The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):  Que Sera, Sera

James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
James Stewart and Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):  Starring James Stewart and Doris Day.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is not to be missed.

Director Alfred Hitchcock was in the prime of his career.  He had already made Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Rear Window (1954).  Still to come were Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963.)

Hitchcock used the power garnered from his success to remake one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he’d made in 1934 in Britain before coming to Hollywood in 1940.

As Hitchcock astutely told François Truffaut, “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Hitchcock knew who he wanted as the leads—Jimmy Stewart, who he’d worked with twice before with great success, and Doris Day, whom he felt could be a great dramatic actress if given the right part.  Day was thrilled to be working with Hitchcock after deciding to go independent and not renew her contract with Warner Brothers.

James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Hitch tells the story of husband and wife Ben (Stewart) and Jo (Day) McKenna, who are taking a holiday through French Morocco with their young son Hank.  Without spoiling the twists and turns of the plot, the innocent McKennas find themselves caught up in a nightmare when they are dragged into a plot to assassinate a foreign statesman.  Ben is a doctor, Jo a famous singer, and they know nothing of the plot.  But the assassins believe they do after an innocent conversation with a man who turns out to be a French Intelligent Agent.  To keep them quiet, the assassins kidnap Hank.

During the rest of the film, Jo and Ben struggle to find Hank and stop the assassination.  The film crests during a cinematically magnificent scene at the Royal Albert Concert Hall when Jo must decide whether or not to stop the assassination, knowing it may mean the death of her son.  In a signature Hitchcockian scene, the symphony plays and the screws tighten as the audience waits for the clash of cymbals that will cover the assassin’s bullet.

Hitchcock commissioned Jay Livingston and Ray Evans to write a song specifically for Doris Day to sing in the film, and they came up with “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”  The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and became Day’s signature theme for the rest of her life.

The song plays a prominent role in the film, as a kidnapped Hank hears his mother singing it and knows she is near.

Day and Stewart are excellent as a husband and wife trying desperately to find their son.

Sometimes lost among Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, the film is top notch work by all involved and is a must-see for any suspense, Hitchcock, Stewart, or Day fan.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) Verdict:  Timeless-Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Kaufman, David.  Doris Day:  The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door.  2008.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart:  A Biography.  2006.
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut.  1966.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Designing Woman (1957):  Bacall After Bogart

Lauren Bacall, Gregory Peck

Lauren Bacall filmed Designing Woman while Humphrey Bogart was still alive, and when they both believed he would recover from his cancer.

It’s a lighthearted comedy, likely a welcome respite from the nightmare of Bogie’s illness and death.

Bacall and Gregory Peck play an opposites-attract couple who fall in love and try to stay that way when the honeymoon is over and real life intrudes.  Though not a musical, director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris) gives the film the light and bubbly tone of one, and throws in a few choreographed numbers to boot.

In a role originally developed for Grace Kelly (“She got the prince, I got the part” Bacall quipped), she plays Marilla Brown, a fashion designer who meets sportswriter Mike Hagen while on vacation in Beverly Hills.  They embark on a whirlwind romance and return to New York blissfully in love and knowing little about one another.

Mike assumes they’ll live in his cluttered shoebox bachelor pad and is stunned to learn she owns a luxurious penthouse. 

Laughs ensue as they discover further differences that mark them as completely incompatible but never diminish their love. 

The most memorable scene in the film is when Mike hosts his weekly poker night with his reporter friends on the same night Marilla has a group of her artistic friends over for a dramatic reading.  Each is incredulous over the other’s choice of food, friends, and activities.

Further trouble ensues when Marilla meets Mike’s former lover Lori Shannon and Mike pretends not to know her.  There’s no malice in Mike’s lie, he merely wishes to spare Marilla’s feelings.

There’s a mobster after Mike, a fashion show for Marilla, and Mike’s old boxer friend who sleeps with not one but two eyes open.

It’s a funny, sweet comedy that ends with a choreographed fight scene as mobsters attempt to kidnap Marilla and Mike rides to the rescue with mixed results.

By the time Designing Women was released, Bogart was gone.  Numb with grief, she went on a three week publicity tour for the film just two months after his death.

In the years after Bogart’s death, Bacall floundered in both her life and career.  She had a disastrous rebound relationship with Frank Sinatra, and an unsuccessful second marriage with Jason Robards that likely wouldn’t have happened at all but for her pregnancy.  She lost her mother and her beloved uncle Charlie who acted as a father figure. 

