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The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Mark_of_Zorro_1940In some ways, The Mark of Zorro looks an awful lot like 20th Century Fox was attempting to garner a little of the success achieved by the 1938 Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. Both are swashbuckling adventures with an outlaw on the side of the oppressed, sword fights, horse chases, a little romance, a little politics, general adventure with a good dose of humor, the hero climbing the balcony to woo his beloved, a confrontation between hero and Basil Rathbone. It even has three of the same actors: Basil Rathbone, Eugene Pallette and Montagu Love. But I must confess that as much as I have always enjoyed The Adventures of Robin Hood, I love The Mark of Zorro. It is a film that, despite many similarities, stands on its own as one of the most fun swashbucklers ever made.

One of the things I especially like about the film is the scope it gives Tyrone Power to play two different characters: dashing hero and lover, and affected fop…and they don’t skimp on the fop, either.

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) is at a military academy at Spain, but is called home by his father (Montagu Love), who is the Alcade (governor?) in California. But when he arrives home, he is shocked to find everything changed. His father has been forced out of office and replaced by the weaselly Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his bodyguard/enforcer Captain Estaban Pasquale (Basil Rathone), who is very fond if his sword and likes to swing it around for dramatic affect while speaking.

When Diego sees what has happened, he comes up with a quick plan not to reveal that he is actually a fine swordsman and instead pretends to everyone that he is a fop and dandy, too worried about his clothes and slight of hand tricks to concern himself with all the oppression and high taxes enforced by Quintero and Pasquale. His father, and especially his priest, Fray Felipe (Eugene Pallete, in a role nearly identical to the one he play in The Adventures of Robin Hood) are disgusted with him, but Diego has a plan. Disguising himself as a bandit, he begins to prey on Quintero and his soldiers and to take back some of the stolen wealth from the peons (the name for the people at the bottom rung of society). However, his plan is not so much about helping peons, as it is about making California so hot for Quintero that Quintero will eventually leave for fear of his life.

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell

And that’s what I really liked about The Mark of Zorro. The story not only gives him scope to ride about and fight, but also to scheme and machinate. Don Diego is fighting a two-front war single handed. While he is robbing, leaving his signature Z on every convenient surface, terrorizing Quintero and his cohorts, he is also trying to convince him, in the role of Don Diego, that the masked bandit is probably a madman who will end up cutting his throat. Meanwhile, he is flirting with Quintero’s wife, Inez (the magnificent Gale Sondergaard), who despises her uncouth husband and longs for the glamour and elegance of Madrid, a longing happily fueled by Don Diego.

At the same time, he has fallen in love with Quintero’s niece, Lolita (a very young Linda Darnell, still only 17 or 18), who has developed a crush on the masked bandit, but can’t stand the prissy and languid Diego.

One of my favorite scenes is at a small family party at the Quinteros to celebrate the arranged engagement between Diego and Lolita. Pasquale, a man who prides himself on his swordplay and virility and who has definitely been carrying on with Inez (one suspects they are the ones who propelled Quintero to his current position) is jealous of Diego, who has fascinated Inez with his talk of Madrid, court, fashion and pretty speeches. Inez is jealous of Lolita, because she is younger and engaged to Diego. Diego is trying to keep his flirtation with Inez up, while surreptitiously wooing Lolita (especially through a dance) and Lolita can barely tolerate to even sit next to him (except when they dance and he shows a spark of virility himself).

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone

The inevitable sword fight between Power and Rathbone is also excellent (poor Rathbone lost so many fights, one can’t help feeling a pang of sympathy and wish that he’d win one, just once, since he really is the superior fencer). The fight occurs  in a much smaller space than The Adventures of Robin Hood, less bouncy, but more personal, more face-to face and quite exciting.

The Mark of Zorro is a remake of the silent 1920 The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks, but I do not know to what extant the 1940 version owes to the original. Does it have more in common with the silent film or The Adventures of Robin Hood? Does anyone know? The silent film is on my list of films I most want to see next.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Rose of Washington Square (1939) – Not-So-Veiled Biopic of Fanny Brice

MV5BNDM4MjgzODM1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk4NzE2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Ever since first being introduced to Alice Faye, I have liked her movies. Her voice, as Alice Faye said, was deeper than the plots of her films, but there is a warm, nostalgic charm in her films that I enjoy. And I especially enjoy her voice and her singing. Michael Feinstein comments in a feature on the DVD of The Rose of Washington Square that she was an excellent swing singer, but she is extremely moving when she sings ballads and has a rich, warm voice that is lovely to listen to.

