Films: Drama/Romance

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

  SERENADE. (1956) Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price, Sarita Monteil, Vince Edwards, Harry Bellaver, Joseph Calleia. Screenplay Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts & John Twist, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   After a four year hiatus, this was to have been Mario Lanza’s triumphant return to the screen.

   As such it’s hardly a triumph.

   Serenade is James M. Cain’s finest book according to most critics, and his biographer Roy Hoopes, and for once I agree. It’s a dark symbolic journey through hell to a kind of redemption complete with a Christ-like sacrifice. It tackles big themes, and for its time is quite blatant about the heroes bi-sexuality, and his reclamation of his manhood (Cain’s theme, not mine, so go after him if you must) thanks to Juana, an earthmother-like Mexican prostitute.

   The hero of the novel is a gifted singer who threw away his talent on pop music, thanks to his Svengali-like impresario and lover. On the skids, he has gone south to Mexico where he meets Juana, a woman he once had a passionate affair with, and after a death, they go on the run.

   Heavy on symbolism, the scene where the hero and Juana make love in the abandoned church, the sharks and the iguanas are all justly well remembered elements of the novel, and the hero’s plight becomes a metaphor for the corruption of modern society. Though readers here might prefer The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, or Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, this is Cain’s greatest achievement as a novelist.

   The movie, not so much. Imagine trying to make a musical and woman’s picture of Under the Volcano or Day of the Locust, and that might be easier than this book.

   We open with Mario Lanza being discovered in the California vineyards. Under the guidance of beautiful but cruel Kendal Hale (Joan Fontaine) he loses his voice and flees her to Mexico where he meets young beautiful, rich, and passionate Juana Montes (Sarita Monteil). She is attractive, but hardly any of those other things Juana represents in the novel, and the scene where she dresses like a matador at a party and battles a mock bull is supposed to mirror a scene in the book, but instead plays like bad comedy.

   After the fourth musical number in the first twenty minutes, and following the awful title number by the usually great Sammy Cahn, you know this film has abandoned Cain for standard women’s picture country. That might have worked in Douglas Sirk’s hands, but this is clearly not a comfort zone for director Anthony Mann and screenwriters Goff, Roberts, and Twist.

   Vincent Price is good as Lanza’s friend and ally, but all you can think of watching him, is what he might have done as the controlling homosexual impresario.

   Granted, you couldn’t film Cain’s novel without a great deal of obfuscation at that time in Hollywood, but it didn’t have to be turned into this big Technicolor turkey either. A good noirish black and white film is lurking beneath this clown show.

   The novel is a blend of Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Christopher Isherwood in Cain’s own unique voice. It is full of memorable scenes, imagery that will stick in your mind, dark under currents tugging like riptides at unwary readers, and the restoration of the hero’s voice becomes a metaphor for his soul and his manhood.

   In the film the attractive Sarita Monteil couldn’t redeem Green Stamps, lives in a palatial ranchero William Randolph Hearst might envy, and it’s hard to believe she and Lanza like each other, much less become so indelibly tied that she virtually becomes his lost soul.

   Fontaine and Price try hard, but there is nothing here to work with. Mann does nothing that remotely resembles Anthony Mann, and the story plays as if it was written from Cliff Notes of the novel or the Classics Illustrated version.

   This is bad soap opera and a mediocre musical, with a star who returns to the screen fat and unconvincing. He isn’t bad, but at most he seems peeved rather than tortured by his lost voice and by implication masculinity. I’ve displayed more angst when I mislaid the car keys.

   The novel is dark, sensual, powerful, shocking, blatantly sexual, violent, noirish, and symbolic. It has the quality of a nightmare, but there is no awakening, only an ironic sort of redemption out of sacrifice and tragedy.

   Serenade the film is tired, trite, empty, slick, pointless, and disappointing. It did nothing to rebuild Lanza’s fading career, and stands as a black mark against Anthony Mann.

   The problem is that Serenade is exactly the movie you would expect Hollywood to make of Cain’s novel in the nineteen fifties. It is so what you would expect you could do a better satirical film about how Hollywood corrupts this kind of book. It is far and away Cain’s least film adaptation, and a sad fate for a stunning novel.

   The music is bad and Lanza fat, so his fans have no reason to watch it; the film is flat and unimaginatively shot so Mann fans have no reason to watch it even as completists. There is no redeeming performance by anyone who hasn’t been better elsewhere, the script is dull, and even Mexico doesn’t look that good in widescreen Technicolor.

   Read the book then rent Double Indemnity if you need a dose of James M. Cain’s unique perspective.


THE HATCHET MAN. First National Pictures / Warner Brothers, 1932. Also released as The Honorable Mr. Wong. Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Dudley Digges, Leslie Fenton, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall, J. Carroll Naish. Director: William A. Wellman.

   Recently watched: The Hatchet Man, a Warners thing from 1932 with Edward G. Robinson as a respected Chinese Executioner working for the Tong in San Francisco. When he’s ordered to kill his best friend (played with slanty eye and lilting diphthong by Irishman J. Carroll Naish), he promises to look after his buddy’s daughter, and see that he never causes her any unhappiness… According to custom, this also includes marrying her.

