Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part II: Red River

poster rr

Although it wasn’t released until late September of 1948, about 6 months after the release of The Search, Howard Hawks’ western Red River was actually Montgomery Clift’s first experience with filming movies.  It was a trial by fire, or maybe by water.  The film was shot in Rain Valley, east of Tucson Arizona, and during filming it rained nearly continuously for six weeks.  Many of the actors got sick with colds.  Scenes had to be rewritten to accommodate the weather.

Clift and John Wayne didn’t like each other, something that would work in their favor when acting out scenes of friction between their characters, but which couldn’t have been pleasant for Monty to live through. Wayne told a Life magazine editor “Clift is an arrogant little bastard.”  Additionally, Wayne thought Monty was a wimp.  According to Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth, “Wayne actually burst into guffaws when Hawks staged the fight between them. Wayne simply could not take the scene seriously – something that privately infuriated Monty and probably inspired the superhuman intensity he brought to his battle with Wayne.”

Monty had little experience with riding and none with cowboy work prior to filming, but with typical intensity he set about Montgomery Clift on the set of RED RIVER (1948)learning.  “He came down two weeks early and went out after breakfast with a cowboy, taking a lunch with them, and they rode all day long – up hills and down steep places, and through water and so on,” Howard Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview years later.  “And by the start of the picture he really rode well.  You could tell that. And I taught him a little jump step to get into the saddle – he’d make a little hop into the stirrup.  He worked – he really worked hard.”  Asked if Clift was ever difficult to work with, Hawks replied “Oh, nobody that good is difficult.”  His later directors would beg to differ, but at this point in Monty’s life it was true.

Clift was polite on set but only occasionally joined the nightly poker games led by Hawks and Wayne.  Mostly he kept to himself, poring over his script and writing endless notes in the margins as he examined his character from the inside out, something he would continue to do with scripts for the rest of his career.  He would later say of his experience with the Red River cast and crew, “They laughed and drank and told dirty jokes and slapped each other on the back.  They tried to draw me into their circle but I couldn’t go along with them. The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary.”

In the end the lousy weather, illness, and macho games were worth it, however.  Red River is a beautiful, complex western that’s entertaining from start to finish – a skillful blend of action, humor, romance, and drama.  The film also excels at pitting two different life and leadership philosophies against each other in the characters of John Wayne’s hardened cattle rancher Thomas Dunson, a man who shoots first and lets God sort out the souls,  and Dunson’s foster son Matthew Garth (Clift), a skilled sharpshooter who returns from the Civil War preferring to act out of mercy, good judgment and, whenever possible, non-violence.

As the movie begins Tom Dunson is leaving a wagon train along with his friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), heading to Texas with little more than a bull to his name in hopes of starting a cattle ranch. Despite her protests he leaves the girl he loves (Coleen Gray) behind with the train, promising to come back for her once he’s settled.  Unfortunately that plan is not to be, since soon after Dunson departs the wagon train is attacked by Indians.  They wipe out everyone but a teenaged boy named Matthew Garth, who managed to escape along with a cow he was searching for when the Indians appeared.  When Matt proves his worth by standing up to Dunson, he takes the boy on as his responsibility.  “He’ll do,” he tells Groot with grudging approval, and they all head out together for Texas.  Dunson admires the backbone young Matt shows, and his ability to think for himself.  In time those qualities will tear the two of them apart.

Years pass and Dunson’s Red River D ranch is large, if no longer prosperous.  He’s killed and buried many men who tried to take his land away, giving everything including perhaps his soul to make the place a success, but the Civil War has left the South’s economy in tatters.  His cattle are no longer worth a thing in Texas.  Now that Matt has returned from fighting, Dunson plans to lead a cattle drive to Missouri, where he believes he’ll be able to sell the animals for beef at a good price.

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The chasm between Dunson’s and Matthew’s ways of thinking starts to show right away.  As they round up the cattle, Matt tells the men to let any not marked with Dunson’s brand go free.  Dunson instructs him instead to brand all the cattle they’ve caught with the Red River D.  Matt disapproves of what amounts to thievery, but he follows orders.  “Put the iron on all of ‘em,” he tells a cowhand disgustedly. “Anything you see, slap it with a ‘Red River D’ and burn it deep.”

