Day 2 of Cinevent began bright and early with what was probably the most…the most…well, just about the oddest movie of the whole weekend: Night in Paradise (1946). Produced by Walter Wanger for Universal, it was based on George S. Hellman’s novel Peacock’s Feather, and Wanger had been trying to get it produced ever since snapping up the film rights shortly after the book was published in 1931. For a while, according to Richard Barrios’s program notes, he planned to star Ann Harding and Charles Boyer, and to make it the first feature in three-strip Technicolor. For one reason or another, he lost the services of Ann Harding, which — for the time being — sank the whole project (and instead, Becky Sharp became the first full-Technicolor feature in 1935; Wanger ventured into Tech the following year when he produced The Trail of the Lonesome Pine at Paramount).
Wanger got the project rolling again during a stint at Universal (Wanger was incredibly peripatetic, working at studios all over Hollywood, plus his own Walter Wanger Productions). He got the green light after scoring a box-office bullseye with Arabian Nights (1942), an installment in the studio’s Maria Montez/Jon Hall “King and Queen of Technicolor” series of campy adventures. And so it was that Wanger’s long-cherished film of Peacock’s Feather, now titled Night in Paradise, finally saw the light of a projector lamp in 1946.
In place of Montez and Hall, Wanger cast Merle Oberon (left above) and Montez’s frequent co-star Turhan Bey (below). Casting Oberon was definitely a step up from Maria Montez. Turhan Bey was more like a step across. Born Turhan Sahultavy in Vienna to a Turkish Muslim father and a Czechoslovakian Jewish mother, he and his divorced mom fled Austria when Hitler annexed the country, and they wound up in Los Angeles in 1940, when Turhan was 18. When so many of Hollywood’s leading men marched off to World War II, Bey was one of the stay-at-homes who benefited from the manpower shortage. He was a handsome young devil and really not a bad actor, but he somehow managed to be both exotic and bland at the same time. He had the kind of foreign accent that came of speaking English too precisely, and the blandness made him unthreatening; it was a combination that stood him in good stead for the duration of the war.
The Night in Paradise lobby card above may make it look like one of those Arabian Nights fantasias that flourished on the coattails of 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, but the setting was Ancient Greece, not Arabia. It takes place at the court of the money-hungry King Croesus of Lydia (Thomas Gomez), who has jilted the sorceress Atossa (Gale Sondergaard) in order to marry wealthy Princess Delerai of Persia (Oberon). Turhan Bey plays Croesus’s counselor Aesop — yes, that Aesop, the guy with all the fables. Aesop is old, ugly, lame and hunchbacked, but one look at the newly arrived Delerai and he’s instantly smitten. So he decides to visit the princess by night. But here’s the catch: Aesop is in disguise. The ugliness and the hump on his back are a put-on, adopted by him on the theory that no king would look for wise counsel from a handsome young man. It’s the handsome young Aesop who comes to Delerai for the night in paradise that gives the movie its title. (Rumor has it that Turhan and Merle’s love scenes continued off the set, despite her being married and his being involved with Lana Turner. Well, just look at these two; can you blame either one of them?) Meanwhile, the jealous Atossa refuses to take being dumped lying down, and she uses her magic to drive the faithless Croesus even madder than he already is.
Needless to say, if you need to cram for a final exam in Ancient Greek history, you probably want to steer clear of Night in Paradise. You may want to steer clear of it anyway; as opulent and colorful as it is — with lavish sets, dazzling costumes and a supporting cast that includes Ray Collins, Ernest Truex, John Litel, Jerome Cowan and Douglass Dumbrille — the story never quite kicks into gear. At Friday’s screening I was still waiting for something to happen when “The End” appeared on the screen. The movie wasn’t exactly a waste of time — at the very least, it’s surely the best movie ever made about the love life of Aesop — but it seemed all wind-up and no pitch. I have a used copy of George Hellman’s novel on order, and the Web site I ordered it from hints at (ahem!) mature pleasures that may have been nixed by the Breen Office in 1946. (A reproduction of the book’s frontispiece shows the sorceress Atossa appearing to Aesop in full-frontal nudity.) As with Day 1’s Repeat Performance, I may have more to say about the novel and its transition to the screen at some later time. For now, moving right along…
Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) was an installment in the prolific (51 pictures in eight years) Three Mesquiteers series at Republic Pictures. The trio of genial cowpokes (Robert Livingston, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Max Terhune) take time off from their duties at the ranch to accompany an archaeological expedition to a lost Indian city and help the young woman leading it (Betty Marsh) learn the fate of her father, who disappeared leading a similar expedition to the same destination. In the process, they investigate a series of murders picking off members of the party one by one. The movie was enjoyable, but it was shot in eight days and it looks it; Republic (only two years old at the time) hadn’t yet found its footing as the most polished of the Poverty Row studios; there’s quite a difference between this specimen of the studio’s output and the Masked Marvel serial only five years later.