She fled California—her film career was all but dead, her friends had been Bogart’s friends, and Bogart was gone.  She couldn’t live in that once happy house without him.

She returned home—to New York City, and the stage.

Though her film career never recovered (despite an Academy Award-nominated performance many years later in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces), Bacall embarked on a successful decades-long career in the theater. 

In was in the theater that she found happiness and satisfaction again.  And success.  Though the Oscar eluded her, she was perhaps more grateful to win two Best Actress Tony Awards for her work in Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).

The pity of the stage is that, unlike film, its great performances are lost to history. 

Lauren Bacall died in 2014, 115 years after the day Humphrey Bogart was born.  During the 115 years that one or both of them walked the earth, they shared only 13 years together.

Such a short time, but it couldn’t have been any longer.  If they’d met any earlier, she’d have been too young for a romance to blossom.  For Bogart, Bacall was a sweet ending—the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a man who’d been so unlucky in love.

B&B on their wedding day

For Bacall, Bogart was the beginning.  She became a woman when she fell in love with him, and he set the standard for her love and work.

Casablanca was a wonderful romantic film, perhaps the finest ever made.  But when Humphrey Bogart found his Baby two years after completing the film, they one-upped Rick and Isla. 

At the end of Casablanca, Isla lets Rick talk her into leaving him so they can both do their part to help the war effort.

Admirable, yes.

But Bacall would’ve let the world burn to the ground before she left her Bogie on the tarmac.

As we turn the page on one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, I’ll give Bacall the last word.  She writes in By Myself, “No one has ever written a romance better than we lived it.”

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Caine Mutiny (1954): Bogart’s Final Masterpiece

At their wedding in 1945, Humphrey Bogart gave Lauren “Betty” Bacall a bracelet with a small gold whistle, a nod to their famous scene in To Have and Have Not (1944), when her character teaches his how to whistle.

Bogart had come a long way from his early, desperate, drunken days in Hollywood.  He had a beautiful young wife who adored him, an Oscar, and his career success showed no sign of waning.  He even had two children, long after he’d given up on the possibility of fatherhood.

He was running on all cylinders when he signed on for the infamous role of Lieutenant Commander Captain Philip Francis Queeg in Columbia’s adaptation of Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Caine Mutiny.

It’s one of his most recognized and remembered roles, a character very different from Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe.

The film focuses on a trio of officers—experienced shipman executive officer Lt. Steve Maryk (Van Johnson), newly minted Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) on his first voyage, and jovial Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).

Queeg enforces Navy regulation to the letter—berating sailors for untucked uniforms and a cluttered deck.  While much of the crew chafes under the restrictions, at first Maryk takes them stoically, Keith is impressed, and Keefer rolls his eyes and makes cutting if funny comments about the commander.

Things change when Queeg is distracted during a training exercise and ignores the helmsman’s warnings.  The Caine ends up cutting a tow rope. 

It’s a serious mistake, the blame is squarely on Queeg, and instead of taking responsibility, he covers it up.

Suddenly, his dictatorial style takes on a sinister edge.

Keefer immediately stirs the pot, insisting Queeg is unbalanced and must be replaced.  Despite his private worries, Maryk tells Keefer to speak no more of replacing him.

The penalty for mutiny is death.

Queeg becomes increasingly unhinged, his paranoia reaching a crescendo when he goes berserk over strawberries missing from the mess hall, interviewing the crew for hours and searching everyone’s quarters.

The Strawberry Investigation

During a typhoon, Captain Queeg loses all sense of control and panics, giving the crew instructions that will surely kill them all.  Back against the wall and believing he has no choice, Maryk invokes Article 184 and takes control of the ship away from Queeg.

The mutiny is complete.

But this is no adventure film, like Mutiny on the Bounty—Maryk and Keith (who supported Maryk) are not celebrated as heroes, and do not sail away to a life of ease on a remote island.  They return to face the charge of mutiny.

It’s not going their way—until Queeg himself testifies.

Bogart plays the extended court scene masterfully—his Queeg rolls two steel balls around in his hand as he breaks down on the stand, his paranoia eventually on full view for all to see.

The tribunal has no choice but to find the men not guilty of mutiny, but dishonor stains them—their commander was clearly sick, so why didn’t they try to help him rather than mock him and stand aside while he made mistakes?