Annex - Clift, Montgomery (Red River)_01To Dunson he says “You’re gonna wind up branding every rump in the state of Texas except mine.”  For now they’re able to smooth it over, Dunson threatening to put the iron to Matt, Matt laughing off the thought that Dunson would really do it. But as the cattle drive gets underway, Dunson’s mania to get the cattle to Missouri regardless of the human cost drives a wedge further and further between the two men.

Dunson threatens to brutally whip a hapless cowhand who started a stampede, costing a fellow cowboy and many of the cattle their lives.  He’s only stopped from killing the man when Matt pulls out his gun and intervenes.  When talk among the men turns to their desire to drive the cattle to Abilene, Kansas instead of taking the more difficult and dangerous trek to Missouri, an idea Dunson refuses even to consider, several of them threaten to leave.  Dunson shoots and kills the “quitters,” much to Matt’s revulsion.

On Dunson drives the men, past the point of exhaustion and common sense.  For Matt the final straw comes when two men who stole supplies and ran away in the night are brought back to Dunson by cowboy Cherry Valance (John Ireland).  Dunson plans to hang the men for theft and desertion, but Matt has had enough of what he sees as senseless killing.  He stops Dunson and easily gets the demoralized cowboys to join him in a mutiny, taking over the herd and promising to take them all on to Abilene himself.

Betrayed by the man he saw as a son and to whom he planned to one day leave everything, Dunson promises Matt that he’ll follow and kill him.  The rest of the movie unfolds suspensefully as Dunson gathers a gang to follow Matt and the cattle drive, while Matt tries to stay several steps ahead.  Matt hopes that once he’s successful in selling the livestock and has money to hand over, Dunson will see sense and relent.  The pain for him is that he believes in his heart the man he loves like a father will never forgive him, even though he did what he had to to salvage the herd and stop the violence.

For all the serious moments in Red River, the movie is also funny at times.  Much of the comic relief comes from the always memorable Walter Brennan as Nadine Groot, the toothless cook whose pronouncements are hard to understand unless he puts in the store-bought teeth Matt brought him after the war.

John_Wayne - red river - & Walter Brennan

There’s also a good amount of lust and romance – enough for whatever floats your boat, in fact.  Red River is famous for several scenes of homoeroticism surprisingly blatant for the day, and particularly shocking for their inclusion in a John Wayne movie directed by Howard Hawks.  The heat generated between Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance is almost visible on the screen as they examine each other’s guns, eye each other warily but with great interest, and sit around the campfire talking quietly at night.

At the same time, there’s plenty of heat between Clift and his actual love interest in the movie.  Joanne Dru plays Tess Millay, a beautiful spitfire Matthew meets while rescuing her wagon train from an Indian attack en route to Abilene.  Tess is an archetypical Hawksian woman – able to hold her own with men in a game of cards or a battle of wits, tough enough to take an arrow through the shoulder without flinching or crying out, yet able to make her man feel like a man when the chips are down.  Dru’s scenes with Clift are terribly steamy as they talk and kiss in the rain, and later spend a night together before Matt finally has to face down Dunson and either kill or be killed.

Poster - Red River_04

Watching Montgomery Clift act is quite simply a pleasure.  I constantly marvel at the little bits of business he adds to his scenes.  Lighting a cigarette to perfectly punctuate a moment.  Letting a small smile flicker across his face, or a look of anxiety subtly cross his brow.  Pushing his cowboy hat up just so, or gently bumping into a lamp in his erotically-charged haste to take a woman in his arms.  Small moments like those were labored over painstakingly in the margins of his scripts and in rehearsal with his acting teacher, Mira Rostova, but show absolutely no air of study at all in the execution.

It’s the same with the way he says his lines – the inflections, the pauses, the way he uses his voice.  He’s one of the most natural, believable actors I’ve ever seen.  He simply is the character he’s playing.  I never stop feeling awe when I watch him in a role, whether one from his late 1940s – mid-1950s heyday, or one from the post-accident years when he was struggling with life on and off the set. It doesn’t matter. His talent is always so apparent.

