A Little Sunshine To Brighten The Grey: Receiving The Liebster Award

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Recently I received the most pleasant and humbling surprise, when I found myself nominated for the Liebster Award by Erica at Poppity Talks Classic Film. Erica is a fellow classic film fan and blogger whose wonderful support has helped keep me inspired and connected to writing my own blog. Her own outstanding blog featuring exceptional writing and is a must to visit and follow for its’ high standards and highly intelligent insights into classic film. Most importantly, Erica’s passion and love for classic film is wonderfully infectious and best of all, one will always learn from her writing. I am deeply honoured and humbled to be nominated by someone who is an exceptional writer and comes at a time when my own personal doubts have taken their toll. Erica, your nomination will never be forgotten, and my thanks and appreciation are beyond words!

As bloggers may know (and using Erica’s own words), The Liebster Award is thought to have originated around 2011 and “is a way to be discovered but also to connect and support the blogging community.”

After receiving a nomination, you earn the award by following a series of steps.

They are as follows:

  1. Thank the nominator in your award post.
  2. Place the award logo somewhere on your blog.
  3. You must state 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Complete the 11 questions that your nominator provided.
  5. Nominate as many bloggers as you’d like (11 is the maximum).
  6. Ask your nominees a series of questions (11 is the maximum).

So as they say in classic comedy: ‘and away we go!’

11 Facts About Myself

1. I am a recovering chocaholic – whose habits have had to be curbed for health reasons. To say this is a personal tragedy is an understatement, in the pursuit of preventing a further and far greater tragedy (in my humble opinion).

2. Aside from watching classic film, a little slice of paradise for me is a breakfast on my own near the ocean where I grew up. Poached eggs on thick wholemeal toast with a side of crispy bacon, a cappuccino and the Sydney Morning Herald (an outstanding Australian newspaper). It’s also an integral aspect of my own personal mental health plan.

3. Books are one of my key vices and old books are my weakness. I struggle to part with them and need extensions to house the books waiting for a home. I mainly purchase books on classic literature, history, politics, biographies, music and of course, film.

4. I love a good cigar – my favourite is a Monte Cristo No.2. But I’m very partial to H. Upmann, Cohiba and Casa Torano. Accompanied by a Cles Des Duc Armagnac or a good port, and a good friend to share it and chat with is also a slice of paradise for me.

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Robert Donat Aiming a Muzzle-Loader Gun

5. My favourite exercise is swimming and outside of winter, I try to swim at least 1km a day.

6. As much as I loved playing basketball when I was young (and I mean loved), I see no point in being a spectator at a game. You may as well give each side 80 points and ten minutes to play. (I know that sounds bad).

7. As a child I had two major dreams – to become a fast bowler for the Australian Cricket Team (my hero was 70s/80s legendary Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee) and to become Ace Frehley, the lead guitarist for Kiss (my other hero). Preferably both consecutively. (Well, I was a kid…)

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8. On my bucket-list is attending the TCM Film Festival and finally getting a chance to meet some of the wonderful classic film fans I’ve met through blogging and social media.

9. My father was English and so I am a bit of an Anglophile. There was a steady television diet of British comedies and drama as I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s – and I still watch them.

10. My love for 1970s American cop shows borders on obsession with a growing DVD collection including Kojak, The Streets Of San Francisco, Starsky And Hutch, Police Woman and other titles.

11. A very embarrassing admittance: I cry like a baby when I hear The Way We Were by Barbara Streisand. (Look we all have our triggers!)

11 Questions Provided By Erica

1. What kind of toppings do you like putting on your pizza?

I used to be a multiple topping guy but these days I keep it plain and simple – ham and cheese with oregano. Or pepperoni.

2. Who was you first celebrity crush?

Kim Wilde (80s British singer). But I think I was also a little in love with Lyndsay Wagner (The Bionic Woman).

3. Name one classic film star, one contemporary film star and one modern film star who you find to be overrated. Why?

Classic Film Star – June Allyson. Never warmed to her and doesn’t have screen presence for me.

Contemporary Film Star – Julia Roberts. Just ugh!

Modern Film Star – Nicholas Cage. Looks permanently constipated and he just grates on me.

4. Have you ever flown first class?

Yes. From Chicago to L.A. I was upgraded and very surprised! I was flying from Montreal back to Australia and had to make three flight. Even if it was only a four hour flight from Chicago to L.A, I absolutely loved it and appreciated the break from Economy.

5. What is your favourite holiday to celebrate?

Christmas. Without a doubt! In Australia, it’s in the middle of summer and during our big school break, so it’s a wonderful time. I still get a fresh tree and refuse to go plastic. Sadly, television has become disgraceful and woeful in presenting classic film and television shows but I’ve made up for it. My kids all know and love the Rankin Bass Christmas shows (which I have on DVD) and a multitude of classic Christmas cartoons. As a family we all watch the familiar classic Christmas films such as Miracle On 34th Street (1944), A Christmas Carol (1938), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and so many others.

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6. Is there anyone in your close inner-circle who shares your passion of film?

I have a great work colleague whom I consider a close friend and future collaborator on various projects. We share a love for all things entertainment from classic film to Z-grade shlock horror.

7. If you have Twitter, have you had any meaningful exchanges with celebrities and/or people who you admire?

I have a strange love/hate relationship with Twitter. It actually makes me feel very alone and ignored! Yet when I do get notice, it’s from some very kind and wonderful people who are mainly fellow classic film fans and bloggers.

8. What is your most cherished box-set of films?

VERY hard to choose but I think it would go to the Marx Brothers Paramount movies box-set. It’s a beautifully presented set and the black-and-silver themed artwork is on point. For me, the best of the Brothers can be found in the Paramount films and the true essence of their comedy. A close second would The Thin Man boxset.

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9. What is your favourite kind of food to snack on while watching movies?

Popcorn and Coke No Sugar – both the size of Mt Everest if possible.

10. Which celebrity death affected you the most?

I was greatly saddened by the death of Prince whose music I loved. I saw him on tour in Australia in 1992 but missed out the last two times. What an absolute genius! However, every time I hear of the passing of a classic film or television star, I naturally feel a sense of loss.

11. If you had the choice to travel in a time machine with a 50/50 chance of being able to come back to the present, would you decide to go?

The temptation would be terribly great, but I think I would decline. I couldn’t leave my kids! Although the chance to visit the 1930s would be fantastic.

My nominees for the Liebler Award

Tynan at Four Star Films

Zoe at Hollywood Genes

Paul at Classic Film Journal

The Brannan Sisters at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society

Heather at Meet Me At The Soda Fountain

My 11 Questions For The Nominees

  1. If you could star with a classic film actor and classic film actress, who would they be and why?
  2. Who is your favourite director?
  3. London or Paris? Why?
  4. What has been the most challenging blog post you have had to write?
  5. What is the next book you plan to read from your reading list?
  6. Describe your perfect day (within the bounds of reality).
  7. Who had the greatest influence on your developing a love for classic film?
  8. What iconic car from a classic film would you love to own?
  9. List your favourite quote from a classic film and why you love it so much.
  10. Name a classic film villain you love to hate and why.
  11. If you could possess a super power, what would it be and why?

