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Lord Camber's Ladies (1932)
Gertrude Lawrence's Best Film Performance
This is a film produced by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Gertrude Lawrence, and it was nothing like I expected. Lawrence stars as a music hall star who marries Lord Camber (Nigel Bruce) and retires from the stage. Time passes and Lady Camber is admitted to a hospital where Gerald du Maurier (who gets first billing) is a kindly doctor. His nurse and lab assistant is Janet King (Benita Hume), a former florist and girl friend of Lord Camber. With Lady Camber flat on her back, it seems Camber and nursie start up again where they left off. Now if only Lady Camber were not in the way. Another doctor by chance catches the nurse washing out and refilling a bottle of poison and replacing it in the poison cabinet. Soon thereafter Lady Camber keels over. But the doctor snitches and du Maurier accuses the nurse of murder. In a typical Hitchcock ploy (and he had nothing to do with the writing and/or directing of this film), what the first doctor has witnessed was an action (replacing the bottle of poison) taken out of context. So who killed Lady Camber? The four principles are all very good, and Lawrence gets to sing a song in the opening, which is likely as close to her real stage performing style as we'll ever get to see. Her breezy bravado is in full evidence.
Too bad there is not a good quality copy of this film floating around.
Craig Russell Is Marvelous
Bittersweet story of a hairdresser in Toronto who becomes a drag star (sort of) and his friendship with a schizophrenic girl trying to start a life away from her mother and hospitals. As played by Craig Russell and Hollis McLaren we see two fragile-but-believable characters struggling to find themselves in New York City.
McLaren's character of Liza has been released after years in a mental ward. She's still defiant and wants to experience life. She moves in with Russell in Toronto and has ups and downs and ends up pregnant. Russell is drawn to performing in a local club and loses his job, giving him the excuse to pursue his drag act full time, eventually moving to New York. After Liza loses her baby, she follows Russell to New York and realizes that the "bone crushers" she often hallucinates have stayed behind in Toronto.
The main focus though is Russell as he prepares for and then performs his act. He channels Tallulah Bankhead at the drop of a hat and with a series of wigs and quick changes he impersonates Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Ethel Merman, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland. The Midler is not great but the others are pretty much spot on.
Best of all is is a full-dress Peggy Lee singing "It Ain't Easy." This is Russell's best act and the song is terrific (Paul Hoffert wrote it). It also bring us to the marvelous and surreal ending when Russell, still in full Peggy Lee drag tells Liza that she's not crazy, just special, and that she must simply be herself, embrace her madness and make it work for her. He tells her we are all mad and then teaches her to do a deep Bankhead laugh saying maaaaaad, maaaaad.
Also in the cast is the very funny Richert Easley as Perry, a would-be drag queen who has a passion for Karen Black. As he's begging Liza for the loan of a dress he grabs one out of the closet and she tells him "that's my best dress." He looks at her and opines, "This is your best?" Also in the cast are Helen Shaver as a lesbian friend.
A word must be said for the wonderful music by Paul Hoffert, who in addition to "It Ain't Easy," also wrote "Step Out" sung by Cecille Frennette.
Idol of Paris (1948)
Beryl Baxter Stars
Sprawling story set in 19th France in the reign of Napoleon III (nephew of Bonaparte) follows poor Theresa (Beryl Baxter) and her rise from poverty to wealth through marriage and liaisons. After she is thrown into the streets by her cruel father, she is taken in by a sensitive tailor (Andrew Osborn) after he finds her passed out on a rainy street. He's a former violinist with a bad hand. They eventually marry and he squanders what little he has on her, including a ticket to a concert where a famous pianist named Herz (Michael Rennie) is playing. The moment their eyes meet, they are in love.
They confront the tailor with their love and he commits suicide. They marry and enjoy a successful life (she plays violin) until he starts dallying with a famous courtesan named Cora Pearl (Christine Norden) and gambling. Unable to pay his debts, he sails for South America and a new start. The boat sinks. Befriended by the famous composer Offenbach (Miles Malleson), she gets a job playing violin and eventually meets and enters into an arranged marriage with the dissolute Marquis Paiva.
