Tag Archives: Agnes Moorehead

All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)

The third act of All That Heaven Allows is all about agency. Who has it, how they avoid it, why they avoid it. For a while it seems like it’s about Jane Wyman having it, then about Rock Hudson having it. Wyman’s always implied agency, right from the start. Hudson, who doesn’t have a scene from his own perspective until the third act, has always had an air of agency but not an active one. At least not where Wyman’s concerned. The third act suggests it’s going to mix everything up.

And it does… sort of. Until it stops and gives up on the whole idea.

All That Heaven Allows is the story of somewhat recent widow Jane Wyman who starts a clandestine love affair with her gardener, Hudson. He’s younger (though barely looks it, which says more about Wyman than Hudson) and doesn’t subscribe to the fifties rat race. He’s happy being a gardener and going into tree growing, which Wyman’s friends and neighbors from the country club find to be a disgusting rejection of good capitalist ideals.

Of course, they’re all buying their Christmas trees from Hudson and his tree-growing pal Charles Drake, but whatever. The film never even slightly implies often drunken WASPs should be taken seriously. The only good one is Agnes Moorehead, who’s stuck in the life–the film implies–because she hasn’t got any children; she’s Wyman’s best friend. Though she kind of disappears in the third act when Wyman’s got to do her thinking and feeling (and living) for herself.

The film rarely lets Hudson and Wyman have a peaceful moment. During the initial courtship and flirtation, sure. Wyman’s unsure of Hudson’s affections–though never for the reasons everyone else is worried about–while Hudson is too good to be true. He’s six feet, four inches of thoughtful, considerate, zen man meat. The scenes where Wyman’s female friends are mortified by Hudson are hilarious, given all their husbands are grossly out of shape and completely bores. If not burgeoning rapists. So when it comes time for Wyman to have to chose between Hudson and her pals, the choice should be clear.

Especially since the film establishes from the start the only one she actually cares about is Moorehead. The rest are incapable of actual human concern.

But Wyman’s got two kids. There’s proto-feminist social worker Gloria Talbott and Princeton man William Reynolds. Talbott talks a big talk but pushes Wyman in front of a bus while gushing over her dimwit suitor, an uncredited David Janssen. Reynolds wants Wyman to live in reverence of his father’s memory. Peg Fenwick’s screenplay has very little time for Talbott and Reynolds, though they have a lot of scenes and a lot of dialogue, but it’s pretty clear they’re complete heels from their first scene. Sure, the townspeople are bores, drunks, and gossips, but Talbott and Reynolds actively feed off Wyman’s emotions. They drain her from the start.

And they don’t much like Hudson. He lives on some undisclosed acreage of prime, undeveloped land–which has been passed down generations–but he’s got to be after Wyman’s (i.e. her dead husband’s) money. Talbott’s exasperating but not malicious. Reynolds is malicious and woodenly so. Especially given the way director Sirk shoots the film.

Heaven has a lot of color and a lot of shadows. Outside it’s always a clear, sometimes snowy day. Inside there are various colors, warm and cool, and shadows. The shadows usually fall on whoever’s opposite Wyman, a way of focusing a spotlight on her but a somewhat naturally occurring one. Russell Metty’s photography is phenomenal.

Those shadows make most of the men in Heaven into caricatures, at least the ones in Wyman’s life. Not sweet doctor Hayden Rorke or even sweet, unexciting standby suitor Conrad Nagel, but everyone else. Reynolds is the harshest, because out of those shadows he’s firing daggers at mom Wyman. Ones she apparently has no defense for.

Hudson is apart from the gross displays of blue blood machismo–when he and Drake talk about masculine responsibility in the third act, it’s an actual surprise. Then it turns out to be some manipulative narrative efficiency and the damage is slight, but still there. Every misstep and short cut in the third act resonates because the film ends so perfunctory. The whole thing promises Wyman this fantastic arc, starts delivering it, dodges and implies Hudson’s going to get the feature arc, dodges him too and just finishes things up. It could go out happy, it could go out sad, it could go out cynical, instead it just… goes out without any ambitions. But satisfactorily enough.

Wyman’s great. Hudson’s really good. She gets a much better part. He remains a partial enigma until the end. He too got the shadowy face during some interiors. But he’s also got some great moments where he’s breaking through the mystery to reveal himself. The film really wants to be about Wyman realizing the shadowy faces don’t matter as much as her own, metaphorically speaking, but never quite gets there. It’s simultaneously five minutes too long and ten minutes too short.