I truly hope the nominees will accept!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

 

 

 

 

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This Gun For Hire (1942): The Film Which Won Alan Ladd His Stardom

by Paul Batters

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Gates: “You must have a girl or…friend?” 

Raven: “Why?”

Gates: “Live alone, work alone, hey?”

Hollywood will often cater film around its’ stars – after all, it’s a business wanting to make profits and a sure-fire way of doing so is give audiences what they want. The studio system drove but was also sustained by the system of stars that audiences clambered to see on the silver screen. Hollywood has also faced the criticism of being conservative (and perhaps even more so today!) where films that were safe, focusing on star personas rather than taking risks, were suffered by stars who hated being pigeon-holed. There are many stories of actors such as Humphrey Bogart and actresses like Bette Davis who either felt stifled or even fought the system for better roles.

But there is something else that excites audiences and that is the emergence of a new star, especially when that emergence was unexpected. Alan Ladd was such a star and the war era film noir classic This Gun For Hire (1942) was the film.

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The title of the film itself speaks volumes in terms of the usual tropes to be found in film noir. And if it reflected any of the characters in the film, it without a doubt is both the calling card and epitaph for Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd), a professional hitman who is double-crossed by his employer Willard Gates (the brilliant Laird Cregar). After Gates pays Raven in marked bills, the crooked businessman claims the money as stolen and police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is put on the case. Crane’s beautiful girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is a nightclub performer, who ends up working for Gates in one of his L.A clubs but will discover more than she bargained for.

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As in all things noir, the film develops into a tale driven by fear, mistrust, misunderstanding and the paranoia which was all pervading in the climate of World War Two. Raven not only becomes a man on the run from the law but a man with nowhere to go. His past is one of pain and personal anguish, enduring betrayal and hardening to its’ impacts. Raven is a man seemingly not given to warmth or sentimentality, yet his interactions with a stray cat, which he feels an affinity with, suggests something more. Like a cat, Raven is a loner, not relying on anyone to survive and walking in the shadows. Forever the loner, Raven is not the society type.

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His moments with Ellen are ones where he almost sheds his armour, suggesting a man who is not completely far gone. True, some of the pop psychology a la Freud bleed into the development of Raven’s character – the poor abused boy who is a victim of circumstance at every turn – and there is the danger of cliché. Yet somehow it works, and Ladd has us believing his personal narrative. In essence, Ladd is portraying one of the first anti-heroes, and is a trailblazer for the next generation of actors who would make their name playing the anti-hero. In many ways, it would also be a problem for a Hollywood firmly under the auspices of the Code.

Phillip Raven is also a man who is immersed completely in his dark world as a killer and has no qualms about pulling the trigger. His gun is the only thing that he trusts, and he has found this out the hard way. In this case, the betrayal of his employer will catapult him into a more dangerous world, where espionage will test his mettle. But the audience is under no false pretences of the nature of Phillip Raven. In essence, he is a terrible individual who has killed innocent people as well as those who perhaps ‘deserve’ their fate. Ladd’s portrayal is cold and brutal when we see him carry out his first hit. His eyes are piercing, betraying at hint of triumph just before he dispatches his victim. The cold professional is even more marked when the victim’s mistress enters the room and with a chilling monotone, Raven says “They said he’d be alone”,before he shoots the woman through a door she has found refuge behind.  Even Ellen, the woman with whom he has formed some connection, is only saved from being killed by a timely turning point in the story.

Both Raven and Ellen are drawn together through the element of fate, a powerful trope in film noir, by their association with Gates – Raven as a hired killer for the man, Ellen hired as a singer in one of his clubs. Both are thrown into circumstances neither have asked for and yet their fates are intertwined. He becomes her rescuer and then her captor during the film’s later desperate moments. Yet Ellen still tries to help him, moved by his personal revelations as well as hoping to appeal to something deeper within him.

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Ladd carries the weight of the film from a lower-billed position, way above his tournament ranking. The cliché that he ‘steals the picture’ rings true, with a performance finely tuned into the lone killer, driven by personal fears and mistrust. Despite the knowledge that Raven is a professional killer, the audience is hoping for his eventual escape from his predicament. Indeed, despite Raven being a killer, he is not an anomaly in the world of film noir. He may be an outlaw on the run, but he is betrayed by a so-called respectable businessman and drawn into a world of corruption, espionage and blackmail.

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And despite everything – all the toughness, cold-heartedness and gunplay, Raven shows that he cares for Ellen.

The chemistry between Ladd and the gorgeous Veronica Lake works wonders on the screen. Lake is more than a one-trick pony and this reviewer has seen some unkind remarks about her ability as an actress. She proves those critics wrong, playing the singer with a loving and sympathetic heart, and looking gorgeous all the while. It’s no mistake that the two would be paired again in other film noir classics.

The storyline for This Gun For Hire is slightly preposterous and the coincidences hard to swallow. Yet the audience is content to put that aside, thanks to Ladd and his interactions with Veronica Lake. Director Frank Tuttle does keep the film tight and well-paced, as well as beautifully shot. Robert Preston is solid, as are the supporting cast, although Marc Lawrence as Tommy is perhaps underused.

However, Ladd deserves all the attention he received for his performance. It would be ground-breaking for the young actor and the critics raved about the emergence of this new star. His partnering with Veronica Lake would become the basis for some other great films and one of the hallmark partnerships in the pantheon of film noir. This Gun For Hire will keep you riveted till the very end, thanks to the iconic performance delivered by Alan Ladd.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Vale Bill Collins: The Man Who Brought Australia ‘The Golden Years Of Hollywood’

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It’s been some time since I’ve written, being deeply depressed and despondent regarding writing and the lack of response and interest that writers usually face. I’m sure those of you are reading this and write know what I’m talking about. At the point of almost giving up, I find myself looking back to a man who introduced and nurtured a love for classic film to generations of Australians after he passed away recently.

His passing offered a chance and moment of retrospect, in being reminded of why I fell in love with classic film in the first place; and why I shouldn’t give up writing about classic film.

Below is a far overdue tribute to Australia’s ‘Mr Movies’ Bill Collins who passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84 on June 21stthis year.

Recently, classic film fans in Australia and indeed many Australians who grew up watching TV from the 60s through to the mid 90s, were saddened by the passing of one of television’s most beloved celebrities. He was not a famous actor or director, but few knew cinema like he did. He was not a singer or musician, yet he loved musicals, and few would have had the record collection he owned. He was not a talk show host, yet he interviewed many great actors, actresses and film-makers. He did something which seemed fairly basic and unimportant on the surface – he introduced films on television. Yet nobody could equal what he did and the fact that we will no longer see him do it, is a great loss to fans of classic film. They called him ‘Mr. Movies’ and his name was Bill Collins.

Bill Collins was famous on Australian television for the burning passion, incredible knowledge and deeply informative introductions to the classic films that he presented on Australia television.  Trained as an English teacher, Collins was a man with a passion for literature and theatre and taught in high schools in Sydney’s inner-west during the early to mid-60s. Always the great film fan, Collins was already writing film reviews in the 1960s before starting with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission), which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC or Canada’s CBC. From this point on, Bill Collins movie presentation career never looked back and whilst he was no longer in the classroom, he would remain a passionate teacher and we were happy to be students as we learned about the films he was presenting.