As for his own opinion, Clift thought he was mediocre in Red River, and that the movie itself was awful.  He hated the watered down ending, re-written so that John Wayne’s character wouldn’t die, and he hated that the conflict which had built to a fever pitch by the end of the film was resolved in a moment of anti-climax, with Tess Millay breaking up the fight between Dunson and Matt.  “It makes the showdown between me and John Wayne a farce,” Monty said.

red river ending

I tend to agree with him on that one point – the end does feel like a letdown and a cheat after all the drama – but as for the rest of the movie, I think it’s brilliant.  From the strong performances by both Wayne and Clift, to the gorgeous cinematography by Russell Harlan, to the sweeping score by the great Dimitri Tiomkin, the movie is completely entertaining and thought-provoking.

Who is the real man, the one who fights, bullies and kills in order to get what he wants, or the one who has the courage of his convictions and isn’t afraid to have compassion and a soft heart? What kind of person makes a true leader, the one with a violent my-way-or-the-highway attitude, or the one who favors discussion, collaboration, and respect?

These kinds of questions permeate Red River as they were permeating the way men in a post-World War II world looked at themselves as they re-integrated into civilian life.  In his embodiment of a kind of masculinity that could be both strong and tender, both physical and cerebral, Montgomery Clift seemed in 1948 to be the man of the moment.

I’ll be back soon with Part 3 of this look at Monty in 1948, with a review of one of my favorite of his movies – Fred Zinnemann’s The Search.

Sources:

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press 1979

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books 1998

Montgomery Clift in 1948 – Part I: The Actor

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Montgomery Clift

In 1948 the Soviet blockade of Berlin began, as did the Western response to it with the Berlin Airlift.  The United States recognized Israel as a country, and Harry Truman signed an Executive Order ending racial segregation in the US military.

That year the House Un-American Activities Committee continued to wreak havoc on lives and careers in Hollywood and elsewhere.  The United States v. Paramount Pictures case ended the monopoly by movie studios that both made films and owned the theaters which showed them, marking the beginning of the end for the studio system.

The year’s top earning movie in the US was The Red Shoes, a dark meditation on art and life written, directed, and produced by the British team of Powell and Pressburger and featuring a daring 17 minute surrealist ballet.  The number two movie was MGM’s old-school, swashbuckling Technicolor adventure The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner.  The times and the movie landscape were beginning to change, but slowly.

In 1948 Montgomery Clift turned 28 years old.  He’d already been an actor half his life, starring in Broadway productions by playwrights including Robert E. Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams beginning in his teenage years.  He’d acted on stage with luminaries of the mid-twentieth century theater, among them Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Lynn Fontanne, and her husband and Clift’s acting idol and mentor, Alfred Lunt.  Monty Clift was a shining light on Broadway, admired and praised by critics and audiences for his sensitive and perceptive portrayals, even in instances where the plays themselves weren’t so well-reviewed.

Annex - Clift, Montgomery_NRFPT_02

Montgomery Clift with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Robert E. Sherwood’s play There Shall Be No Night, 1940. The Lunts encouraged Monty to study and to stretch his acting abilities, and spoke with him of the need for actors to avoid alcohol and hard living if they were to succeed. He became part of their inner circle. The Lunts signed a photo of themselves and gave it to Monty — “from your real mother and father.”

Hollywood had been after him for years, trying to lure him into signing a long-term contract.  They saw promise in both his talent and his photogenic beauty, and were eager to begin the studio-prescribed process of grooming him to become the next big star.  For his part Monty had no interest in being groomed, and for years had refused to be tempted by Hollywood’s entreaties.  Finally in 1946 his agent, Leland Hayward, talked him into visiting Hollywood for a while to speak with Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Darryl Zanuck and see what they could offer him.  One by one he met them, and each time he failed to be persuaded by their offers.

