Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Love on the Run (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

Joan Crawford is top-billed in Love on the Run. Unfortunately, she has absolutely nothing to do in the entire film. Maybe if Clark Gable had something to do besides deceiving everyone (and then rescuing Crawford) the movie might make it through better, but he doesn’t. Love on the Run is eighty somewhat charming minutes of Gable being a lovable cad and Crawford mooning over him. And Franchot Tone. Can’t forget him–the film asks him to play the most thankless third wheel comic relief and he does it. He tries hard and gets no reward, just dumber as the plot requires more and more stupidity from him.

Love on the Run has an inexplicably big scale idea–Gable and Crawford trying to escape saboteurs and newspapermen throughout the French countryside–and small-scale execution. Director Van Dyke rushes through the exterior shots (it’s backlot) with a bunch of “good enough” touches to imply France. He’s trying to get through these shots, not enjoy them. A Continental adventure requires some enthusiasm in the Continent. Crawford does get one great moment where she calls to a dog. You have to see the movie. Unfortunately Van Dyke rushes through the shot–everything is in medium long shot. There’s some nice work from Van Dyke in a train station, but it’s a set; he’s far more comfortable with the interiors, but most of them lack interesting layouts. Van Dyke is competent, but too resigned to the idea of Love on the Run as a quick amusement.

Gable and Crawford, even with a lame script, have a lot of charm. Crawford’s able to fake chemistry when Gable’s just doing a comedy routine at her. When they get sincere, they’re great. But since Gable’s character is such a heel–and Crawford has so little character–there’s no bonding during their courtship. They’re mostly performing, not acting.

And Tone. Poor Tone. He’s the butt of Gable’s jokes and gags (Love on the Run could’ve been slapstick), but Tone works it. He tries really hard not to embarrass himself, really hard to impress. It’s a standout performance in a film not meant to leave much impression.

The supporting cast could be a lot better. Reginald Owen and Mona Barrie are boring as the villains. Maybe if John Lee Mahin, Manuel Seff and Gladys Hurlbut’s screenplay didn’t forget about them for a half hour. But there are a lot of maybes with the screenplay.

Donald Meek has a fantastic bit part as the caretaker of the Palace of Fontainebleau. The Palace of Fontainebleau has no place in Love on the Run because it’s a rush job, but Meek’s outstanding. Sadly, he’s the last significantly joyful moment in Love on the Run and he shows up long before the last act. Love on the Run is a screwball comedy without a good finish. Worse, Crawford is off screen for most of that finish. Gable is checked out for it. Tone is hustling though, his character dumber than ever.

Maybe Love needed a fourth screenwriter.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Manuel Seff and Gladys Hurlbut, based on a story by Alan Green and Julian Brodie; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Joan Crawford (Sally Parker), Clark Gable (Michael Anthony), Franchot Tone (Barnabus Pells), Reginald Owen (Baron Otto), Mona Barrie (Baroness Hilda), Ivan Lebedeff (Igor), Charles Judels (Lieutenant of Police), William Demarest (Lees Berger) and Donald Meek (Caretaker).


Double Wedding (1937, Richard Thorpe)

Much of Double Wedding–around two-thirds of it–is a supreme comedy. It might feature William Powell’s best comedic performance, just because of the limitless opportunity it offers him. It’s hard to top Powell in a fur coat and a fake wig… with a German accent (and a walking stick). Or Powell going through a big demonstration of how sidekick John Beal should win back his fiancée (who’s now in love with Powell). A crowd gathers to watch Powell and Beal and it’s the most natural thing–who wouldn’t want to watch Powell in this film.

The script gives him a lot of freedom–his character is revealed (a little) throughout, so there’s very little constraint on him. For whatever reason, I wouldn’t have thought Powell could have done the Peter Pan bohemian painter but he does it great. Double Wedding even makes a joke at expense of the dignified characters he more often portrayed in a spectacular little scene.

There’s a lot of dialogue in Double Wedding, which is probably not from the source play (given it was probably written in Hungarian). The actors have some lengthy deliveries–starting with Myrna Loy’s hilarious explanation of how she’s related to Beal. It’s so confusing, it’s hard not to see the connections drawing out in the mind’s eye… just to keep up with Loy, whose delivery is wonderful. But Beal and Powell also have some long monologues and both are a joy to watch.

