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Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Young Lions (1958)

The Young Lions was supposed to be a turning point in the career of three men: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin. It turned out, however, that the only person it really helped was Dean Martin, who successfully made the transition from comedy to dramatic actor.

The story is taken from the novel by Irwin Shaw, though it feels a bit like two separate stories put into one film. One story follows Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando with blonde hair), a ski instructor and shoemaker who becomes a lieutenant in the German army during WWII. Initially, he is optimistic about Hitler, thinking he will make Germany strong and prosperous. But as he witnesses the horrors of war and the crimes of the army, he becomes increasingly troubled and disoriented, unsure of what his duty is.

Meanwhile, America is preparing for war. Both entertainer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) and department store clerk Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) are drafted into the military. This part of the story initially feels like From Here to Eternity, with the Jewish Ackerman encountering antisemitism in his barracks and having to fight to earn acceptance. Eventually, however, both men end up in France and Germany, pushing back the German army, which is disintegrating.

The film culminates with the discovery – both by Diestl, who is wandering behind enemy lines, and Whiteacre and Ackerman – of a concentration camp, filled with starving people, and their attempts to grasp the full horror of it.

What is interesting about the film is that it does not deal with ideologies per se: Nazism, freedom. It comes off more like three men – who aren’t really that different from each other in terms of basic principles – who are not ideologically motivated. Mostly, what we hear from the German officers is the imperative of obeying orders, with a few who have qualms. In fact, it isn’t hard to imagine someone like Whiteacre or Ackerman fighting for the Germans (apart from the fact that Ackerman is Jewish). These are not guys fighting for any other reason than because they have been drafted and who’s loyalty is to their comrades.

Clift and Martin

In truth, Diestl comes off more like a pacifist than a man who specifically takes issue with the Nazi party line. He reacts negatively to the German occupation in Paris (I wonder what he would have made of Poland – France was mild in comparison) and seems more appalled by the cruelties of war than the specific crimes of Nazism.

All three men – Brando, Clift, and Martin – had high hopes for the film, but it doesn’t quite live up to all it could be. It feels, at times, like the story lacks cohesion or direction. Is a bit lethargic. But the actors themselves do well and were clearly giving it their all. Brando was seeking to revive his sagging box office appeal (which didn’t quite work) and probably has the most interesting role in the film.

The Young Lions was the first film Montgomery Clift made after having reconstructive surgery on his face after a terrible car accident. He was hoping also to make a comeback and perhaps even win an Academy Award, but sadly the reaction of most audiences was shock at his changed appearance and apparent ill health (he looks like someone who more likely would have been turned down by the draft board).

Dean Martin, however, was far more successful in achieving his goals. He had just broken up his partnership with Jerry Lewis and wanted to show that he was a viable dramatic actor. The very next year he would make Rio Bravo and receive much acclaim for his performance.

In The Young Lions, his more natural and laid back approach to acting is actually a very nice contrast to the method approach of Brando and Clift (who do not share a scene in the film, adding to the sense that we are watching two separate stories). Martin’s Whiteacre is a slightly spoiled singer and performer who thinks he is a coward. He spends part of the film hating himself for trying to get out of service, but eventually he conquers his fears in a sense of shared camaraderie.

He was actually fortunate to get the role. It was originally intended for Tony Randall, until it was decided that Randall was not suited for the part. Dean Martin, however, seems perfect.

This is my second contribution to the “Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon,” hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Be sure to read all the rest of the posts from days 1, 2, and 3 of the Blogathon!

 
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Posted by on June 7, 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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