In the days before Pay-TV (cable to American readers), videos, DVDs and online streaming, Bill Collins was one of the most important presenters of classic film. He would work across a number of Australian television stations. But he really found home at Channel 10 in 1980, where he reached a national audience every Saturday night on ‘Bill Collins Golden Years Of Hollywood’ for nearly 15 years.

Saturday nights on Channel 10 were a ratings winner. As the song ‘That’s Entertainment’ began and a montage of Hollywood images played, families across Australia settled in to hear and see ‘Mr. Movies’ introduce the first film of a double feature from the classic era. Collins would give background to the key players, the artwork from his incredible collection of posters and lobby cards and discuss almost every element of production from the direction to the musical score. And of course, he also shared some juicy and fascinating gossip. His incredible knowledge was matched by an oft-described over the top manner which a few criticised as being saccharine and even over-compensatory. Cinephiles would also criticise Collins for his overt nostalgia and the lack of distance from a film needed to provide a more focused and balanced critique. But nobody could deny his passion and love for film.

Collins was also an extremely busy presenter. Whilst Saturday night’s program was the main event and jewel in the crown, Collins would also present Saturday and Sunday afternoon films, late Friday night film noir classics and would continue to present films from the modern era on regional TV stations across Australia. Despite the charge that he was too kind to the films he presented, the truth is that Collins could often be scathing and honest in his assessment. He was particularly brutal towards the 1984 remake of The Razor’s Edge with Bill Murray. And I can still remember his controlled yet poor assessment of First Blood, which he presented on WIN’s Sunday night film (the regional station in our area).  

He could be imperious, demanding that we watch the film and declaring that it was impossible not to love the film. There was certainly a powerfully nostalgic theme running through the whole package and persona of Bill Collins – but that is why he was so loved as well. It was a very personal approach that Bill Collins offered as he leaned forward as if speaking only to you as an individual and bringing his teacher-like persona into your living room. The literary background to the man was also revealed through his discussion of the book of the film, often a beautiful edition again from his own private collection. And being a lover and aficionado of the musical (and music in general), he would usually show a copy of the soundtrack as well, which would be part of his extensive collection of books, albums, film posters and other memorabilia.

What was particularly impressive about the man was that he presented with no script and no auto-cue. Every line Bill Collins delivered was “off the cuff”, which added to the intimate nature of his connection with the audience. We would often be told (or rather ‘ordered’) that we ‘could not help but love this film’. And often he was right.

Bill Collins noted that by the early to mid 1990s, something was changing in television and the long-established formats, as well as the personnel. Video had been around a while (and there was even a Bill Collins Classic Series!) but the advent of Pay-TV would change the face of Australian television permanently. But that wasn’t the end of Bill Collins, with the man moving to the newly formed Fox Classics. To the credit of the bosses at Pay-TV, they let Collins do things the way he always did, and Saturday nights felt the same again.

Sadly, that began to change in 2018 with a winding down and an eventual retirement in September, 2018. Pre-recorded introductions were available to be streamed but it wasn’t the same. The eventual sad news that Bill Collins had passed away has seen not only the end of an era but is a watershed moment in the decline of classic film on Australian television. Fox Classics has become a shadow of its’ former self, with poor and bizarre programming. Doubled with the loss of TCM after 20 years on Australian Pay-TV, classic film fans are looking to other streaming services, DVDs and even returning to traditional television to watch classic film. But it’s not getting easier and even the purchasing of classic film on DVD has become more difficult and expensive, thanks to Federal Government legislation (making it difficult to purchase classic films on DVD from overseas sites) and the huge price hike in international postage.

So, the lament and sadness in Bill Collins’ passing is even greater than ever. As a tribute to the great man, on the Saturday after his passing, Fox Classics aired a special screening of Gone With The Wind, with the great man introducing what was his favourite film and the film he attributed to beginning his romance with classic film. As I sat and watched, I realised it really was the end of an era and that I would never again see or hear Bill Collins introduce a classic film.

There have been other presenters and there may be other presenters. Yet none of them will match the charisma and passion that Bill Collins nor the longevity and enormity of his career and his personality. If there was a ‘king’ of classic films in Australia, Bill Collins would have worn the crown.

What is left is a wonderful legacy and an incredible amount of gratitude for a man who set alight in me a love for the Golden Years Of Hollywood. He gave Australian film fans so very much and we won’t forget him.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Scarlet Street (1945): Joan Bennett – The Dangerous Femme Fatale

by Paul Batters

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How can a man be so dumb… I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you…sick, sick, sick! Kitty March (Joan Bennett)

Film noir has always fascinated me. It’s grip on my imagination and my love for classic film has become intertwined, for a whole combination of reasons. Perhaps one of the most fascinating themes that emerges in film noir is how ordinary, everyday and even boring people are drawn into the web of a darker and more dangerous world. It’s why Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of film noir’s best examinations of that very theme. And why it is also one of Joan Bennett’s exciting roles as the femme fatale, Kitty March, which this article will specifically focus on.

The master director had used the three principal actors – Bennett Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea – the previous year in the superb The Woman In The Window. Such was its’ success and so effective was the combination of the three that Lang brought them back for his screen adaption of Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1931 novel, La Chienne (The Bitch). What Lang created was a film noir masterpiece, with a delving into darkness that leaves the audience breathless in its’ audacity, despite the Breen Code firmly in place. Jeffrey Anderson has claimed that Scarlet Street is perhaps the darkest of Lang’s American films – and he’s probably right.

The story tells of a quiet, meek and placid cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who is also henpecked and bullied by his domineering and difficult wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). Caught in a loveless marriage and an uneventful life, Christopher dreams of a life where there is some affection, love and excitement to break the dull life that he leads. One of the few escapes and joys that he has is art, particularly painting. 

Fate steps in one afternoon, when he comes across Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being menaced by a hood on the street. Assisting her during this altercation, Christopher then offers to take her home, first stopping somewhere for tea, where he reveals to Kitty his love of painting. Kitty mistakes him for an art dealer of sorts but there is also more than meets the eye to Kitty. Whilst the Code strangles out what she actually is, there is enough left to insinuate that Kitty is a prostitute and the man who had earlier assaulted is her pimp/boyfriend Johnny (Dan Dureya). The two come up with a plan for Kitty to fake romantic feelings for the hapless Christopher, as well as offer her place for him to paint there in peace.

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It doesn’t take long for Christopher to fall in love with Kitty, who leads him along, as they sell his art. But Christopher is also drawn into crime, stealing from his employer as well as his wife. Christopher, drawn in by Kitty’s play, drifts further and further into her plans; even happy enough for her to take credit for his art and not seeing a penny for his troubles.

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But further complications will arise, and Christopher will try to save his relationship with Kitty by asking her to marry him. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes in classic film and still shocks by its’ raw violence, savagery and sheer audacity. And this writer will not divulge anything further.