Watching the film, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the Navy would’ve preferred the ship to sink than the officers to believe they knew better than the captain.  Wars are won by following orders, not using your head.

The film is excellent in every way—a portrait of cowardice, bravery, and breakdown in war.  Though the words are never used, Queeg is clearly suffering from what we would today called post-traumatic stress disorder.  He is not a monster whose downfall should be celebrated, but a once-brave man destroyed by war to be pitied.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.  Bogart was nominated for Best Actor for the third time, losing to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

The Caine Mutiny was the second highest grossing film of 1954.

Bogart was on top of the world.

But it was all about to come crashing down.

It started as a cough that wouldn’t go away.

By the time he made The Barfoot Contessa (1954) with Ava Gardner, the coughing was constant and frequently interrupted filming.  Often the take used was the only one where Bogie wasn’t coughing.

In 1956, Bogart and Bacall were scheduled to make Melville Goodwin, U.S.A, their first film together since Key Largo (1948).

Instead, Bogart finally went to the doctor and the diagnosis was grim—esophageal cancer.

In their eleven years of marriage, the young Betty had always looked to Bogie for strength.  He was her lover, her husband, her teacher.  He had shown her what Hollywood and life were all about. 

Now it was time for him to lean on her.

She nursed him through a brutal surgery and radiation.  When he wouldn’t eat, she tried to tempt him with all his favorite foods.  She kept a tight schedule around how many people could visit and for how long—she wanted his friends to see him, but wanted him to gain his strength.

As his illness ate him down to the bone, friends would gasp in shock at the sight of him.  Bacall would admonish them to keep hold of themselves and not upset Bogie.

Bacall took note of who came.

And who didn’t.

Despite the decades of fights and bitterness, Jack Warner came.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy came every night at the end, and cemented a lifelong friendship with Bacall.

As Joe Hyams writes of Bacall during this time:

“She was exemplary.  The way she handled his illness, the way she handled the press, the way she handled herself, and the way she handled her children.  I thought she was just great—very gallant, very gutsy, a very warm person.  If I were dying I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Humphrey Bogart died in the early hours of January 14, 1957.  He died in his and Bacall’s bed, and Bacall was wearing the robe she’d worn in their film Dark Passage when she found him.

He was 57.

Betty Bacall asked John Huston to deliver the eulogy, the last lines of which were, “He is quite irreplaceable.  There will never be another like him.”

Bogart was cremated.  Before his ashes were interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Betty put the golden whistle he’d given her in the urn.

She was a widow at 32.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • Server, Lee.  Ava Gardner:  Love Is Nothing.  2006.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953):  “Look at that old fella what’s his name..”

Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe

While Humphrey Bogart’s career soared, Lauren Bacall’s flatlined.  Her final Warner Brother’s film, Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper, opened on July 1, 1950 to mediocre reviews and a tepid box office.

Twelve days later Jack Warner finally gave Bacall her wish, and released her from her contract for $50,000 that would be paid out as a percentage of her earnings from future films with other studios.

She was only 25, with the world at her feet.

But a stumbling block had arisen in her career that was bigger even than Jack Warner.  As she writers in her memoir By Myself, “A funny thing happened to my career the first few years of being Mrs. Bogart.  Funny—peculiar.  Everyone thought I was terrific personally, but they stopped thinking of me as an actress.  I was Bogie’s wife, gave great dinners, parties, but work was passed over.”

It was an accurate assessment but also a bit unfair—Bacall herself continually put her duties as a wife and mother ahead of movie-making.  It was no wonder the scripts stopped coming.

In the three years after she cut ties with Warner, she had a second child (a daughter, named Leslie after Bogart’s friend and mentor Leslie Howard), went to Africa with Bogart, and turned down scripts that would separate her from him.

It’s a recipe for a good marriage and a happy life.

But not for a career in Hollywood.

She didn’t work for three years.

In 1953, she received a script for How to Marry a Millionaire, a comedy co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.

Millionaire would give her a chance to test her comedic chops, something she’d long desired.  But Bogart was slated to travel to Italy to film Beat the Devil.

Bacall writes, “I wanted to go with him, but I would have to make Millionaire or forget my career all together…  [Bogie] was very good about it—Millionaire was the best part I’d had in years.”

It was their first separation in eight years of marriage.