“[Mayer] told me Leo the Lion is the father of one big happy unsuspended family. And I too will be happy,” he wrote fellow actor Sandy Campbell.  “They keep throwing Greer Garson in my face – nostrils and all…as a perfect example of what…a career can be. Ye Gods!”  Revolted by the studio men like Mayer who saw actors as “properties” and who wanted to shape his image and determine the things he worked on, Monty wrote letters to friends back home in New York with the dateline “Vomit, California.”  He told studio heads their scripts were terrible, that he didn’t want to be typecast, and that he believed his career would be ruined if he signed with them.

MRS.MINIVER

Greer Garson, with whose flared nostrils Clift seemed unimpressed. L.B. Mayer specifically wanted Monty for the part of Garson’s son in 1942′s Mrs. Miniver, but since it would’ve meant a 7-year contract he declined. Metro instead cast this guy, Richard Ney, whom Garson eventually married — much to the studio’s chagrin.

Judith M. Kass writes that “Monty was ambivalent about becoming a Hollywood star; there was no doubt in his mind that he could be one if he wanted to…but [he was] not so sure he could acquiesce in all that would be necessary to make his aspirations a reality. Monty hated the idea of drowning in a press agent’s dream of lotusland luxury; of the invasion of his privacy; the premieres with starlets; and the autographs. His equivocating impressed the studio chiefs as indifference, a nonchalance that only increased their determination to sign him.  And that, in turn, made Monty still more elusive.”

In 1947 Monty finally received two movie offers that appealed to him – the cattle drive themed western Red River, to be directed by Howard Hawks, and The Search, a realistic look at the lives of orphaned children in post-war Europe, to be directed by Fred Zinnemann.  Both movies would eventually be released to considerable acclaim for the films and for Monty himself, and would earn high box office receipts in 1948.

Clift would never sign a long-term contract with a studio, however, and never settle comfortably into the Hollywood system of publicity and image-making, despite the difficulties his iconoclasm caused him within the movie industry.  Dominated by his mother his entire childhood, internally tormented about his homosexuality, he at least wanted control of his career – to continue being choosy, artistic, and as he laughingly admitted to Leland Hayward when discussing Hollywood, “snobbish.”

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Monty reading in his apartment, late 1940s

“I’m just trying to be an actor,” Monty said.  “Not a movie star, an actor.”  By the end of 1948, with two well-received films behind him, his face on the cover of Life magazine as the standard-bearer of a group of “New Male Movie Stars,” and an Academy Award nomination for The Search soon to come, he would – for better or worse – be both.

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Montgomery Clift on the cover of Life magazine in December 1948

How he got there and what happened afterward are still to come as these posts unfold here all month.  For now, however, it’s 1948, and the Montgomery Clift who bursts to life on movie screens around the country is handsome, boyish, natural, funny, sensual, and heartbreaking.  He can wordlessly express thoughts and emotions with his eyes as powerfully as any silent movie star, yet the kind of acting he does is modern, different.  He’s quite unlike anything movie audiences have seen before, and in 1948 they like what they see.

In part 2 of this look at Montgomery Clift in 1948, I’ll be back to discuss the first movie he filmed – Howard Hawks’s classic western, Red River.

Sources:

Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978

The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press, 1979

Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books, 1998

The top grossing films of 1948

Last night I found the below list while doing research for a blog post I’m working on for tomorrow.  These were the top grossing movies in the US in 1948, the year in which my father was born and the year in which Montgomery Clift made his movie debut. The directors aren’t shown here, but we’re talking about people like Powell & Pressburger, John Huston, Vincente Minnelli, Frank Capra, Fred Zinnemann, Howard Hawks, and Billy Wilder.  Even the fluffiest of the movies on this list surpasses any of the fluffy type films being put out today in terms of star power and entertainment value, while the great movies on the list are truly great — classics that have stood the test of time.  And these are just the top 20 moneymakers of the year.  There were plenty of other wonderful movies released in 1948, including Portrait of Jennie, The Bicycle Thief, Rope, Letter From an Unknown Woman, I Remember Mama, Rachel and the Stranger, Romance on the High Seas, and Unfaithfully Yours.

This list is as good a summary as any of why I can rarely be bothered to see a current movie in the theater anymore. Was there a film in 2013 that was as inventive as The Red Shoes? Or a musical starring people with the amount of talent Judy Garland and Fred Astaire had in their little fingers?  Was there a satire as biting as Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, or a comedy as amusing and full of charm as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House?  The answer to that is pretty clearly no, at least to me, and so for now my local theater only gets my money when they show something from their “classics” series.  It’s Rear Window this weekend, and I’ll be there.

