

Powell explains, Levene and company listen.

Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.

And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .

Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.

Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.

The Great Detective at rest in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME.

The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.

Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, directed by Richard Thorpe for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). ★★. 2014 review

Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.

Asta, with Loy and Powell, travel by rail.

The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.

Loy and Asta get an earful from Powell and Dean Stockwell in SONG OF THE THIN MAN

In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.

Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in SONG OF THE THIN MAN, directed by Edward Buzzell for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Song of the Thin Man (1947). ★★½. 2014 review

Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.

Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.

It’s up to Keenan Wynn to get Loy and Powell hep.

And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.

Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.

The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.

There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.

Director | Edward Burns

At multiple points throughout his career, Edward Burns has been a disappointment. He’s not currently a disappointment–in fact, his now five-year absence from feature filmmaking is distressing, given his last film’s success; Fitzgerald Family Christmas is great. But many times over his eleven film, seventeen year filmmaking career–writing, director, producing, and starring–he has disappointed. Over those seventeen years, Burns grew as a filmmaker, changed as a filmmaker, but never found consistent quality. Some excellent films, definitely, but also some stinkers.

Burns and Connie Britton in MCMULLEN.

When The Brothers McMullen came out in 1995, studios had just started getting into their nineties flirtation with independent and low budget filmmaking. Burns shot McMullen on a shoestring budget using borrowed cameras. His co-producer (and cinematographer and editor) Dick Fisher’s filmography is otherwise filled with very low budget East Coast independent films. And if I’m remembering right, only one actor in McMullen had a SAG card–Jack Mulcahy, who got it on Porky’s almost fifteen years earlier. McMullen, shot on 16mm, usually indoors to cover Burns not having filming permits–the film’s making itself has a wonderfully scrappy story–looks at three brothers. There’s eldest Mulcahy, baby Mike McGlone, and problem middle child Burns. Burns gives McGlone the best story arc and the film’s best writing, while Mulcahy gets to narrate his own storyline (occasionally); Burns gives himself the romantic dramedy with (at the time) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns. To varying degrees, all three brothers just need to grow up a little, something the women in their lives wait patiently for them to accomplish.

Edward Burns, Jack Mulcahy, and Mike McGlone star in THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN, directed by Edward Burns for Fox Searchlight.
The Brothers McMullen (1995). ★★★. 2010 review
McMullen is a singular film for Burns as a director in numerous ways, but nothing more than how well he does with the constraints. When he’d return to micro-budgets fifteen years later, he’d have DV to use; shooting 16mm, the film exudes texture. The silent moments are full, heavy with the film’s visual grain. Burns and Fisher rely a lot on that visual tone, especially with Mulcahy and McGlone’s story lines. All of the performances are good, especially McGlone and Connie Britton (as Mulcahy’s wife), and there’s a capable nimbleness to the film.

Before he thought he was movie star, marry a supermodel handsome, Burns was content Eddie Haskelling it with a cane. In MCMULLEN with McGlone and Mulcahy.

As far as a legacy goes, Brothers McMullen doesn’t really have one. Fox Searchlight has put it out in studio retrospects and a single release blu-ray–at the time of its original home video release, Fox Home Video put out a very nice LaserDisc, complete with insightful Burns commentary–but the audience for the film (like Burns’s audience itself) is stagnant. There was initial interest in the film, with Burns as the boy next door version of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino. He just never generated similarly dedicated fan bases.

SHE’S THE ONE: McGlone tries to mansplain to Aniston, who’s heard it all before–usually Thursdays at 8 / 7 Central.

Maybe he would have worked up a fan base if his next film, She’s the One, hadn’t been such a misfire. With a bigger budget and McMullen as a sales pitch, Burns got Cameron Diaz as the titular She (sort of), Jennifer Aniston in a major supporting part and John Mahoney as the dad in the movie. Burns brought back (still) real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns and Mike McGlone from McMullen and then gave himself a much bigger part. Burns and Bahns are in a whirlwind romance, McGlone is married to Aniston and cheating on her with Diaz. Diaz is Burns’s ex-girlfriend. It could be a comedy of errors if all the characters weren’t willfully deceitful. She’s the One is a slick, mainstream, ostensibly eclectic New York romantic comedy. It’s so eclectic it’s got a Tom Petty soundtrack.

