Talkie of the Week: Spellbound

USA 1945, 111 minutes, black & white, United Artists. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht, Based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and Francis Beeding. Cast: Ingrid Berman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, John Emery, Steven Geray, Paul Harvey, Donald Curtis, Norman Lloyd, Bill Goodwin, Wallace Ford, Art Baker, Regis Toomey.

Plot summary: When Dr. Edwardes arrives at Green Manors, levelheaded Dr. Petersen is spellbound by the new hospital director who has a secret she is determined to uncover.

spellbound_b&wReview: Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is the sole female doctor at Green Manors, a mental hospital in Vermont. Among her colleagues, she is known as efficient and detached, an image she sheds upon arrival of new hospital director Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Edwardes is charming but also struggles with a phobia his esteemed colleague finds conspicuous: he gets upset whenever he spots dark, parallel lines on a white background. Despite her ulterior instincts, Dr. Petersen is attracted to the handsome doctor who has a secret she is determined to uncover and thus solve the mystery of his phobia.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound was produced by David Selznick, a collaboration that didn’t turn out as fruitful as initially intended. For their third common production, Selznick brought in his own psychoanalyst to turn the plot into a puff piece on therapy and celebrate his own positive experiences. Hitchcock, however, known for his independent streak, frequently butted heads with the interfering analyst and hired Salvador Dali to add an intriguing touch of surrealism to his now famous dream sequence. Originally almost twenty minutes long, the scene was eventually cut down by Selznick and has only been available in its edited form since the release of the film in 1945.

Shot as a mystical thriller with a captivating storyline about mental illness, Spellbound was successful upon release. Rewarded with an Academy Ward for Best Score and five additional nominations, the film was popular with movie goers and critics alike, and is still entertaining on DVD and Blu-ray today. Blessed with a suspenseful plot and two haunting leads, the film has what it takes to keep its audience on the edge of their seats and continues to be one of Hitchcock’s mid-career treats.

The First Time

Talkie of the Week: The First Time

USA 1952, 89 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: Frank Tashlin, Written by: Hugo Butler. Cast: Barbara Hale, Robert Cummings, Bill Goodwin, Jeff Donnell, Carl Benton Reid, Mona Barrie, Kathleen Comegys, Paul Harvey, Cora Witherspoon

Plot summary: Joe and Betsy Bennet are expecting their first child and are soon confronted with all the (un)pleasantries of being first time parents.

Review: My theory is that most things in life have not changed over the past few decades, at least not as drastically as today’s insolent perception often suggests. Have a look at this comedy from 1952 for instance: The First Time depicts a year in the lives of Joe and Betsy Bennet, happy newly-wed parents-to-be until they bring home a gurgling, laughing and blaring baby boy called Tim. With his arrival, all their trouble starts: bills, overbearing nurses, household inadequacies and a grandmother who doesn’t want to be identified as such.

In order to pay the pile of bills, Joe gives up on architecture and starts working for the company his father’s been selling washing machines for for years. Completely unqualified for the job, Joe soon brings his frustration home to his equally frustrated wife. Betsy, a hearty young mother, soon reaches her limits as her son grows older and thus his demands. She cannot cope with the household that seems to explode around her, especially when her husband’s own washing machine conks out and she has to wash the diapers by hand again or call the costly diaper service instead. She feels left alone and exhausted by the end of a long day of running errands and trying to look after her family’s needs. At the same time, Joe cannot cope with his own inadequacies at work and the miserable product he has to sell with a fake smile. When the situation finally erupts, husband and wife have their first big argument over a life they both don’t want to live that way: not with cold cuts, a fridge full of milk for the baby, warm beer and a dreadful job that eats away their marital sanity.

Barbara Hale and Robert Cummings deliver a brilliant performance throughout the entire film, but the fireworks of their seething argument and their desperate attempt to whisper their way through it to not wake baby Tim top notch and as sparkly as it can get. A natural comedian, Robert Cummings pulls off his lines and stunts with expert precision, overdoing his act the way comedians are expected to. Barbara Hale is his hilariously refreshing wife Betsy who gives a multifaceted portrayal of a woman who has to adapt to being a young wife with a baby. She is funny in her very own way, bubbly, beautiful and quick on her feet – a real joy to watch, especially when she acts with “her” baby.

The on-screen chemistry between Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale supports the well-knitted script and papers over the few dramatic cracks. The First Time is a comedy and thus lives on screwball moments and odd circumstances. Witty dialogue and an overall fantastic cast of actors are great additional ingredients. The film, although from 1952 some of you may say, is a must for young parents and those who are planning to have a baby anytime soon. It is wonderfully chaotic, entertaining and blunt: the supposed easiness of marriage with a child, the joys and traps, and all the unpleasant (or pleasant?) first months of growing up as parents. The film is packed with exhilarating situations and emotional struggles, always going deeper than the airiness of the genre may suggest. It would be a shame if this film was forgotten because in my humble opinion it is a real gem, even if you’re not (yet) a parent yourself.

