Thursday, 5 April 2018

Four classic Hollywood movies: Holiday, The Enforcer, Rio Bravo and The Garden of Allah

Holiday (1938) is a comedy, directed by George Cukor, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, with a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart and Sidney Buchman, based on a play by Philip Barry (who also wrote The Philadelphia Story). It's a cracker. The story is suitably silly: following a whirlwind holiday romance, up-from-the-ranks Cary Grant calls on his fiancée in New York, only to  discover that she's the daughter of an immensely wealthy banker. The bride-to-be turns out to be a chip off the old block, and expects her future husband to do everything her father asks, and who isn't at all gruntled when Grant tells her he intends to take a few years off - as soon as he has accumulated sufficient capital - to "discover" himself...

Grant meets his sweetheart's two siblings - an alcoholic brother who wanted to be a composer but is now working at daddy's bank, and a rebellious sister (played by Katharine Hepburn) constantly at loggerheads with her stuffy father. As the supposed love of Cary's life is a vapid, chilly bore who expects him to knuckle under and do exactly what daddy tells him to do, it's no surprise that he and his girlfriend's spunky sister immediately hit it off. I won't insult insult your intelligence by asking if you can guess how it all turns out.

Here, Grant visit's his fiancée's house for the first time (the back-flip is impressive):

Cary Grant is firing on all cylinders from the get-go - which is handy, because the film relies almost entirely on his energy, presence, likability and comic timing: in most other actors' hands, his character would have come across as a self-indulgent prat. Hepburn is also in fine form, and their comic interplay is a lot funnier - because less forced, frenzied and relentless - than in Bringing Up Baby, released the same year.  Like that film, Holiday didn't do well at the box office (Hepburn was dubbed box-office poison by distributors in 1938). That could be because, while Depression-era audiences would no doubt have enjoyed being told that the hyper-rich lead dull,  joyless lives, it must have been hard to root for a lucky stiff who's just won Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? - but wants to hand the prize back.

The script is rather overwritten, and the proto-hippy, toytown socialism is wearing (both scriptwriters were committed leftists who were later blacklisted) - but the central performances make it a delight, and Edward Everett Horton is surprisingly good as a college professor chum/father figure of Grant's - I've only ever seen him play queeny old fusspots in Fred Astaire films, and it's nice to discover there was more to him. Strongly recommended, if you're in the right mood - or need cheering up.

The Enforcer (1951) is a crime movie co-directed by the splendidly-named French-born Bretaigne Windust and Raoul Walsh, which stars Humphrey Bogart as a DA trying to nail the head of a Murder Incorporated-style organisation (played by Everett Sloane, who was Mr Bernstein in Citizen Kane). It's a masterpiece - a genuine suspense classic. Despite a fairly complicated plot structure, involving flashbacks within flashbacks, it's so brilliantly told that we're never confused. It's 87 minutes long, but it feels more more like 50. It's film noir, but there's no moral ambivalence: the cops are the good guys (they're all honest), the gangsters are the bad guys - their bestial viciousness, their unrelenting malevolence, is brilliantly conveyed, and the violence is convincingly horrible (they use icepicks on their targets, because guns are too easily traceable).

Bogart is fully engaged - he looks like he's relishing the role, while Everett Sloane,  Zero Mostel (as a sweaty low-life whose function is to be slapped around and cringe like a whipped cur) and Ted de Corsia (a film noir stalwart who's chilling as the organisation's second-in-command) are all first-class. If you're in the mood for a taut, tough crime drama, this is the one - not a second is wasted on unnecessary folderol.

Here's the trailer:

Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1958) is yet another of those well-known films I thought I'd seen, but hadn't. As its title, and the fact that John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Ward Bond are all in it, would suggest, it's a western. Very western. It was apparently conceived as an antidote to High Noon, which many conservatives felt was unAmerican because of the way the cowardly townsfolk refused to help Gary Cooper.

The brother of a local rancher kills a man at the saloon, John Wayne throws the varmint in jail, and sends for help. While they wait, the rancher moseys into town with his gang and they start shootin' and killin' and generally not being very nice. As the sheriff tries to wait them out, he's joined by his deputy (Dean Martin), a young gunslinger (Ricky Nelson), a poker-playing gal called Feathers (a very young Angie Dickinson), and faithful, shotgun-totin' old-timer, Stumpy (Walter Brennan, spouting "authentic frontier gibberish", as Mel Brooks described it). Some of the other townsfolk pitch in on their side, including a semi-comic Mexican couple.

The film was rather dismissed by critics at the time, but has since attained classic status. I'm not sure it really deserves it. The one outstanding performance is Dean Martin's, as an alcoholic gunslinger: the trouble starts when he walks into the local saloon, skint, and Claude Akins offers him a dollar - then tosses it into a spittoon. The humiliated Dino sees red and attacks Akins, who then shoots a bystander who tries to intervene. Martin is a revelation - damn fine actor.