How to Marry a Millionaire tells the story of three beautiful young women who plot to marry rich husbands.  Schatze Paige (Bacall) is the brains behind the operation, a cynical divorcee who won’t make the mistake of marrying a poor man for love again.

She convinces her friends Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable) to pool their money to rent an expensively furnished penthouse, on the theory that acting and looking rich will put them in contact with more millionaire men.  As time goes on, Schatze sells off the furniture to bankroll their lifestyle (and tells anyone who asks it’s being cleaned.)

Pola is blind as a bat without her glasses, which she refuses to wear around men as she thinks they make her unattractive.  She continually walks into walls and has no idea who she’s speaking to.  Loco is able to lure any man into lending her money for groceries and carrying them up to the penthouse, but overall she’s not too bright.

The three scheme their way into snagging three prospects, but Pola’s is a gambling swindler, and Loco’s is married.  Only Schatze chooses well, the old but kindly J.D. Hanley (William Powell, in his sixties).  He’s so kind that he feels it would be selfish to marry Schatze, given their age difference. 

In desperation, Schatze tries to convince him that older men are wonderful, practically winking at the audience when she insists, “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what’s his name in The African Queen.”

In the end, of course, all three women fall in love with poor but perfect men.  In the case of Loco, a forest ranger she mistook for a lumber tycoon.  For Pola, a man who also wears glasses and still thinks she’s beautiful when she wears hers.

And Schatze?  Well, on her wedding day, she switches out grooms from the rich J.D. to the gas pump operator who’s been pursuing her despite her attempts to brush him off.

And guess what?

Turns out he was a millionaire all along.

The film was a great success, the 5th highest grossing film of 1953, higher than Marilyn Monroe’s other hit that year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Though Marilyn Monroe always had a way of drawing your eyes to her, How to Marry a Millionaire is Bacall’s film.

She finally proved to herself—and the world—that she could play comedy, and more importantly, make a hit without Bogart.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The African Queen (1951):  A Rising Souffle

Visiting the African Queen as a kid with my grandparents…and yes, that is the actual Queen used in the film. It’s still on display for visitors in Key Largo, Florida.

Before they wed, Humphrey Bogart didn’t believe his marriage to Lauren “Betty” Bacall would last.  How could he?  They had two obstacles he felt would be insurmountable—their age gap and the fact that she was an actress.  Bogart had three failed marriages behind him that were destroyed in large part because of the career ambitions of his wives.

He loved her so much that he married her anyway, figuring himself a fool and hoping for five good years.

But Bogart was  wrong—it wasn’t only her fights with Jack Warner that kept Bacall mostly off the screen in those years—it was her devotion to being a wife first, mother second, and actress third.  

By the time filming began on The African Queen, they were six years in, had a two-year old son, and when Bogart signed up to film on location for six months in Africa and the United Kingdom, there was no question that Bacall was going with him. 

And so a quartet of legends packed up and headed for the Congo—leads Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, director John Huston, and Bacall, along for the ride.

Bacall, Bogart, Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn wrote an entire book filled with tales from the set—how she was violently ill and threw up between takes during an early scene when her character plays the piano.  How Bogart and Huston were never sick because they drank only liquor, no water.  Huston’s obsession with shooting an elephant.  How Bacall made herself useful—cooking, tending to minor wounds of the crew, and helping them write letters home.

Huston received a letter during filming, informing him that his daughter Angelica had been born back in the states.

Hepburn marveled at the love between Bogie and Bacall, who both became lifelong friends after their time making the Queen:

“[Bacall] and Bogie seemed to have the most enormous opinion of each other’s charms, and when they fought it was with the utter confidence of two cats locked deliciously in the same cage.”

Bacall and Bogart

The filming, as expected, was wrought with setbacks and problems.  Location films were extremely rare at the time, and only someone as ambitious and crazy as John Huston would’ve attempted such a thing.

Add to that the fact that no one was certain that audiences would want to watch a love story between a spinster in her mid-forties and a dirty, down on his luck river rat in his early fifties.

It was a gamble, but oh, how it paid off.

One of the best films ever made according to the American Film Institute, The African Queen opens at the dawn of World War I when the Germans burn down an African village, stranding British spinster missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn).  She’s rescued by Charlie Allnut, a Canadian who delivers the mail in his old beat up boat The African Queen.

Hepburn, Bogart

Charlie intends to hide out from the Germans until the dust settles, and he tells Rose that the German steamship Louisa is blocking the British troops at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika.

