Tag Archives: Jane Wyman

Magic Town (1947, William A. Wellman)

Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.

Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.

Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.

Riskin’s wrong.

The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.

But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.

Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.

Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.

Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE WILLIAM WELLMAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY LIZ OF NOW VOYAGING.


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Crime by Night (1944, William Clemens)

Jerome Cowan’s detective in Crime by Night slides through the film soaked in bourbon. While the film’s mystery isn’t a bad one, perfect for a seventy minute running time, the suggestions of off-screen actions are a lot more fun to think about. The detective, with his love interest secretary along (played well by Jane Wyman, who manages ditzy humor without coming off dumb) manages to find time to romance the hotel operator, get to know all the bar staff intimately, and generally just settle himself in to small town life, enough he doesn’t seem alien to it when he’s investigating in it. The film rarely deviates from the era’s standard–we follow the detective, finding clues with him (not always getting to piece things together as quickly as he does, though all the necessary information is actually presented to the audience in Crime by Night, it’s so obvious), but the private life of the detective is–to a degree–kept from the audience. It’s a different approach, especially since Cowan’s detective is only likable in his dealings with the country bumpkins (he uses electoral competition to get paid more for investigating) and it’s Wyman who’s the likable character throughout. Given Cowan’s practically goofy performance, it’s easy to read the detective as a drunk jerk. The best thing about him is he brings Wyman around and he’s better than the country bumpkins. Still, at the end of Crime by Night, I still found myself wishing Warner had done more films with Cowan and Wyman.

I’m trying to think if the film does one unexpected thing, or even one unique thing, but, like most of the Warner b-movies from the early 1940s, it’s really a crock pot of reused ideas. The competing politicians are a comedic subplot out of something else, the family troubles precipitating the falsely accused client of Cowan’s (which is a recycling of a Thin Man plot, probably two or three or six of them) are such a non-starter the kid in the custody battle never even shows up… which is unfortunate, because Eleanor Parker, at this age, is always worth seeing working with kids–but what’s more interesting is the film forgets about the kid, just like it forgets about the inheritance after it’s introduced in the case set-up. obviously, there’s a far amount of editing incompetence, maybe there were cut scenes or maybe everyone forgot, because those scenes weren’t fun. Cowan hadn’t come out as a drunk in the opening; he wasn’t very serious, but he certainly wasn’t as goofy as immediately following. In any event, it doesn’t matter… the seventy minute b-movie needs to entertain and engage, which Crime by Night does, mostly with its cast.

Wyman’s incredibly personable performance aside, there’s also Parker as the suspicious, shady daughter of the victim. She’s one of the film’s villains, the detective’s foils, throughout, and she manages to bring some depth to a shallow role (you almost believe she has a kid somewhere, while she’s off with the nightclub singer). At the end, for her big scene, director Clemens makes his only terrible directing misstep–he inexplicably shoots her from the ground up. It looks funny; the camera on the floor appears to be the perspective of Cowan’s left shoe. Faye Emerson is unfortunately disappointing as one of Cowan’s extracurricular activities and Charles Lang is too bland, but Stuart Crawford is good as the falsely accused and Cy Kendall is amusing as the slow-witted sheriff.

I just checked IMDb and Night is the only one with these characters. Too bad. It’s a fine setup for a series.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Clemens; screenplay by Richard Weil and Joel Malone, from a novel by Daniel Mainwaring; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by Doug Gould; music by William Lava; produced by William Jacobs; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jane Wyman (Robbie Vance), Jerome Cowan (Sam Campbell), Faye Emerson (Ann Marlow), Charles Lang (Paul Goff), Eleanor Parker (Irene Carr), Stuart Crawford (Larry Borden), Cy Kendall (Sheriff Max Ambers), Charles C. Wilson (District Attorney Hyatt) and Fred Kelsey (Dad Martin).


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

Flight Angels (1940, Lewis Seiler)

When the studio system collapsed, so did the B-picture promotion system–a star of a B-picture could end up the star of an A-picture… For example, Jimmy Stewart started out in B-pictures, so did Eleanor Parker, so did Humphrey Bogart (I think). Occasionally, B-pictures made A-picture money (The Thin Man). It was a good system and there hasn’t been anything like it since–the rash of soap opera actors going mainstream did have a few good results (Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche) but none lasting–and that phenomenon has ended. It was never as successful as the promotion system and its disappearance is unfortunate, because it did produce good actors.

Flight Angels has an odd mix of actors, career-wise. Virginia Bruce, the star, was on the downswing. Her romantic interest, Dennis Morgan, was on the upswing (he ended up in musicals no less). Jane Wyman has a supporting role and runs wild with it, making the best of the script and turning in the film’s best performance. These actors’ success in light of the script–which alternates between a commercial for American Airlines and an astoundingly sexist portrayal of working women–is Flight Angels biggest surprise. The film doesn’t start out as anything but the commercial, so when the flight attendants–sorry, stewardesses–all get together to talk about marrying rich passengers and scream and run around and… fight (there’s a cat fight in Flight Angels), I couldn’t help but dream of a showing of Flight Angels with a debate afterwards between Margaret Cho and some female Conservative. Many A-features, for example, have a strong sexist attitude running through them (The Women, The Philadelphia Story), but I guess studios reserved the blatancy and cat fights for the B-features. Maybe not many theaters on the coasts played B-features. I suppose it’d be worth investigating. Oh, I forgot… not a history major anymore.

Still, Flight Angels is a well-handled film. Director Seiler has a lot of experience and the film even had one really nice shot. The special effects by Byron Haskin (who later directed) aren’t as nice as the aerial photography. On one hand, Flight Angels is an interesting historical document, on the other, it does have some nice performances from a likable cast. Either way, it’s a diverting seventy minutes.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Maurice Leo, from a story by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay; director of photography, L. William O’Connell; edited by James Gibbon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Virginia Bruce (Mary Norvell), Dennis Morgan (Chick Farber), Wayne Morris (Artie Dixon), Ralph Bellamy (Bill Graves), Jane Wyman (Nan Hudson) and John Litel (Dr. Barclay).


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