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Everybody Does It (1949) – A James M. Cain Comedy about Opera

Everybody_Does_It_FilmPosterJames M. Cain may be best known for hard-boiled tales of lust and murder, but he also liked opera (which, if you think about it, are pretty much hard-boiled tales of lust and murder) and wrote several comedic stories. One of them is Career in C Major adapted for the screen twice (well, once – the second film is a remake of the first): Wife, Husband and Friend (1939) and Everybody Does It (1949).

Leonard Borland (Paul Douglas) co-owns a wrecking company with Mike Craig (Millard Mitchell). Business is not so good, but he’s married to a very wealthy socialite and doesn’t want to live off of her family wealth. Doris Borland (Celeste Holm) has always dreamed of becoming a professional singer. The trouble is that she’s not all that good and no one’s ever told her this. According to her father, Major Blair (Charles Coburn), Doris comes from a long line of “frustrated sopranos.” Doris tried to become a singer five years previously, without outstanding success, but it seems to have caused marital difficulties and she gave it up. But after attending an opera, her ambitions seize her again and she starts vocal training and plans to give a concert.

Leonard flat-out says she won’t do it and is a “lousy singer” and she responds that if it hadn’t been for him making her give up her career before, she could have been a star already. Doris is encouraged by her fawning teacher, her friends and her mother (Lucile Watson). Utterly defeated, Leonard makes plans to rent a hall and he and Mike Craig beg, bribe and blackmail all his costumers and friends into attending.

Everybody Does It (1949) Directed by Edmund Goulding Shown: Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas

Everybody Does It (1949)
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Shown: Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas

But also attending is a real opera star, Cecil Carver (Linda Darnell), who is on the hunt for a tall baritone (she complains that all the baritones seem to be shrinking) and when she sees Leonard – definitely a hulk of a man – she likes what she sees. Leonard is anxious to hear a professional’s opinion about his wife’s chance of success and Cecil offers to give him one, in her apartment, in a slinky gown. She admits that his wife has a perfectly fine voice, but not the kind that will amount to much. But just before he leaves she discovers, quite by accident, that he is the one who has a perfectly splendid voice, though he never knew it and he takes quite a but of convincing. His singing tends to cause glass to break and her mirror does not survive the evening.

She convinces him that she could teach him how to sing with the argument that it would be the best lesson in the world for his wife to learn that it is actually her husband who has the great voice and could have the career. He goes along with it out of desperation, but his plan is, to say the least, pretty hapless and guaranteed to cause mayhem.

It’s not a bad comedy at all, but the best part of the film is by far the ending, with laugh-out-loud slapstick meeting opera as Leonard makes his operatic debut. He’s got a bad case of stage fright and everyone – Cecil, the acerbic conductor who always is making snide comments, the stage-manager – separately give him pills and various forms of calming medicine until he’s as high as a kite. His entrance on stage is, to say the least, unforgettable.

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Paul Douglas and Celeste Holm

The cast is fun. Celeste Holm plays more of a bubble-brain than usual, a socialite in need of a dose of reality. Douglas is her well-meaning, but hapless husband who looks like a mug and sings like a Greek god. Linda Darnell vamps it up in a remarkably persistent attempt to woo Douglas. And Charles Coburn is a somewhat desperate crank, hiding in the pantry to get away from his wife and daughter’s music talk and issuing dire warnings to Douglas about letting women have their way.

Celeste Holm is the only actor who does her own singing. Douglas and Darnell are dubbed, but they do a creditable job of lip syncing. This film actually offers an excellent example of something I think modern movie musicals could learn from: the difference between a pretty voice and a spectacular one. All you have to do is listen to Holm and the opera singer dubbing for Darnell (Helen Spann) to hear the difference…though one wonders if Holm had to do anything to keep herself from sounding too good or if she just knew that her voice would not be up to operatic standards.