Stalwart and naïve, Rose decides that they will find the Louisa and sink it with a torpedo that Charlie will DIY from material aboard the Queen.

Charlie thinks she’s nuts and tells her so, but she wears him down until he agrees to begin what can only be a suicide mission, figuring he can talk her out of it somewhere along the way.

And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime for two people who society had long ago tossed into the “loser” bucket.  Charlie and Rose face rapids, mosquitoes, leeches, and German sharpshooters in their hairbrained quest to sink the Louisa in service to the British empire.

Bogart, Hepburn

And poor Charlie has to face it sober after Rose pours all his gin overboard.

The film is adventurous, patriotic, romantic, and funnier than Huston and the screenwriters originally intended.  But the interplay between Bogart and Hepburn was magic, and Huston wisely went where the chemistry led him.

Shall I tell you if Charlie and Rose succeeded?

I shall not—it’s enough to know that they fall in love, and the rest you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The African Queen was nominated for four Oscars (Bogart, Hepburn, Huston, and the screenwriters) and after losing out for Casablanca, he finally won the Best Actor statue, his wife and biggest fan cheering loudest of all in the crowd.

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Young Man With a Horn (1950):  Bacall Searches for the Spotlight

Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

By 1950, Jack Warner was no longer the undisputed king of the Warner Brother’s lot.  In the 1930’s and early 40’s, actors and actresses did as they were told.  Jack discovered them, signed them to long term contracts, and made them stars.

And how did they repay his generosity?

By fighting him every step of the way. 

James Cagney fought for more money and shorter contracts in the 1930s.  Bette Davis raged at Jack and took him to court in the mid-1930s for allegedly damaging her career with subpar roles (she lost).  Barbara Stanwyck refused to sign long term contracts to retain her ability to negotiate salary and choose her own roles.  Olivia de Havilland cut his knees out from under him when her 1944 court case against Warner’s resulted in the De Havilland Decision, which invalidated the studio practice of tacking suspensions onto the end of an actor’s contract.

Jack Warner had taken and thrown his fair share of punches in the name of business.

But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.

She refused to play parts that she felt weren’t any good and would damage her career. 

After their initial six years, Olivia de Havilland had made 23 films, Cagney 26, and Bette Davis a staggering 35, many of them bad roles Warner forced them to play.

In the same time period, Bacall had made only eight films.

Buying her contract from Howard Hawks had been expensive, and Jack wasn’t getting his money’s worth.  Warner thought Bacall was an ingrate, unwilling to pay her dues as her predecessors had done.

She wasn’t an ingrate—the studio system was crumbling, and Bacall took advantage of the walls her predecessors had knocked down.  She wouldn’t take bad roles—she’d wait out Jack Warner if she had to.

Jack had to proceed with caution, for Warner Brothers needed its top star Humphrey Bogart more than he needed them.  Bogart had not forgotten all the years Jack had strong-armed him into roles he didn’t want, played hardball over money, or generally disrespected Bogart (as he did all his actors.)

“Thank god I had Bogie,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography of the husband who had her back every step of the way.

She hadn’t made a hit movie without Bogart by her side onscreen.  No one was sure she could.

Young Man with a Horn does nothing to answer the question. 

Though Bacall got second billing, the film belongs to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day.  Douglas plays Rick Martin, an orphaned boy who finds salvation playing the trumpet.  Rick has trouble keeping friends, and often gets fired from his jobs for playing jazz instead of sticking to the big band script.

Douglas, Day

Playing jazz is the single animating force of his life.  Doris Day plays Jo Jordan, a singer who meets and cares for Rick.  Though there’s no doubt she loves him, Jo knows that Rick is married to no one but his trumpet.  The film utilizes Day’s talent and allows her to showcase her voice on several extended numbers.

We’re well into the film before Bacall’s character Amy arrives on the scene, an eccentric woman whose beauty and direct manner captivate Rick.  Amy is a compulsive dilettante, constantly looking for something that can capture her attention for more than a few months. 

Douglas, Bacall

They quickly realize their impulsive marriage was a mistake.  Her fascination for his love of the trumpet sours to jealousy when she cannot find her own creative outlet.  Rick neglects his friends and jazz playing for Amy and eventually resents her for it.

Rick has to hit rock bottom as a person before he finds his way to the top as a famous jazz musician. 

Today, the film is probably of most interest to Douglas or jazz aficionados.  Bacall is serviceable in the role but quite frankly, not given enough to do.