Kitty March is an interesting femme fatale and one which Lang examines brilliantly through a seasoned performance from Joan Bennett. As already mentioned, there are strong insinuations that she is a prostitute. Yet there is far more going on. Like any relationship based on exploitation and dominance, it becomes hard for the audience to understand what hold Johnny has on Kitty. Interestingly enough, Johnny comes across almost as ineffectual as Christopher and there is nothing physical, ‘manly’ (for want of a better term) or particularly roguish about him. Yet Kitty loves him despite it being a one-sided love, where Johnny’s only interest is to exploit her. She accepts this willingly and takes part in the exploitation of Christopher, where she employs her skills as an ‘actress’ to lead him down the garden path. As Johnny exploits Kitty through her love for him, so too does Kitty exploit Christopher via his weakness for her. Indeed, her own sexuality seems to find expression, only through the language of exploitation, degradation and masochism.

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Bennett is outstanding as the cold-hearted femme fatale and she proves to be just so, as the audience will eventually discover. She weaves through the complexity of being the manipulated and the manipulator, being preyed upon by Johnny whilst preying on poor Christopher’s inadequacy. Her brassy and vulgar ‘writing off’ of the pathetic and hapless man she has been duping, is cruel beyond description. And nothing could be more pathetic than the look on Bennett’s face and the Queen of Sheba posturing as Christopher kneels at her feet doing her toes.

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Of course, what Bennett also brings to the role is a duplicity in which she cons others but is also conned herself. The femme fatale constantly ducks, dives and dodges what fate is ready to give her, as punishment for Kitty’s many and varied sins. Christopher is only one of many men that she has used and exploited, and as the audience discovers, sex is not the only thing she will exploit. But again, there is more to Bennett as the femme fatale and reviewer Wess Haubrich is correct in his assumption that Kitty does not want to be here where she is. She is the classic femme fatale, in that she is looking for a way out but knows no other way. Kitty is also a damaged woman, with dashed dreams and a bleak future. But therein lies the cruel reality of the world of film noir, as Christopher, too, has dashed dreams and tries to rekindle them late in life. Perhaps Kitty understands Christopher better than she realises, with both seeing years pass and their dreams not only unrealised but shattered and lives unfulfilled.

Lang as director exploits his skills as well, with the depth, brilliance and intuition of a man who helped develop the artist’s palette in the first place. The master of Expressionism finds meaning in the subtleties as well, such as the use of mirrors (particularly around the bed) to highlight Kitty’s duplicity and the sordidness of what happens in her bed. The cigar smoke rising around Christopher’s head at the start of the film certainly suggests the start of a descent into the hell defined by Dante. And of course, there is the great irony that there is acting within acting, where the audience is also allowing itself to be manipulated.

It’s easy to compare Joan Bennett’s performance as Kitty with the previous year’s performance alongside E.G Robinson in The Woman In The Window. But that’s missing the point. The nuances of Bennett as the dangerous woman that Christopher falls for remove Kitty from being cliched. She’s dangerous yet vulnerable, cruel yet kind to the man who treats her bad and loving only to a man who doesn’t love her.

Scarlet Street is not only a superb example of a taut film noir masterpiece from Fritz Lang; it’s also a solid performance from Joan Bennett.

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

The Seven Year Itch (1955): Sex And Sizzle in the 1950s

by Paul Batters

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When it’s hot like this – you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox – The Girl (Marilyn Monroe)

The seasons hold powerful symbolism in a number of ways and cinema audiences have made those connections for decades. There is a romanticism about Spring (the blooming of love, rebirth, discovery), a bittersweet emotion is often connected to Autumn and Winter can represent far darker elements whilst alternatively evoking memories of cosy fires and (at least in the northern hemisphere) scenes of Christmas.

But Summer is a whole different thing. Hot summers evoke hot passions, the full flowering of life and living life to the fullest before everything turns back to the long, cold winter. Despite a celebration of summer generally being linked to youth and the young, that doesn’t mean that the more mature don’t share the same desires. Just as the young make discoveries and want to experience the world, those somewhat past the initial full-bloom of youth have just as much a desire to party. They also seek out to re-spark the excitement that was once there and perhaps lament decisions which have seen them in marriages that have left them stilted.

The concept of the ‘seven-year itch’ has become cliched in an age where divorce, separation, multiple partners and affairs are de rigueur. Indeed, the concept of marriage is one which is not a permanent state, nor does it prevent people from seeking partners or sexual excitement from outside the marriage. However, the ‘seven-year itch’ was a new, psychological concept in the 1950s and at a time when the sex comedy became an institution in film for a more hip and sophisticated audience.

 

As a result, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) sought to look at the phenomenon. Tom Ewell plays Richard Sherman, a middle-aged executive from Manhattan, who lives a straight, vanilla life. He begins to reminisce about his past and the possibilities and opportunities he left behind, particularly with those of the opposite sex, and the obvious mid-life crisis comes into play. But what also emerges are his own insecurities and worries, and as the audience will discover, his imagination runs rampant and we are left wondering how much of what we see is reality or Richard’s fantasy.

With the arrival of summer, Richard sees off his wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes) and son Ricky (Butch Bernard) as they go on vacation to Maine. It’s a hot, sultry summer, which of course is suggestive of the heat that Richard will begin to feel. Remaining at the publishing company he works for, the climate of sexuality is constantly hinted at; such as the title of Little Women being changed to ‘The Secrets Of A Girl’s Dormitory’, complete with highly suggestive cover. Or when he goes to a vegetarian restaurant (to watch his health) and the waitress (Doro Merande) asks for donations for the cause of ‘nudism’:

Waitress: Nudism is such a worthy cause. We must bring the message to the people. We must teach them to unmask their poor suffocating bodies and let them breathe again.

Returning home to an empty house, Richard has also been immersed in a manuscript – “Man and the Unconscious” by psychiatrist Dr. Ludwig Brubaker (Oskar Homolka). It is this book which drives his imagination into over-drive, as well as his mid-life crisis, and he begins to dream up all manner of scenarios. (Later, the famous beach scene from Here To Eternityis hilariously satirised, with Richard romping with his wife’s best friend Elaine). But Richard is also convinced that he is falling for the seven-year itch, where all married men are tempted to engage in extra-marital affairs after seven years of marriage. He also becomes convinced that he is irresistible to women and that women have been throwing themselves at him for years. All in his imagination of course.

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It’s at this point that he comes into contact with the new neighbour in the apartment building. Known as The Girl (Marilyn Monroe), this new neighbour is almost impossibly beautiful and oozes sexuality. Eventually inviting her in for a drink after a slight mishap, The Girl seems to be innocent in her sexiness and has no intention to seduce Richard. Yet he is under the misapprehension that he is definitely in with a chance, fuelled by his present condition and his misguided and deluded belief in his own personal attractiveness. Again, there’s plenty of fantasy as Richard’s mind invents all manner of seduction scenarios in which he conquers her. Richard drifts between fantasy and reality throughout the film. 