She’s the One (1996). ★½. 2016 review

That Tom Petty soundtrack is excellent, which is good, because it’s about the only excellent thing about She’s the One. Burns’s script is a wreck, both in terms of plotting and detail. He’s constantly falling back on homophobia and slut shaming for jokes; those devices should play worse, but McGlone’s such a loathsome jerk they’re in line. Burns doesn’t give himself much of a better character than McGlone gets, but McGlone gets a lot more to do; he suffers the attention. Aniston and Mahoney are able to get through. Diaz isn’t. Bahns is great until her part goes down the drain. Everyone is a caricature, waiting for their next witty line to deliver. Burns is terrified to show any non-ironic sincerity.

Sadly, there is no TAXI DRIVER homage. Cameron Diaz and Burns in SHE’S THE ONE.

I’ve never heard anyone speak highly of She’s the One. At the time of its release, the Tom Petty soundtrack album might have gotten some attention. It is a fantastic album. Fox has put out a blu-ray, which I suppose is a good thing, though I can’t imagine recommending the film to anyone myself. The worst part about it is how Burns slaughters the momentum of McGlone’s acting career, which McMullen started (and championed).

Following She’s the One, Burns went and got himself cast in a high profile blockbuster, Saving Private Ryan. Pretty soon, Burns’s attempts at furthering both a directing career and an acting one would have a big impact but not with his third film, No Looking Back. It came out four months before Private Ryan.

It looks like Lauren Holly is going to have to listen to Burns’s nonsense for all of NO LOOKING BACK, but just for the first half.

While No Looking Back is a tonal shift from She’s the One–it’s not just a downer, but one without any laughs for the viewer and only occasional ones for some of the characters–Burns does bring back some of the crew. Frank Prizi photographs, Susan Graef edits, both to much greater success than before. No Looking Back is a patient, tediously humdrum drama about small-town New York (but not Long Island) waitress Lauren Holly. Her ex-boyfriend’s return threatens her current relationship with Mr. Right. Burns plays the ex-boyfriend, who’s sort of a variation on his previous characters, only not played for sympathy, while Jon Bon Jovi plays Mr. Right. Connie Britton is back from McMullen, playing Holly’s sister. No Looking Back also has Ted Hope returning to produce; he executive produced McMullen and produced She’s the One. No Looking Back was his last collaboration with Burns.

No Looking Back (1998). ★★★½. 2017 review

No Looking Back has a somewhat rocky first half, cushioned nicely by Prizi’s photography, and then it does an about-face halfway through–once Holly finally gets to be the lead–and gets real good. Burns uses a few Patti Scialfa tracks (it’s a constant bummer the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack album) and then some Springsteen. There’s no fanfare about either artist contributing music (Scialfa’s contributions are otherwise unreleased, Springsteen’s are narratively significant classics), but having the Springsteen music in the narrative, on the soundtrack, changes the film’s course. It finishes thoughtful, downbeat, and as rending as Burns can make it. The cast helps a lot and Burns is able to smooth the rocky first half thanks the crew and music.

Once Burns just admits he wants to make a 100 minute Springsteen video, NO LOOKING BACK gets good fast.

According to Burns, his friends called the film Nobody Saw It, which is about right. Polygram released it theatrically, barely, and on home video, temporarily (it went out of print fast). Fox subsequently put it out in a Burns DVD three-pack–“Stories from Long Island”–but it too seems to be out of print. The film requires some indulgence, just because the first half frustrates as Burns (acting) and Bon Jovi basically mansplain everything to Holly until she finally gets her agency. Once she does, however, No Looking Back gets good fast. It’s unfortunate no one sees it.

Brittany Murphy and David Krumholtz, Burns’s first star couple. SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK.

