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Rhubarb (1951)

Rhubarb_1951When I mentioned to my grandfather that I was reviewing a movie named Rhubarb and was explaining (not to him) that a rhubarb was a baseball term for a fight, he said it was a bit like a blast from the past. He hadn’t heard that word used in thirty or forty years. The only reason I knew the term was because of the movie; I’ve never heard the word used once during my fifteen years of baseball enthusiasm.

In the 1951 film Rhubarb, the word rhubarb not only refers to a scrap between ball players, but is also the name of a cat, who is given that name because he is a fighter. As millionaire T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart) says:

“I like things that fight back – whether it’s animal or vegetable. That’s why I eat artichokes all the time. An artichoke doesn’t just lie on a plate like a mess of spinach waiting to be devoured. It gives you a battle. It doesn’t give up ‘till you eat its heart out.”

The film is a bit episodic, but it follows the fortunes of Rhubarb, a mangy, vicious cat that can defeat two dogs in pitched battle and likes to steal golf balls from the over-privileged at play. Banner is so taken with him that he adopts him and the two develop an unexpected bond, with Rhubarb taking the place of Banner’s unaffectionate daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes). It’s actually incredibly sweet.

But soon that phase of the story is over when Banner dies, unexpectedly leaving everything to Rhubarb and cutting Myra out almost entirely. Rhubarb even inherits the Brooklyn baseball team that Banner owned (a team so bad they are derisively known as the Loons). Press agent and long-time friend Eric Yeager (Ray Milland – the man who had to do the dirty work in trapping Rhubarb so Banner could adopt him) is appointed Rhubarb’s guardian, an unenviable task since he now has Myra on his case, as well as the entire Brooklyn team, who refuses to play for a cat.

Rhubarb at the baseball game - a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

Rhubarb at the baseball game – a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

The film actually has a strong Damon Runyon feel to it. Even Milland talks a bit Runyonesquely, calling girlfriend Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling) “doll” and “dame” and generally talking more like a mug (not always convincingly) than a gentleman. There’s a little of everything in the film: baseball, gangsters with names like Pencil Louis and Cadaver, betting, Myra’s attempts to take the fortune away from Rhubarb, a little romance, cat allergies, picturesque characters and language, the rivalry between Brooklyn and Manhattan, cops. The film is often tongue-in-cheek, but with feeling.

After Yeager manages to snooker the baseball team into believing that Rhubarb is actually good luck for them, suddenly they start winning. But Yeager is a victim of his own success, because now the team won’t let him or Rhubarb miss a game and all he wants to do is get married. He and Polly try at least four times. To make things more complicated, Polly discovers that she’s allergic to Rhubarb…though it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. But Yeager can’t come near her without first cleansing himself of all cat hair.

The cast includes William Frawley as the manager of the team, a man whose only focus is the team (“I don’t know. Ballplayers ain’t like people…exactly.” he mumbles to himself when he learns that Rhubarb has inherited the team, speculating that the team will react badly). If you look carefully among the ballplayers, you can also see an extremely young Leonard Nimoy. He even gets a line. Jan Sterling plays Polly, a baseball fan who keeps having to put off her marriage for the sake of the team. Her real-life husband at the time, Paul Douglas, also gets a cameo at the end. He’s the man with the newspaper who watches as Rhubarb walks down the street, followed by a dozen kittens (“What a cat!” he says admiringly. “A litter from three wives.”).

rhubarb-1951-02-gRhubarb the cat is played by Orangey, who was something of a movie star. His debut came in Rhubarb, but he also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’sThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Comedy of Terrors. He was apparently a rather vicious cat in real life, but he had the happy knack of being willing to stick around longer than most cats during filming, though he would still get fed up and run off the set (as I suspect most cats would do). Many cats were used during the filming, however, often for specific stunts.

In truth, Orangey often looks distinctly peeved in the film. His tail is always swishing and his ears frequently flatten and his general demeanor is of a cat barely tolerating the humans around him. Ever since adopting a cat, I’ve been paying more attention to cat behavior in film and often what I see is a swishing tail. A happy cat is usually one with ears forward and alert, tail straight up with a little curl at the end, slowly blinking eyes and a general willingness to expose their stomach or stretch out. Still, Orangey despite his evident irritation, can’t help looking seriously cute.

The baseball part of the story was filmed at Wrigley Field (in Los Angeles, not Chicago – it was home for a minor league team). I have to believe that the Brooklyn team is supposed to be the Dodgers and Manhattan represents the Yankees. Sadly, the Dodgers would leave Brooklyn for LA only seven years later. Brooklyn fans – such as Doris Kearns Goodwin – never have forgotten their beloved team or ceased to mourn for them.

