Monday, May 10, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Glass Key'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

“The Glass Key” (1942) was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett. The novel was Hammett’s favorite among all his books. (There were five, not including short story collections.)

The book is about Ned Beaumont’s efforts to keep his friend and employer, political boss Paul Madvig, from being arrested for the murder of a senator’s son. Complicating matters is both men’s attraction to the senator’s daughter, Janet Henry.

I read the book some years ago and reread parts of it after I saw this movie. I’m afraid I don’t share Hammett’s affection for it, though the book is certainly respectable and enjoyable. But I much prefer Hammett’s first-person stuff – his Continental Op stories and “The Thin Man.”

In “The Glass Key,” Hammett seems to be aiming for a Hemingwayesque objectivity, never outright telling us how anyone feels about anything, apparently feeling that describing what they do and say is enough, and the readers can form their own conclusions. This type of writing can work really well or it can seem really mannered; it doesn’t help that Ned Beaumont is always referred to as Ned Beaumont, never as Ned or Beaumont. (Erle Stanley Gardner treated Della Street the same way. Maybe Ned Beaumont and Della Street should have paired up.)

Stuart Heisler’s movie pretty much sticks to the book, which was adapted by another mystery writer (and a very capable one, too), Jonathan Latimer. Latimer, who later adapted several of Gardner’s books for the “Perry Mason” show in addition to writing original scripts for that program, does a good job of shepherding Hammett’s work to the screen -- knowing when, for example, to combine characters for the sake of cinematic economy.

Then again, I’d be interested to know why a couple of the characters’ names were changed. Shad O’Rory, the villain in the book, becomes Nick Varna. Was Paramount afraid of offending the Irish, or had the actor – Joseph Calleia – already been cast and someone decided he didn’t look like an O’Rory? And why does Ned Beaumont become Ed Beaumont while Paul Madvig gets to keep his name?

Not that this really matters; the movie still works today, and for two reasons.

The first is the casting. Alan Ladd (Beaumont) and Veronica Lake (Janet) had already set off sparks in “This Gun for Hire.” True, the two of them have a limited range – perhaps a very limited range – but for the purposes of the film they’re perfect. William Bendix, as Varna’s chief henchman, is exactly what you’d find if the Yellow Pages had a listing for “vicious” or “brutal.” He probably could have taught Quentin Tarantino’s thugs a few things.

But Brian Donlevy, as Madvig, is perhaps the standout. He’s playing a guy who’s corrupt, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or violent, but who is also likable – and sympathetically clueless and vulnerable when it comes to romance. That’s a tall order to fill, but Donlevy does it with little if any apparent effort. Never mind Willy Loman – if you want to take the movies of the 1930s and 1940s seriously, attention must be paid to Brian Donlevy.

The second reason the movie still works is that it seems to take it for granted that politics is, at best, a slightly tainted business, to say the least; Frank Capra’s heroes need not apply. Whether or not you agree with this philosophy, it does make for good movies, and today’s jaded audiences can probably go along with it.

Me, I’m still wondering how this kind of world view got past the Hays Office. But for the sake of enduring movie entertainment, I’m glad it did.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Waikiki Wedding'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Paramount Pictures, like 20th Century Fox, had its own stable of performers who were perfectly suited for various permutations of whatever musical formula hadn’t been used lately. (And “lately” sometimes seemed to mean “in the last three months.”)

So, in “Waikiki Wedding” (1937), directed by Frank Tuttle, we have Bing Crosby (who, to be fair, was First Among Equals in the pecking order, unlike, say, Fox’s Don Ameche and John Payne, neither of whom had Bing’s status) along with Shirley Ross, Martha Raye and Bob Burns.

Shirley Ross is perhaps most famous for introducing two songs, both with Bob Hope – “Thanks for the Memory” and “Two Sleepy People” – in a couple of other Paramount films.

Martha Raye made 14 Paramount movies in the 1930s alone, beginning in 1936. Talk about overexposure – if moviegoers didn’t see her on the screen, they probably figured she was elsewhere in the building, making the popcorn.

Bob Burns, an Arkansas native, was a comedian who specialized in hillbilly characters – kind of a more mature version of Goober Pyle, which isn’t saying much, though I prefer George Lindsey. Burns was famous for a weird musical instrument he invented, called a bazooka – and yes, that’s where the military got its name for its handheld anti-tank rocket launchers during World War II.

In “Waikiki Wedding,” Burns is Bing’s sidekick. Bing, in turn, plays a PR guy for a Hawaii-based pineapple company. His latest bright idea is to have a Miss Pineapple contest, the winner of which gets a trip to Hawaii, during which Bing will ghostwrite syndicated newspaper pieces for her, extolling the island’s charms.

Problem is, the contest winner (Ross), who has arrived at the island with Raye, isn’t all that charmed. In fact, she’s bored. Which means Bing’s in hot water (or maybe even hot lava) if he can’t get her to change her attitude.

Actually, it’s hard to imagine why Ross would be bored by Hawaii, considering that her fiancĂ©, back at home, is a stolid and humorless dentist played by a singularly stolid and humorless actor, Leif Erickson.

A not-yet-famous Anthony Quinn is also around, playing a native.

The movie goes down relatively easily – a sly plot twist involving a volcano helps – and although the songs written for the movie by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger are OK, most of them aren’t the types of tunes that you whistle on the way out, even subconsciously. (Your subconscious’ subconscious won’t even remember them.)

One possible exception: “Blue Hawaii.” (Though I haven't found myself whistling or humming it lately.)

Another song was added as an afterthought. (Specifically Bing’s afterthought, and at that point in his career Bing’s afterthoughts carried enough clout to make the amendments to the Constitution look like mere suggestions scribbled on a cocktail napkin.)

That composition, “Sweet Leilani,” by Harry Owens, won the Academy Award for best song and became Crosby's first gold record. But like the previous year's Oscar winner, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ immortal “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time,” it doesn’t seem to get much screen time.

Then again, in the long run, I doubt that Mr. Owens, and his heirs, minded very much.

Saturday, May 1, 2010