Four New To Me Classic Movies This week

Viva Las Vegas, 1964

Viva Las Vegas. Directed by George Sydney for MGM in 1964.

The pandemic has me doing things I wouldn’t normally do. Like watch Elvis movies. I’m surprised that, so far, I’ve enjoyed what simple fun they can be when I give them my undivided attention.

Viva Las Vegas opens with us being introduced to race car driver, Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Seems he’s trying to qualify for the Las Vegas Grand Prix there, but he needs a new engine in his car to do it. I assumed that would be the plot. Wrong! We lose sight of that story line pretty early in the movie. Too bad, it might have been interesting. Lucky does spend the rest of the movie at jobs that are supposed to pay him enough money to buy that engine, but it seems like no one really cares about that anymore. Writers and director anyway. Instead, the whole movie now focuses on Lucky’s relationship with Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret). It’s the typical boy gets girl, loses girl, gets girl back, plot. But, for me anyway, it’s filled with mid-century eye candy and stellar acting (just kidding, there’s no stellar acting), that I can’t stop watching. Even I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 85 minutes with Viva Las Vegas. The 1960’s Las Vegas style  that fills up my eyes in every single scene feels magical after three months of quarantine. The lights, decor, hotel swimming pools and dance floors, wardrobes, etc., etc……it’s all beautiful, colorful and pleasing. Elvis and Ann-Margret are beautiful too. I love that in some scenes they are the only two people onscreen dressed in yellow while all the others wear darker, drabber colors. I get it, they shine through this way, but they would have without it. They’re singing and dancing makes sure of that. If you like Elvis music, there’s a lot of it here. Ann-Margret’s dancing made the movie for me. Even though the plot was a yawn, and the script less than worthy, it was still a fun trip into 1960’s Las Vegas. And boy oh boy does it look like fun.

Elevator to the Gallows, 1958

Elevator to the Gallows. Directed by Louis Malle for Rialto Pictures

Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is in love with his boss’s wife, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). Simon Carala (Jean Wall) is in their way of a life together, so they’ve concocted a plan to murder him, making it look like a suicide. Julien uses a grappling hook and rope to climb to the upper floor where Mr. Carala’s office is in the building they work in. No one saw him and he murdered his boss. It worked. Instead of using the grappling hook and rope to get back down to street level, he takes the elevator instead. As he’s getting into his car in front of the building, he notices that he forgot to take down the grappling hook and rope. So in a panic, he leaves the car running and rushes back in to take the elevator to go up and retrieve it. While he’s in the elevator, the superintendent of the building, who doesn’t notice him, shuts the power off to the building for the night.  Tavernier is stuck in the elevator and can’t escape. He realizes he left his car running in front of the building and fades into the reality of his situation. In the meantime, his car, along with his gun, is stolen.

We’re just getting started.

This is the best new movie I’ve seen this week. Honestly, it’s the best new to me classic movie I’ve seen in a while. Elevator to the Gallows is a French film that tells its story, in this case, with English subtitles. This unique suspenseful drama, coupled with terrific writing and acting, kept my mind busy from the first scene. I keep telling myself for some reason that good, light-hearted comedies are what the doctor ordered for me right now, but this movie proves that spending time with a riveting, engaging, dark, dramatic movie can be just as helpful. An escape is an escape, right? This movie is that and so much more. Bonus: the Miles Davis soundtrack is fantastic.

I loved this one!

The Doughgirls, 1944

The Doughgirls, 1944. Directed by James Kern for Warner Brothers.

I don’t care how many years it was on stage or how many laughs were on screen. With this cast, (and I sincerely I love them all!), I expected so much more. Like a plot.

I don’t even want to talk about it……

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939 – Directed by Gregory LaCava for RKO

Fifth Avenue Girl is that light-hearted comedy I’m drawn to right now. It stars Ginger Rogers and Walter Connolly, and reminds me an awful lot of Easy Living, 1937, with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold, (the other well-to-do businessman and father that shows up in so many late 1930s comedies).