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Richard is inherently a good guy going through a personal crisis and no seduction occurs. However, the torment has a hold on him, and he seeks advice from Dr. Brubaker, whose book he has been reading. He’s even convinced that his wife and son will find about his imagined indiscretions and his guilty conscience is transferred onto his wife, whom Richard discovers has come into contact with a former beau (Sonny Tufts). But Richard is also becoming more paranoid that his innermost thoughts, as well as his sexual urges will be discovered by all, especially by his wife. His paranoia sees him imagining The Girl (working in a toothpaste commercial) broadcasting what he was been up to. It seems that Richard’s imagination never seems to let up.

Again, Richard drums up all manner of scenes between the two and he uses these as an excuse for revenge by inviting The Girl to dinner. To escape the hot summer evening, a movie in an air-conditioned theatre is suggested, going to see The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The interesting conversation they share is followed by one of the most iconic moments in film cinema history:

Contrary to popular belief, the scene filmed on location at Lexington Ave was not rendered useless by the noise of the crowd watching. The scene was re-shot on a sound stage and both scenes were used in the final cut.

In the end, the sexual tension is more in the mind of Richard though The Girl holds a definite affection for him. Richard eventually comes to his senses and realises that he has a problem with an over-active sexual imagination. Yet The Girl commends him for it:

The Girl: I think it’s just elegant to have an imagination. I just have no imagination at all. I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination.

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The ending is a little sappy and to be expected for a sex comedy of the 1950s. Whilst it feels dated and even redundant, there are some funny moments, often emerging in the imagination of Richard Sherman. Tom Ewell is fantastic in the role and he brings forth a wry humour that makes it a fun, memorable performance. But if the film is particularly memorable, it is thanks to Marilyn Monroe whose characterisation of innocent sexuality works well in tandem with Ewell’s performance. There is an unfortunate truth the role plays up the ‘sexy dumb blonde’ persona that plagued Monroe’s career and the now iconic scene of her standing in the sexy white halter-neck dress above the grate, certainly fed that persona.

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Drawn from the George Axelrod’s play, the film loses much of the impact of the stage version, due to the restrictions of the Code that was in place. Whilst The Seven Year Itch is still enjoyable, it becomes a light-hearted comedy with only some of the sizzle. Billy Wilder is one of the greatest directors, with a litany of great films across film noir and comedy that were not only ground-breaking but are templates for genius on film. The Seven Year Itch is not one of them, although it did well at the box-office on release and was generally well-received.

The film is perhaps best remembered because of Marilyn Monroe’s dominating sexual presence and the title which would become part of the lexicon of popular culture. In Cahiers du Cinema, Wilder would state that he was not happy with the film and would also describe it as a ‘nothing film’. Wilder had been commissioned by Fox to make the film and the restrictions in place would be too much for the director. Yet he still manages to add some beautiful touches to the film, specifically via the sexual urges of the main character in the presence of Monroe, as well as his talent for farce and cynicism. But as stunning as Monroe was on screen, Wilder found her exhausting to work with although it would pale in comparison to the difficulties, he would face with her a few short years later in Some Like It Hot.

The film certainly looks good, with Wilder using colour and Cinemascope to project the vivid imagination of Richard Sherman with great effect. There’s enough here to keep one entertained with a good dose of satire as well. Derek Adams in Time Out makes a valid point that what seemed ‘fresh and risqué in the ’50s, now appears a little obvious and over-plotted’. Wilder would have agreed with the sentiment.

For a film set during the heat of summer, there’s still some of the sizzle that one would expect in a sex comedy starring Marylin Monroe. Without the restrictions in place, and Wilder freer to pursue the original story, The Seven Year Itch may have been more of a scorcher.

This article is an entry into the Hotter N’Ell Blogathon kindly hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog . Please click on the link to read other great entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974): Last of the great Hammer films

by Paul Batters

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“There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey”  – Grost ( John Cater) Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter

Of all the horror films produced by Hammer in the 1970s, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter perhaps had the greatest potential. Touted to become a new franchise, the studio was in such dire financial straits that no incantations or tana leaves could have revived its’ dying body. And so, any possible future for a series of Kronos fighting all manner of monsters was sadly ended. As a result, there’s only one film as testimony to what Hammer was planning. Yet even as a stand-alone film, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter, offers a different and fascinating take on the legend of the vampire with an intriguing story.

Directed by Brian Clemens (famed scriptwriter of numerous British TV shows such as The Persuaders, The Avengers and The Professionals), Captain Kronos would introduce a seemingly new yet actually ancient concept of the vampire. This concept also went to the metaphysical depths of vampiric legend that the source of survival was not blood but life itself.  The vampire in Captain Kronos feeds on the life essence and the opening scene of the film, gives us the backdrop to the story in a vivid and terrifying way. Again, there is an evocation of Stoker and vampire folklore as the vibrant youth and beauty of the victims is countered with the decrepit corruption of the monster.

As a counter to the usual narrative, it is day when the first attack happens, whilst two girls who are together in the woods. As one girl runs off to pick flowers, the other sits under a tree and brushes her hair whilst looking into a mirror. The camera acts as the menace, approaching the girl, who discovers the strange figure via its’ reflection in her mirror (going against traditional vampire lore). Initially startled and frightened, she quickly falls under the hypnotic spell of the hooded figure and is drawn into the figure’s embrace, again shown in the reflection of the mirror, after which a few drops of blood fall onto the glass.

Perchance, Dr. Marcus is out riding and notices the second girl looking in in stunned horror. Again, the moment is highly effective in the suggestive gaze of the camera, particularly when Dr. Marcus discovers the victim, who turns to face the camera, horribly aged with blood dripping from her lips. The horror on Dr. Marcus’ face matches that of the audience and the story is set.

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The titles launch, backed by the superb soundtrack of blasting horns and strings of a battle song, with the dashing Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) riding his horse across the green, with his faithful companion Professor Hieronymus Grost (John Cater) following behind. It’s an inspiring moment and the tone of a great hero who is more than a match for any monster is well established.

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Of course, our hero is on his way to the village of Durward, after being called there by his old friend, Dr. Marcus. Kronos’ expertise in fighting and destroying the undead has brought him there. The context of the story is well-established, not only temporally through costume and language but more importantly through the belief system in place. In an age where the power of the Church was unchallenged, the law punishes those who go against Church teachings and dogma. On his way to the village, Kronos discovers a beautiful girl in the stocks, punished for dancing on the Sabbath. The girl, Carla (Caroline Munro) is a gypsy who will stay with Kronos and not only will she become his lover, but Carla will also assist in his search for the vampires.

What will follow makes for an intriguing storyline, with Kronos and his two companions using their knowledge and wisdom to discover the vampires. The methods used are fascinating and well-weaved into the story, with Professor Grost, acting as the classic horror character of the wise and educated elder who educates and familiarises us with vampire lore. Grost’s explanations are fascinating and his methods of discovering vampires, such as placing dead toads in buried boxes, also intriguing.

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The scenes of the mysterious vampire taking down its’ victims are atmospheric and exceptionally done. Again, the flower of youth is accentuated via young, beautiful women with their whole lives in front of them, only to be left as drained husks before dying. Of course, it drives the story forward and the desperate necessity to rid the community of this horrific monster. But there are other horrific ways in which young girls are attacked, evoking classical interpretations of the vampire story.