Beal’s character, quiet and reserved, gets these great situations–often when he’s got to explain why he’s acting passive, but the ones where he nears his boiling point are funny too. He has good chemistry with the object of his affections, played by Florence Rice. So it’s too bad when she disappears a third into the film, since Powell’s got Loy to romance, not her. It’s hard to even remember Rice is around, especially during some of the sequences with Sidney Toler, as Loy’s dimwitted butler who fancies himself a detective and spies on Powell for her. Powell gets the aforementioned beard from Toler, who’s trailing him in disguise.

The various absurdities in Double Wedding–along with a couple convenient revelations–create a fanciful atmosphere. It’s like the film anticipates what the viewer wants to see happen and delivers. Loy and Powell, for instance, have a romantic scene in the forest and it turns comedic at just the right moment–and then the film doesn’t stick with it too long, director Thorpe gets out at the ideal moment.

I’m sure I’ve seen other films of Thorpe’s before, but his direction here is very impressive. He knows how to use the actors well, even when it’s as simple as walking across a room or glancing into a mirror. And Thorpe manages to keep the rather large and out of control conclusion together, which is a significant feat.

The ending is where Double Wedding falls apart. It relies on standard comedy pacing instead of doing its own thing, it follows the standards instead of writing them–the first two-thirds is unlike anything else and the last third is extremely comfortable. The film stops before the story’s done, but also before the viewer is ready for it to be over. The tedious final act, with its paltry pay-off, is okay… however, the film raised expectations much higher.

And I can’t forget Loy. The third act really fails her, in terms of material. She becomes a fifth wheel in her own film.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a play by Ferenc Molnár; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Edward Ward; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Charlie Lodge), Myrna Loy (Margit Agnew), Florence Rice (Irene Agnew), John Beal (Waldo Beaver), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Kensington-Bly), Edgar Kennedy (Spike), Sidney Toler (Mr. Keough), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Keough), Barnett Parker (Mr. Flint), Katharine Alexander (Claire Lodge), Priscilla Lawson (Felice) and Bert Roach (Shrank).


Million Dollar Legs (1932, Edward F. Cline)

Million Dollar Legs is, production-wise, about a year early. It came out in 1932. A year later, another comedy about a goofy European nation, also from Paramount (from the same producer), came out. Duck Soup was a bomb at the time and appreciated later. Million Dollar Legs has a great reputation–apparently did so at the time too; I really can’t understand it.

The film appears to be from the awkward silent-to-sound transition period, but it’s kind of late. There are the title cards, which are supposed to be funny and are not. There’s the lack of an original score, which really hurts it. The lead actors, Jack Oakie and Susan Fleming, are both poor. So poor, I figured they were silent stars who just couldn’t vocally emote, but the years don’t match (at least not for Fleming, but the majority of Oakie’s career was in sound pictures). W.C. Fields does a little bit better, but not much. The script’s just way too stupid.

Even discounting the script’s brevity–Oakie and Fleming fall in love at first sight just to establish them as a couple, instead of having to bother with any character development–the joke’s are just stupid. They’re also sexist and racist. There’s a lot of examples of such humor at the time, but here it’s mean-spirited, instead of just ignorant. But the jokes being unfunny due to intent isn’t even the extent (hey, I rhymed).

No, a major comedic moment relies on the humor of a kid driving a locomotive. Another one is all about arm wrestling. Or the guy who can’t stop sneezing. Or Fields referring to Oakie as “Sweetheart” for the whole thing.

Legs‘s script is a mess–for the first three quarters there’s a cross-eyed spy (get it, he’s cross-eyed, funny, right?) who’s just around. It’s a sight gag, repeated over and over. In a silent, it would probably work. Here it just gets repetitive.

But the movie’s not all bad. It’s mostly bad and then the end comes around and just gets lazy.

Cline’s a bad director, both in terms of composition and how he directs the actors. There’s an absolute lack of scope here (possibly budgetary), but the budget doesn’t account for why Cline’s scenes with actors don’t work. Something about the composition, the actors’ positions, make the whole thing fall flat.