This post is my contribution to the Animals in Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a list of all the wonderful posts for this blogathon, follow this link.

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And just because I have too many pictures, here is a montage of some scenes from the film.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2016 in Movies

 

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Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

1-love-me-or-leave-me-poster-art-doris-everettWhat do you get when you combine the sunny Doris Day with gangster James Cagney? Love Me or Leave Me, a sensational grangster/drama/musical and one of my favorite films of all time.

Love Me or Leave Me is a loose biopic of singer Ruth Etting, who was famous in the 1920s, but whose career in Hollywood was ended when her gangster husband, Moe Snyder, shot her lover in the mid-1930s (the lover survived and they were later wed). The film explores not only her career, but her relationship with her husband.

Ruth Etting (Doris Day) is a would-be singer working at a dance hall, until she gets fired for kicking an over-familiar customer. This catches the eye of Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster (James Cagney) with a limp. He tries a pick-up line, but she rebuffs him, until he offers to help get her another job. This starts a whole cat-and mouse process, with Marty trying to get her obligated to him and Ruth trying to hold out, but still take advantage of his help at the same time. She’s ambitious, but Marty initially thinks if he can just humor her, eventually she’ll be satisfied and go away with him.

But pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is also interested in Ruth, but wants to help her career honestly, without using any of the questionable methods of Marty. But Ruth is ambitious. Because she’s played by Doris Day, it is easy to overlook just how ambitious she is, but she is leaving nothing to chance and wants to use Marty to help her career and she’s not ignorant of his strong-arm methods for doing so. But as Johnny warns Ruth, she’s playing with fire and she can’t just use Marty and then leave him. She doesn’t listen and winds up in an abusive marriage with Marty.

Doris Day and James Cagney are magnificent in this film. They are two dynamic, incredible actors and the screen lights up whenever they share it. Doris Day is never overwhelmed by him, but actually is his match in both presence and personality as the two of them battle back and forth. Both actors admired each other; Cagney thought Day was an instinctive actor like himself and even lobbied to have her cast in the film and be given top billing (remarkable generosity). Nothing, I believe, demonstrates her abilities better than this film and how she manages to hold her own with James Cagney. I’m not sure I can think of an actress who does it better.

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Cagney and Day

Doris Day is still seemingly herself, but with an edge. By the second half of the film, after she has achieved stardom, she is bitter and deeply unhappy, but still with that Doris Day resilience and willingness to bounce back, though perhaps not quite with the same enthusiasm that Ruth had when her career was first beginning.

Love Me or Leave Me also has one of my favorite James Cagney performances (along with White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). He’s baffled and angry, full of lust and lovelorn at the same time, but he never lets you forget that he’s capable of dangerous violence.

And initially he doesn’t have a clue what he has in her, singing-wise. When he packs the club with people to hear her sing, he’s looking around nervously while the audience sits rapt during her song. There is another wonderful moment when Ruth makes her Ziegfeld debut. You can see it on his face: wonderment, anxiety, as he realizes how far she’s come and that she technically no longer needs his help, but also like he’s finally comprehending the full extent of her talent.

The more I see the film, the more sorry I feel for him (up to a point) in the first half, until he wipes away all sympathy by his actions. By the second half, Ruth becomes primarily a victim, but initially she is just as complicit as Marty and even strings him along, trying to have all the benefits of being a mistress without having to pay the price. I’m no longer sure  how much she is genuinely standing up for herself and how much is manipulation. When she is angry that he expects sex in return for getting her a job, does she really intend to walk out or is she hoping that he’ll give in? Maybe both.

I used to wonder how on earth she could have married Marty after he (it’s implied) finally gets fed up and rapes her. I finally concluded that the problem is that she both has too many scruples and not enough. She doesn’t have enough to prevent her from trying to use Marty, but too much in that she feels so guilty about it that she stays in an abusive situation because she feels like she owes him. And because she knows how crazy he is about her.

love_me_or_leave_meThat is what makes the film so powerful, in my opinion, the nuance the actors bring. Marty is primarily an abusive hood (and largely unsympathetic), but he has human emotions and is nuts about Ruth, so much so that he hardly understands it. Ruth, on the other hand, is not merely a victim, but consciously working her way to the top and is willing to roll over (or have Marty roll over) quite a few people to get where she wants (including discarding the man she loves and who loves her).

The music is also sensational (one of my favorite soundtracks). Most of the songs were popularized and associated with Ruth Etting, such as “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Rodgers and Hart). A few songs, like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were written for the movie.