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Kronos is a fearless hunter of monsters and he also has a powerful intuition and knowledge borne of experience, which will lead him to discover who the vampire is. The hints are already there, after Dr. Marcus has made an earlier visit and of course the usual trope of ‘the noble vampire’ is again employed here. The Durward matriarch seems old and decrepit beyond her years; a result of ‘grief’ from the death of her husband, seven years earlier. Her son Paul (Shane Briant) plays protector to his mother and his beautiful sister Sara (Lois Daine) become suspects to the audience.

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But unlike previous incarnations, there is quite the twist and it takes Kronos’ intuition, mystical powers and vampire knowledge to make the discovery. To draw the vampires out once and for all, he will use Carla as bait, which is beautifully shot and directed. Director Brian Clemens will lead us down the garden path and his screenwriter’s sense of story development makes the final twist all the more exciting.

The final confrontation makes for an exciting finish to the story. Again, Kronos’ brilliance sees him take on the Durward vampires with a mystical sword fashioned from a large crucifix. Its mirrored blade becomes a crucial weapon against Lady Durward (Wanda Ventham), the vampire matriarch.

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What works in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is also what lets it down a little. There is plenty of fantastic back-story and plot development that is not exploited enough or rather not enough, to keep us dangling. One wonders if more would have been revealed in future films in the series. Certainly, Captain Kronos himself is a figure with a veiled past, that makes him far more intriguing and fascinating. A veteran of numerous wars (and apparently had served alongside Dr. Marcus in the past), he dismisses questions about his military career, illuminating a cavalier approach that is in keeping with a man with a past who would rather forget it but cannot:

Kerro: Tell me, did you win your battles or lose them?

Kronos: A little of both… and not enough of either.

Obviously, Kronos is a man with incredible abilities, particularly as a swordsman, which has allowed him to survive countless encounters – not only on the battlefield. There is also the suggestion that he is travelled far beyond where most have been and it’s quite interesting that other than the traditional rapier, Kronos also wields a katana. To be in the possession of such a weapon opens up a host of questions – obviously, how did he get it but more to the point, how did he learn to use it? The incorporation of Japanese swordplay also raises another question; where Hammer trying to tap into the explosion of popularity in martial arts movies (This had been attempted, of course, with Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires).

The scene where Kronos uses the katana is pure gold and evokes countless Westerns, where the underestimated stranger/gunslinger deals with local tough guys or trouble-makers. In the case of Kronos, three men led by Kerro ( a very underused Ian Hendry) are sent to dispatch with the hero, who does the dispatching himself of the three with one super-human stroke of his sword. Impressive? Absolutely and one of the highlights of the film.

What also makes the swordplay work is the quality of the duels, with greater realism in the use of weapons. As already mentioned, the final duel is gruelling and exciting as the two opponents seek to destroy each other through attrition rather than intricate swordplay. Kronos, after all, is a master of war and fighting, not there for the entertainment of others.

There are far more questions than answers, and a number of vague clues leave the audience with even more. At one point, after making love to Carla, Kronos reveals that he lost his family to a vampire, leaving him devastated and empty. He shows Carla two bite mark scars on his neck (given by his vampirised sister). Not having been vampirised himself, does this mean that his ‘near-miss’ has given him wisdom beyond that of mere mortals? Or the mystical and incredible powers that he possesses? What is left, is a man driven to destroy that which destroyed his family and nearly destroyed him. It’s a compelling and fascinating back-story to the character of Captain Kronos that is not developed enough, and this is a certain flaw in the film.

The film certainly needs to be better paced and whilst the slow burn works well in developing a tale, it begs for well-placed flare-ups from time to time to keep the fire going and further drive the story.

Horst Janson has enough charisma and mystery to make for a dashing hero. Whether he could have carried a franchise is impossible to know but this reviewer gets the feeling that he had the goods. Caroline Munro is as stunning and gorgeous as ever, and at least becomes part of the team hunting for vampires, instead of the usual eye candy.

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As a huge fan of Brian Clemens for his work across a number of TV shows, he’s a far better script-writer than director and perhaps a more seasoned director could have been utilised to launch a franchise. After all, this was a last roll of the dice for Hammer. But there are some beautiful touches that Clemens employs; the opening scene is particularly effective, as are the opening titles and overall the film is beautifully shot. Other effective moments are the flowers left blackened after the vampire passes over them. Budget wise, Clemens did not have huge amounts of money to play with, yet he does well with the monetary limitations.

Clemens is on record believing Captain Kronos would have been a perfect franchise, fighting all manner of monster, across all manner of time period (hence the name ‘Kronos’ – Greek for ‘time’). There’s no doubt that there is huge potential for a series. (Perhaps television was an option?)

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In fairness, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is a good film made at the wrong time. The audience demand for Hammer-type films was dying off by the mid 1970s, as a whole new approach to horror had emerged, particularly thanks to Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The horrors of Satan and demonic possession far outweighed Gothic horror tales and brought a deeper, more frightening fear out of the depths of an audiences’ psyche. Additionally, the terrifying reality and real fear of serial killers had emerged in the post-war era and the slasher film, with the almost-supernatural relentless killer a la Halloween, would frighten audiences far more than a frilly-shirted vampire from literature. Such horrors were turning up in newspaper headlines and the 6 o’clock news, rather than Gothic literature.

Hammer had gambled on combining genres which were out of fashion; the horror film and the swashbuckling hero. A great idea that did not fit the era and even if a franchise had taken off, it’s a safe bet that it would not have survived to see a third film, given the nature of what audiences wanted.

But there are other factors to consider. The film was made in 1972 but struggled with finding release by 1974, when as already discussed, new forms of the horror film had emerged. Caroline Munro has stated that it barely got released in Britain and she wasn’t even made aware it was being shown. For a Hammer Film, minimal publicity and struggles with getting wide distribution, was an anathema and simply unheard of. But the budget wasn’t there.

Nevertheless, Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter is lots of fun and perhaps one of the better Hammer films of the 1970s. It’s a last great hurrah for the studio which transformed the horror film from the days of silvers and sepia (for better or for worse), into a world of colour, sex and excitement. Captain Kronos won’t disappoint, and the hallmarks of Hammer are all over its production. It deserves to be honoured as a cult classic.

(Note: The film in full is available via Hammer’s You Tube Channel. You can view it via the link below)

This article is an entry into the Great Hammer Amicus Blogathon, kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews It’s been a great pleasure to take part! Click on the link to read other great articles on classic films from Hammer and Amicus. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

China Seas (1935): Celebrating Clark Gable On The Silver Screen

by Paul Batters

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Of all the stars that graced the silver screen during MGM’s heyday, none was ever as dominant as Clark Gable. Younger generations may have never seen any of his films, yet Gable’s face is still recognisable to them today.  Justifiably, he was called the ‘King Of Hollywood’ and was without doubt the king of his home turf – MGM Studios. For classic film fans, there are quite a number of Gable’s films that are particularly celebrated, none moreso than Gone With The Wind.