How I look when looking for a current movie to see in the theater. Don't fret, Moira, there's always TCM.

Don’t fret, Moira, there’s always TCM.

1.    The Red Shoes – Moira Shearer
2.    The Three Musketeers – Lana Turner and Gene Kelly
3.    Red River – John Wayne and Montgomery Clift
4.    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – Humphrey Bogart
5.    When My Baby Smiles at Me – Betty Grable and Dan Dailey
6.    Easter Parade –     Judy Garland and Fred Astaire
7.    Johnny Belinda -  Jane Wyman, tied with The Snake Pit – Olivia de Havilland
8.    Joan of Arc – Ingrid Bergman
9.    Adventures of Don Juan – Errol Flynn
10.    Homecoming – Clark Gable and Lana Turner
11.    The Loves of Carmen – Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford
12.    Key Largo – Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall
13.    That Lady in Ermine – Betty Grable
14.    The Emperor Waltz – Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine
15.    The Search – Montgomery Clift
16.    Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House – Cary Grant and Myrna Loy
17.    Hamlet – Laurence Olivier
18.    State of the Union – Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
19.    A Foreign Affair – Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and John Lund
20.    Sorry, Wrong Number – Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

Stay tuned tomorrow for the first post in my month-long series on Montgomery Clift!  I’m very excited to dedicate March to an actor I love so dearly.  I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend a month thinking and writing about, or anyone who deserves the attention more.

Monty

Montgomery Clift in Red River – 1948

Monty, You’re a Star

M CliftToday I started a reread of Patricia Bosworth’s excellent biography of Montgomery Clift, which I last read probably 15 years ago, and it’s every bit as good and every bit as painful as I remembered it being. Reading about the strange, sad, too-short life he led, it’s difficult not to love Montgomery Clift and want to go back in time to try and help him somehow. He truly was a troubled soul. His acting genius and the movies he left behind are good reason to celebrate him, though, and to be happy for his life even if he wasn’t always so happy, himself. He was a one of a kind talent and a great movie star.

Yes, I’ve fallen down the fannish rabbit hole about Montgomery Clift again, as happens every few years, where all I want to do is watch his movies and read about him, and everything else feels like a waste of time. I’m planning on dedicating the month of March to him here, covering as many of his films during that time as I can, doing a book review or two, and no doubt filling a few posts with nothing but pictures of his startling beauty.  (Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Pinterest are already getting a taste of that. It’s hard not to post photos of him all day, he was just so attractive.)

The Search, Red River, The Heiress,  A Place in the Sun,  I Confess, Judgment at Nuremberg, Lonelyhearts – every time I see one of Montgomery Clift’s performances, I think at that moment it’s his best one, since he was always so good. But readingprobably his very best role was that of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. I can’t wait to watch that film again and to write about Monty’s profoundly moving performance.

Montgomery Clift was one of the greatest actors ever in the movies, and I just don’t think he gets enough credit for how genuinely brilliant he was, or for how much he’s responsible for changing film acting. Before Brando, Dean, Newman and the rest there was Clift, and he’s certainly the one I love the most and by whom I’ve been most strongly affected. Happily for me there are several movies from his fairly short filmography that I haven’t seen yet, like The Big Lift, Terminal Station, Wild River, Suddenly, Last Summer and The Misfits. I like still having something new to look forward to.

So stay tuned for a month of Monty, coming up in March. In the meantime, check out this tribute video I found on YouTube recently. It’s really well done and will probably make you want to drop everything and watch his movies, too. Those eyes. They haunt me.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

mr allisonI watched Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) today for the first time in years and enjoyed it so much.  I’d forgotten how good it is.  It’s just Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr on screen almost the entire time and they both turn in such wonderful performances.  I’m very fond of Kerr and like her in almost everything, but Mitchum I’m not that crazy about in general.  He’s just not my favorite actor.