Now a Marquise, she catches the eye of the Emperor (Kenneth Kent) much to the ire of Cora Pearl, the one-time court favorite. The rivalry between the women is settled in a fantastic duel with whips (switches). Cora Pearl is sent packing and the Emperor comes to visit Theresa but she surprisingly turns him away. There's another big surprise waiting for our heroine.
Most reviews of this film are totally wrong in saying that Theresa sleeps her way to the top. Indeed, quite a lot is made of the fact that her virtue saves her over and over again.
Beryl Baxter is excellent as Theresa as is Christine Norden as Cora Pearl. Their scenes together are quite diverting. Michael Rennie gets top billing but has a relatively small role as Herz (not Hertz). Andrew Osborn is excellent as the tailor, and Miles Malleson is a delight as Offenbach. Others include Kenneth Kent (Napoleon), Margaretta Scott (Eugenie), and Leslie Perrins as the slimy Marquis Paiva.
This film has been out of circulation for so long, almost everything you read about it is wrong.
The Lure of Crooning Water (1920)
Ivy Duke Is Sensational
Gorgeous silent film directed by Arthur Rooke has the look of a Cecil Hepworth film with its extensive shots of the English countryside. Ivy Duke plays a stage actress who is ordered by her doctor to retreat to the countryside for a rest cure after she collapses on stage. She goes to a farm called "Crooning Water" and brings many trunks and bags that she directs the driver to be careful with as he tosses them into a wagon. Only after she reaches the farm does she realize he's the owner of the farm (Guy Newall).
Condescending and haughty, she plays the great lady as she flounces around the farm, sniffing at the drab country wife (Mary Dibley) and toying with the busy farmer. In one scene she spies a threshing machine and demands to sit upon it. He refuses to lift her onto the contraption to which she responds with a pouting and stagy "PLEASE." Duke is totally out of touch with nature and completely bored. In a telling scene she hilariously teaches the 2-year-old toddler how to smoke a cigarette.
In any case, Newall eventually falls for her and follows her back to London where to has returned to th stage. Back in her own world, she brushes him off since for her it was a meaningless dalliance. Broken, he returns to the farm. The doctor intercedes again with a letter and asking Duke what kind of woman she is to have broken up this simple family. She is shamed and makes her way to the farm to make peace, but the children are sick there's little time for Duke's apologies. She pitches in to help and recedes into the background when the farmer's hand accidentally touches the wife's as they soothe the children and realize that their lives are there at Crooning Water.
Duke and Newall (who scripted this film) were married in real life and both ranked as major silent stars in England. Duke is sensational as the flamboyant actress and makes the most of the comic bits as well as the dramatic. Newall is also excellent as the dour farmer who resists her charms for as long as he can. Dibley is the picture of the drab house drudge who cannot compete with the glamorous actress.
Ivy Duke made her last film in 1928 and never made a talkie. Newall continued to act in films in the 1930s. They divorced in 1929. They both died in 1937. Newall was in his early 50s, Duke was only 41.
The Girl Rush (1955)
Terrific Rosalind Russell
Fresh from her Tony-winning turn in "Wonderful Town," the musical version of her "My Sister Eileen" film, Rosalind Russell returned to films in this bright pastiche of song and dance set in Las Vegas.
Russell plays a gambler's daughter who's pining away in a dull job in Providence when she learns she has inherited a half interest in a Las Vegas hotel. Off she goes with her dotty aunt (Marion Lorne), assuming she now owns the Flamingo Hotel, but it's owned by Fernando Lamas.
While romancing Lamas she cajoles Eddie Albert into putting money into the rundown wreck of a hotel she really owns with James Gleason. She also befriends the Flamingo's dumb blonde star (Gloria De Haven). Among the male dancers are Don Crichton ("The Carol Burnett Show") and George Chakiris (billed as George Chakaris).
Russell performs three numbers: "If You'll Only Take a Chance," "Birmin'ham." and "Homesick Hillbilly" with great energy.
Among the supporting players are Marjorie Bennett (at the craps table), Jesse White, Larry Gates (as the father), Douglas Fowley, George Chandler, Robert Fortier, Shelley Fabares, and Bess Flowers.
Everyone is good in this one; Rosalind Russell is great.