During the mid 1930s, Gable was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, which was certainly assured after his Academy Award winning performance in 1934’s sleeper hit, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra and also starring Claudette Colbert. The film was a ‘punishment’ of sorts by MGM, lending Gable to the studio when he complained about the roles he was getting. It would showcase Gable’s talent for screwball comedy, as well as quick repartee. MGM would not make that mistake again and would jealously guard their now biggest star.

With stardom assured, MGM spared little expense in the films in which Gable featured. During the period that immediately followed, many film historians tend to focus on two films –Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Both reveal classic MGM production values, with outstanding casts and were huge hits for MGM. They are both exemplary in showcasing Gable’s screen presence and talent. Yet China Seas, the film he made not long after It Happened One Night, whilst not completely forgotten, does not get as much attention as the aforementioned films.

As biographer Warren G. Harris points out, Gable had just come off an Oscar win which meant a new lucrative MGM contract, with far better conditions. China Seas would be the first film of this new contract, which meant star treatment for Gable.

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Directed by Tay Garnett, MGM’s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, had eyed China Seas for production since 1931.  With some of MGM’s biggest stars and a supporting cast with good depth, China Seas was a big hit for the glamorous studio in 1935 and further cemented Gable’s superstar status. An adventure/romance sea epic, China Seas, was the perfect vehicle for Gable and MGM’s other major star, Jean Harlow, with both appearing in their fourth film together. The studio wanted to capitalise on the wonderful screen chemistry that the two shared and they certainly sparkle, with the raw sexuality of Harlow matching the man’s man machismo of Gable.

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From the opening scene, Herbert Stothart’s musical score underpins the busyness of the port of contemporary Hong Kong, which in 1935 means it’s an integral part of the British Empire. The hustle and bustle eventually focuses on the ‘Kin Lu’, a steamer that runs between Hong Kong and that other port of British empirical power of the period, Singapore. The steamer’s captain, Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), has a reputation as tough, fearless and a hard player. Most are wise enough to stay out of his way or at the very least make sure they don’t arouse his ire if they can’t. However, we soon discover that deep down Gaskell is a good guy, particularly when parrying with the ships’ owner, Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith). Despite all appearances, the two share a mutual respect and affection, and Sir Guy recognises that he has a captain that is worth keeping. The duplicitous Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Berry) wears the façade of a friendly though rough-edged trader in the Orient but as the audience soon discovers, Jamesy has other plans and is in league with a gang of pirates. Garnett sets the tension early and establishes the story’s later complication when a number of the aforementioned Chinese pirates disguised as women are caught by Gaskell. McArdle praises Gaskell whilst sending out a message to keep the caught pirates quiet. McArdle’s warmth and geniality is the perfect cover for a dangerous man in league with desperate men.

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Furthermore, the 250,000 British Pounds in gold bullion to be transported to Singapore has been hidden in the steamroller. McArdle knows it’s on board through his contacts and he and the pirate gang are after it. But naturally only Gaskell (and the audience) knows where it is. Will McArdle and the pirates get the gold?

We get a feel for who Gaskell is early in the piece, particularly when addressing his crew. As he chews out the first mate Dawson (Dudley Digges), Gaskell barks at him, ‘Its bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a Captain that looks like me, without having a Chief Officer who looks like you!’ When entering his quarters, Gaskell finds the young newly appointed officer Rockwell (William Henry) mocking his captain in the mirror, to which Gaskell gives Rockwell all the space necessary to embarrass himself. Suitably chastened, Rockwell asks for forgiveness, to which Gaskell smiles and says forget it. Gaskell may be tough but deep down he’s a ‘good egg’. He even smiles to himself once the inexperienced officer leaves the cabin, tripping over himself.

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But we also see Gaskell’s compassion for the newly appointed Third Officer Davids (Lewis Stone), a former captain himself who was disgraced after being the only survivor of a pirate raid, whilst the rest of his crew perished. Gaskell is gruff with Davids yet welcomes him on board and even casually offers him one of his own uniforms. There is an element of well-placed foreshadowing, and even Gaskell looks up afterward with a moment of thought. Will Davids rise to the occasion if and when needed?

Before long Gaskell finds that former girlfriend and ‘professional entertainer’ Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland (Jean Harlow) is on board. It seems that Dolly is very much a part of the China Seas, illustrated by her familiarity with the crew and her warm interaction with McArdle as they are boarding.  The interaction is a great example of the snappy and witty dialogue that liberally peppers the script from start to finish:

Dolly: Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy.

Jamesy: Still crazy about that Gaskell, huh? Well, whenever you get tired of running around with an Airedale and you want to run around with a St. Bernard, why you let me know.

Dolly: Sure.Whenever I get lost in the Alps, I’ll whistle for you.

Jamesy: All right, I’ll come running.

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Gaskell tries to shoo her off the ship, to which she Dolly gets defensive and defiant:

Gaskell: Get on your horse, we’re shoving off.

Dolly: Say, why are you so anxious to get me out of your sight? Is that hunk of caviar makin’ the round trip?

Gaskell: What hunk of caviar

Dolly: That redhead Russian princess that was on board from Singapore.

Gaskell: She isn’t a Russian and she isn’t a princess and I have my doubts about her hair color.

But Dolly manipulates Gaskell into letting her stay. Their relationship seems to be one that has been more physical than emotional, judging by Gaskell’s annoyance when she gets ‘close’, after which she returns to being sassy to save the situation.

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But Gaskell will discover a greater affaire de Coeur to deal with, when he discovers that a former love from England, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) is on board. The now widowed English rose hints at their former (and possible future) romance when she delicately quips to him ‘I’m in your hands again, Alan’.  When told immediately afterwards that he looks like he’s seen a ghost, Gaskell slowly responds ‘I have…’. All this is quietly witnessed by Dolly and the pang of sadness she emotes is impossible to ignore.

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Before long the ship is at sea and Gaskell and Sybil become reunited and are joined by Sir Guy at dinner. Dolly, encouraged by McArdle thanks to his desire to disrupt and distract Gaskell, cannot hide her jealousy nor allude to the details of her prior relationship with Gaskell. Her hot temper and aggression gets the better of her, leaving some of the other guests embarrassed and feeling awkward. Gaskell responds to Dolly’s jibes with a cold smile and a short ‘that’s right, darling’ sending Dolly a clear message. But perhaps the most telling and revealing moment belongs to Sybil, who says nothing but smiles sadly at Dolly and then responds with equal sadness to Dolly’s aggressive demand:

Dolly: What are you grinning at?

Sybil: You must be very fond of him.

Dolly: What makes you think so?

Sybil: To humiliate yourself like this.

The situation gets uglier as Dolly declares loudly ‘don’t worry, he knows where the royal suite is and so do I! And I had it the first time I sailed on this ship!’ Not long after, while trying to apologise, Dolly gets the cold treatment from Gaskell who tells her to stay far away.

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But Dolly is not going to quit her man, despite her initial congratulations when she hears Gaskell and Sybil are going to be married. It means not only quitting the China Seas but also obviously leaving Dolly.  Attempting to see if the rumours are true, Gaskell finds Dolly in his cabin under the pretense that she is borrowing one of his books ‘to improve my mind’. What follows is Gaskell’s barely veiled revelation as to why he is marrying Sybil, with a cruel putdown that is impossible to not decipher:

Gaskell: Did you ever see an English river, Dolly?

