Tag Archives: Joel McCrea

Primrose Path (1940, Gregory La Cava)

Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.

Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.

So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.

For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.

Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.

The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.

Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.

Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FIRST ANNUAL VALENTINE’S DAY “MEET-CUTE” BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES.


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Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


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The Palm Beach Story (1942, Preston Sturges)

The Palm Beach Story is a narrative. Director Sturges opens with a rapidly cut prologue showing stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea getting married, where he inserts clues for what will eventually be the film’s utterly pointless deus ex machina. Sure, Palm Beach runs less than ninety minutes so it’s possible the viewer be sitting around focusing on the prologue’s unanswered questions, but unlikely. Sturges is betting a lot on no one paying too much attention.

The film’s first act has Colbert paying off she and McCrea’s debt, so she then leaves him. She’d been waiting to do it until they were even with the grocer. Besides an awkward scene where she and McCrea get drunk, there’s almost no character development between them. It’s not just with one another–since the second act requires them both to be dishonest, there’s rarely any sincere scenes between their characters and anyone else in the film.

One has to wonder if Sturges intended the deus ex machina to have more importance, since it deals entirely with Colbert and McCrea and he’s spent most of Palm Beach concentrating on the people they meet. Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor eventually show up to provide romantic interests for the married leads, which ought to be funnier but Sturges spends more time with jokes at Sig Arno’s expense.

Astor is fantastic, Vallee is fine, Colbert is too mercenary and McCrea looks lost.

Sturges never finds the right tone for the film. It’s off from that first scene.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Gerry Jeffers), Joel McCrea (Tom Jeffers), Mary Astor (The Princess Centimillia), Rudy Vallee (J.D. Hackensacker III), Sig Arno (Toto), Robert Dudley (Wienie King), Franklin Pangborn (Manager) and Esther Howard (Wife of Wienie King).


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Ride the High Country (1962, Sam Peckinpah)

Ride the High Country is a fine attempt. It’s not a successful attempt, but it’s a fine one. Director Peckinpah seems to know what he wants to do, but he’s too trapped in Western genre tradition. Having icons Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads (they’re both great), George Bassman’s intrusive score and Lucien Ballard’s strangely flat photography might all be forgivable if N.B. Stone Jr.’s script were all right but it’s not.

The plotting is awkward. Retired lawman McCrea hires old partner Scott to help him transport gold, not knowing Scott is planning on taking said gold with the help of his new, youthful partner, played by Ron Starr. Along the way, they meet farm girl Mariette Hartley, who Starr gets involved with, much to the chagrin of the older men. Country runs just over ninety minutes and most of the important scenes involve Hartley and her poor choice to marry James Drury. McCrea and Scott spend their time talking about their glory days, which is cute the first couple times, but tiring when it’s clear Stone doesn’t have any other ideas for them and Peckinpah doesn’t seem to care.

Peckinpah doesn’t seem particularly interested in the film until the shootouts at the end; he does spend some time on the scenery, which should be prettier (that drab photography).

Both McCrea and Scott get pretty decent iconic moments at one point or another in the film, they just don’t get actual characters to play. It’s too bad.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; written by N.B. Stone Jr.; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Frank Santillo; music by George Bassman; produced by Richard E. Lyons; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Randolph Scott (Gil Westrum), Joel McCrea (Steve Judd), Mariette Hartley (Elsa Knudsen), Ron Starr (Heck Longtree), Edgar Buchanan (Judge Tolliver), R.G. Armstrong (Joshua Knudsen), Jenie Jackson (Kate), James Drury (Billy Hammond), L.Q. Jones (Sylvus Hammond), John Anderson (Elder Hammond), John Davis Chandler (Jimmy Hammond) and Warren Oates (Henry Hammond).


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