Salvation Nell (1931)
Ethereal Helen Chandler
Salvation Nell (1931) is an odd piece of work. This Tiffany production directed by James Cruze has a creaky plot about a woman seduced and abandoned who finds a life with the Salvation Army, but it offers three terrific performances. The always-ethereal Helen Chandler plays the tragic Nell, a rather simple soul who finds great strength and touches the lives of others. Ralph Graves plays the loutish Jim who eventually finds peace. Sally O'Neil is a major surprise in a fine performance as the sluttish Myrtle. Seems like a low-budget affair but it's suited to the milieu of bars, prisons, and dumpy apartments. Others in the cast include Charlotte Walker as Maggie, Jason Robards Sr. as Williams, Matthew Betz as Mooney, Rose Dione as the madam, and Wally Albright as the kid.
My copy is from an ancient TV broadcast on SPN in the 80s under the title of The Good Woman and starring Ralph Graves and runs about 80 minutes. The film was considered to be lost for decades but as titled, it would be hard to identify. Filmed previously in 1915 and 1921.
5 Flights Up (2014)
Dismal on All Counts
Aging Morgan Freeman and wifey Diane Keaton are selling their 5th floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. He's old and there's no elevator. Her niece (Cynthia Nixon) is a realtor and is arranging for an open house. The couple remember their youth in boring flashbacks and recall their 40 years in the apartment. She's a retired teacher, and he's a (failed?) artist. They hope to get a million dollars but have no plans on what to do or where to go after the apartment sells.
After their open house, with assorted kooks and dopes in attendance, it dawns on them to start looking for an apartment. They go to an open house (where all the same kooks and dopes appear) and decide to put a bid on an apartment. Will they get it? Does anyone care? In the background of all this "drama" is the story of an alleged terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge, which they have a view of. Nixon is worried that the terrorist story, incessantly on every TV, will hurt the asking price of the apartment. They also have a sick dog in the hospital.
Other than that, all the main characters do is chit chat about nothing. They never shut up even though they have nothing to say. There's no humor, no wisdom, no surprises from this boring couple.
Freeman plays the noble artist, who apparently has made a living from his art, but all he talks about is his failure. Keaton blathers on about nothing important. They have been an interracial and childless couple for 40 years and have basically nothing to say. In flashback we see the scenes where she learns she can't conceive, and the one where her mother disapproves of Freeman. Yawn.
Nixon registers as an unpleasant and greedy realtor who seems to care zilch for her aunt and eventually tells them to F off. The rest of the cast is just a parade of "types" wandering in and out of apartments. In fact, when discussing bids, the realtor refers to them as "blue leggings," "dog couple," "crab," etc.
In the end, nothing gets resolved and you end up right where you started. How this one ever found the money to get made is a mystery. This is a bad TV movie masquerading as something more.
Middle of the Night (1959)
Kim Novak and Fredric March
This searing drama by Paddy Chayefsky offers great roles for Kim Novak and Fredric March as a mismatched couple battling their families to maintain a fragile relationship. The trouble is he's 56 and she's 24.
March plays a tough, self-made businessman in New York's garment district. He's been alone since his wife died a year before and he has a pretty office girl (Novak) who's still recovering from a divorce. Both are emotionally fragile and unsure of themselves.
March lives with his bossy, old-maid sister and has a vulgar business partner who talks about nothing but his sexual conquests. Novak lives with her mother and sister and doesn't know what she wants. She's attracted to March's money and maturity but at first somehow repulsed by his sexual attentions.
They secretly date and fall into an uneasy alliance against the storm they know will come from family.
March and Novak are just superb in this gritty romantic drama. He swings between emotional highs and realistic lows facing the reality that Novak is younger than his daughter. Novak has a gnawing attraction for her no-good ex-husband that won't go away yet she wants the protection of a man in her life. They are realistic, sympathetic, and desperate.
The supporting cast offers top-notch performances. Lee Grant has a great scene as Novak's neighbor, nagging her about marrying an old man. Glenda Farrell as Novak's mother is also excellent as she rails against March and the inequities of life. Joan Copeland offers a fascinating portrait of neuroses as March's clinging daughter. Edith Meiser is solid as March's older sister. Martin Balsam simmers as Copeland's ignored husband. Albert Dekker is good as the vulgar partner. And then there's Betty Walker, best remembered as a stand-up comic, giving a great performance as a desperate widow interested in March.