In the opening scene of Fifth Avenue Girl, Millionaire Timothy Borden (Connolly) meets unemployed and hungry Mary Grey (Rogers) in a park. Borden is distraught. His business has problems, his wife, Martha (Verree Teasdale) is out with a playboy, his kids ignore him…and, it’s his birthday. He’s lonely and depressed and somehow convinces Mary to help him celebrate his birthday at a nightclub. The next morning, everyone’s surprised that Mary has slept in the guest room for the night. Timothy notices that this piques Martha’s interest in him again so he hires Mary to stay at the house as an employee so they can go out on the town every night to hopefully gain Martha’s affections again. Meanwhile, Mary, though not thrilled with the situation, has a positive effect on other members of the household too. But not before complications arise with various family members and love interest struggles. Of course, Mary gets caught in the middle of it all. It’s funny and fun to watch. Ginger Rogers as Mary is terrific. I still like Easy Living better, but this one will do too.

Mr. Blanding’s Builds His Dream House, 1948 – Based On the Book By Eric Hodgins

“Oh this was a joy, sheer heaven from beginning to end,” Myrna Loy said about Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming

“Acting is like playing ball. You toss the ball and some people don’t toss it back; some people don’t even catch it. When you get somebody [like Myrna] who catches it and tosses it back, that’s really what acting is all about. Myrna kept that spontaneity in her acting, a supreme naturalness that had the effect of distilled dynamite,” Cary Grant for Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming.

The reason I love this movie SO much is the pairing of Cary Grant (Jim Blandings)and Myrna Loy (Muriel Blandings). They’re magical together. (See Wings in the Dark, 1935 and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, 1947) They play off each other so well that I never want a story to end when they’re in it. Their mutual respect shows on screen and its feels good to see that displayed effortlessly and authentically like this. Together, they make us laugh, and laugh some more. Mr. Blandings is my version of a perfect movie-watching experience. I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen.

Both the book and movie follow Mr. and Mrs. Blandings as they pursue their dream of moving to the country to raise their girls in the clean air and peaceful atmosphere. He’s a New York City advertising executive that’s stressed out with his job and the cramped quarters of their city apartment. She does her best to make it comfortable for all of them. A peaceful existence in the rural landscape calls to them both. They find what Mr. Blandings calls their “dream home” in a decrepit “antique” house. They can afford it, if they put some work into it.

They buy it. It immediately becomes a money pit with problems. It’s a chaotic, stressful project that causes more grief than they ever imagined it would when they first saw the house and fantasized about their life in it. And the bills. There’s so many bills!

Grant and Loy play their roles so well that all we have to do now is get lost in the story and smile at the way they handle it all. His funny facial expressions expertly show his passion and frustrations, and, as usual, her presence is comforting, beautiful and strong…to BOTH Mr. Blandings and us viewers.

Add Melvyn Douglas to the mix and, boom, MORE smart comedic timing. The script for the film was written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The dialogue and banter is an improvement from that in the book. I’m glad I read the book after I saw the movie. Placing the faces of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy into the characters of the book, I think, made it an easier read.

The Blandings with their architect, Simms (Reginald Denny).

Bottom line: The movie script, the actor’s abilities  and the setting of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is nothing short of brilliant. It’s funny and uplifting despite the turmoil that comes with building a new house.

There are some differences in the characters from book to movie. Notably, Bill Cole (Douglas), who is a smaller character in the book. narrates and plays a bigger part in the movie. You could say he anchors the whole thing with his narrative observations. Gussie (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper, is an entirely new, and enjoyable character in the movie. Spoiler alert:

Gussie (Louise Beavers) with Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett) Blandings.

She ends up saving the day.

Eric Hodgins published the book in 1946 after he wrote a short story about the home-building process for Fortune Magazine in 1946. Hodgins had a career in magazine publishing starting with the Atlantic in 1926. He was an Associate Editor at Redbook, a Vice President at Time and the publisher at Fortune. This is the only novel he ever wrote.

Each chapter of the book coincides with the chronological steps of the process of buying and rebuilding a dream house. It starts with Mr. and Mrs. Blanding discovering their dream property in Lansdale County, Connecticut (the movie starts in their New York City apartment) and takes us all the way to life in the house after it’s done.  The chaos in between is what both the movie and book are all about. In the book, that chaotic process is trying and full of details. It reads more like a diary than a story. In fact, Hodgins uses Mrs. Blanding’s diary entries to tell a chunk of the story.

The movie treats the chaos with humor and it’s perfect.