The story of Rose of Washington Square is extremely basic: about the enduring love of a woman for her charming, but ne’er-do-well husband. During the 1920s (the era of vaudeville, speakeasies and booze just off the ships) Rose Sargent (Alice Faye) and Ted Cotter (Al Jolson) are struggling vaudevillians trying to land a contract with a big-time agent. However, before they can do so, Rose meets Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power) at a hotel and they fall in love instantly. Ted Cotter gets his contract with agent Harry Long (William Frawley – always fun to see in a film), but Rose is no longer his partner. 

Instead, she gets a job at a speakeasy, where she sings a fun swing song with Louis Prima (of King Louis fame in The Jungle Book), who accompanies her on his trumpet, and she runs into Bart again. Bart, it turns out, is something of a small-time crook who occasionally plays with the bigger-time crooks. He’s more of a con artist. When she first meets him at the hotel and they fall in love, he skips out that same night without telling her because the police caught up with him when he tried to con a very expensive necklace out of Tiffany’s. But when she meets him again, she tells him she doesn’t care what he does. She loves him and nothing he does can make any difference.

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Tyrone Power, Alice Faye

Naturally, Ted Cotter does not like Bart much, but puts up with him for Rose’s sake. His career skyrockets, however, and Jolson sings many of his most famous songs: “Mammy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” California, Here I Come.” Meanwhile, Bart and Rose marry and her career takes off as well. But Bart is still no good, immature, and incapable of staying honest and he goes from one scrape to another of increasing magnitude. Meanwhile, his wife continues to stand by his side, no matter what, even when he must stand a public trial for theft.

She never gets angry…not once (unlike in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, where Faye and Power’s interaction is decidedly more fiery). But Rose has simply decided that she doesn’t care what he does; she wants him and she’s going to stand by him and it’s definitely a decision, even if she does say that her love is more like a fever, something you can’t cure or control.

In one way, it is yet another one of those stories glorifying the suffering wife standing by her crummy husband, but it’s actually a not terribly subtle rip-off of real people and a real event. At the beginning of Rose of Washington Square, there is a disclaimer saying the events and people in the film are purely fictitious, but no one believed it. The story almost exactly mirrors the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her marriage to professional gambler, Nicky Arnstein, and everyone, including Fanny Brice herself, recognized it. She sued 20th Century Fox, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Al Jolson. They evidently settled it out of court.

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Alice Faye, Al Jolson

Fanny Brice was primarily a comedian, one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s biggest stars, but she could also reportedly break your heart with a song and her most heartbreaking song was “My Man,” which Faye sings in Rose of Washington Square. In fact, Faye sings a number of songs that Brice was famous for, but “My Man” is the emotional climax of the film, where Rose declares to the world that nothing’s going to change how much she loves Bart. According to the featurette on the DVD, whenever Brice would sing “My Man,”everyone knew that she was really singing about her love for Nicky Arnstein and it was like a very public confessional, with Brice literally singing her heart out while the audience cried.

Rose of Washington Square is the first film I have seen Al Jolson in. I must admit that he initially took me aback. His acting style is fairly understated (at least in this film), but when he’s singing he’s full of frenetic energy, almost twitchy, his entire body constantly in motion, and he nearly pops off the screen at you. Jolson is essentially playing Jolson in the movie, who always performed his songs in black face. But I can see why he was so popular; that twitchy energy is magnetic, if highly individual and takes a little getting used to.

Alice Faye and Tyrone Power made three movies together: Alexander’s Ragtime BandIn Old Chicago, and The Rose of Washington Square, though I have not yet seen In Old Chicago. But Alice Faye and Tyrone Power are a good match and I give them great credit for making it seem both plausible and natural that they would fall in love at first sight in The Rose of Washington Square. Power is best remembered as a swashbuckler, but he played cads, crooks and shady characters very well. He could have just a touch of the smarmy about him, but he was handsome and boyish enough to carry it off and keep audience sympathy.

Alice Faye sings 'Rose of Washington Square"

Alice Faye sings ‘Rose of Washington Square”

All in all, it’s a very enjoyable film with some great songs. I have not seen Funny Girl (another not-so-disguised biopic of Fanny Brice, starring Barbra Streisand), but it is credited as the main reason people still remember Fanny Brice at all. However, Rose of Washington Square is actually supposed to be a more accurate portrayal of Fanny Brice’s marriage to Nicky Arnstein, though Alice Faye is not very like Fanny Brice. But it gets the core of Fanny’s love for her husband right.

Although recorded much later than 1939, here is Alice Faye singing one of Fanny Brice’s songs; “Rose of Washington Square.”

