Monday, August 18, 2008

Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern

Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern by Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen.

The author of this book, Samuel Marx, once worked as story editor for MGM studios in the early 1930s, and it was during this period when he met and became friends with Paul Bern, then one of the studio's most popular and successful producers. During his days as an office boy for Universal Pictures, Marx had also met and befriended the soon-to-be famous producer Irving Thalberg, and it was Thalberg who hired Marx as story editor for MGM studio when he arrived there in 1930. Thalberg would eventually become one of the most famous film producers of his time before his untimely death in 1936.

The year is 1932, the morning after the Labor Day weekend when Marx received a telephone call informing him that his producer-friend Paul Bern, who was married to Jean Harlow at the time, was found dead in his home, an apparent suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. When Marx arrived at the scene he found several of his colleagues were already there, including Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer and MGM's publicist Howard Strickling. Marx became suspicious when he learned that these men were at the house hours before the police were even notified.

Upon further reading we discover that Paul Bern was once married to a woman he knew and met long ago (during his theater days as an actor), and that this woman was mentally ill. Her name was Dorothy Millette, a stage actress who somehow became very sick and had to be institutionalized. Bern kept this secret from almost everyone he knew except for a select few; probably those he was very close to and trusted. We discover that Dorothy has now been released and is spending most of her time at a hotel in Sacramento. She begins to taunt Bern, who at this time is seen courting a young Jean Harlow, and expresses a desire to come back into his life and continue her aspiration to become an actress. In Dorothy's mind only a night has past, but in reality she has been in a coma for almost a decade. Marx claims that Bern was worried about how to handle the situation but seemed fine the last time he saw him.

The public knew nothing about this Dorothy Millette and it didn't reach newspapers until days after Bern's death. When it finally did reach the newspapers a nationwide search was conducted to locate the whereabouts of this mystery woman, and all that witnesses seem to know was that she was last seen on the Delta King, a steamboat that traveled between Sacramento and San Francisco. Dorothy Millette's belongings were left behind and never picked up, and she never got off the boat when it docked in Sacramento. Nobody knew what happened to her. All evidence pointed to suicide and people believed she jumped. A short time later her body was found in the Sacramento River.

Samuel Marx never believed the motive that became almost synonymous whenever someone mentioned the name Paul Bern; the man who killed himself because he couldn't make it with Jean Harlow, the man who was impotent. Marx claimed that Dorothy Millette -- her side, her story -- was more important than most people at the time were willing to let on. The triangle that made up the mystery, Marx claims, consisted of Paul, Dorothy and Harlow. Two of whom died the same year with Jean Harlow having only five more years left to live before dying of uremic poisoning in 1937. Marx also suspected a cover-up by the hands of certain figures at the MGM studio, a cover-up to withdraw any evidence that would create a scandal or tarnish the reputation of their young blonde bombshell, then on the rise of becoming one of the studio's biggest stars.

It is nice to read a book about something based on real events and knowing that the author himself was there and knew the people involved. But if you're truly immersed in the book you'll notice that there are some things which are almost entirely speculated upon and impossible to prove for the simple reason that both parties who were involved are dead. Nevertheless, Marx presents a credible argument to something that very well may have been a Hollywood myth all these years. I don't want to give anything away. It is such an engrossing book so read it. The final chapter is a jaw-dropping and utterly convincing finale to a good mystery. *** out of ****

Friday, April 13, 2007

Some Like It Hot (1959)

"Some Like It Hot" is ranked number one on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Laughs; making the film basically the funniest movie of all-time. Yet, I couldn't refrain from asking myself if this movie really deserves the number one spot, or even "Tootsie" at number two; perhaps there IS something about transvestitism that appeals to the general public, mind you, if they're done skillfully. I feel I'm in no position to argue. With that said this delightful comedy has a little something for everyone to enjoy.

After being nearly arrested for entertaining in an illegal backdoor dive and gambling club two musicians named Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, flee the scene and quickly start looking for jobs elsewhere. After hearing that a certain opening is available for a saxaphone and bull fiddle player Jerry tries to convince an agent that he and Joe can qualify for the engagement -- the only catch is that they have to be women. Joe refuses the idea and suggests the alternative and play at a dance located 100 miles out-of-town. In an effort to provide themselves with transportation Joe charms his way with a woman to borrow her car located at a parking garage. While there Joe and Jerry witness a mob massacre; narrowly escaping death themselves. In fear of their lives the two flee the state, joining an all-girl band masquerading as women and head out by bus to Florida.