The supporting cast is all good. Moorehead, Nagel, Virginia Grey. Grey even manages to get through Fenwick’s worst scene, talking through a series of generic colloquialisms in an exposition dump–which Fenwick, nicely, never repeats. Reynolds not so much. He’s effective, but he’s nearly as villainous as Donald Curtis’s country club sexual predator.

Outstanding music from Frank Skinner. Fantastic direction from Sirk. Heaven always looks amazing and the way Sirk, Metty, and Skinner (and whatever composer Skinner occasionally borrows from) come together to focus on the characters (read: Wyman) and the weight of their unspoken burdens and constraints… it’s awesome.

It’s also a shame the ending is so pat.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Peg Fenwick, based on the novel by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Frank Gross; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Jacqueline deWit (Mona Plash), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Donald Curtis (Howard Hoffer), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), and Conrad Nagel (Harvey).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ROCK HUDSON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD AND MICHAELA OF LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD.


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Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Journey Into Fear has a number of insignificant problems, a couple significant ones, and one major one. The major one is Foster’s direction. It’s not bad, it makes good use of the sets, it even uses some of the supporting cast well, but it’s not frightening, it’s not exciting. Journey Into Fear, not just because of the title, has to be frightening, it has to be. And it’s not. Foster shoots too much of Fear like a melodrama–albeit a quirky one–and his crew does the same. There’s nothing foreboding in Roy Webb’s score, not even when Fear finally gets exciting at the end, and Karl Struss’s photography’s a little flat. Competent, but flat. And it doesn’t utilize the sets well.

The film runs just under seventy minutes, which wrongly implies a spry pace. Instead, there’s an awkward opening with American munitions expert Joseph Cotten (who also wrote the screenplay) in danger in Turkey. His wife–a wasted, but still momentarily wonderful Ruth Warrick–knows little to nothing about it. Cotten’s been hanging out with a bad influence–Everett Sloane in a fun smaller part–and ends up in protective custody. Orson Welles’s the cop. He has a good time chewing the scenery as an action hero. So, a bunch of good performances in an awkwardly paced first act, which has little bearing on the rest of the film. Sure, Welles tells Cotten who’s after him, but it doesn’t really matter. They could have any motive, the point is the, you know, Fear.

Most of the film takes place on a freighter; Cotten’s smuggling himself to safety. There are a bunch of eclectic passengers, there’s a flirtation interest for Cotten, there’s presumably danger to Cotten. Dolores del Rio is the flirtation interest. There’s a significant portion of the film where it could just be an unfunny comedy of errors–del Rio’s business parter, Jack Durant, thinks Cotten wants to marry her–because there’s not even a threat to Cotten’s wellbeing. He’s just an inconvenienced tourist.

All the eclectic passengers are good–Eustace Wyatt, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Edgar Barrier–and Cotten, as screenwriter, does give each of them a little to do but it’s not enough. Moorehead and Readick are this hilarious married couple–Fear actually would’ve been better with someone who could appreciate the humor better as well–only neither gets enough to do. Especially Moorehead, who Foster introduces in long shot no less.

The third act seems like it might save the film, especially once there’s an action sequence. Only then it slips again. Journey Into Fear is disappointing given the cast–given it reunites Cotten and Welles (though they’re clearly having a great time together), given it’s a Welles production, given everything. Foster just never finds the right pace for the film, never the right tone. It’s a shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Foster; screenplay by Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; director of photography, Karl Struss; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Mrs. Stephanie Graham), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Eustace Wyatt (Prof. Haller), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli) and Jack Moss (Peter Banat).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE AGNES MOOREHEAD BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Caged (1950, John Cromwell)

Max Steiner does the music for Caged, which is strange to think about because Caged barely has any music. Director Cromwell instead emphasizes the silence, especially as the film opens. Right after the opening credits, which do have music, Caged gets very quiet. “Silence” reads all the walls in the women’s prison where protagonist Eleanor Parker finds herself. At its most obvious, one could say Caged is the story of Parker going from first time offender to repeat offender, which is besides the point. Parker’s fate is decided right from the start. There are four principal characters in Caged, two inmates, two prison employees. None of them have any free will, it’s just how they come to realize it.

