The Golden Age of Hollywood

September 18, 2010
Classic Film References in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery

It’s no secret that Woody Allen likes old movies, maybe even as much as we do. Many of his films pay tribute to the classics. Tonight I’ve been rewatching Manhattan Murder Mystery, and I think I’m enjoying it more than ever before because I’m getting more of Woody’s references to our beloved old movies.

The most obvious reference is to Rear Window. In MMM, a New York couple (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) suspects their neighbor of having murdered his wife, and they decide to gather the evidence themselves. The site of the wife’s potential restaurant strongly resembles the courtyard that was built from scratch for the set of Rear Window.

More classic film fun: along the way, the main characters mention Casablanca, an unidentified Bob
Hope film,
Double Indemnity, “Bing Crosby walking down Fifth Avenue” (Easter Parade) and Madame Bovary. The suspected murderer owns a vintage movie theater that screens classic films. At the end is a shooting scene that is complicated by the many mirrors stored in the theater, while The Lady from Shanghai plays in the background. The title itself, Manhattan Murder Mystery, seems like an adaptation of Manhattan Melodrama. Have I missed anything?

June 7, 2009
The Sheepman - a Western Romantic Comedy
Westerns aren't my favorite genre, but last night I was rewatching one that I really enjoy. The film is The Sheepman, starring Glenn Ford and a young Shirley MacLaine. Although there are some dramatic scenes, the film is essentially a romantic comedy in a western setting.
Glenn Ford plays the title character, Jason Sweet, a man with the nerve to graze his sheep in cattle country. From his first day in town, he confronts head-on the traditional antipathy of cattlemen toward sheepmen. He happens to be a crack shot, but he's not eager to resort to bloodshed. Instead, he uses his intelligence to disarm and ridicule the stereotypical bad guys in this stereotypical western town. In the process, he steals his arch-rival's girl.
I'm always amazed by Glenn Ford's versatility. Very few actors could play both comedy and drama as well as he. This film has a mixture, and Ford gives a powerful performance in every scene.
I don't want to give away too much of the film, but I must share a line or two. In one scene, Jason (Ford) and his Mexican assistant, Angelo, are sitting around the fire, guarding the sheep.
Angelo: How come you got in the sheep business?
Jason: Well, I'll tell you, Angelo, you see it's this way: I just got tired of kickin' cows around. You know how dumb they are.
Angelo: And you think sheep are smarter?
Jason: Oh no, no—they're dumber, only...they're easier kickin'. Woolier.

My rating: 8/10

October 1, 2008
The Conspirators - Implausible but Romantic

I rewatched The Conspirators the other day, one of many formulaic romantic WWII adventure films Warner made in the 40s (Casablanca being the most famous example). Like Casablanca, The Conspirators has an exotic feel, shifting between shadowy alleys, nightclub scenes, and "local color" (a traditional Portuguese fishing village). The usual suspects are there as well: Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and in place of Ingrid Bergman, the stunning Hedy Lamarr.
As in Casablanca, Henreid plays a famous Resistance hero. And also as in Casablanca, the WWII backdrop takes a back seat to the romance between Henreid and Lamarr. At least, that's what I was focusing on.
Which is a good thing, because there are so many implausible elements. For example, the famous resistance hero gives his real name everywhere he goes. And in the fishing village, he tells a group of locals about his background, completely trusting these people he doesn't know. A real resistance fighter wouldn't have survived very long this way.
But who cares, when you have Paul Henreid and Hedy Lamarr gazing into each other's eyes and speaking dialogue like this:
Paul: When you look at me the way you're looking now, my questions disappear. Because I know that no matter who you are or what you've done...
Hedy: You helped me last night; please forget the rest.
Paul: But I can't forget you!
Hedy: But you mustn't come into my life.
Paul: I'm part of your life already and you of mine!

If this doesn't have you enthralled, you need to take your romance valve in for an adjustment.

