Tag Archives: Joan Blondell

Lawyer Man (1932, William Dieterle)

Lawyer Man is a tad too streamlined. It runs around seventy minutes, charting neighborhood attorney–meaning he works with ethnic types and not blue bloods–William Powell’s rise and fall from grace. At the end, he says something about the events taking place over two years, which the film accomplishes through a variety of narrative shortcuts, usually newspaper headlines. The second half of the film is a little too truncated; it plays like the budget ran out around the forty-five minute mark.

The film opens on the crowded streets of the East Side of Manhattan; Powell’s office is amid the Jewish theaters, the street markets, the hustle and bustle of the working folk. He’s got an admiring secretary (Joan Blondell) but he’s a skirt-chaser, which contributes to his eventual downfall. Something Blondell warns him about frequently.

By the second half of the film, when Powell’s made it, there’s no more exterior street scenes. It’s one office to another, usually with the same handful of cast members. After some wonderfully efficient setup, the plot proper kicks off with society lawyer Alan Dinehart offering Powell a partnership. Whenever Powell beats someone in court, they always want to be pals–he’s such a good lawyer they can’t help it. Unfortunately, part of the film’s efficiency is never showing any of the courtroom lawyering. Even when it’s Powell on trial.

Anyway. Powell and Blondell go uptown to a skyscraper office and a better class of clients. Powell’s still skirt-chasing, Blondell’s still obviously mooning over him (Powell’s unbelievable obliviousness to it is one of Lawyer Man’s failings), but they’re more successful. And then in walks Helen Vinson as Dinehart’s sister and a suitable marriage prospect for Powell. So the film’s now got Powell, Blondell, Vinson, and Dinehart in the mix as far as characters.

Immediately after Powell runs afoul of political fixer David Landau, Claire Dodd comes into the film. She’s a showgirl just jilted by society doctor (and Landau flunky) Kenneth Thomson. Since Lawyer Man is so streamlined, it only takes her about five minutes to have Powell wrapped around her finger. And about ten minutes until she’s helped get him into a bunch of hot water.

Powell’s got to scrap to stay afloat and he becomes a dirty opportunist, with only Blondell sticking by him. At this point, the film sheds pretty much everyone except Powell and Blondell–and shaves Blondell’s subplot off her–as Powell fights to regain his good name. Landau becomes a much bigger player, until he’s pretty much the only other billed actor who interacts with Powell by the final third.

Instead of character development, there’s a lot of summary and speeches from Powell. It’s masterfully done summary, sure, but it’s still just summary. The speeches are a little much. Dieterle sort of zones out during them. He’s really involved when it’s about Powell’s skirt-chasing (there are some great examples of pre-Code visual euphemisms in Lawyer Man too) and Dieterle does really well with the bigger sets. When it’s just the static offices and melodrama… he checks out. Not on the actors, however. Blondell and Powell maintain their charm throughout, even as their characters thin. Blondell’s not the only one who loses her subplots as things progress; Powell goes from a Tex Avery wolf to a practical monk by the end.

The supporting cast is all fine. Landau’s got the only significant part throughout. He’s good.

Lawyer Man’s a little too short, a little too slight. It needs just a little more time to bring its threads together. And to keep its threads in play.

But for a seventy-ish minute programmer? It’s pretty darn good. Great photography from Robert Kurrle and the film’s general sense of humor help.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dieterle; screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, based on the novel by Max Trell; director of photography, Robert Kurrle; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Powell (Anton Adam), Joan Blondell (Olga Michaels), David Landau (John Gilmurry), Helen Vinson (Barbara Bentley), Claire Dodd (Virginia St. Johns), Kenneth Thomson (Dr. Frank Gresham), Allen Jenkins (Izzy Levine), Ann Brody (Mrs. Levine), and Alan Dinehart (Granville Bentley).


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Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/4★★

CREDITS

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

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


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


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Lizzie (1957, Hugo Haas)

Lizzie is about lead Eleanor Parker’s struggle with multiple personality disorder. More accurately perhaps, Lizzie is about Parker’s multiple personality disorder. As a protagonist, Parker disappears fairly quickly into the film’s eighty minute runtime. She doesn’t even get to open the film; it introduces her through other characters’ expository conversation.

