Category Archives: 1946

Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 'TILL DEATH US DO PART BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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Never Say Goodbye (1946, James V. Kern)

The first thirty-nine percent of Never Say Goodbye is phenomenally paced. It could be a short movie, if there were a little tragedy through in. A little melodrama. Seven year-old Patti Brady is moving back in with mom Eleanor Parker after living six months with dad Errol Flynn. They’re divorced. Flynn’s a successful cheesecake pinup artist and a cad, Parker was his star model and a Fifth Avenue blue blood. But they still love each other, Brady just knows they do.

And, even just as light forties screwball, it’s pretty good. S.Z. Sakall is the loveably inept owner of their favorite restaurant, Flynn is charming, Parker is lovely. Brady’s kind of cute. Her performance is fine. She’s not too obnoxious. She’s good with the other actors, but less so when she’s got to do a scene on her own. Hattie McDaniel’s her nurse. McDaniel’s good. Everyone’s kind of good.

Only then the script jumps ahead two months. I.A.L. Diamond and director Kern, in the second two thirds of the film, basically just string together screwball sequences. Not bad ones, but not great ones. It doesn’t help Lucile Watson–as Parker’s disapproving mother–is no fun. She’s not bad, just no fun. Donald Woods is no good as Parker’s new suitor, even if he does get one of the good screwball sequences.

The last third is similar. Forrest Tucker shows up. McDaniel and Watson (and Woods) are all gone. There’s new screwball, but nothing particularly good; it’s the weakest section–Parker’s characterization completely changes and Brady becomes incidental.

A lot of it is Kern’s mediocre direction–he manages to mess up a sequence where Flynn is pretending to be a Bogart tough guy (voiced by Bogart himself)–and a lot of it is the script. Flynn’s character is generic. Parker’s is even more generic. They’re both charming but don’t really have any chemistry. They’re far better with Brady than one another, which really cuts into the film itself’s charm.

It’s a really boring movie too. It’s less than a hundred minutes, but once that first third is up? Never Say Goodbye never gets moving again.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James V. Kern; screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Kern, adaptation by Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Ben Barzman and Norma Barzman; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Folmar Blangsted; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by William Jacobs; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Errol Flynn (Phil), Eleanor Parker (Ellen), Patti Brady (Flip), S.Z. Sakall (Luigi), Hattie McDaniel (Cozy), Forrest Tucker (Cpl. Lonkowski), Donald Woods (Rex), Peggy Knudsen (Nancy Graham), Tom D’Andrea (Jack Gordon), and Lucile Watson (Mrs. Hamilton).


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It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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The Strange Woman (1946, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Strange Woman opens with Dennis Hoey as a drunken widower and Jo Ann Marlowe as his evil little daughter. Herb Meadow's script is real bad in this opening, but it's nineteenth century kids playing and one of them is a psychopath, how good is the script going to be? But then it jumps forward to Hedy Lamarr playing the daughter, presumably as a young woman just of marrying age, and Hoey's contemporaries lusting after his kid.

The principal luster is Gene Lockhart, who schemes–aided by Lamarr's manipulations of her situation–to get her into his house and bed. In other words, there's no one particularly likable in Woman. When Lockhart's son, played by Louis Hayward, gets home from university, Lamarr's trying to seduce him too. He forgot how she once tried to kill him, obviously.

The film actually moves really well for the first forty or fifty minutes because it's a turgid, sensational melodrama without any likable characters. There's no investment. Lamarr's terrible, Hayward's terrible, the script's terrible. It's not like director Ulmer does much interesting–the film mostly takes place in boring houses or in front of them–but it does move.

Then George Sanders finally shows up as the latest man Lamarr must have–only he's not a dirty old man like Lockhart or a lust-crazed fop like Hayward, he's the story's first honest major character. Fifty minutes in is too late to introduce the protagonist.

The ending is really dumb, but it doesn't matter. So's the rest of the picture.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Herb Meadow, based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams; director of photography, Lucien N. Andriot; edited by John M. Foley and Richard G. Wray; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Nicolai Remisoff; produced by Jack Chertok and Eugen Schüfftan; released by United Artists.

Starring Hedy Lamarr (Jenny Hager), George Sanders (John Evered), Louis Hayward (Ephraim Poster), Gene Lockhart (Isaiah Poster), Hillary Brooke (Meg Saladine), Rhys Williams (Deacon Adams), June Storey (Lena Tempest), Moroni Olsen (Rev. Thatcher), Olive Blakeney (Mrs. Hollis), Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Partridge), Alan Napier (Judge Henry Saladine) and Dennis Hoey (Tim Hager).


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