I almost forgot to mention Lyda Roberti. I spent a lot of Million Dollar Legs wishing it was silent. At those times, I was thinking how much better the film would be. When Roberti’s on screen, however, I just figured without hearing her “act,” her performance would only be half as bad… which would still be appalling.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Edward F. Cline; screenplay by Nicholas T. Brown and Henry Myers, based on a story by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; director of photography, Arthur L. Todd; music by Rudolph G. Kopp and John Leipold; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Jack Oakie (Migg Tweeny), W.C. Fields (The President), Andy Clyde (The Major-Domo), Lyda Roberti (Mata Machree), Susan Fleming (Angela), Ben Turpin (Mysterious Man), Hugh Herbert (Secretary of the Treasury), George Barbier (Mr. Baldwin) and Dickie Moore (Willie).


Strange Cargo (1940, Frank Borzage)

A lot of Strange Cargo is really good. Borzage isn’t the most dynamic director, but every time he has a startlingly mediocre shot, he follows it with a good one in the next few minutes. The film’s got lengthy first act–thirty minutes–and then moves from confined location to confined location. The first act is the prison, the second moves through jungle and sailboat at sea, with the third mostly contained in a room. Borzage does the best–and the film’s at its best–during the jungle sequences, when it feels like a big Hollywood vehicle for Gable and Crawford, only with a wacky subplot juxtaposed.

The wacky subplot is Ian Hunter’s Christ figure, helping out this group of prison escapees. Why they’re so important–not Gable and Crawford, who I can understand, they’re big stars, I mean the supporting cast (Paul Lukas being the best known)–is never explained. As plot holes go, it’s not the biggest in Strange Cargo (or the smallest–for example, when Gable escapes, he hightails it out of the line. He’s missing in the count and Hunter shows up in his place… suggesting they two know each other, which would have been interesting–they do not, unfortunately), but a lot’s forgivable, since Strange Cargo, while definitely strange, is also a big Hollywood vehicle.

Gable and Crawford have great chemistry with their characters–he’s the con who won’t serve his relatively short remaining sentence quietly because he’s not going to be locked up and she’s the woman who’s ended up, through a long string of bad choices, in the High Seas, singing and dancing at a bar–and, during their jungle scenes, it feels right. Later, when they reveal their inevitable deep emotions for each other, their performances keep it going. The script’s not bad and is quite good in some places, but it’s not exactly discreet in its symbolism.

Some of the supporting cast–particularly Lukas and Peter Lorre–is good. Hunter is okay, nothing more. Albert Dekker and John Arledge are not good. Still, they’re not terrible.

Unfortunately, the second act builds toward the film being better and then the third act, practically a stage production, falters. The end, with the neon symbolism, is also problematic. But Gable and Crawford bring it through.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Borzage; screenplay by Lawrence Hazard, based on a novel by Richard Sale; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Robert Kern; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Borzage and Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Joan Crawford (Julie), Clark Gable (André Verne), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (Pig), Paul Lukas (Hessler), Albert Dekker (Moll), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Ciannelli (Telez), John Arledge (Dufond), Frederick Worlock (Grideau, the Prison Head), Bernard Nedell (Marfeu) and Victor Varconi (Fisherman).


The Feminine Touch (1941, W.S. Van Dyke)

Don Ameche is a university professor working on his book revealing jealousy as an outdated concept. Rosalind Russell is his wife, who wishes Ameche would get jealous over her. Enter Kay Francis and Van Heflin as their extra-martial temptations (though, not really, because Ameche’s not interested in Francis and he’s right about Russell too). Actually, only Heflin is interested. Anyway, as a romantic comedy The Feminine Touch establishes rather early what it’s going to need to get itself sorted out and then takes around ninety minutes getting there. The performances are good for the most part (Russell gets tiresome after about seventy minutes) and it’s decently written–until the third act, there are some rather amusing scenes.