Not long after, Bogie and Bacall decided that, come hell or high water, she’d get out from under Jack Warner’s thumb. 

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Going Back to the Office

Tomorrow, I go back to the office.  Not just for a quick check in, as I’ve done a grand total of three times over the past two years, but as a regular day in, day out thing.

Back to normal.

But not quite.  Two things will be different. 

First off, “normal” means three days a week, whether I feel like it or not.

Reader, I feel like it.

Corporate offices are cold—literally cold, as in wearing a sweater in the summer.  The lunch rooms are filled with stale pastries, half eaten birthday cakes, and bad coffee.  People jam into tiny rooms for way-too-long meetings and check their e-mail when it’s finally your turn to talk.

People are always bugging you—asking you about your weekend or what you thought about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock when you’re trying to get work done.  There’s at least one person who talks too loud on the phone (that’s me), chews too loud,  doesn’t clean out the microwave when their lunch explodes in it, or steals someone else’s special vanilla almond coffee creamer.  And someone always has a particularly disgusting habit, like clipping their fingernails at their desk and letting the nails fall into their keyboard.

You can’t just turn off your camera when you need to roll your eyes.

Man, I missed that place.

Second, I’ll be starting a brand new job on Monday.  After seven years at my current company, I’ve decided to try something new.  So it’ll be a brand new office, brand new co-workers, brand new work.

I feel like a kid going back to school after summer vacation—nervous and excited.

And I’ve got a to-do list as long as my arm.

Some of the items are the same as the back to school list—I spent the weekend buying new office-appropriate clothes, as my current uniform of jeans and t-shirts isn’t going to cut it.  I also needed a new lunch box, having lost the old one somewhere in the last two years.  I needed lunch food—yogurt, berries, power bars.  I need extra treats and toys for Blinker, who will not be pleased with this turn of events that takes me out of the house for most of the day.

I also sprung for a brand new backpack to haul my laptop, shoes, and notebooks back and forth.

I dug out some out some old friends I haven’t seen in a while—my travel coffee mug, and a big water bottle.

There’s a few things that were never on my back to school list—I have new hire paperwork to print and fill out, and finding my passport to verify my identity.  I already took a test drive during rush hour on Friday to get an approximate drive time.

I have to dye my hair.  I have to cook a big batch of soup for lunch all week.

And of course, I have to pick out my first day outfit.

Tomorrow, I’ll be up and at ‘em early, showered, fully dressed, caffeinated, make-up on, and out of the house by 7:15.  Then I’ll do it again on Tuesday.

Back in the fray.

Let’s do this.

5 Classic Films to Watch this Mother’s Day Weekend

Clockwise from left: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwcyk in Stella Dallas

The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with tales of motherhood.  These often provided plum roles for some of Hollywood’s best actresses.  As we celebrate mothers this weekend in the United States, here are 5 great films (and 5 legendary actresses) who portrayed memorable mothers and were nominated (and in some cases won) an Oscar for their efforts.

All are available for free or under $4 to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime.

The Unconventional Mother:  Stella Dallas (1937)

There are many definitions of a “good” mother.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Stella, a tacky, low class divorcee who pals around with losers and yet is a spectacular mother to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley).  Their Gilmore Girls-esque friends first relationship doesn’t prevent Stella from making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter will have the social standing she herself could never achieve.

Stay until the last scene, which will tear your heart out if you have one.

*2 Oscar nominations:  Stanwyck for Best Actress, Shirely for Best Supporting Actress

*Available free in the U.S. with an Amazon Prime Subscription

Wartime Brit with a Stiff Upper Lip :  Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, an ordinary Brit living her ordinary life when Hitler brings the fight to her doorstep.  Without a fuss, the Minivers rise to the occasion—her son joins the war effort and her husband sets off with his small boat to help rescue the boys in Dunkirk.  Through it all, Mrs. Miniver keeps hope alive and does what needs to be done to preserve the British way of life.

Stay for a harrowing—at the time—scene in which a Nazi soldier breaks into the Miniver house when Kay is home alone.

*12 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Greer Garson as Best Actress, and William Wyler as Best Director

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

A Mother Too Good for Her Daughter:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

She may have been Mommie Dearest to her real-life children, but Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a mother who nearly breaks herself apart in over-sacrificing herself for her daughter.