In this scene, a sobered-up Dean Martin and his boss look for a muddy-booted killer:

Ricky Nelson is another matter. Okay, he was only 19 when the film was made, but he'd been acting (and singing) on TV for five years - and yet, judging by his performance here, and despite being a teen idol and all, he's a pallid, charisma-free actor: every time he delivers a line, we don't listen to a word he's saying, because we're wondering how he manages to keep his pompadour in place, what with bathing and shampoo not being all that common in the Old West, and wearing a hat most of the time. Lordy, but he's a waste of space.

Angie Dickinson is presumably meant to be to The Duke what Lauren Bacall was to Bogie in To Have and Have Not - but the latter couple had genuine chemistry, and Bacall was old beyond her years: Angie Dickinson was 28 when Rio Bravo came out, but seems much younger - young enough to be Wayne's granddaughter. Wayne was only 52 - but could be 70: he's fat and stiff and slow and the slightest movement looks like a major effort. It's a shock to realise that it was only 20 years since he played the handsome, athletic Ringo Kid in Stagecoach: he evidently packed a lot of living into those two decades. His sheer presence is magnificent, true - but he's way too old for all that running around, and when he physically picks up Ms Dickinson (in order, presumably, to carry her upstairs for some slap and tickle) it strikes us as both unconvincing and a trifle sordid.

Then there's Dean and Ricky warbling their way through some songs. Really, chaps - leave that sort of filmic nonsense to Elvis. But mostly, what's wrong with the film is its 2hr 21mins length. Like Wayne himself, the whole film is badly in need of a corset: 100 minutes maximum, I reckon. Still  worth seeing, though.

For pure Hollywood tosh at its absolute toshiest, the Marlene Dietrich vehicle, The Garden of Allah (1936) would be hard to beat. It's such nonsense, I'm not sure I have the energy to describe the plot in any detail: Marlene plays an heiress freed from the responsibility of caring for her sick father, while Charles Boyer is a Trappist monk who, finding it hard to keep his vows, has fled from the monastery - taking with him the monks' secret recipe for making liqueur (he's the only one who knows it). The two meet in North Africa, fall in love, marry, and journey into the desert, where they set up camp, and are blissfully happy... until some French legionnaires (who just happen to be passing) reveal Charlie's monky past and the fact that the monastery's future is in doubt now that they've lost their liqueur recipe. As Marlene is a religious woman (no - honestly!) this upsets her, and... well, Chas eventually does the right thing.

The whole film is available on YouTube: here's a taster:

As you can see, this is hokum with a capital "h". And it's girlie hokum. Any normal man would spend the whole picture wanting to slap Boyer's mopey face and tell him to stop being such a miserable, self-obsessed drama queen. As for Ms Dietrich, I find it hard to believe that heterosexual moviegoers fancied her back then - at least, after she'd left Germany and swapped her zaftig figure for a skinny Hollywood version. But, then, I weally, weally don't get her - never have, never will. Basil Rathbone is competent and sprightly as Count Ferdinand Anteoni, who has made the desert his home, and who delivers his grade-A bullshit lines crisply, including: "A man who fears to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert. The Arabs have a saying, Madame - the desert is the Garden of Allah." (C. Aubrey Smith, as Father Roublier, has to say this out loud: "Take care! You've come to a land of fire. And I think you are made of fire.")

One classic comedy, one brilliant, two-fisted crime thriller, one enjoyable but overlong oater, and one splendidly over-the-top would-be tear-jerker which succeeds only in evoking tears of laughter (and which is full of dialogue which one would be tempted to classify as "authentic Hollywood gibberish").


  1. What I could never figure out is why Howard Hawks went on to do a re-make of "Rio Bravo" only 8 years later. "El Dorado" [1967] again featured Wayne, but replaced Martin and Nelson with Robert Mitchum and James Caan. I enjoy both, but it puzzles me.

    Walter Brennan is usually dismissed as some Gabby Hayes type, but he is to date the only actor to win 3 Oscars for "Best Supporting".

    Re "The Garden of Allah". I told you Rathbone was an Egyptian, but you would not believe me.

    1. Water Brennan claimed the secret of his success was having all his teeth knocked out while filming a bar fight scene in the mid-'30s. He described it as "the luckiest break in the world" because, after that, when he took out his false teeth, he looked 40 year older than when he had them in. And he was right - I just checked, and when he played the "You ever been bit by a dead bee?" character in "To Have and Have Not", he was only 46!

      Hawks's last film, "Rio Lobo" (1970, was basically yet another remake of "Rio Bravo" - at the very least, it borrowed many elements from the two earlier films - and it yet again starred John Wayne. I have no idea why Hawks did this. Presumably the first two made money, and he and John Wayne had a whale of a time doing them?