Dolly: No, I’m dumb with geography, just like I am with everything else.

Gaskell:Well, it’s cool and clear and clean. Put a stream like that alongside any river out here – dirty, yellow, muddy – you’ll see the difference.

Needless to say, Dolly is unimpressed at the insult.

The drama and sniping that follows will test Gaskell particularly when Dolly begins flirting and drinking with McArdle.

But the real test will be the mighty storm that has suddenly sprung up and the passengers, as well as the precious cargo, are in danger. The storm sequence is packed with action and beautifully shot and Gaskell risks all to save the steamroller, as well as protect his ship. By all accounts, Gable did his own stunts much to the concern of MGM.. But it takes nothing away from what still proves an exciting action sequence that leaves the audience holding their breath.  The typhoon proves to be an ominous sign of worst to come.

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Here also is where Garnett uses well-placed secondary characters to further the story. The disgraced former captain Davids, now Third Officer, fails in his duty to help during the storm. He has also failed Gaskell who put his faith in him and gave him a chance. Will he redeem himself? Will he be the only one who lets Gaskell down?

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The audience discovers the answer as the turning point in the film arrives when Dolly is put to the test in terms of her love and loyalty towards Gaskell. Whilst playing a drinking game with McArdle, Dolly discovers the truth and later risks all to try and warn Gaskell about McArdle’s intentions. His fatigue after the storm, disappointment and anger towards Dolly results in his rejection of her, much to his misfortune. Like the classic and clichéd woman scorned, Dolly swears she will make Gaskell pay and sure enough painfully goes into league with McArdle to assist him in his plans.

 

Dolly: You just wait! I’ll fix you! You’ll be lower than a coolie! You’ll be lower than Davids! You’ll come crawlin’ to me on your knees!

With Dolly’s assistance, McArdle puts his plan into action and the pirates board seeking the gold. Robbing the passengers, Gaskell appears calm and collected as they ransack the ship for the gold. McArdle’s duplicity is played to the hilt as he pretends to be concerned whilst secretly desperate to find the gold. Gaskell’s toughness is put to the test as the pirates torture him with ‘the boot’ and despite McArdle’s false concern, Gaskell merely replies that his size is 9C. The brutality of the torture is difficult to bear and we see just how callous McArdle is as well. He’s clever enough to play out his deception, even as Gaskell is being tortured. Yet all is not doom and gloom, as Davids redeems himself during the pirate raid – exactly how will not be revealed here.

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Indeed, to avoid spoilers, this reviewer will not divulge the result of the pirate raid or what the consequences are. Needless to say, the tension and drama continues right to the very end with Gable at his very best.

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Overall, China Seasis a thoroughly entertaining feature film, with the perfect combination of action, adventure, romance and even some comic relief.  Running at 87 minutes, it feels a little longer thanks to plenty of action and well-written dialogue. Additionally, the film is very well paced and Garnett handles direction with appropriate use of tension with tact to drive the story forward. Humour is injected in the right places and it certainly works well when Gable and Harlow fire their lines at each other. Much of the fire of their work during the Pre-Code Era had to be tempered for China Seas but their fire is a sizzling slow burn that does not disappoint. There’s also the allure of an exotic setting a la Red Dust, with plenty of sexual jealousy to add spice to the adventure. Admittedly, Harlow is less the loose, dangerous woman of Red Dust and more a loveable party-girl who only has eyes for Gable and whose heart belongs to him as well.

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The sub-plots and intrigues of the secondary characters at times may seem superfluous but they rarely interrupt the story and indeed often work well to add interest. Lewis Stone as the disgraced former captain, who initially shows cowardice during a storm, finds the hero within himself during the great crisis moment in the film. There are interjections of humour with the permanently inebriated Charlie McCaleb (Robert Benchley) oblivious to the typhoon’s might as he attempts to play chopsticks on a piano that’s wreaking havoc and later trying to light a cigarette as waves crash into the film. Throughout the film, Benchley throws out highbrow one-liners that would be right at home around the Algonquin Round Table.

Jamesy: Twenty years on the China Seas and she never lost a spangle.

McCaleb: I had a spangle once. It was a cocker spangle. She had a liter of field mice.

Conversely, Edward Brophy as Timmons provides some blue-collar humour surrounding the sub-plot of his wife’s jewellery. Played by the beautiful Lillian Bond, it’s hard to imagine her with Brophy but she’s also manipulated by Romanoff (Akim Tamiroff) with suggestions that would have been more explicit before the Code took hold.  Some great dialogue also highlights an uncredited appearance by Hattie McDaniel as Isabel McCarthy, Dolly’s maid:

Dolly: Would you say that I look like a lady?

Isabel: No, sir, Miss Dolly. I been with you all too long to insult you that way.

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With all due respect to the film’s cast and creators, there is fair amount of silliness and removal from reality in China Seas. The story itself is pretty far fetched and Gable as an Englishman who is ex-Navy is about as believable as a snowman in the Sahara. How a character like Dolly ends up in the China Seas is anyone’s guess. Many of the characters seem to fit the formula but it’s a formula that works and suspense of disbelief is very easy to achieve because China Seasis so much fun to watch and enjoy. The dialogue and interaction between the characters feels natural, leaving the audience believing in the relationships that are depicted on the screen.  The stiltedness of dialogue and movement that could be found in some of the early Pre-Code films is no longer present and it seems that MGM found a ‘formula’ that worked well. Yes, the parallels with Red Dust are evident but Garnett does more with the material he has and the action scenes are incredibly well done.

Not only is the success of China Seastestament to Tay Garnett as director and the high production values afforded by Thalberg and MGM but also due in particular to the great cast. For Thalberg, it was a return to the all-star cast format that had been used by MGM in Grand Hotel. And it certainly paid off. Beery is outstanding as the dangerous McArdle, particularly as he appears so likeable as the friendly trader. The audience can even feel for him when he readily admits his feelings for Dolly:

Jamesy: Lovin’ you is the only decent thing I ever did in my entire life. And even that was a mistake.

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Aubrey is as British as they come, with a dignity in profile that even Barrymore would admire. The gorgeous Rosalind Russell as an English aristocrat shows poise even in a secondary role and to the script writer’s credit shows a little more than your standard secondary role. And of course, Jean Harlow is at her very best, matching Gable moment for moment and certainly outshines some of her more celebrated roles from the early 1930s. For my money, the chemistry that they shared on screen is best appreciated in this film.

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But it’s the incredible talent of Clark Gable that makes this film a real gem. Yes Gable is playing Gable but that’s why it’s so much fun. Tough, uncompromising and with a powerful sense of self-deprecation, there are moments galore where you cannot help but like him. With so many great films as exemplars of Clark Gable at his best, China Seas should be added to the list of must-see Gable films.

 

This article is a proud entry into the Second Clark Gable Blogathon, kindly hosted by Love Letters To Hollywood. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please go to the link for other great articles on the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.