He’s fantastic in this, though, playing Corporal Allison, a rough-around-the-edges Marine who is at heavenknowsmr-allisonheart a good and decent man.  He’s tough, brave, and takes his duties as a Marine very seriously, but he can be thoughtful and tender, as he is with Kerr’s Sister Angela, a nun who’s stranded with Allison on a Japanese-occupied island in the Pacific during WWII. The bond they form through their harrowing ordeal is sweet, funny,  and  touching.

The movie was directed by John Huston, and it’s reminiscent of another of his films, The African Queen, in its story of a sheltered, genteel religious woman being thrown together with an unsophisticated, hard-drinking, and very masculine man in a life-or-death situation. When the woman is already married to someone else, however, and when that someone else is God, any romance is bound to be bittersweet.

I’m glad I was at home today to catch Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison on TCM.  It’s one of those movies that has a little bit of everything wrapped up in a beautifully filmed  Cinemascope package — humor, action, romance, drama, and most of all two excellent performances from Robert Mitchum and an Oscar-nominated Deborah Kerr.  I highly recommend checking out the movie if you haven’t seen it yet, and revisiting it if, like me, you haven’t seen it in a while.

William Powell in High Pressure (1932)

High Pressure is a 1932 movie directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring William Powell as Gar Evans, a fast-talking promoter who specializes in putting together companies and selling stocks that are just barely legal.  As he says in an early scene, all his deals are on the level.  After all, you can go to jail for larceny, but it’s no crime to exaggerate.

highpressureEvans is on a days-long bender when his friend Mike Donoghey (Frank McHugh) tracks him down to introduce him to Mr. Ginsberg (George Sidney), an entrepreneur who claims he’s found an inventor who can make rubber out of sewage.  After initially being repulsed by the idea (there’s no romance in sewage, Gar rightly claims, and all deals need to have some romance to them), Evans names the company the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company and gets to work.

Gar talks his way into renting out an entire floor of a swanky office building at half price, and into having the owner name the building after the new company. He hires the hobo (Guy Kibbee) he regularly puts in place as his companies’ president, because when he’s cleaned up he looks the part.  He hires a delivery boy who happens into the building, just because his name is Gus Vanderbilt.  No relation to the wealthy family, but what does it matter?  Having an Augustus Vanderbilt around will give the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company class.  He hires salesmen to peddle the firm’s stock, rallying them with a rousing pep talk and a chorus of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.”  Soon stock is flying out the door to eager buyers, and other rubber manufacturers are worried about this new upstart that may soon be taking business away from them.

brent-powell-high-pressure

There are only a couple of pieces of the puzzle missing.  One is Gar’s girlfriend, Francine, played by Evelyn Brent.  Francine has been strung along by Gar for years, living with both his shady dealings and his unwillingness to commit to her, and she’s had enough.  She’s met someone else and is ready to marry him and move to South America.  To Gar Francine is his good luck charm, however.  He can’t start a company without her.  He sweet talks her into coming back to him and installs her as the company’s receptionist.

The other missing piece is a big one – nobody can find the inventor Ginsberg claims has the formula for turning sewage into rubber.  With so much stock sold and not a pound of artificial rubber yet produced, the District Attorney’s office starts getting suspicious.  And when the inventor finally shows up and is far from the chemical genius they’d expected him to be – his degree in chemistry comes, ironically enough, from a diploma mill Gar ran years ago – things get even crazier, with Gar on the verge of both losing his girl and going to jail.

highpressure_noromance_vd_223x104_120720111047William Powell is at his smooth-talking best as a promoter so good he could sell ice at the North Pole.  He’s especially funny in the opening scenes, wild-haired and unshaven, recovering from days of debauchery.  He plays Gar as the smartest guy in the room, someone slick but not sleazy.  As always Powell delivers dryly amusing lines like no one else, and is the master of reacting to the lunacy going on around him.

The supporting cast is great too, especially Frank McHugh, George Sidney, and Guy Kibbee.  To me the only weak link was Evelyn Brent, who often sounded like she was reading her lines off cue cards.  William Powell could’ve used a leading lady with more sass, who could better hold her own with him.