With the exception of Frank Prizi returning as photographer, Burns’s next film–2001’s Sidewalks of New York–is a complete break from his previous pictures. Most significantly, he’s got Margot Bridger producing with him; she goes on to produce his next four films. But Sidewalks is also not a “Long Island story.” Instead, it’s all Manhattan, all the time, and the cast is much more mainstream, whether it’s stars on the rise–Rosario Dawson and Brittany Murphy (and arguably David Krumholtz)–established character actors (Dennis Farina and Stanley Tucci), or maybe movie star Heather Graham (career newly energized from Boogie Nights). Graham and Burns were dating at the time, so obviously she’s his love interest in the film. Sidewalks is all about the romantic trials and tribulations of its characters, with Burns using the camera to directly interview them between the scenes.

Edward Burns and Heather Graham star in SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, directed by Burns for Paramount Classics.
Sidewalks of New York (2001). ★★★. 2011 review

Sidewalks is an accessible, affable, solid effort from Burns. He doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, he just gets it rolling pretty well. The film has its problems, some significant ones, but it also has some excellent performances. Burns, as an actor, lets himself hang back a little; he’ll just watch as Farina gnaws on their scenes, for example. Dawson, Murphy, and Krumholtz are all excellent. Graham is just sort of there, but not in a damaging way. It’s “just” an amusement–not too deep, not too slight–and a successful one.

Graburns. Heatward. Maybe it wasn’t SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK’s box office fizzle, maybe Heather Graham and Edward Burns just couldn’t come up with a couple name.

While I know I saw Sidewalks of New York in the theater with two other people, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of anyone besides the two people I saw it with seeing it. This film, more than any other, seems like Burns attempting to leverage his mainstream movie stardom–as it was–into interest for his directing efforts. Even if he had the rest of the cast overshadow him. Regardless of its strengths, weaknesses, and all around sturdiness, Sidewalks of New York is mostly forgotten. At least I think it’s mostly forgotten. Again, I’ve never heard of anyone else seeing it. It doesn’t have a blu-ray, the DVD is out of print, but you can stream it in HD. So maybe someone else has finally seen it. Possibly.

No, Elijah Wood, no one is talking to you. ASH WEDNESDAY.

Burns followed Sidewalks with Ash Wednesday the next year. It’s Burns’s first film where he takes top acting billing (except when due to alphabetical cast) and is again set in Manhattan, again with Margot Bridger producing, and again with Rosario Dawson costarring. The film is set in the early eighties, complete with a David Shire score and an iMovie sepia filter on the photography to make it seem old timey. Freshly Frodo Elijah Wood is the second male lead, playing Burns’s brother, who comes home after being presumed dead. Wood’s the tough Irish mob kid, Dawson’s his wife, Burns is in love with the wife.

Elijah Wood and Edward Burns star in ASH WEDNESDAY, directed by Edward Burns for Focus Features.
Ash Wednesday (2002). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2009 review

Ash Wednesday is terrible. Even though Burns’s direction is fine, maybe even good for the opening act (pre-Wood), once Wood shows up, it’s a terrible. Wood’s awful, Dawson’s either miscast or mortified, Burns’s character is a mess. Ash Wednesday is a great example of how talented actors and filmmakers can still come together and create a truly atrocious motion picture. The film mercilessly wastes the strong supporting cast–including Oliver Platt, James Handy, and Peter Gerety. There aren’t enough negative adjectives to properly describe Ash Wednesday. It should be avoided at all costs.

Burns does Rosario Dawson no favors in ASH WEDNESDAY.

And, it turns out people did avoid Ash Wednesday at all costs (it opened in two theaters). The film’s very much an end to Burns’s initial filmmaking trajectory; it also coincides with his big time movie star roles drying up. I remember seeing it in college–not in one of the two theaters on release, but VHS and maybe later on DVD. The concept–Irish Mean Streets meets romantic potboiler in dirty old New York–isn’t inherently a bad one, but Burns doesn’t have much more than the concept. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else watching the movie, which is good. Like I said before, it should be avoided at all costs. Especially if you like anyone involved.