Available on DVD-R. The First Time: Betsy proves a point

Jolson Sings Again

Talkie of the Week: Jolson Sings Again

USA 1949, 96 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Henry Levin, Producer: Sidney Buchman, Written by: Sidney Buchman. Cast: Larry Parks, Barbara Hale, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Tamara Shayne,

Plot summary: Al Jolson’s success story continues after the divorce from his first wife. He has to learn to come to terms with life outside of show business and the struggles to return to it.

Review: Jolson Sings Again is one of those rare examples of a sequel that lives up to the original film it is based on. The film does not only pick up where The Jolson Story left us, it also continues to charm us with its many convincing performances, Al Jolson’s memorable music and its predecessor’s fairytale quality.

Jolson Sings Again shows an aging and changed Al Jolson who throws himself into work after his wife has left him, only to retreat himself to a jet set life after his many shows start to wear him out. Primarily a star of gossip sections for many years, he finally decides to return to what he does best and is one of the first performers to entertain the troops abroad, starting as early as 1942. Although deeply committed to his assignment, Al Jolson is sent home from Europe after he is struck down by a fever and collapses. He wakes up in an Army hospital to the tender care of Ellen Clark, a hearty young nurse from Arkansas. The story continues as it should: Al falls in love with Ellen and marries her. Her earthy wisdom and classic beauty complement his restlessness with utmost patience and care. It is her, in contrast to his first wife, who supports his passion for singing and the stage. Although commanding him to rest enough to cure his fever, she also encourages him to resume his career in order to kill the boredom and frustration he is struggling with by sitting home all day. It is apparent that his second wife is very different from his first.

Jolson Sings Again ends on a happy note as a good Hollywood fairytale should. It is bittersweet in essence, but very inspiring. Larry Parks gives another breathtaking performance as Al Jolson, lip-synching the master to perfection and adding a believable tranquility to his otherwise lively character. Parks has a sparkling on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hale who plays good-natured, beautiful and savvy Ellen Clark. Based on Al Jolson’s fourth wife in real life, fictitious Ellen Clark adds to the skillful depiction of authentic characters, performed with ease and graceful sweetness by Baby Face Barbara Hale.

Available on VHS and DVD.

The Jolson Story

Talkie of the Week: The Jolson Story

USA 1946, 128 minutes, color, Columbia Pictures. Director: Alfred E. Green, Producer: Sidney Sklolsky, Written by: Stephen Longstreet, Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Andrew Solt. Cast: Larry Parks, Evelyn Keyes, William Demarest, Bill Goodwin, Ludwig Donath, Scotty Beckett, Tamara Shayne, Jo-Carroll Dennison, John Alexander

Plot summary: A young Jewish boy called Asa Yoelson stumbles into show business at the beginning of the 20th century and becomes a star of his own making as Al Jolson.

Review: The Jolson Story is modeled on the life of performer Al Jolson, famous singer, actor and comedian. The film, though partly fictionalized, shows Al Jolson’s roots in Vaudeville and Burlesque theater at the beginning of the 20th century and paints a rather dazzling picture of the rise of America’s famous Broadway, movie and Jazz star from the 1920s and 30s.

Larry Parks plays Al Jolson and does a beautiful job merging his own acting with original sound recordings made by Al Jolson himself. He was rightly rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for this film which features a lot of Al Jolson’s popular songs in an always exciting 128 minutes. Larry Parks is supported by a sparkling Evelyn Keyes and a highly entertaining William Demarest. Ludwig Donath and Tamara Shayne play Jolson’s parents and only add to the charm of this colorful tour de force. Originally a black & white feature, the film’s opulent scenery and production convinced studio chief Harry Cohn to re-shoot the already existing material in color – a mastermind decision, especially for the stage scenes and the overall musical appeal of the film.

All in all, The Jolson Story is a delicious example of 1940s commercial cinema. With its mixture of great acting and catchy tunes, the film is a perfect piece of nostalgia in our entertainment-hungry times. It’s an excellent lesson in the art of story-telling that uplifts the audience, as well as its protagonist and stars. Watched in combination with its sequel Jolson Sings Again (released in 1949), thisĀ  double feature package is a rhythmic treat on a relaxed Sunday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and a pot of hot tea. A great reminder of “the good old days” when Hollywood still knew how to sell fairytales.

Available on VHS and DVD.