Al Jolson reprises “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in Rose of Washington Square, one of his hits which he also sang in the 1927 The Jazz Singer. This clip is from The Jazz Singer.

This version of “My Man” was sung by Fanny Brice in 1938 on the radio.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Luck of the Irish (1948) – A Little Late on St. Patrick’s Day

0040553I meant to watch The Luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but somehow I didn’t get to it. Last week however, I went on a Tyrone Power bender and watched the last few movies I hadn’t seen from the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol CollectionOne of the movies was Cafe Metropole and the other was The Luck of the Irish, released in 1948.

Starring Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter, Cecil Kellaway, Lee J. Cobb, Jayne Meadows, and directed by Henry Koster (the man who directed many of the Deanna Durbin musicals and movies like HarveyThe Bishop’s Wife, and The Inspecter General), The Luck of the Irish is an unpretentious and surprisingly low-key comedy.

Stephen Fitzgerald (Tyrone Power) is a reporter who has been freelancing in Europe and earning very little for his efforts. He’s been hired, however, by publisher David C. Auger (Lee J. Cobb), an extremely successful man known for his unscrupulous methods, who now wants to move into politics. Stephen’s friend, Bill Clark (James Todd), doesn’t approve. He thinks Stephen’s selling out his principles for a big paycheck and job security. While the two of them argue about it on vacation in Ireland, they drive over a rickety bridge that collapses and their car sinks into the creek, stranding Stephen and Bill in a small Irish village with an inn and not much else, though the inn turns out to be run by Anne Baxter as Nora.

When Stephen sees a man (Cecil Kellaway) sitting by a waterfall (that all the inhabitants of the village swear doesn’t exist), hammering shoes, he is told that the man is probably a leprechaun and that if Stephen catches him, the leprechaun must give him his pot of gold. Stephen doesn’t exactly believe this story – he thinks it’s a prank – but when he does catch the leprechaun and is offered a pot of gold coins, he is surprised and refuses to take it.

Cecil Kellaway and Tyrone Power

Cecil Kellaway and Tyrone Power look at the pot of gold

He returns to New York and starts work for Auger, writing speeches and articles. He discovers, also, that Auger’s daughter, Frances (Jayne Meadows), was instrumental in getting him hired and has clearly decided that Stephen is the man for her. He’s uncomfortable with the very modern apartment she’s decorated for him, and though he tells Auger that he intends to maintain his own principles, he soon finds out that in working for Auger his principles must be sacrificed. You can’t write speeches for a candidate whom you disagree with without sublimating your own opinions and endorsing his.

But just as he is settling into his new life, the leprechaun shows up, claiming to be from the employment agency. His name is Horace and he is determined to serve Stephen in every way he can (though he doesn’t really know how to mix drinks, but he chauffeurs pretty well). He doesn’t actively sabotage Stephen and his burgeoning romance with Frances. He is really more like Jiminy Cricket; he represents Stephen’s conscious, reminding Stephen of what is really of value in life. Horace is not, however, above a few machinations to ensue that Stephen and Nora meet again in New York.

What I really liked is that it’s not about trading your soul for success; it is a much more personal story. It is about Stephen, who is trading his soul for success. He has definite principles, but somewhat weak character. He badly wants to settle down and live a particular lifestyle and earn good money and is willing to suppress the things he believes in to do it. Horace points out to him that it is important who you serve (Horace is speaking of himself, serving Stephen, but it is a clear metaphor for Stephen working for Auger). The person you serve is who you end up being like, whose principles you end up living by, whose interests and concerns become your interests and concerns.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter with an Irish fireman in New York

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter with an Irish fireman in New York who is a bit jealous

The film also manages to avoid the trap of demonizing Auger and especially Frances (who manages to come across as more than just a heartless schemer). The focus is instead on Stephen and his decisions in life.

Cecil Kellaway is delightful as the irrepressible leprechaun, with a little hop-skip in his walk and an impish twinkle in his eye. I was expecting a slightly more fantasy-ish film, but it’s surprisingly grounded, despite the presence of a leprechaun. The focus is less on any magical things he can do and more on his very presence and his friendship with Stephen. And Tyrone Power is good as the principled, but vacillating Stephen who is confused about what he really wants, but remains likable throughout.

It’s not a screwball comedy, with lots of slapstick (though there are a few falls on Stephen’s well-polished floor). It’s more the incongruity of having a leprechaun in New York that provides the humor. I had no particular expectations for the film, so I was agreeably surprised. It’s a fun and satisfying movie that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Comedy, Fantasy

 

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