DVD: ‘Show Boat’ (1936)

The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.

Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerate life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

The original Magnificent Obsession on TCM

Douglas Sirk made his career with a delirious version of Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 novel, but it was in fact the second screen version of  the book and Sirk’s film was actually based on John Stahl’s 1935 hit. I write about the original Magnificent Obsession for the Turner Classic Movies website.

Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne

Robert Taylor was a handsome young leading man at MGM with a handful of screen appearances and a bright future in 1935, but it was a film he made on loan to Universal Studios that made him a star.

The 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession by former minister Lloyd C. Douglas had been a best-seller and something of a phenomenon for its message of enriching one’s own life through philanthropy and acts of compassion done in secret. The story of redemption and romance was a natural for a big screen incarnation. Universal Studios stalwart John Stahl, a rare director/producer in the 1930s, was given the assignment and it was a good fit for Universal Studio’s man of melodrama, who had made hits of Back Street (1932) and Imitation of Life (1934). He would downplay the religious aspect of Douglas’ spiritual message and transform the story into a heart-tugging romantic melodrama of personal redemption through selflessness.

Read the complete feature here. The film plays on April 6 on TCM, and is available as a supplement on the Criterion DVD release of the Douglas Sirk remake.

DVDs for 8/4/09 – Ladies of Screwball and Italian Culture Wars

Jean Arthur is one of the greats of screwball comedy, at once the girl next door and the sardonic smart cookie, the idealist and the sophisticate rolled into a snappy, sassy, yet still romantic package. Sony has come up with a nice way of showcasing some of the lesser known films by their marquee players in their new Icons of Screwball Comedy collection. The first two volumes debut with a quartet of films on two discs, each volume spotlighting a pair of actresses with two films apiece: Volume One featuring Arthur and Rosalind Russell, Volume Two with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young.

Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars
Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars

Jean Arthur had been more than ten years in the business, bouncing between stage and screen, when she made If You Could Only Cook (1935), but she had only recently come into her own as a leading lady, a talented comedienne and a formidable actress with a personality that bursts out of the frame. She’s second billed to Herbert Marshall, who plays an auto company president frustrated by a conservative board of directors and about to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t realize is all wrong for him. Marshall may have been no matinee idol – he was ten years older than Arthur and looked even older, with his thinning hair and doughy frame – but he was one smooth, suave, elegant leading man, a real class act with a wonderfully wry and underplayed sense of humor. He’s the society gent without the aristocratic snootiness and he seems to sense a kindred spirit in Joan (Arthur), who meets while she scours the want ads in the park. Before he knows, he’s posing not just as her husband but as a butler and takes a job serving a nouveau riche gangster (Leo Carrillo) with gourmet tastes. It’s a light little trifle of a romantic comedy with larger than life characters who carry the film for director William A. Seiter. It’s a treat watching Marshall get tips from his butler without a trace of self-consciousness and it’s not hard to see his attraction to Arthur, who is all spunk and street smarts but drops her no-nonsense front when flustered by the pangs of romance.

It’s paired with Too Many Husbands (1940), with Arthur top billed over Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (the husbands of the title). It’s a pretty predictable set-up (lost at sea husband comes back to find wife remarried – to his business partner, no less) and a fairly conventional script, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, of all things. The minor pleasures come from Arthur’s sly delight in watching the two men compete for her affections. The two-disc set also includes a pair of Rosalind Russel comedies: the original screen version of My Sister Eileen (1942), co-starring Brian Aherne and Janet Blair, and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) with Lee Bowman, both directed by Alexander Hall.

The gem of the collection is on Volume Two: Theodora Goes Wild (1936), one of the great comedies of the thirties. Irene Dunne is magic as small town girl Theodora Lynn, a grown woman living under the suffocating strictures of her moralistic aunts. She vents her frustrations and indulges in her fantasies of uninhibited living by writing (under a pseudonym) a scandalous novel that she is forced to condemn when her own town paper starts serializing it. Melvyn Douglas is pure, unbound charm and impish attitude as the social butterfly determined to “free” Theodora from her double life and unleash her inhibitions. He succeeds all too well and she moves to New York to return the favor: it turns out self-styled artist Michael Grant doesn’t live the life he preaches. He’s an unhappily married man playing at bachelor while careful to keep out of the paper, lest he tarnish his politician father’s image. I would never have pegged Richard Boleslawski for a sense of humor, let alone a talented director of comedy, but he masterfully guides his cast through Sidney Buchman’s sparkling screenplay. “There’s nothing more deadly than innocence on the manhunt,” remarks one New York observer as Theodora embraces the reputation of her alter-ego and tramples through the polite manners and paper-thin veil of appearances of New York society. The film hammers the small-town hypocrisy much harder than the parallel high society double standards (gossiping biddies jumping on every scandal they pretend to abhor is an easy target), but it’s still a fun double reflection when it’s Dunne blowing through the social events of New York’s high and mighty. Her spirit is adorable, her laugh is to die for and her drive is commendable. This is screwball at its finest. The set also features Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and A Night to Remember (1942).
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