Burns and Krumholtz in LOOKING FOR KITTY.

Burns took a couple years off from directing; when he returned, it was with a very different kind of film. Looking for Kitty also starts of Burns’s second filmmaking trajectory. It’s is another Manhattan picture. It brings back McMullen’s Connie Britton–as Burns’s love interest in a super-small subplot–and Sidewalks’s David Krumholtz. Krumholtz is an upstate gym coach in the city trying to find his wayward wife; he hires questionably capable P.I. Burns to track her down. Margot Bridger returns to produce, but other crew additions prove far more significant–producer Arthur Lubin, cinematographer William Rexer, and composer P.T. Walkley started on Kitty and went on to collaborate with Burns on every subsequent film (to date).

David Krumholtz and Edward Burns star in LOOKING FOR KITTY, directed by Burns and for ThinkFilm.
Looking for Kitty (2004). ★★★★. 2007 review

Looking for Kitty is seventy-five minutes of spectacular filmmaking. Burns doesn’t just have the plotting down (the film premiered at ninety-five minutes, which hasn’t been released so there’s twenty minutes cut), he also finally gives himself a great role. Not just a great role, but a great lead performance. Some of it is realizing he and Britton’s chemistry is off the charts, some of it is just rethinking how to approach a film’s budgetary constraints in post-production (Sarah Flack’s editing is essential). At the time, it was easily Burns’s best film and signs of something special to come.

LOOKING FOR KITTY reveals the Burns secret–he’s better when he doesn’t have a love interest. Not just in his acting, but in his writing and directing.

Like all post–2000 Burns films, I haven’t really ever heard of anyone else seeing Looking for Kitty. The DVD box art is terrible, the short run time is concerning. KittyIt deserves a reputation and availability. I only got around to seeing it because I wanted to tease my wife about her Krumholtz crush during “Numb3rs”’s run. Even though Burns made a couple more excellent films after Looking for Kitty, it’s a singular achievement in his filmography. The innovative brevity is all Kitty’s own. Burns never repeats his successes (just his failures).

The stars of THE GROOMSMEN sit around and remember working on $50 million movies.

Of course, Burns follows up that innovative narrative work with some of his least creative work: The Groomsmen. The Groomsmen is about a guy getting married (Burns) and all his thirty-something male friends who are either married, divorced, or somewhere in between, and how they realize they need to grow up. Burns is the groom. The friends are all played by male actors whose careers hadn’t been “hot” since the late nineties–John Leguizamo is the gay one, Matthew Lillard is the happily married one (to Shari Albert, returning from Brothers McMullen and getting a small part but more than her cameos in No Looking Back and Looking for Kitty), Jay Mohr is the obnoxious one, Daniel Logue is the one with the failing marriage (to Heather Burns, no relation). Brittany Murphy’s back from Sidewalks. She’s barely present, playing Burns’s wife-to-be. Hijinks, male bonding, personal growth ensue.

The cast of THE GROOMSMEN, directed by Edward Burns for Bauer Martinez Studios.
The Groomsmen (2006). ★½. 2009 review

The Groomsmen is a weak comedy. Burns doesn’t have enough material for anyone (Lillard basically just wishes people were better friends to one another), least of all himself. His direction is boring, the cinematography (from Rexer) is flat; Groomsmen is a sitcom in search of situations and comedy. As an actor, Burns doesn’t do much (or have much to do) and as a director… well, at least he gets decent performances out of some of the cast. Including Logue, which I didn’t believe was possible before seeing Groomsmen.

Hi, you may remember us, we all used to audition for the same roles.

Besides being an exceptional disappointment after Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen doesn’t really have many distinctive, lasting features. It’s readily available (still in print on DVD, no blu-ray–thank goodness because it’d look awful–lots of streaming options), but I’d certainly never recommend anyone track it down. It’s a waste of its cast. Even though it’s not an accurate summation of Burns’s filmmaking faults, it sure seems like it could be one. It’s not though. It’s just a weakly written, disinterestedly directed bland thirtysomething white guy comedy.

