Friday, February 10, 2012

Well, Well, Wellman!

Werth: How do, Wise?

Wise: I do fine, Werth. What scintillating cinematic synopses do we have planned this week?

Werth: Once again, Film Forum is the mother of invention, because starting today they are showing the films of early director William A. Wellman.

Wise: I'll be sure to expect screwball hijinks, fisticuffs and a lot of aeronautics.  

Werth: Part of the reason Wellman's style isn't as well-known as some of his contemporaries is because he shot such a wide range of film genres—action, comedy, drama, western. In fact, one of my Wellman favorites mixes comedy and mystery in, of all places, an old burlesque house.

Wise: Something tells me a lot of your favorite things are connected to burlesque. 

Werth: Lady of Burlesque (1943) stars Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy, a burlesque-stripper with a heart of gold and a mouth of brass. What starts off as a backstage comedy full of dressing room catfights, randy musical numbers and a fast-talking, improbable romance between Dixie and novelty comic Biff Brannigan (played by over-smiler Michael O'Shea), soon turns dark as strippers are found strangled to death with their own g-strings.  

Wise: What a way to go!  

Werth: In what can best be described as "Ten Little Strippers," all the suspects are gathered in the dressing room to find out whodunnit before the next victim falls prey to the panty-wielding maniac. Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's successful book, "The G-String Murders," the film suffers from its vacillation between showbiz comedy and grisly murder mystery—only half-successfully achieving the comedy portion. Wellman skips grand, Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers and instead goes for a more realistic approach staging unpolished, almost amateur numbers with girls who look like they're used to taking it off—  

Wise: But had to leave it on, thanks to the Production Code.  

Werth: What elevates this film is the presence of Stanwyck. Like Stanwyck's hilarious turn as Dixie's "sistah from another movie," Sugarpuss O'Shea in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), Stanwyck adds a hard-bitten class to the role that makes her a match for anyone on either side of the tracks. She growls her ridiculously crass song "Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String" and struts through the film supremely confident, but refreshingly genuine. Her tight little body is gorgeous—dressed by costume designer extrordinaire Edith Head.
Head camouflaged Stanwyck's unusually long waist and low rear with cleverly designed waistlines and large belts that tapered in the back, making Stanwyck one of Head's frequent clotheshorses both in front of and away from the camera. The supporting cast of fun, gum-chewing broads is also dressed and un-dressed to the hilt, proving that all you need for a good time is hats, heels and hose... and Barbara Stanwyck.  

Wise: Wellman routinely brought out the best in his leading ladies, but one of the most luminous performances came from Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937).  As Hazel Flagg, she plays a woman from small-town Vermont supposedly stricken by radium poisoning.  When disgraced New York reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) discovers her plight, he sweeps her off to New York City where he embarks on a series of florid profiles, turning this country nobody into the darling of the big city demimonde. 
Things get even more complicated for Hazel when she discovers that her tippling hometown physician, Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger) has misdiagnosed her, forcing her to obscure her health and disguise her increasingly tender feelings for Wally.  

Werth: Who knew that cancer, press manipulation and alcoholic medical misdiagnosis could be so funny?  

Wise: The shocking thing about this film is how contemporary it feels, and a lot of the credit for that, I think, goes to Lombard.  Unlike the more polished comedy personas of her screwball peers (Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, and Katherine Hepburn), Lombard feels artless, dissolving into tears, undone by anxiety, frantic in desperate straits.  By comparison, Babs, Roz and Kate always seemed to have another trick up their sleeve, while the stakes feel a little higher for Lombard; there's big trouble as her schemes burst apart.  

Werth: Scheme-bursting was de rigeur for Lombard in many of her best comedies—Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and To Have and Have Not (1942).

Wise: The screenplay by Ben Hecht (with some polishing by Dorothy Parker, Sidney Howard and Moss Hart) is full of knowing jabs at New York, lampooning the excesses of tabloid journalism and the insincerity of society life. 
But he doesn't let the rural folk off any easier; Margaret Hamilton has a particularly juicy scene as the town druggist whose sanctimoniousness is matched only by the sharpness of her tongue.  

Werth: And possibly her nose.  

Wise: Wellman liked to work fast, wrangling articulate films from a jumble of plotlines, actions sequences and performances.  Several actors accused him of being a bully, but whatever the chaos on set, onscreen his stars were magic (take, for example, the pyrotechnics Hattie McDaniel makes of a single line).  He may not have been one of Hollywood's most sophisticated directors, but the quick character studies and rapid-fire pace he demanded are still with us today.  

Werth: And that's why you should go check out some of Wellman's best movies at the Film Forum until March 1st or at a DVD player near you.

Wise: And check out Film Gab next Friday for more films with radioactive strippers!

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