Screenwriter Mel Dinelli, quite unfortunately, often relies on expository conversation.

When Parker is the lead, however, Lizzie is in pretty good shape. Even though Parker’s alternate personalities are a little shallow as far as characterization goes, Parker’s performance is strong. Even she can’t do anything with the hallucination sequences though. Lizzie is a technical mess. Director Haas (who gives himself a supporting acting role, which I’ll get to in a bit) has three directorial modes. Some of Lizzie, when the film is just watching Parker act, feels experimental and edgy. Unfortunately, it contrasts with Haas’s inept handling of regular sequences. Lizzie doesn’t have much of a budget and the sets are bad, something Haas and cinematographer Paul Ivano aggravate. But then Haas and Ivano also go for foreboding mood, with the inept assistance of composer Leith Stevens, and Lizzie feels even more uneven.

As Parker’s psychiatrist, Richard Boone doesn’t have much to do but he’s sincere in the performance. There’s even a scene where Parker tries to draw him out a little, allow him room for personality and Boone demurs. Like I said before, Dinelli’s script is a mess.

As Parker’s suffering aunt, Joan Blondell is good. She starts out as a shrill harpy, but eventually Blondell is able to do something with the part. Haas, as an actor, is her mooning sidekick.

Lizzie has some great acting from Parker, who unfortunately proves no matter how fine a performance, when something is dramatically inert, there’s no way to get it moving.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hugo Haas; screenplay by Mel Dinelli, based on a novel by Shirley Jackson; director of photography, Paul Ivano; edited by Leon Barsha; music by Leith Stevens; produced by Jerry Bresler; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Elizabeth Richmond), Richard Boone (Dr. Neal Wright), Joan Blondell (Aunt Morgan), Hugo Haas (Walter Brenner), Ric Roman (Johnny Valenzo), Marion Ross (Ruth Seaton) and Johnny Mathis (Piano Singer).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

Miss Pinkerton (1932, Lloyd Bacon)

It’s not difficult to assign blame for Miss Pinkerton‘s failings, it’s difficult to identify anything good about it.

I suppose Joan Blondell isn’t bad in the lead, but she isn’t good. She’s just doing a persona. Wait, George Brent’s good. He’s the police inspector who–quite unrealistically–enlists nurse Blondell to investigate a wacky family for him. He doesn’t believe a murder is a suicide. Or vice versa.

But Blondell just walking around wide-eyed and a little flirty isn’t enough to make a movie. Pinkerton needs some kind of mystery, right?

One mystery might be why the filmmakers use the exteriors to a large house–not a mansion or estate–as the film’s central location. It’s endlessly large in the interiors, which don’t match the exteriors at all.

The supporting cast is atrocious, except C. Henry Gordon. Particularly bad are John Wray and Ruth Hall. Wray acts like he’s in a farce and Hall’s laughable as the victim’s fiancée.

The real problem with Pinkerton is director Bacon. He can’t get good performances from his cast and he can’t make the film’s weak mystery engaging. He also doesn’t seem to understand head room. People are constantly bumping their heads in Pinkerton.

Bacon’s problems directing aren’t immediately apparent because Ray Curtiss’s editing is so awful. It actually distracts from the direction until the head room issues get too obvious.

Barney McGill’s photography, while no great shakes, is competent at least.

Pinkerton‘s greatest success is being really short but still exceptionally boring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lloyd Bacon; screenplay by Niven Busch, Lillie Hayward and Robert Tasker, based on the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart; director of photography, Barney McGill; edited by Ray Curtiss; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Joan Blondell (Nurse Adams), George Brent (Police Inspector Patten), Ruth Hall (Paula Brent), John Wray (Hugo), Elizabeth Patterson (Juliet Mitchell), C. Henry Gordon (Dr. Stuart), Holmes Herbert (Arthur Glenn), Mary Doran (Florence Lenz), Blanche Friderici (Mary), Mae Madison (Second Nurse), Nigel De Brulier (Coroner James A. Clemp) and Eulalie Jensen (Miss Gibbons – Superintendent of Nurses).


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