Additional Source:

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy

(Mostly) 1930s Al Hirschfeld Movie Posters

Being in the middle of these colorful Al Hirschfeld movie posters seemed like a good place to start a Monday. Especially one in the middle of a pandemic.

Al Hirschfeld was born June 21, 1903 in St Louis, Missouri. Beginning in the mid-twenties, Hirschfeld began documenting every major entertainer in the 20th century. Caricatures were his favorite subjects and his can be seen in so much of our 20th century movie heaven. Hirshchfeld worked until his death on January 20, 2003 in New York City.

Peter Falk as Columbo. Caricature for TV Guide by Al Hirschfeld,1976

This is the one that started my search for more Al Hirschfeld artwork. I fell for it immediately in large part because of this weird Columbo crush I have going on. While Hirschfeld is best known as a pen and ink caricaturist, there were other styles of drawings too – including those like these movie posters from (mostly) the 1930s and 1940s:

1946
1934
1931
1930
1939
1935
1943

1975

I hope you’re all safe and well….thank you for stopping by!

Sources:

The Al Hirshchfeld Foundation

The Line King Documentary which is available with Prime Video.

Nat Pendleton

Nathanial Greene Pendleton
August 9, 1895, Davenport, Iowa – October 12, 1967, San Diego, California

In my favorite, The Thin Man,  as Lieutenant John Guild…

…with Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles:

Nat Pendleton made over 100 movies in his career from the 1920s to the 1940s. Some I knew (Manhattan Melodrama), some I didn’t (Swing Your Lady) but I’ve recently re-watched everything I could find of his on Amazon and YouTube, along with some DVDs I had in my collection. It’s turned out to be a valuable, enjoyable lesson in the history of Hollywood films from the Golden Era and beyond. From pre-code to post-war, from silents to musicals, from the Marx Brothers to Dr. Kildare, Nat Pendleton’s career in the studio system took him through every major studio and many different genres.

I suppose I once took it for granted that Mr. Pendleton always played a version of the same character in every movie, a like-able, but not too bright policeman, gangster, assistant, etc. – he certainly played a lot of those. But, there were other roles too:

As the Mighty Goliath in At The Circus with the Marx Brothers. in 1939
As Sandow, with William Powell, in The Great Ziegfeld in 1936.

I point these two roles out because they’re a tiny nod, if only in costume, to Mr. Pendleton’s life before film…

…you see, he was a wrestler in Iowa.  A championship wrestler who won the silver medal at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.

Deception was a significant movie for Pendleton because his wrestling experience helped him write it for Columbia Pictures. He also starred in it as wrestler Bucky O’Neill.  The 1932 film, also known as Cauliflower Alley, tells the story of an ex-football player turned wrestler. I’d love to find this one.

It was when he returned from Belgium that his Uncle Arthur (Johnson), a silent film actor, influenced him to become an actor in silent films too. His film career started with the 1924 silent, Hoosier Schoolmaster (if anyone has any idea where I can find this one, please let me know!) and went all the way to 1947 with his his last film, Scared to Death with Bela Lugosi. (I can verify that it was, indeed, scary).

I love spending time with Pendleton in these movies…

…like 1934’s The Defense Rests with Jean Arthur.  (It’s free to watch on YouTube!)…

…or 1940’s The Ghost Comes Home….

….or 1940’s Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case.

 

Hell-Fire Austin, also from 1932, was one of the films where Mr. Pendleton played a more significant role. Of all the films I’ve watched of his, this is the one in which he had the most screen time. I’m generally not a Western film lover, but I’ll watch this one again, just to see Nat Pendleton play Bouncer. It’s a perfect part for him. It’s less than an hour long, and it’s the oldest “buddy movie” I’ve ever seen. I loved it.

Rocky…Bouncer…Bucky…his character names are so fitting aren’t they?

So yes, it’s fair to say that Nat Pendleton played many rolls like Lt. Guild in the Thin Man, but it’s been more than worth it to explore the roles he played in his other films.  I’ve learned a lot about classic movies thanks to Mr. Pendleton: I saw my first Marx Brothers movie, I actually enjoyed a Western for the first time and I was introduced to a new-to-me series in Dr. Kildare.

I’m looking forward to some of the 80+ movies of his I haven’t watched yet!

Sources:
Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame
American Film Institute – AFI
Wikipedia
Amazon