During this bus ride the two men encounter an attractive blonde named Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by a voluptuous, then pregnant Marilyn Monroe. From the very first meeting she comes across as a not particularly bright, bottle-sipping ukulele player who wants nothing more but to marry a nice, kind man with lots of money -- like a millionaire with glasses. As the story progresses Joe takes a fancy to Sugar and funny complications ensue. The band eventually arrive in Florida, and Joe and Jerry, now calling themselves Josephine and Daphne, instead of fleeing on arrival decide to play out their stint at a hotel lounge. Meanwhile, Joe attempts to win the affection of Sugar while pretending to be an English millionaire equipped with glasses and a yacht. But their amusing absurdities come to a halt when the mob from Chicago, headed by Spats Colombo (George Raft), catches up with them by odd chance at the same hotel.

There are two reasons why "Some Like It Hot" works and why so few of the same kind of movies that followed have been a success. 1) The cast. In addition to the superb character actors, Pat O'Brien and Joe E. Brown, you just can't go wrong with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. The two men play off each other so well and they're a delight to watch. And to top it off you have Marilyn Monroe, in what I've always considered was the last triumph in her film career before making her final picture, "The Misfits", a year or so later. 2) Billy Wilder as director. Wilder has such a strong ability for comedy on screen it is unparalleled, HE is unparalleled; watch any or all of this man's movies and you'll understand why he's considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. Presently, "Some Like It Hot" is working on being nearly 60 years old, and it doesn't seem dated one bit. **** out of ****

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Hell's Angels (1930)

Brothers Roy and Monte Rutledge ditch their native Oxford for England's Royal Flying Corps at the onset of the First World War. One of the brothers (James Hall) is madly in love with a beguiling and attractive girl named Helen, played by Jean Harlow. Meanwhile, after the news that war has been declared on Germany, their German friend Karl (John Darrow) is ordered back to his country to enlist in the war and fight Britain; a sentence he resents on account that he considers the English his friends. Karl ultimately ends up on a Zeppelin (a German airship) with orders to bomb an area in London.

As the story progresses Roy and Monte volunteer for a risky mission: to bomb a German munitions facility using a German plane. Before they commence to their duty however, Roy and Monte decide to enjoy what could possibly be their last night together and Roy goes off and looks for Helen, only to find her in the arms of another man. (Sometime in mid-1934, The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) drafted a document that set the standards on what was acceptable to be shown on motion picture screens. A lewd scene in the movie involving Helen and a drunken man is a fine example of pre-code behavior).

"Hell's Angels" was really a movie ahead of its time. Howard Hughes, the director, wasn't afraid to do anything if he knew it would be beneficial to the picture, and cost certainly wasn't an issue because the results were sensational. The aerial sequences alone were convincing for its time, and even today, because it was acheived through the means of practical effects and obviously required an aviator's skill. The color sections of the film (the destruction of the Zeppelin in particular), were also well done, creating the right atmosphere for a highly elevated airship in danger of being compromised. And the sacrificing of the German airman falling down a darkened pit without even so much as a whimper was both frightening and unnerving; this scene is a sparkling example of how images can triumph over words. But what I found most wonderful of all in this film was an eight minute, two-strip Technicolor scene featuring Jean Harlow, the only color footage that exists of the actress. ***1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One, Two, Three (1961)

Our setting is West Berlin, Germany, just after the Second World War where James Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive assigned to look after his boss's daughter Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin) while her parents are away vacationing in Europe. As the story progresses Scarlett falls in love with an East German Communist named Otto Piffl, played by Horst Buchholz. When MacNamara finds out that the underaged Scarlett is engaged to be married all hell breaks loose as he (with the help of his assistant Schlemmer) hastly undertakes the task of transforming Piffl into a respectable, presentable, and noble husband when Mr. and Mrs. Hazeltine arrive back to greet their daughter.

MacNamara's trouble doesn't end there, however. Phyllis MacNamara (Arlene Francis) is unhappy with her life in Berlin, and for the sake of their children she pleads with her husband to take back his old position in Atlanta and return to live in the United States. He refuses and she threatens to leave him.

Billy Wilder directs this fast-paced comedy with sheer brilliance it will leave your head spinning. The cast here is top-notch and James Cagney is non-stop hilarious. For a film that has at least a chuckle a minute it is nowhere to be found on AFI's Top 100 Laughs. Fans of Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" should enjoy and appreciate this highly underrated farcical gem. ***1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd portrays Shane, a retired gunslinger who wanders onto the Starrett ranch and befriends the family, eventually working for them. Right from the beginning the character of Shane comes across as a little strange and mysterious, and not much information is given as to his background or past affairs. The cast includes Van Heflin as Joe Starrett, Jean Arthur (in what is to be her final film appearance) plays his wife Marian and Brandon De Wilde as their little boy, Joey. The Starrett family alongside many others are living in the vicinity of a small community with no established law. In other words, trouble flows frequently and the peacemakers of the bunch find themselves and their property threatened by wild and stubborn cowboys, who harbor an intent to drive the settlers out of town.

Meanwhile, a cattleman named Ryker (Emile Meyer) wants to buy the Starrett property, but Joe is adamant in his decision and refuses. Leaving him with no alternative Ryker sends for an infamous gunslinger named Wilson to take care of Starrett, but Shane ultimately intervenes and saves the town from overpowering corruption.

