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Kid Galahad (1937) – Bette Davis Blogathon

It is fun to watch Bette Davis’ early films…before her role in Jezebel. There is something special about the way she pops off the screen, in a way she does not in later films (though she always dominates the screen). I noted in last year’s post for “The Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, that she was “like a dynamo or a ball of fire, bursting across the screen.” The sheer amount of energy and charisma is mesmerizing, even in films unworthy of her talents.

But Kid Galahad, directed by the ever versatile and able Michael Curtiz, is not unworthy of her talents, though she does not get top billing (that honor goes to Edward G. Robinson). It’s a boxing drama. Nick Donati (Edward G. Robinson) is a blowhard boxing promoter looking for a man to make champion, who can defeat the champion promoted by gangster Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart). He finds his potential champion in Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris), who becomes known as Kid Galahad because of his simple, gentlemanly and slightly naive ways. Bette Davis plays Donati’s girlfriend, Louise “Fluff” Phillips, who falls for Ward. Ward, however, likes Donati’s sister, Marie (Jane Bryan), who Donati has tried to shelter from the tough racket of the fight game.

The film contains crime and boxing, gambling and gangsters, murder, romantic triangles, and nightclubs. The boxing sequences are also quite well done and exciting on their own and in the context of the plot. It has that 1930s Warner Bro. crime drama feel that is always entertaining. As is the cast.

Edward G. Robinson is another dynamic actor who made his career as a leading man by sheer power and skill rather than his looks (Bette Davis did not like kissing him and called him “liver lips”). He’s one of those actors I would watch in virtually anything and he brings vulnerability to his role as a promoter with a quick temper and willingness to skirt the law. And the same with Humphrey Bogart, who plays quite the dour killer. In fact, he’s so convincingly dour as a killer that if all I saw was this film, I would never have guessed that he could play a romantic leading man.

Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart actually appeared in five movies together, always ending with one or the other killing each other….or sometimes both at the same time. In fact, many actors in Kid Galahad appeared in many different roles with each other throughout their careers at Warner Bros. Bette Davis appeared in at least four movies with Jane Bryan, once as her mother (The Old Maid), twice as her sister (Marked WomanThe Sisters), and once as romantic rival (in Kid Galahad). Jane Bryan also once played Edward G. Robinson’s daughter, as well as his sister. Not to mention the four movies Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart appeared in (though never after Humphrey Bogart hit the big time). The studios could be very flexible about these things.

Kid Galahad feels like an ensemble film rather than a showcase for any particular actor. However, Bette Davis does use the opportunity to make an impression. As Donati’s knowing girlfriend, who is grateful for his kindness towards her and keeps him out of trouble, she gets to play a person who definitely has an air of experience, but is still young and fresh enough not to feel jaded. Though her large and expressive eyes belie the happiness she professes to feel at the beginning of the story.

She is touched when Ward quite un-selfconsciously refers to her as a “lady.” He’s the first one to treat her that way and calls her Louise rather than her nickname, Fluff. But she still seems fresh enough for one to believe that Ward would see her as a lady. She is often the smartest one in the film, an invaluable partner to Nick and keeps him grounded.

Bette Davis, Jane Bryan, Edward G. Robinson

(plot spoiler) The end of the film involves a shootout and Bette Davis gets the last scene, as she sadly walks away down the street…on to better things, one presumes, like an Academy Award for Jezebel the following year. It would take a few more years for Humphrey Bogart to move on to better things. But Kid Galahad makes a nice send-off for Bette Davis. You just know you will be seeing her again.

This post was written as part of the “Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts covering Bette Davis’ vast career!

 

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2017 in Movies

 

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Les Miserables (1952)

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Contraband (1940)

Contraband is a comic romantic spy thriller in the vein of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It also marks the second time that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together. Not as well known as their later films, or as Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Contraband nevertheless is an unexpectedly fun film.

Though the film was released in 1940, the story is set in 1939, before Britain was at war with Germany. Captain Hans Andersen (Conrad Veidt) is the captain of a Danish freighter bringing supplies to his homeland. But his ship is stopped by the British Navy. Though not yet at war, the British are in a state of military preparedness and are stopping all ships to check for contraband intended for the Germans. But while his ship is moored near London, Captain Andersen is drawn into the intrigues of several of his passengers, including the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson).

When Contraband was released in America, it was titled Blackout, which Michael Powell later admitted was a more appropriate title. Nearly all of the story occurs during one night, with London subject to a blackout (nightly blackouts which would last for the entire war). All outdoor lights are off, windows are blocked with heavy curtains, cars drive without lights, air raid wardens roam the city looking for any light peeping through windows and warning people not to light matches, traffic signals are a pale fraction of their size, and pedestrians must grope their way through the city. It’s a fascinating look at London during the war, as well as a great setting for a story about German and British spies.

It is also fascinating to see Conrad Veidt – the king of silent German expressionist horror – in a heroic and lightly comic role. He even looks rather dapper and shares an unexpected, zesty chemistry with Valerie Hobson as two people who get a kick out of excitement and danger.

There is comedy in the story, verbal wit (several Nazis responds to Captain Hans Andersen’s introducing himself by saying they are the Brothers Grimm). Captain Andersen’s first mate, Axel (Hay Petrie), has a favorite brother who owns a restaurant in London, which is staffed by a number of Danes ready for a good scrap against the Nazis. The film presents Denmark and Britain as natural allies against the Nazis. Sadly, only a month after Contraband was released in Britain, the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Both Conrad Veidt and Emeric Pressburger were refugees from Nazi Germany. Veidt left with his Jewish wife in 1933, not long after they were married and Jews were banned from working in the film industry. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, though working in Berlin when Hitler came to power, and also left Germany. He would later become a British citizen and would form the extraordinarily creative The Archers production company with Michael Powell.

The plot of Contraband is fairly inconsequential. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, the journey and thrills are what count. It’s a fun film and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of The Lady VanishesNight Train to Munich, Conrad Veidt, or Powell and Pressburger. And who isn’t a fan of at least one of those?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

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