September 14, 2008
Design for Scandal - a Quasi-Remake of Libeled Lady

I’ve been meaning for ages to start this blog, even though my movie-watching has dropped to almost imperceptible levels. I used to try to watch a movie every day; now I’m lucky if I see one a week. But I did see a movie yesterday that I’d never seen before: Design for Scandal (1941), starring Rosalind Russell and Walter Pidgeon.
This film uses one of the standard romantic comedy plots which I call “The Thief/Con Man Who Stole My Heart.” Other films with this basic plot include Trouble in Paradise, Grand Hotel, The Lady Eve, Heartbeat, The Pink Panther, and Libeled Lady.
In fact, the comparisons one could draw between Libeled Lady (1936) and Design for Scandal are so many that you could probably call the latter film a loose remake. As in Libeled Lady, a scheme is hatched to discredit a cold-hearted woman by naming her as “the other woman” in a fabricated love triangle scandal. In Libeled Lady, Myrna Loy is the intended victim, who is suing a newspaper for libel because they implied she was involved in a society divorce. To get the newspaper out of trouble, William Powell steps in to woo her and get her into a compromising situation, at which point his “wife” will walk in and yell “Homewrecker!” while a photographer snaps the pictures. This sort of frame-up must actually have existed, since it figures in a number of 1930s films, such as The Girl from Missouri (1937, starring Jean Harlow). But I digress.
In Design for Scandal, the victim is a judge (Rosalind Russell) who has awarded an extravagant alimony settlement to Edward Arnold’s ex-wife. To appeal the settlement, he needs to get the judge replaced by another, and so he sets out to besmirch her sterling reputation. Enter Walter Pidgeon. Walter Pidgeon is, coincidentally, a reporter, and Edward Arnold is his boss. Pidgeon plays one of those unprincipled journalists we see so often in 1930s films. In fact, Pidgeon’s character in Design for Scandal is virtually a copy of his character in Too Hot to Handle (1938).
Design for Scandal is simpler than Libeled Lady. Pidgeon doesn’t try to get to his victim through her father, as Powell did in Libeled Lady; he goes straight for her. The fake wife character (played wonderfully by Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady) is not nearly as funny or sympathetic in Design for Scandal. And I’m sorry if this offends any Walter Pidgeon fans, but I didn’t find him one half as appealing as Powell in Libeled Lady. However, there are some fine moments in this film. Rosalind Russell is wonderful as the unflappable judge who finally falls in love, and Edward Arnold gives a simply impeccable performance as always.
Incidentally, yet another 1930s film was recycled for this one. The scene in Easy Living (1937) in which Edward Arnold chases his wife to make her give back a fur coat is referred to not once, but twice in this film, first with Arnold’s wife and later with the woman hired to be Pidgeon’s wife in the scandal. In both scenes, the disputed object is a diamond brooch instead of a fur coat.
In summary, Design for Scandal takes a good plot from Libeled Lady, throws in some recycled elements from other films, and hands it to some veteran comedy players who do their best with it. The result isn’t in the same league as Libeled Lady, but it’s still enjoyable. My rating: 7/10.

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Comment by Rosie Sayer on September 20, 2010 at 11:49am
Yes, you're dead right! (ha ha) Another allusion to Rear Window is the wedding ring. Diane Keaton's character finds the possibly murdered wife's wedding ring and takes it with her. When Lisa Fremont breaks into the neighbor's apartment, she does the same thing.
Comment by Paco Malo on September 20, 2010 at 11:05am
Rear Window and Manhattan Murder Mystery, eh? One little similarity is that both Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) find themselves, on a bold investigatory missions, trapped in the suspected murderer's apartment when the suspect returns home.
Comment by Paco Malo on June 11, 2009 at 7:44am
Rosie: your biggest fan I may be, but the simple fact of the matter is these movie introductions are well written. If I say your a good writer the loudest, I know a cadre of our colleagues here who would agree.
Comment by Rosie Sayer on June 9, 2009 at 4:01pm
Yes, the opening is great, when he establishes himself with everyone in the town. Another Glenn Ford comedy I love is The Gazebo. Do you know it?
Comment by M.T. Fisher on June 9, 2009 at 2:00pm
Rosie, The Sheepman is one of my favorite Glenn Ford films. I just picked up two original stills from it. I love the opening. Also, the dialogue.
Comment by Rosie Sayer on June 9, 2009 at 12:29pm
Paco, I think you're my biggest fan. Thank you!
Comment by Paco Malo on June 9, 2009 at 10:38am
Those are three excellent synopses of the films discussed. Fine work.
Comment by Paco Malo on October 1, 2008 at 9:13pm
My plaeasure, ma'am.
Comment by Rosie Sayer on October 1, 2008 at 6:23am
Thank you, Paco, for providing that historical context! You took this post to a much higher level.
Comment by Paco Malo on September 21, 2008 at 6:34am
You write: "This sort of frame-up must actually have existed, since it figures in a number of 1930s films,"

The domestic history of the use of this technique in ways that were not at all funny is quite clear. It was once the bread and butter of political machine politics in the U.S.

To take but one example (ref. T. Harry Williams' definitive biogragraphy of Huey Long, Knopf, 1969): As a regular practice to gain control of the votes of members of Gov. Long's troublesome legislature, the following was done to ensure "party discipline": 1) State legislator or judge was first liquored up, and then invited, for example, up to a back-room poker game, his drink now heavily laced with white lightning ('shine, corn liquor); legislator passes out, enter the call girl, compromising photo arranged, photo shoots a dozen compromising shots which are printed and placed in Huey Long's office safe.

If a judge or state legislator got out of line, he would be called to the governor's office, showed the photos, and, bada-bing, the vote is locked up tighter than you can possibly imagine. Filmwise, of course, see a sanitized but still excellent treatment of Gov. Long and machine politics in the film adapation, starring Broderick Crawford, of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men.

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