Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee & "Where the Sidewalk Ends"

Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee

Sandra Dee, "The Reluctant Debutante," 1958.

Sandra Dee, "A Summer Place," 1959.
 I wasn't too familiar with Sandra Dee's films until I started seeing them on Turner Classic Movies.  Of course I was familiar with the line from the song in "Grease" where a bad girl compares herself to Sandra Dee when pretending to be pure and virtuous, but I had never seen one of her performances.
Dee was incredibly popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but her star faded fast when she grew too old for teenager roles and the public didn't seem to accept her in more adult fare - at least as far as I can tell from her IMDB bio.  But from these two films I can tell she had a great screen presence, a touch for light comedy, and some trouble connecting on a more dramatic note. 

In "Debutante" she plays a young American girl visiting her aristocratic father, and his new wife, in England.  While there she has her "coming out" ball and gets mixed up with various young men trying to woo her.  She's very charming, lighthearted, and convincing in the role, holding her own in scenes with Rex Harrison.  I credit director Vincente Minelli with getting such a good performance.
In the melodramatic "A Summer Place," directed by Delmer Daves, released just a year later, Dee stars with fellow hearthrob Troy Donahue as a pair of star-crossed young lovers.  She seems much older than her 17 years, almost as if she is playing at being a grown up, and it takes away from her charm.  I'm sure audiences loved the frank approach the young lovers have towards sex - they sneak away from their parents, who are also involved in various love triangles, to fool around near the raging ocean surf - but ultimately the film embraces a more conservative approach to family.  Classic late 1950s mixed messages, wanting to excite the teen audience but not quite ready for the counter-culture waiting in the wings.

"Where the Sidewalk Ends"

Dana Andrews, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," 1950.

Gene Tierney, "Where the Sidewalk Ends," 1950.

"Where the Sidewalk Ends" is a great tough guy film noir, featuring Andrews as a sullied cop who accidentally kills a suspect, then has to cover it up.  Too bad the dead guy has such a good looking ex-wife in Gene Tierney.  Andrews tries to keep his own misdeed covered-up until he can get the guys responsible for the bigger crime, but as usual in these things it doesn't work out and Tierney has to pay for what he's done, keeping his honor but losing the girl.  Great direction by Otto Preminger, and written by Ben Hecht, one of the best screenwriters of that era.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Two Films Noir

Jane Greer "Out of the Past" 1947.
Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum look like they were carved out of marble in this film noir.  Greer is the object of gangster Kirk Douglas' affection, on the run, when detective Robert Mitchum is hired to find her.  Of course he falls in love with her, forcing himself to go underground to hide from Douglas.  Years later Douglas finds him, and Mitchum and Greer are reunited, bringing up their past, which they are unable to reconcile with the present.  Things end poorly for both Greer and Mitchum.  Good, classic noir - you can't escape your past misdeeds, no matter how handsome you are.
Gloria Grahame "Crossfire" 1947.
 The plot of "Crossfire" is pretty straight forward; a soldier is falsely accused of killing a civilian, who happens to be Jewish.  The police investigating the murder, led by Robert Montgomery and helped by soldier Robert Mitchum, discover it was a fellow soldier, played by Robert Ryan, and his motive was simply prejudice.  Gloria Grahame plays the dance hall girl whose cuckold husband provides the alibi for the innocent soldier. 
Watching this film again I was most struck by a speech late in the film made by the civilian cop, Robert Montgomery.  Convincing a young soldier to help in capturing Ryan, Montgomery explains how the Irish were once prejudiced against, in the way other groups continue to be victims; and he also explains how guns are banned "because they are dangerous."  It's an interesting and convincing speech. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Sketches of Priscilla Lane, Sylvia Sidney, & Gregory Peck

Priscilla Lane "Four Daughters" 1938.
For the longest time the only film I saw Priscilla Lane in was the dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace," opposite Cary Grant.  "Oh Mortimer," she would purr, as she tried to get Cary away from his crazy old aunts' house, not knowing that Cary had discovered his aunts were killing old men and hiding them in the basement.
Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I've been able to see many more of her films, including "Four Daughters," which also stars Claude Rains and John Garfield.  She falls in love with a talented composer (played by Felix Deitz), but dumps him when she discovers one of her other sisters is also in love with him; instead she marries the composer's pessimistic friend, John Garfield.  I've never understood why she sacrifices her love for her sister, who seems ungrateful, and who doesn't even manage to win the composer's love.  After John Garfield dies in an apparent suicide, Priscilla just picks up where she left off with the still single composer.  It's really very dark; Priscilla suffers for her ungrateful sister, lives with a miserable pessimistic loser, then becomes a young widow.  At least it ends well?

Sylvia Sidney "You Only Live Once" 1937.
 Unfortunately I only caught the last act of this Fritz Lang classic, which also stars Henry Fonda.  Wrongly accused of murder he gets sent to prison; once there, he kills a priest in an escape attempt, becoming an actual killer.  He and Sidney are forced to flee, giving up their child to do so.  And in classic 1930s style, they are forced to die for their crimes.  It's a brutal film, very stylized (the breakout scene is stunning) and very emotional.  I'm eager to catch the entire film next time it airs.

Gregory Peck "Duel in the Sun" 1946.
Gregory Peck plays a cold-hearted killer in love with his good-guy brother's girl.  Joseph Cotten plays his brother; Jennifer Jones the sultry "half-breed" girl taken into the family after her father is hanged.  (She played a number of "ethnic" types in her early roles, even though she's most famous for films like "Portrait of Jennie.") Peck is great as a bad guy.  He chews up his lines and plays a real desperate character, doing his unscrupulous father's bidding and just being unpredictable.  And the Technicolor is beautiful.