Sunday, July 10, 2011
TCM Diary: LURED, THE MALE ANIMAL, THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT, NOTHING SACRED
For some of us, the name Lucille Ball produces shudders. Her long-running TV show was in constant late night reruns, and when nothing else was on TV we'd watch it, and so began to associate it in our minds with a feeling of trapped isolation. Yet LURED (1947) shows Ball as a tough, sassy distinct individual far more resonant than the the proto-Cathy "waaaa" housewife married to Cuban's greatest export. LURED is directed by Douglas Sirk, and the script seems tailored for her wit, and there's none of her broad comedy, only a wizened causticism. If Hitchcock made LURED, and he could have, it would be a classic oft writ about. But hey, Sirk is none to shabby and the film is full of A-list bits: George Sanders is semi-miscast as a cavalier playboy; Boris Karloff mugs deliciously as a deranged fashion designer; Alan Mowbray and Joseph Calea relish their evil as white slavers pretending to be a maid service; Charles Coburn (Piggy!) is the head of Scotland Yard, employing taxi dancer Ball as a deputy agent when it's discerned the killer digs dancers. And George Zucco is the crossword-puzzling detective who shadows Ball on her assignments --his getting his crossword clues from random things Ball says is the dumbest thing about the film, but it's great to see him playing an easy-going cop under a watchful eye like Sirk's, instead of his usual Z-list mad scientists under sleepy William "One Shot" Beaudine's.
As fast moving and fun as a London fog murder movie can get, there's great red herring bits like Karloff spying the camera in the mirror and breaking the fourth wall to tell us in the audience "I'll be with you in a moment!" in that full creepy/wink voice of his. (The Kino Video cover to the DVD makes it seem like the film's a Victorian thriller with Karloff as the main villain, but neither is true). She might be as English as baseball, but it's fun the way she pretends to be suckered by Mowbray's offer of a trip to South America, or the way she intentionally fools us as well as the suspects into thinking she's dumb, then springing the trap.
Things get suspenseful, and then they get looser in that vein similar to Hitchcock's, where suspense doesn't slacken even as the wit and winks fly. Sanders' presence even makes it connected to REBECCA in its tale of an ordinary girl destined for bigger things due to her surplus of character and intellect. Ball can be charming as needed, well who can't? But she can also relax like a real woman right there onscreen, smoking and knocking back cakes with her big feet up. It's such a rare thing that when it's done right, like a whole new version of striptease, where fake personae come off as easily as nightgowns. Yeah, but anyone can take off their clothes, who can take off their mask all the way, to the hairy human animal beneath-- with a whole film crew and blazing hot lights breathing down your neck? Lucy, Babs, Bette, and Clara Bow, that's all. Boop Boop de Boop!
dir. Elliot Nugent 1942 - ***1/2
With deep shadows from a roaring bonfire, the camera low his shadow large and Wellesian sinister, Eugene Pallette shouts "Fight! Fight!" while Henry Fonda and his acolyte look on aghast through round Leninish spectacles at the horror of mob mentality in action. No, it's not TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, it's homecoming week at Beardsley College! Or wherever. The always durable and ready Jack Carson is the All-American football hero who dated English professor Fonda's wife before Fonda, and if you as a cinema blog-reading smartypants ever sneered at the sporting events of your college, city, or state, you'll enjoy THE MALE ANIMAL. It has a kind of Capra-ish ending with Fonda reading a letter from anarchist Vinzetti against massive public outcry, but it's hard to take such clear-cut fascism seriously when it comes from Eugene Palette, the wondrous bullfrog who played Fonda's dad in THE LADY EVE. He even get's the film's last and best line as they march in a parade in honor of Fonda and Palette notices a troublemaking lefty student isn't cheering, "What's the matter with you?" he barks. "You a fascist or something?"
1957 - **1/2
Jean Simmons is a virgin secretary-teacher who helps kids cheat at geometry and sexy bespectacled dancer (Neile Adams) cheat at baking contests. So she must be okay. Wait, what? Well, the club environment is cozy and cute, with everyone more or less nice to each other, and occasionally the club floor is lit in an almost Sternbergianly chthonic nest of curvy shadows, but there's really just two reasons to see this: Tony Franciosa at his sweaty, grinning best as a taut nightclub manager struggling to stay free in the face of marriage's inescapable vortex (to Simmons). The second reason is Nellie Adams, who is like a sexier smarter black-haired Shirly McLaine, with cute glasses, a short black haired bob, and shortly thereafter, the power to lure Steve McQueen into marriage. Hubba Hubba! Alas, she didn't do much other than some TV shows after this, having two kids. Steve McQueen! You stole a gal who could have won the heart of a heartless, cynical world.
Dir. William Wellman ****
If you're a screwball fan, or Ben Hecht fan, or both, you probably saw NOTHING SACRED first as a crummy public domain dupe, with its primitive three-strip color washed near to mud. It's still hard to see a good copy today, for this and other reasons. On TCM it looks okay, but the colors still make everything seem kind of muddy and storybook-ish, like an old Danish film version of the Pad Piper playing at three in the morning for early rising kids back in the 1970s. Plus, I don't think Frederic March is ideal for Ben Hecht's dialogue, he just tosses it off when it could use some John Barrymore-style ballyhoo. All that said, this film only improves on repeat viewings, with great tossaway bits like Max Rosenbloom as a slugger from circulation ("It's me, Moe! Yer brudda!"), Sig Rumann as Dr. Emil Egglehoffer; John Qualen as a Swedish fire chief ("Yumpin' Yimminy..."); the music of Raymond Scott's bouncy quintet; Owlin Howlin (baggage), Margaret Hamilton (matron), and Troy Brown Sr. as a rotund phony maharaja.
Credit William Wellman with his keen eye for earthy detail and Hecht for his flash frozen cynicism, which stains even the most seemingly mundane of dialogue a frosty black - as Hazel Flagg is paraded around the city like a Joan of Arc on slow-glam burn and Frederic March falls in love with the sound of his own sorrow on the front page as the Morning Star's top journalist and the apple of Flagg's false eye. See, she didn't really have radium poisoning and now she swoons in guilt.
As a kid who often faked illnesses to avoid sports and school, I can relate with the horrible guilt she experiences, writhing in her first class suite as maids (Hattie McDaniel, uncredited) fret and so forth. Good old Hecht, you came away basking in the warmth of the evening sun, the spectre of death--momentary or eventual--still hanging over everything, the lure of fascism, sentimentality, phony morals, sensationalism, and tawdry exploitation dangling like a anglerfish's lantern; luring, luring Steve McQueen into marriage, and us all into our cold Stygian seats.