A more satisfying western was the 1920 William S. Hart silent The Toll Gate. Hart plays Black Deering, a semi-reformed outlaw on the run who takes refuge with an abandoned frontier wife (Anna Q. Nilsson) and her toddler son (“Master” Richard Headrick). He bonds with them so quickly that when a posse shows up on his trail (fortuitously not knowing what he looks like), she doesn’t hesitate to claim he’s her husband. Actually, it turns out that the husband who ran out on her is none other than the former member of Deering’s gang who ratted him out to the law. Director Lambert Hillyer’s scenario thus establishes the perfect set-up for a double dose of revenge before Deering settles down and makes his reformation complete, Nilsson’s Mary Brown having made an honest man of him. The picture had Hart’s trademark dusty realism, and his interplay with Nilsson and young Headrick had the unpretentious ring of truth. This Headrick kid especially, only three at the time, was a real charmer. He had a busy few years in Hollywood, but his screen career was over by the time he was nine. Still, he lived into the 21st century, dying at 84 in November 2001. “Nobody ever talked to him?” Scott Eyman wondered. Evidently not, and that’s a pity.
Richard Barrios did introductory honors again for The Phantom President (1932), one of the most historic musicals Hollywood ever turned out. It’s historic not because it’s one of the great film musicals (it’s pretty good but not great), but because it gives us a permanent record of George M. Cohan, the legendary force of showbiz nature who virtually single-handedly invented the American musical comedy. Personally, he was an arrogant megalomaniac who made Al Jolson look timorous; he made life hell for everybody on the set, especially those whose jobs he thought he could do better — director Norman Taurog, composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Lorenz Hart — and he bad-mouthed the picture far and wide after it went into release. It was churlish of him; he never realized the inestimable service The Phantom President did to his legend, giving future generations something to go on besides yellowing press clippings and the dwindling memories of those who saw his performances in person.
Cohan plays Theodore K. Blair, prominent banker and front-runner of an unnamed political party for the presidential nomination. Problem is, he’s also a boring old poot who will lose votes every time he opens his mouth. Fortunately for the party, his handlers stumble across the lookalike Peter Varney (Cohan again), a medicine-show song-and-dance man with all the charm and pizzazz Blair lacks, and Varney is recruited to take the banker’s place on the campaign trail. Complications arise when he also takes Blair’s place at the side of one Felicia Hammond (Claudette Colbert), whom Blair harbors vain hopes of making his wife. She has already rejected him in no uncertain terms, but she takes a shine to Varney — thinking, of course, that he’s the same man.
Cohan’s glory days were well behind him by 1932, but he was still the genuine article. He was 54 but could pass for ten years younger, and his dual performance is nicely modulated (aided by some surprisingly sophisticated visual effects). Also, seeing him in action makes a striking counterpoint to James Cagney’s depiction of him ten years later in Yankee Doodle Dandy (which Cohan lived just long enough to see); we can see how one great performer was able to embody another without completely subsuming his own unique personality. Without The Phantom President, we’d still know that Cagney is brilliant in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but we might not know just how brilliant.
Phantom President does have its drawbacks, mostly thanks to Jimmy Durante as Varney’s sidekick. In those days the Great Schnozzola hadn’t yet mellowed into the loveable ham he would become; a little of him went a long way, and there’s a lot of him in The Phantom President (Cohan griped about that too). But the picture’s biting critique of politics as showbiz still has teeth in it (if anything, now more than ever). And Claudette Colbert looks like a million bucks.
The rest of Day 2 we can cover in a few paragraphs. C.B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919) presented Gloria Swanson at her sleek-and-smartest as a neglected wife tempted away from her lumpen husband (Elliott Dexter) by a smooth-talking roué (Lew Cody), only to learn that the grass isn’t always greener.
Next, a real oddity: Double Whoopee (1929), one of Laurel and Hardy’s last silent shorts — but not silent. Let me explain. In the late 1960s Hal Roach experimented with a way to market his library of silent comedies. He commissioned this pilot from producer Al Kilgore, who removed the short’s intertitles and added a soundtrack with music, sound effects and voices — and hey presto!, a late silent became an early talkie. (Chuck McCann, who passed away just two months ago, voiced both Stan and Ollie, sounding absolutely authentic. Whoever did Jean Harlow as “Swanky Blonde”, however, didn’t even come close.) The result was actually quite good, but in the long run nothing came of the idea, and the reconstituted Double Whoopee became a one-off.
Finally there was Value for Money, a rather sour British comedy from 1955, about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who gets involved with a gold-digging London showgirl (Diana Dors), to the wounded dismay of local newspaper reporter Susan Stephen, who (unaccountably) loves him. The picture had excellent Technicolor photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (and Cinevent’s print did it full justice), and Diana Dors showed herself to be not just a luscious eyeful but a comic actress of wit and charm. Still, the movie was a sour misfire, mainly because of John Gregson’s character — a clueless, mean-spirited boor who in the end gets much better than is coming to him. Somebody like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers might have managed to make this unpleasant pill eccentrically endearing, but the worthy Gregson wasn’t that kind of actor. Value for Money has its moments of visual and verbal wit, but it’s weighed down by a flinty, unsympathetic center.
Thus ended Friday of Cinevent 50. The weekend had gotten off to a nice start, but Saturday would take things to a whole new level, an almost uninterrupted parade of highlights. I may have to cover the day in more than one post. We’ll see.