I’m sure PURPLE VIOLETS fails Bechdel but it does it beautifully. Selma Blair and Debra Messing.

But then comes Purple Violets. It’s back in Manhattan–after Groomsmen’s City Island, Bronx setting–with Selma Blair as an aspiring novelist who runs into old boyfriend Patrick Wilson. Blair’s best friends with Debra Messing, who dated Burns (giving himself not just not the lead, but not even the romantic lead) in college. Burns is best friends with Wilson and still enamored with Messing. While there are still subplots and story lines for the supporting cast, Blair’s the protagonist (the first time Burns has had a definite protagonist since Ash Wednesday and his first female one since No Looking Back). Margot Bridger returns to produce (her last collaboration with Burns). Also back are supporting cast members Dennis Farina and Max Baker (who appeared in Looking for Kitty and becomes a regular supporting player after Violets). And Logue, of course. Logue is back. Purple Violets was also the first feature film released direct-to-iTunes.

Selma Blair stars in PURPLE VIOLETS, directed by Edward Burns for iTunes.
Purple Violets (2007). ★★★★.

Purple Violets is great. Burns’s writing, his direction, William Rexer’s photography, P.T. Walkley’s music, all great. But it’s Blair’s movie and it’s Blair’s show. She makes it happen. All the acting is excellent (including Burns in his smaller role). Logue is playing a British guy, which should be terrible but is instead fantastic. Purple Violets opens strong and just keeps going. It’s Burns’s most wholly ambitious work when it comes to characters; he’s as overly meticulous on the pacing, both visual and narrative. Purple Violets is a leaps and bounds comeback after Groomsmen.

Selma Blair and Patrick Wilson flirt in a book store and are interested in what each other does.

Even though Purple Violets ostensibly had the weight of that iTunes Store exclusivity behind it… it took me four years to get around to watching the movie. Digital-only, watching at home, an opening weekend event it was not. The film soon got a weak DVD release (possibly the first Burns home video release without an audio commentary track); it hasn’t had a blu-ray release and isn’t available for streaming purchase or rental. Not even through iTunes. Purple Violets lack of recognition is simultaneously perplexing and infuriating. The whole iTunes exclusivity thing seems like it was a big mistake; though it’s not like Selma Blair’s ever gets acting credit. Purple Violets is cursed, apparently, even thought it’s phenomenal.

Occasional bikinis and all, Kerry Bishé is more a stand-in for Burns than Matt Bush. NICE GUY JOHNNY.

After a three-year break–his longest since Sidewalks of New York–Burns returned in 2010 with Nice Guy Johnny, kicking off the last phase of his directing career. William Rexer isn’t just photographing, he’s now producing alongside Burns and Aaron Lubin; P.T. Walkley is back on music. Editor Janet Gaynor joins the team–she’ll edit Johnny and Burns’s two subsequent, final films. Nice Guy Johnny stars Matt Bush as an idealistic young man with an overbearing fiancée who ends up meeting free spirit Kerry Bishé while hanging out in the Hamptons. So technically back to Long Island, but not really. Burns takes a supporting role as Bush’s uncle. Max Baker is back, along with Callie Thorne (who had a small part in Sidewalks).

Kerry Bishé and Matt Bush star in NICE GUY JOHNNY, directed by Edward Burns for FilmBuff.
Nice Guy Johnny (2010). ★★½. 2010 review

There’s excellent acting from Bush and Bishé, there’s beautiful direction, there’s great music and photography. But there’s also not much of a script. When the film works, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s too slight. In the end, there’s more slightness than depth–albeit with occasional great depth (usually thanks to the leads, especially Bishé). Johnny is too short and Burns rushes it way too much. He and Rexer technically rock it, but the script’s not there.

Life’s a Bishé! Wokka wokka.

I remember Nice Guy Johnny had a great trailer. After some film festivals, it went straight to DVD and streaming. No blu-ray, but it’s still available streaming and in HD so people can see it. It’s a strange misfire from Burns in its not a failure, it’s just nowhere near successful enough. Instead, it’s just sort of there.