"Shane" is a movie about conflict; about how one man, a stranger, can put a troubled town back on its feet and, at the same time, change the standing of one family. The showdown between Shane and Wilson, played by Jack Palance, is short, quick and to the point. Palance has such a strong presence as Wilson, yet all it takes is a single bullet. That scene looked and felt like a real showdown. It is a beautiful looking movie with wonderful cinematography, not to mention a story that really gets into your heart. Its classic ending really is what everyone says it is. Very few westerns get any better than this. **** out of ****

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Steve McQueen plays the title role of the Cincinnati Kid; a young, up-and-coming poker player. The backdrop of the movie is 1930's New Orleans where we are introduced to Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson), a famous master of the game and the best player in the country. Lancey is back in town and by word of mouth a game is quickly arranged for the two pro's. Kid's colleague Shooter (Karl Malden) is appointed the trusted dealer, but after an exclusive meeting with a head honcho named Slade (Rip Torn), Shooter is put into a corner and is forced to rig the game.

Meanwhile, when Kid's girl Christian (Tuesday Weld) is out of town visiting her parents, he begins an unsteady relationship with Melba Nile, played by the beautiful Ann-Margret. Joan Blondell rounds out this great assemble as Lady Fingers, a respected card dealer and old friend of Lancey Howard.

"The Cincinnati Kid" is a pretty entertaining movie. Although I don't know anything about the rules of poker, and not absolutely certain if it's imperative for the audience to have a thorough knowledge on, director Norman Jewison is a great substitute for Sam Peckinpah, who was originally slated to direct. Jewison's direction during the showdown between the Kid and the Man is very well done, creating suspense by the clean and natural turn of a card. The soundtrack is also really good here with Lalo Schifrin as the composer. Many viewers have already began to compare this movie with "The Hustler", the classic film about poolsharks made famous by Paul Newman just a few years before. "The Cincinnati Kid" could very well have been made to piggyback that highly acclaimed film. *** out of ****

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Carole Lombard Glamour Collection

Disk 1
-Man of the World
-We're Not Dressing

In "Man of the World", Carole Lombard plays Mary Kendall, an Amercian living temporarily in Paris with her fiancé and rich uncle. While her beau is away Mary becomes infatuated with the William Powell character, Michael Trevor, a charming and sophisticated American also living in Paris who claims to be a novelist; in actuality, he is a blackmailer working for a scandal magazine. As the story progresses we learn that someone has dirt on Mary's rich uncle (Guy Kibbee), and will print the shameful information unless his demands are met.

Meanwhile, after several dinner dates and ordinary outings, Michael, too, has become infatuated with Mary and decides to tell all about his line of work; hoping she will still feel for him after he comes clean. His plan soon falls apart however, when, after meeting the rich uncle with startling news, Mary walks into the room and discovers that Michael was using her all along to get to her uncle.

"Man of the World" isn't a tedious film, it's just not a particularly interesting one. It lacks a certain amount of appeal that I doubt could have been saved by the actors. This is a really a weak story about characters we probably don't care too much for with an ending many viewers might consider a let down. **1/2 out of ****

In "We're Not Dressing", Carole Lombard plays Doris Worthington, a heiress with her own yacht entertaining guests and sailing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Accompanying Doris is her pal Edith (Ethel Merman), her Uncle Hubert (Leon Errol) and two Prince brothers Michael and Alexander Stofani, played by Ray Milland and Jay Henry. On board there is also a singing sailor named Stephen Jones (Bing Crosby).

As the story progresses Doris' yacht hits a reef and starts to sink. Most of the other passengers (mainly sailors and members of the crew) head for the lifeboats and abandon ship, but all of our key characters -- amusingly -- opt to jump ship instead. Stephen and his bear pal Droopy meet up with Doris in the water, brothers Michael and Alexander are aimlessly drifting together on a raft, and Edith and Uncle Hubert manage to get themselves on a water bike. The characters are not in the sea too long before they notice land some distance away and head for it.

On this uncharted, uninhabited island we're introduced to two characters, George and Gracie Martin, played by George Burns and Gracie Allen. They're husband and wife conducting a scientific research who are completely unaware to the arrival of their new guests marooned on the other side of the island. Meanwhile, Stephen assigns everyone with a job to do if they expect to get fed. The group show no delay in giving into his demands, but Doris refuses.

There are plenty of amusing moments in "We're Not Dressing" and even plenty of singing on Crosby's part. George Burns and Gracie Allen provide some decent comic relief and this is the earliest film I've seen of Ethel Merman; but in a mere bit part, I thought she was greatly underused. Prince brothers Michael and Alexander seem to be a complete waste during the second and third acts of the movie and having them there was unnecessary; although I did find their attempts at trying to win the affection of Doris to be quite humorous. *** out of ****