In a role reversal from Stella Dallas, in Mildred Pierce it’s the daughter Veda who longs for social status.  Mildred works as a waitress and then a baker to make her daughter’s dreams come true.  She’s a hardworking success, and though her eventual restaurant makes her a wealthy woman, in spoiled Veda’s eyes she will always be low-class and not good enough.

Stay until Mildred delivers cinema’s most deserved slap to bratty Veda. 

*6 Oscar nominations, including a win for Joan Crawford for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Immigrant Matriarch :  I Remember Mama (1948)

Fifty-year old Irene Dunne, whom you may have seen in screwball comedies with Cary Grant, plays a Norwegian immigrant mother in this heartwarming tale of a mother with a “wide open heart for other people’s trouble.”  Daughter Katrin writes the story of her life and reminisces about the joy and heartbreak inherent in growing up in a loving family.

Stay for the scene when Katrin realizes her mother pawned a family heirloom to buy Katrin the dresser set she desperately wanted.

*5 Oscar nominations, including Irene Dunne for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Substitute Mother:  Now, Voyager (1942)

Sometimes the mother we need is not the one who gave birth to us.  Bette Davis masterfully plays Charlotte Vale in an ugly duckling tale.  Charlotte is a frumpy spinster, beaten down by her overbearing mother.  When she goes on a cruise and gets away from her mother, she blossoms into a beautiful swan and even has a love affair with Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid.)

But Charlotte’s fate is not to become Jerry’s wife—or even long time lover.  Once back home, Charlotte meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina in a sanitarium and recognizes a kindred spirt.  Both are unloved and unwanted by their own mothers, and Charlotte takes Tina under her wing in a relationship that fills the holes in both their hearts.

Stay for the scene when Davis utters her famous line of, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

*3 Oscar nominations, including Bette Davis as Best Actress and a win for Musical Score

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $3.99

In a Lonely Place (1950):  The Best Bogart Film You’ve Never Heard Of

After fourteen years of taking orders from Jack Warner, Humphrey Bogart wanted more control over the pictures he made, more money, and more time off to spend on his boat.  Due to his massive success in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and the Bacall films, Bogart signed a very favorable 15-year contract in 1946 with Warner Brothers.

The contract gave him the right to choose his projects and directors, and to make films outside of Warner Brothers in his own production company, named Santana after his boat. 

He and director Nicholas Ray adapted Dorothy Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a woman who knows that her boyfriend is paranoid and violent at best, and a brutal murderer at worst.

There was talk of Lauren Bacall playing the woman—the Bogart and Bacall box office was still strong—but Jack Warner had his limits.  Bogart could make films under his own banner, but Bacall was still under contract to him.

Things worked out for the best, as I don’t think I’m alone in not wanting to see Bogart strangle Bacall, even in fiction.  Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, took the role and did a marvelous job with it.

In a Lonely Place tells the story of Dixon Steel (Bogart), a jaded and alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter with a flaring temper that often ended with him slugging someone in a bar.  He takes a girl home with him one night to tell him what she thought of a novel he was going to adapt into a screenplay. 

He sends her home, but she’s found dead—brutally murdered—in the morning, and Dix is the prime suspect.  He would’ve been arrested immediately but for the fact that his neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame) witnessed the girl leaving his home alone.

Despite their inauspicious meeting at the police station, Dix and Laurel, two hard-boiled cases, fall in love.  Laurel is at first certain that Dix is innocent of the crime, but as she gets to know him, she sees flashes of paranoia and rage.

Dix is jealous and temperamental.  One night he gets road rage and nearly beats the driver of the other car to death.

Frightened, Laurel decides that despite her love for him, she must break off their engagement.  She has come to believe that he did murder the woman, and that he could do the same to her under the right circumstances.

Sensing something is wrong, Dix demands to know why Laurel is acting so cagey with him.  Realizing she is planning to leave him, Dix goes into a blind rage and begins to strangle her on her bed.

The strangling is interrupted by a telephone call—the police calling to tell Laurel that the true murderer of the girl has confessed, and Dix is finally in the clear.

The film ends as Laurel, disheveled and half-strangled, looks over at Dix, who is horrified at what he has nearly done.

“Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” she tells the bewildered police captain over the phone.  “Now it doesn’t matter…it doesn’t matter at all.”

Bogart and Grahame have a nice chemistry, and this biting noir hits all the right notes.