Bishé getting to be sad and angry. Sometimes she gets to be sad and not angry. Sometimes.

Burns’s next film was a return to the couples romantic comedy form–Newlyweds has newlyweds Burns and Caitlin FitzGerald going through a rough patch when his long lost little sister, Kerry Bishé, shows up in Manhattan. There’s also drama with FitzGerald’s sister and her husband. It’s like a smaller scale Sidewalks of New York, complete with the characters speaking into the camera in interview.

Newlyweds (2011). ★. 2017 review

It’s also terrible. It’s sort of not, because Burns gets great performances out of the actors, but can’t make a movie out of what they’ve shot. For instance, Max Baker is back and he’s terrible. So bad I thought he was doing a terrible British accent and Baker is, in fact, British. In terms of using genial misogyny to get a joke across, it calls back to She’s the One. Except Newlyweds isn’t funny. It’s not a funny movie. It’s this dramatic, miserable, mean-spirited look at the lives of obnoxious New Yorkers. Burns doesn’t bother giving the characters depth and then can’t navigate their shallowness. It’s annoying.

NEWLYWEDS FitzGerald and Burns cross the streets of New York.

Newlyweds is another Burns movie I’ve never heard about anyone seeing. Indie movies like Newlyweds don’t get talked about a lot, which sucks for some of them. But the less said or thought about Newlyweds the better. There’s something about Burns’s failures. They’re embarrassing because they imply he’s so wrong-headed about something he couldn’t possibly be intentionally doing something well. Mostly as a writer, but also as an actor in the early days. Newlyweds should be forgotten. It doesn’t need to be preserved for posterity. It can be lost. So, of course, it’s still readily available to stream.

It’s a Christmas movie, of course there’s hugging and smiling. Kerry Bishé and Anita Gillette in FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS.

For Burns’s next film–and his last one to date–he brought back all his best actors. The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings back Mike McGlone and Connie Britton from Brothers McMullen–McGlone’s first time back since She’s the One–Heather Burns from Groomsmen, and then all his final phase regulars–Kerry Bishé, Marsha Dietlin, Caitlin FitzGerald. And he does a Christmas dramatic comedy with a huge cast and P.T. Walkley adapting Christmas songs into the score.

Connie Britton and Edward Burns star in THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS, directed by Burns for Tribeca Film.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012). ★★★★. 2012 review

Burns and William Rexer shoot Fitzgerald Family Christmas in Panavision (or Panavision aspect), which is a first for Burns. Like how well his dialogue works, Burns’s Panavision composition is frustratingly good–almost showy. Burns exhibits a confidence he hasn’t earned or visibly developed in his filmmaking. There’s some great writing, some great acting, some beautiful photography. Fitzgerald’s great.

It’s just not FAMILY without Mike McGlone.

I am an unabashed Fitzgerald Family Christmas fan. I saw it as soon as I could rent it on iTunes. I bought the blu-ray; I didn’t go see it in the limited theatrical it had. I thought about it though. Burns finally paid off and there was no one there to see it. Fitzgerald Family Christmas does have some kind of a popularity. I don’t think I’d call it a reputation exactly, but it has a popularity. At least based on Burns’s Twitter. It’s streaming, it’s on disc. It’s out there. Maybe someday it’ll get its due.

Right after Purple Violets. And Looking for Kitty. And No Looking Back. And Brothers McMullen. Almost Sidewalks of New York, but no.

Burns’s successes irregularly litter his filmography. The odd numbers are better for a while, then the even, then the odd. I’m not sure I’m actually looking forward to whatever he does next–he hasn’t made a film since Fitzgerald, though he did write and direct the ten episodes TV show, “Public Morals” for TV (I’ve watched the first episode and nothing further). But whatever he does, I know I’ll see it. And it’ll either be good or bad. It might be mediocre but probably not. And if it’s bad, chances are the next one after will be good.