At the beginning of the film, I did have some reservations about the fact that Leonard is apparently trying to keep Doris from having a career, but ultimately it’s not about that. It’s about delusion. But, of course, if Leonard had just supported his wife and kept quiet, she would have found it out for herself and all would have been well much earlier. At the beginning of the film, they are a couple at cross purposes who both end up letting their singing get in the way of their marriage.

When Leonard sees himself in costume, he complains that he looks like a goat

When Leonard sees himself in costume, he complains that he looks like a goat

Everybody Does It was made to capitalize on the spectacular success of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives in 1949, which starred Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are one of three married couples. Celeste Holm, ironically enough, provided the voice for the never-seen Addie Ross, who tries to steal Douglas away from Darnell.

Trivia

The opera that Leonard and Cecil star in is called “L’Amoure di Fatima,” which is actually a fake opera with key songs and one scene composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, best known for his music for classic guitar.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – A Romantic Noir Melodrama

PostmanAlwaysPosterWhen I learned that The Postman Always Rings Twice was made at MGM, it explained a lot. MGM is known for gloss, musicals, glamour, lavishness and star-wattage. It is not known for film noirs and The Postman Always Rings Twice is an unusual film noir. It occurred to me while I was watching it this weekend that it was just as much a melodrama as a noir: heightened emotions, coincidences, rapid reversals of fortunes (and The Postman Always Rings Twice has more reversals of fortune than several Bette Davis films put together) and complicated and agonized inter-relational dynamics. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense; a good melodrama is an art form.

And for a film about murder, adultery, betrayal, lust and blackmail, it lacks the edge, shadows and sharp camera angles and bleak cynicism one would expect. By the last third, the film has left noir behind and lodges itself in romance territory, though a romance gone awry.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s short novel from 1934, one of three of his books to be turned into film noirs: Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. The movie follows the plot of the book quite closely, though the violent sexual charge is considerably toned down for the movie.

Lana Turner as Cora

Lana Turner as Cora – Frank’s first sight of her

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a vagrant by choice, hitchhiking from odd job to odd job and staying until he gets the well-known itching in his feet and moves on. He stops at a gas station and diner by a rural highway in California and is hired by the owner, Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to help out. Nick is a genial fellow, unless there is any money at stake and then Nick’s paranoia that people are trying to cheat him comes out. Nick has a wife, much younger than him, named Cora (Lana Turner). There is instant electricity when they meet and through a series of plot turns, they decide to run away together. But Cora ultimately can’t do it. She doesn’t want to be a tramp or have to go back to working at a hash house. She wants to make something of herself and she and Frank decide instead to kill her husband, which would allow her to take over his business and employ some of her ideas to make it more profitable.

The plot is a bit mind-bending. Most noirs plots follow the three part formula of seduction, crime and reckoning. This film goes from initial seduction, failed murder attempt, abandonment of murder attempt, renewed attempt and success, a trial, betrayal, getting off at the trial, hating each other after the trial, dealing with a blackmailer, paranoia, jealousy and thoughts of killing each other, genuine reconciliation and the final reckoning. It doesn’t feel convoluted when you watch it, though. It all seems like a natural development of the characters.

I was especially impressed by Lana Turner, an actress famous for being beautiful rather than talented. Admittedly, she does not have an expressive voice (Barbara Stanwyck can seduce partially with her voice and can convey so much with a word), but her performance as Cora was surprisingly subtle. Cora Smith is not a usual femme fatale. When we first meet her, she is in the role of siren. However, later she reveals ambivalence. She seems to be almost afraid of Frank and the feelings he will bring out in her, like she knows she has a dark side and is afraid to unleash it.

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Cecil Kellaway, John Garfield and Lana Turner

Several times when Frank is making advances, she tries to get her husband to pay attention to her as if she wants to remind herself that he loves her and she must remain loyal (Nick seems to suffer from a common noir and melodrama problem of remaining so blind to what is going on in his house that he even inadvertently encourages the affair).