Perhaps director Nicholas Ray was in the right frame of mind to direct his wife in such a cynical picture, as their marriage was disintegrating during the filming and ended soon after.  There are tales, never fully proven, that Grahame slept with Ray’s 13 year old son Anthony from a previous marriage.

True or not, Grahame married her former step-son Anthony Ray ten years after the filming of In a Lonely Place.  Grahame had a son with Nicholas, and later two sons with Anthony.

That must’ve made for some interesting Thanksgivings.

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Review of In A Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Key Largo (1948):  Bogart & Bacall & Huston

Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo

Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo was made on the heels of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hollywood hearings.  HUAC was a committee put together in the United States House of Representatives to investigate organizations and individuals suspected of being communists.

Hollywood was under suspicion for making films during World War II that, in hindsight, could be seen as pro-Soviet propaganda.  In fact, some of these films were made at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to help soften American attitudes toward the Soviet Union, as FDR knew that the Soviets would be vital allies in winning the war.

But the war was over, FDR was dead, and the cold war had frozen out the better angels of the committee’s nature.  Ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not they were communists were held in contempt of court and spent a year in jail.

John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall (among others) started the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that strongly and publicly opposed HUAC on the grounds that it violated the first amendment.  They went to Hollywood to protest the hearings, but were ultimately painted in the press as sympathetic to communists (at best) and Reds themselves (at worst.)

When the bad press threatened to ruin Bogart’s career (he was by far the most prominent and public face on the committee) he backed down and issued a public apology for his role in protesting.

In the wake of the hearings, John Huston wrote Key Largo in an ill-tempered fervor.  He refashioned Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name into a tense film about a man who finds his lost ideals and convictions. 

Bogart, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo

Bogart plays Major Frank McCloud, a man who’s been drifting since the end of World War II.  He’s looking for work, but makes a detour to Hotel Largo to visit the father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora (Lauren Bacall) of a young man who died heroically under his command.

James and Nora run Hotel Largo, and it’s immediately apparent that all is not well.  Despite being closed for the blisteringly hot off season, the hotel is filled with a small group of menacing characters who are ostensibly there to fish.

In a role that echoes back to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Frank insists he doesn’t want any trouble.  But when a hurricane hits Key Largo and traps the lot of them together, trouble finds him.

Frank immediately recognizes the leader of the group as notorious exiled gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).

The film crackles with tension, and Robinson is superb as the vicious Rocco.  He laughs when the wheelchair bound James is so enraged that he tries to get out of his chair and falls to the ground.  He whispers sexual innuendos to Nora so foul that she spits in his face.  She’s nearly killed for her disrespect until Frank intervenes.

But Frank is no hero—when Rocco gives him a pistol and challenges him to a duel, Frank begs off.  Rocco calls him a coward, and Frank sniffs that killing Rocco isn’t worth dying for.

There were sparks between Frank and Nora early on, but in this moment it’s clear she fears that Rocco is right and Frank is a coward.

It’s not so much courage that Frank lacks, but conviction.  Weary of war, he no longer believes in the ideals of his country.

Robinson, Bogart, L. Barrymore, Bacall

But he has a line of humanity, and Rocco crosses it in the film’s best and most remembered scene.  Claire Trevor (in a role that made her a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) plays Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s girlfriend who has been ravaged by alcohol, time, and life with a vicious killer.

She’s pathetic, a falling-down drunk who can barely get through an hour—much less a day—without a drink.

Rocco’s disgusted by what she’s become and refuses her a drink.  Her hands shake and she begs him.  Rocco tells her he’ll give her a drink if she sings, as she was once a young and beautiful lounge singer.  Obviously embarrassed, Gayle sings for the group.  It’s uncomfortable and humiliating as she sings off-key and without accompaniment to the group while a hurricane rages outside.

When it’s over, Rocco refuses to give her a drink because she was so terrible.  It’s a move of pure cruelty.

Frank—who would not stick his neck out to rid the world of Rocco, finds his courage and gives Gayle a drink, knowing it may cost him his life.  Rocco doesn’t shoot him, but slaps him across the face.

Frank doesn’t react, as he has guns trained on him, but it’s clear that he’s found his sense of right and wrong and that he will prevail over the thugs in the end.

Nearly 75 years later, Key Largo has lost none of its punch.

Huston, Bogart, and Bacall were on a roll.

Key Largo (1948)

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey.  John Huston:  Courage and Art.  2011.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.