The screenplay by Joseph Jackson, based on the play Hot Money by Aben Kandel, is sharp and funny, with zingy, extremely fast-williampowellpaced dialogue and a satirical take on the business world that must have seemed especially pointed to Depression-era audiences.  It’s amazing that they crammed so much action and dialogue into just over an hour, but as in a lot of early talkies things zip right along in High Pressure with not a minute wasted.  It’s a really entertaining movie, and a good look at William Powell in a witty, devilishly debonair role of the sort he was making his trademark in the 1930s.

High Pressure is included in Warner Archives’ recently released William Powell at Warner Bros. DVD collection.  It’s also airing on TCM on March 12th.

Another Deanna Durbin movie: Because of Him (1946)

This weekend I watched my third Deanna Durbin movie, Because of Him (1946), co-starring Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.  I chose to watch this one because the rapport Annex - Durbin, Deanna (Because of Him)_01between Durbin and Laughton in the first of her movies I saw, It Started With Eve, was so wonderful.  While that onscreen chemistry is still there between them in Because of Him, the movie itself wasn’t as enjoyable to me as their other film.

In Because of Him, Deanna Durbin plays Kim Walker, a waitress and aspiring actress whose only stage experience has been in high school productions.  She idolizes famous actor John Sheridan (Laughton in a delightfully hammy role) and sees all of his plays over and over.  When he stops at her restaurant en route to an out-of-town fishing trip, Kim tricks him into signing what he thinks is an autograph for a fan, but is actually the bottom of a glowing recommendation letter for a wonderful new actress – Miss Kim Walker.

Armed with the letter of introduction signed by Sheridan, Kim gets an appointment with a Broadway producer who thinks John Sheridan’s approval is a good enough reason to sign her up for the lead in the actor’s new play – no audition necessary.  The play’s author, Paul Taylor (Tone), disagrees.  He doesn’t want an untried nobody ruining his play.

When Sheridan returns early from his vacation and finds that not only is a strange girl cast opposite him, but everyone thinks she’s his protégée and they’re romantically involved, he’s shocked to say the least.  The scene during which he arrives at his apartment in the midst of a party being given there in honor of his supposed discovery is funny.  Kim feigns a fainting spell in an attempt to get out of the situation, only to be schooled by Sheridan on the proper way an actress should fake a swoon.

Sheridan is sympathetic to Kim, which is more than she really deserves after the trick she pulled on him, but he tells her she isn’t an actress and that she should go back home and forget Deanna_Durbin_Because_of_Him_R1_DVD_11052about show business.  From there things get even more complicated when Kim’s friend and fellow waitress Nora, played by Helen Broderick, lies to the press, telling them Kim attempted suicide after Sheridan dropped her both romantically and from the play.  Kim uses Nora’s lie to her advantage, getting both Sheridan and playwright Paul Taylor more and more mixed up with her until she winds up with the lead in their play after all.

Laughton and Durbin are good in their scenes together.  I especially like the moment John Sheridan realizes that Kim is more talented and promising than he initially thought, when she sings “Danny Boy” for him at his apartment.  I’ve never been especially moved by that song before, but Durbin’s emotional rendition actually left me in tears.  What a wonderful singer.

I was less impressed by Durbin’s storyline with Franchot Tone.  They didn’t seem to spend enough time together during the movie to make their romance believable, especially since most of the time they did share was spent with him telling her off, albeit deservedly, for the underhanded way she got ahead.  They did share a funny scene during which Kim follows an annoyed Paul around his hotel, singing “Goodbye” to him and a growing crowd of confused and annoyed onlookers. Overall, however, the romantic storyline left me fairly cold.

It’s hard to completely dislike Kim Walker, because Deanna Durbin is so likeable herself and because the person she most wrongs in the movie, John Sheridan, is so forgiving of her shenanigans.  To me, however, the character’s manipulative behavior crossed the line into Eve Harrington territory more than once, which made me less invested in wanting to see her succeed as an actress and lessened my enjoyment of the movie as well.

Because of Him was directed by Richard Wallace and has a beautiful score by Miklós Rózsa.  It’s available on DVD from the TCM Vault Collection with some nice extra features, including an introduction by Robert Osborne.