The problem with the film is it doesn’t play to its strengths. Until the third act and the lead-up to it, Francis and Heflin are basically fodder. Heflin’s fantastic as the would-be philanderer, but his character is useless, around to give Russell something to do (ignore his advances). The film’s greatest strength is Ameche and Russell’s happy marriage, which provides for some very good scenes. Their chemistry is so strong and with W.S. Van Dyke directing, it’s hard not to wonder if The Feminine Touch wasn’t originally a project for William Powell and Myrna Loy. But when it choses the necessary path for standard martial comedy conflict, it gets unpleasant. The third act tries to force joke after joke, reducing Ameche to something out of Tex Avery. It gets silly, instead of smart and, as opposed to the beginning, when it really felt like Joseph L. Mankiewicz was producing the film, by the end it felt like he went home after a while to read a book.

Van Dyke’s direction is excellent, of course, subtle but comedic, while maintaining a sympathetic connection to the protagonists of each scene. However, there’s a terrible dream sequence–it looks like someone aped a bunch of Dali on a wall and had Ameche and Russell walk in front of it. Van Dyke does not do well with the fantastic (or, apparently, insuring the set decorators in charge of painting backdrops had heard of perspective–the dream sequence is particularly bad because it’s two dimensional).

The strong start but the small scope of the story (there are five actors credited at the beginning and it’d be hard, after seeing it, to list more than eight) combined with turning Ameche into a caricature and Russell into a manipulative jerk–not to mention the really poor handling of a one month gap between scenes–makes The Feminine Touch decidedly lacking. Especially in terms of a title. It really has nothing to do with the film….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by George Oppenheimer, Edmund L. Hartmann and Ogden Nash; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Albert Akst; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Rosalind Russell (Julie Hathaway), Don Ameche (Prof. John Hathaway), Kay Francis (Nellie Woods), Van Heflin (Elliott Morgan, Publisher), Donald Meek (Captain Makepeace Liveright), Gordon Jones (Rubber-Legs Ryan), Henry Daniell (Shelley Mason, Critic), Sidney Blackmer (Freddie Bond, Elliott’s Lawyer), Grant Mitchell (Dean Hutchinson, Digby College) and David Clyde (Brighton, Elliot’s Butler).


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

I’ve only seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir once before, but I remembered the resolution, so I’m thinking it probably made the entire experience unenjoyable this time through. There are only a handful of similar films and usually it’s a gimmick ending, but with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the storytelling falls apart. The film forcibly rips Gene Tierney’s character from the audience’s regard and then only band-aids that wound for the rest of the picture–it’s only twenty minutes or so, but that band-aid covers forty years of story time.

This band-aid doesn’t involve Rex Harrison’s grizzled ghost of a sea captain, which is probably its greatest fault. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is about just that relationship and–first with the introduction of George Sanders as a living suitor for Tierney, then Harrison’s absence from both the screen and the story itself–the film fails without it. The fault is all the script’s, though Joseph L. Mankiewicz–as director and an excellent writer–should have done something to fix this film. The scenes between Harrison and Tierney are uniformly wonderful, but watching it with the conclusion in mind, I couldn’t even enjoy them to the fullest. Harrison has so much fun with the role, at many times he appears to be struggling to keep a straight face. George Sanders plays a standard George Sanders cad and he’s hardly in the film, showing up when it accelerates, no longer happy with a reasonable situation. It’s a lame way out of the exceptional situation (the ghost and the widow), which the film sells immediately, making a “way out” unnecessary. Many of this period’s “fantasy romance” films are similarly flawed. Actually, I can’t think of any member providing a reasonable conclusion. I just didn’t remember The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’s ending to be so bad. I knew it was bad, I just didn’t know it was so bad. The film’s already intentionally negated its emotional effect for the characters (and the audience), so I guess it’s actually a real trick to go ahead and make it more trifling and useless, which is a singular compliment and probably the only one I have in regards to the film’s production.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; written by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by R.A. Dick; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Dorothy Spencer; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Tierney (Lucy Muir), Rex Harrison (Ghost of Capt. Daniel Gregg), George Sanders (Miles Fairley), Edna Best (Martha Huggins), Isobel Elsom (Angelica), Helen Freeman (Author), Natalie Wood (Anna, as a child), Vanessa Brown (Anna, as an adult) and Robert Coote (Coombe).


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