Cromwell, thanks to Carl E. Guthrie’s photography and Owen Marks’s editing, is able to do a lot with the filmmaking. Caged’s silences–waiting for a noise, praying for more silence–is just one of the many techniques Cromwell uses to get the viewer into the cage with Parker and everyone else. Caged should feel stagy at times; same sets, over and over. The outside world is just a glimpse and a bland glimpse at that. There’s not even a world over the wall, when the inmates are in the yard. They, along with the viewer, know there’s a world out there but it’s left to the imagination for everyone. Caged just concerns this place and these people.

Virginia Kellogg’s screenplay juxtaposes innocent Parker and Agnes Moorehead’s compassionate superintendent. Both women have bad role models–Parker has Betty Garde’s hardened con woman while brutal matron Hope Emerson wants to sway Moorehead back to viciousness. Once it becomes clear Parker isn’t just the subject of the film–Caged might have some social commentary to make, but it isn’t trying to propagandize–but the protagonist and the viewer has to stick with her, follow her hardening, it becomes even more frightening. Most of the scares happen in the first half of the film, but the second half, as despondence sets in, is even more terrifying.

Parker is singular. There aren’t adjectives to describe her performance. Moorehead’s great, Emerson’s great, Garde’s great. The supporting cast is all good. Look fast for Jane Darwell.

Caged is an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cromwell; screenplay by Virginia Kellogg, based on a story by Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Marie Allen), Agnes Moorehead (Ruth Benton), Hope Emerson (Evelyn Harper), Betty Garde (Kitty Stark), Ellen Corby (Emma Barber), Jan Sterling (Smoochie), Olive Deering (June Roberts) and Lee Patrick (Elvira Powell).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 1: DREAM FACTORY.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)

Unfortunately, I feel the need to address some of the behind the scenes aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons. Not because I plan on talking about them, but because director Welles’s career is filled with a lack of control. There are always questions–what did editor Robert Wise do on his own, what did he do with Welles’s input. With Ambersons, one can get lost in the possibility. But the reality is more than strong enough on its own.

With Ambersons, Welles creates a nightmare. He creates a nightmare of a child in the humorously awful, spoiled little rich kid (a wonderful, uncredited Bobby Cooper), who becomes a nightmare of a young man (Tim Holt in a phenomenal performance). The thing about Holt’s character, who negatively impacts everyone around him in one way or another including himself, is he doesn’t change. He just has a certain set of skills, he applies them to all situations without regard to whether they’re appropriate for those situations. Welles doesn’t care if the audience is sympathetic to Holt, he cares if they’re interested. Holt–and the Magnificent Ambersons exist regardless of audience sympathy; they even have a haunted mansion to loiter around.

Because even studio meddling and Wise’s ego can’t alter the “in camera” aspects of Ambersons. There’s an amazing mansion set where Holt terrorizes his elders. There’s Stanley Cortez’s gorgeous photography. There’s the acting. And, frankly, some of the editing is so obviously under Welles’s instruction, especially in the first act. Ambersons runs under ninety minutes and covers a decade and a half. It’s mostly told in summary, with actual scenes left to haunt the characters and audience alike. It’s a weighty film; director Welles narrates it himself, applying further pressure to the audiences’ shoulders. It’s got a perfect narrative distance. Was that distance Welles’s intention or the result of meddling? Who knows.

Wonderful supporting performances from Ray Collins and Richard Bennett. Dolores Costello is great as Holt’s mother, Agnes Moorehead’s great as his aunt. Joseph Cotten’s great as Holt’s love interest’s father. Cotten is also Costello’s love interest, which what all the drama is about. Anne Baxter plays Cotten’s daughter. She has the most important role in the entire film (outside Moorehead, who has to humanize Holt). Baxter has to be believable as the object of Holt’s affection. It works, thanks to Baxter, Holt and Welles, but it’s an achievement. It isn’t about Baxter being appealing, it’s about Holt being monstrous.

The Magnificent Ambersons, in its under ninety minute runtime, offers somewhere around eighty-five minutes of perfect filmmaking. The other three or four minutes, meddled or not, have perfect acting and excellent studio filmmaking. It may have a haunted history, but it’s appropriate. The Magnificent Ambersons is all about being haunted after all.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington; director of photography, Stanley Cortez; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tim Holt (George Minafer), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) and Richard Bennett (Major Amberson).


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