Doris Day doesn’t sound a thing like Ruth Etting and she’s still more fifties than twenties – in fact the entire more looks more like a twenties flavored fifties film, but that’s not a complaint. I’m not sure the twenties look would have flattered Day nearly as well as the fifties, anyway. Ruth Etting actually wanted Jane Powell to portray her in the film, but Cagney lobbied for Day, for which I am extremely grateful. Doris Day’s incandescent talent (nothing against Powell) makes her success and Marty’s surprise at her success all the more potent, because she really is stunning. How could she not become a star?

Here is Doris Day’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And Ruth Ettings rendition, recorded in 1929. Ruth Etting always claimed that her voice was deeper than it sounded on recordings.

“Ten Cents a Dance,” sung by Doris Day.

And Ruth Etting’s version of “Ten Cents a Dance.”

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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Fog Over Frisco (1934) – Bette Davis Blogathon

Fog-Over-FriscoIn her early films at Warner Bros, Bette Davis is like a dynamo or a ball of fire, bursting across the screen: Fog Over FriscoPetrified ForrestIt’s Love I’m AfterMarked Woman. I wonder if it’s because she had so much pent up energy owing to the lack of meaty roles to sink her teeth into. Or perhaps it’s her youthful ambition and drive coming through. Whatever it is, she positively crackles in the early and mid-thirties.

One such film is Fog Over Frisco, a zippy crime drama (and I do mean zippy; it’s only 68 minutes long), where Bette Davis plays a beautiful socialite, blithely mixed up with gangsters and illicit affairs. She lasts about twenty-five minutes, but she’s the one who makes the story go.

Arlene Bradford (Bette Davis) is a notorious party girl who has just become engaged to Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot) and has supposedly calmed down from her wayward days. Her step-father, Mr. Bradford, (Arthur Byron), doesn’t believe it, while Arlene’s step-sister, Val (Margaret Lindsay) sticks up for her. But Arlene has not reformed and is working with the criminal Jake Bellos (Irving Pichel), who steals bank securities and passes them to Arlene to dispose of. She gives them to Spencer, who works at her step-father’s bank, and he gives her cash and then bit by bit disposes of them. He’s not happy about it, but Arlene has him wound around her finger.

But when her mysterious lover comes into the picture, she returns her engagement ring to Spencer, gives the gangsters the heave-ho and plans to run off with the man she really loves…except he doesn’t love her anymore and wants his love letters back. Meanwhile, to add to the list of future suspects, Mr. Bradford has discovered what Spencer has been doing for Arlene and blames her for the whole mess and the scandal that could envelope the bank, saying she ought to be shot. On cue, Arlene goes missing, but the only person who initially seems interested in looking for her is Val, until she gets abducted. There is also an assortment of newspapermen, policemen and one very nosy butler (suspiciously knowledgeable about things) and bank executives (including Douglass Dumbrille) who end up circling the case. All in 68 minutes! It’s a fun ride.

Everyone has an angle in this film, except loyal Val. Policemen (led Alan Hale) are interested in the missing securities and the gang responsible for stealing them. The gangsters, of course, have their own angle; the mystery lover has his. The newspapermen (led by Hugh Herbert and William Demarest) are out only for a good story. Even Val’s would-be boyfriend, Tony Sterling (Donald Woods), puts a good scoop over helping Val, which leads to Val getting abducted. The bank executives are mostly worried about the potential scandal for the bank and even Mr. Bradford, who ends up being right about Arlene, is not hugely sympathetic. As the daughter of the woman who ran out on him, it’s clear that he considers Arlene to be just like her mother (though he may have a point) and not really his own daughter. Only Val remains truly sympathetic and loyal.

Bette Davis is decidedly up to no good

Bette Davis is decidedly up to no good

Margaret Lindsay made at least four films with Bette Davis: JezebelBordertownDangerous, and Fog Over Frisco (there might be more I’m unaware of). She clearly doesn’t have the zip and sparkle that Bette Davis brings to the screen, but it’s always a pleasure to see her in a film, especially in this one, where she is the only one with purely good motivations.

My one criticism is that the film ends too quickly. Everything is wound up at a breathless pace, which is perhaps understandable given the pace of the film, but it still could have used a few extra minutes to let us – and the characters – absorb everything.

Fog Over Frisco came just before Of Human Bondage and Bette Davis supposedly accepted the role of Arlene to show Jack Warner she was “a team player” to convince him to lend her to RKO so she could play Mildred. Fog Over Frisco is also the first film where she worked with Tony Gaudio as cinematographer and she always had happy memories of making this film, even if she does get killed off before the movie is half over. But she appears to be relishing the role of an amoral socialite who gets a thrill from fooling the police and getting her own way. When she visits Spencer and shows him the securities in her purse and his response is “Not again!” there’s a gleam in her eye and you know there’s going to be trouble.

This post is part of the “Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For more posts covering the whole spectrum of Bette Davis’ extraordinary career, click here.

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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Movies

 

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