Each performance was Oscar worthy. March received a Golden Globe nomination. Novak has stated this was her best and favorite performance.
Main Street to Broadway (1953)
Tallulah Bankhead Has a Field Day
Slim plot of surly writer and no-talent actress from the sticks falling in love is set against the angst of getting a play produced on Broadway amid a flurry of cameos from theater stars.
The writer (Tom Morton) pressures his agent (Agnes Moorehead) into letting him write a play for Tallulah Bankhead, who's looking for a new play. What he comes up with is "Calico and Lust," which of course is a bomb. Along the way he stalks the girl (Mary Murphy) back to Indiana and inflicts himself on her dopey parents (Clinton Sundberg, Rosemary DeCamp) while he writes. She's also courted by a hardware store owner (Herb Shriner) from Fort Wayne. Back in New York he is mothered by a lonely widow (Gertrude Berg) who works the theater crowds on opening night, hoping to drum up support for his lousy play.
Along the way, a bunch of real stars plays cameos as they opine about "theater" or get involved in the plot. Helen Hayes opens the film and talks about the closing of the Empire Theater, about to be demolished for an office building. Shirley Booth is starring in that theater's last production ("The Time of the Cuckoo") and chats with autograph seekers about winning a Tony Award and such.
Ethel Barrymore and Louis Calhern somehow get involved in the playwright's life (they bail him out of jail) and chat with Lionel Barrymore (in his last screen appearance). Others show up to chat about "theater" or to appear in the opening night crowd scenes.
We see Faye Emerson doing a radio show, Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer walking down the street talking about supper, Mary Martin singing a song whipped up for her by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Cornel Wilde doing a workshop reading, playwright John Van Druten directing the new play, and Constance Carpenter backstage as the star of "The King and I." Al Hirschfeld is seen drawing caricatures of Bankhead.
Among the opening night attendees are Vivian Blaine, Dolly Haas, Estelle Winwood, Stu Erwin, Elsa Maxwell, Jeffrey Lynn, Maureen Stapleton, Joan McCracken, Peggy Wood, Jessie Royce Landis, and June Collyer. Others with bit parts include Jack Gilford as the ticket seller, Regis Toomey as a cop, Arthur Shields, Florence Bates, Madge Kennedy, Carl Benton Reid, Frank Ferguson, and Lydia Reed.
Mary Murphy had a longish career in films, usually as the "girl-next-door" type in B movies. Her one hit was "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando. Tom Morton made his final major film appearance here but changed his name to Tony Monaco (his character's name) and continued working under both names (mostly in television) thru the late 80s.
But it's Tallulah Bankhead you'll remember from this film. She's hilarious playing herself and seems like quite a good sport caricaturing her own well-known personality.
Barbara Mullen and Michael Redgrave
American actress Barbara Mullen stars in this charming British comedy as a Scottish old maid who slaves in her dour father's house. When he dies she decides to go to work as a servant until she discovers he'd left her almost 300 pounds. She decides to go to Vienna because she likes Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz." The unworldly woman soon gets into to all kinds of jams on the boat crossing the channel and then on the train across Europe. Luckily, she bumps into a salesman (Michael Redgrave) who decides to take the woman under his wing. He's also bound for Vienna where he hopes to sell a patent for a new type of washing machine.
In Vienna and with her hotel reservation fouled up, she embark to the Hotel Splendide where Redgrave is staying. They also meet two moochers: a bankrupted count (Albert Lieven) who thinks Mullen is an heiress, and a party girl (Kay Hammond) out for a good time and a free meal.
After a week or so, Mullen is about out of money but has experienced the delights of Vienna, including hearing her favorite song. And after several mix-ups with Redgrave, she goes back home to find a job as a servant. Is she destined to a life of drudgery? Mullen is a delight as the sensible Scot who learns a thing or two on her trip. Redgrave turns in another terrific performance as the bemused salesman. Hammond and Lieven are solid. Cast also includes Wilfrid Lawson as the father, Rachel Kempson and Joan Kemp-Welch as her sisters, Katie Johnson as Mathilde, Phyllis Stanley as the neighbor. Also look for Googie Withers, Max Adrian, Sebastian Cabot, and Esme Percy.
Mullen's film debut.