There are moments when you can tell that she is manipulating Frank, but other times when she seems genuinely to want him. She gets to be the vulnerable and unhappy wife, the seductress, the manipulator, a vengeful woman (when Frank gets tricked into betraying her at her trial for her husband’s murder), unflinching, quick and surprisingly unfazed by Frank’s brutality in dealing with the blackmailer, ambitious, perpetually trying to start afresh and wipe the slate clean. She married Nick because it meant a new beginning; she tells Frank they must kill Nick so they can have a new beginning and she later believes that when she is pregnant the baby will provide yet another fresh beginning. But there is an imbalance in the force, so to speak, and she never can start afresh, but must pay for her actions and it is ironic that she finally does pay through a freak accident rather than human agency.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner - Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner – Cronyn is the shifty lawyer who manages to get Cora off

John Garfield is a natural fit for Frank Chambers as the drifter who knows better, but can’t help himself. Like most noirs, his motivations are simple: he wants her and that overwhelms everything else he knows and feels. His voice-over narration of the story is also unique. Most voice-overs are stoic or ironic, but not Garfield’s. His is desperate to be understood and to explain what happened and it is almost breathless.

The DA prosecuting Cora and her defense attorney are real highlights in the film. Leon Ames is the DA who is not above a few tricks to make his case, though he does want to see justice done. Hume Cronyn is the slimy, but brilliant, defense attorney, a man with no interest in justice who seems to be a lawyer for the sheer kicks of it, testing his ability. He won’t even take a fee from Cora when he could have demanded a large one. Instead, he wins a bet with the DA and an improbable case.

The ending, oddly enough, is positively upbeat, all things considered. Frank is indicted for murdering Cora – though it really was an accident – but when he realizes that it was only justice for the murder of Nick he embraces his end. He and Cora pay for their crimes with their death, balance to the force is restored and he even seems in hopes of being reunited with Cora after his execution. This is a romantic spin on what has come before. It is not entirely out of the blue, since the film increasingly seems to take on a romantic hue. Murder didn’t bring them what they wanted and actually brought them fear and paranoia, but unlike Double Indemnity, where  lack of trust is the lovers’ downfall, they really do seem to love each other and perhaps do genuinely overcome their fear. Their ultimate demise has nothing to do with self-destruction but cosmic justice.

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

John Garfield, Lana Turner and blackmailer

I can’t end without discussing Lana Turner’s costumes, designed by Irene. In almost the entire movie she wears white  – usually associated purity – and some sort of heard covering: turbans, swimming cap, hat, even a towel at one point. My theory is that Cora is a relatively self-aware femme fatale. She’s not entirely evil, she wants to be good, but knows what she is capable of and fears it. In self-defense from herself, she constantly wears white to reinforce who she wants to be. It’s the adage about dressing like the person you want to be…though there is a distinctly sexy edge to her wardrobe. The head coverings I find more puzzling. At one point, just before she dies and believing she finally has that fresh start, she has a towel draped over her head and it looks like a wimple like nuns wear. Head coverings have traditionally been associated with modesty, so perhaps it is all part of the general attempt at modest dressing, even if the affect is seldom modest.

She does wear black twice and it stands out when she does. The first time she is in a black dressing gown and is contemplating suicide (she says; not sure how far we can believe her) and then she and Frank plot the final murder of Nick that actually succeeds. The second time is when she returns from her mother’s funeral and is ready to tell Frank that she is pregnant and ready for another fresh start, though the fresh start is deferred by the appearance of a blackmailer, who through quick thinking on her part and violence on Frank’s, they manage to foil. But in that scene she reveals a tellingly ruthless streak in how she handles the situation and watches Frank beat the blackmailer. It is possible that the moments when she is in black are the moments when she is most herself…fundamentally despairing and cold inside, but grasping for a better future, to be a better person, and capable of doing anything to achieve it.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Film Noir

 

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