   Time passes. And it passes quickly, because this is a Warners film, and only runs 74 minutes anyway. The daughter grows up to be a very fetching Chinese-American (played by Loretta Young?!) who obligingly marries Robinson — now a prosperous businessman — because he’s nice to her and her father would have wished it.

   She predictably falls for a flashy Chinese gangster about five minutes later, but when Eddie discovers them together he recalls his promise to Naish and breaks Custom by not killing them both. Instead, he allows them to go off together, a move that causes him serious loss of face in the community and eventual financial ruin.

   More time passes. Even quicker. Robinson, now a migrant field hand, gets word that Loretta and her new husband were deported to China, where he has put her to work in a brothel.

   Remembering his vow still, he makes his way to China for a richly satisfying ending that somehow manages to be melodramatic and cynical at the same time.

   This was directed by William Wellman at his tough best, and a real treat.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

FIRE OVER ENGLAND. United Artists, UK/US, 1937. Flora Robson, Raymond Massey, Leslie Banks, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Lyn Harding, Robert Newton. Based on a novel by A. E. W. Mason. Director: William K. Howard.

   Fire Over England is an historical drama set in the late 1580s. Based on a novel of the same name by A. E. W. Mason, the movie takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth as the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) rages on.

   The film has a captivating plot, very good cinematography by James Wong Howe that makes excellent use of shadow and lighting, and a memorable soundtrack. It manages to pack quite a bit of action in 92 minutes. While there aren’t any truly outstanding moments in the film, it’s overall a well-executed project. The maritime fight scenes, in particular, are extremely watchable.

   We begin in the Court of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson). A frantic Cynthia, portrayed by Vivien Leigh in what was to be her first on screen performance with future husband Olivier, is fluttering about. Then we hear the film’s first voice. It’s that of James Mason, in an uncredited role as Hillary Vane, a distinctively bearded Englishman who we soon learn is traitor and an agent for King Philip II of Spain.

   Soon after, we encounter Michael Ingolby (Olivier), a patriotic, if somewhat youthful Englishman. He and his father, Sir Richard Ingolby (Lyn Harding), are traveling on an English vessel that is captured by the Spanish. Michael escapes and swims ashore. His father isn’t so lucky. Sir Richard Ingolby is captured and burned to death at the Inquisition in Lisbon. The younger Ingolby witnesses the smoke over Lisbon, learns that his father died there, and develops a hatred of Spain.

   But then it gets complicated, for he has developed feelings for Elena (Tamara Desni), a Spanish girl who saved him following his escape. Even so, Ingolby returns to England. There, he woos his beautiful fiancée, Cynthia (Leigh), and metaphorically butts heads with the Queen. His wit and daring impresses the publicly fierce, but privately fragile, monarch as to his true abilities and his loyalty. Soon, Ingolby assumes the now dead traitor Vane’s identity and returns to Spain to act as a spy in the palace of King Philip II (Raymond Massey, below and to the right).

   After a series of twists and turns and an coincidental but inevitable encounter with Elena and her now husband Don Pedro (Robert Newton), Ingolby makes his way back once again to his island homeland. Once there, he leads men in battle against the encroaching Spanish Armada. When it’s all over, it’s the burning of the Armada that in the end creates flames all over England. (In an earlier entreaty to the Queen, an impassioned Ingolby had warned of the Spanish menace and how, if the English did not act soon, the Spaniards would rain fire down on England.)

   With a cast such as this, it’s no surprise that the film benefits from its above average to superb acting, much of it quite theatrical. Olivier was around thirty years old when Fire Over England was made and his talent is on display throughout the film. Leigh’s work in the film led directly to her being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.

   Although their onscreen pairing would culminate in real life marriage, the chemistry between Olivier and Leigh, while definitely palpable, just doesn’t come across as strong as that between Olivier and Desni. Perhaps that is the case because there was far more tension between Olivier and Desni’s characters than between Olivier and Leigh’s.

   For his part, Raymond Massey is perfectly fine in his portrayal of the rather taciturn Philip II. His is just not a particularly memorable performance. Flora Robson’s portrayal as Queen Elizabeth, however, really is quite remarkable. One just imagines that Queen Elizabeth would have come across quite similar to how Robson portrays her in this film.

   Released in 1937, Fire Over England does seem to make implicit allusions to England’s contemporaneous concerns over the rise of Nazi Germany. Spain is presented not just as a great power rival, but as a totalitarian force that threatens English liberty. It’s somewhat ironic then, that in film with such strong pro-English sentiment, that the characters with the most depth to them are the Spaniards, Elena and Don Pedro, both of whom are faced with far more difficult moral choices than any other characters in the film.

   In conclusion, Fire Over England is a well above average movie and one that anyone with an interest in early British cinema, in particular, should seek out. (The film is in the public domain, so there are likely copies of varying quality available.)

   While it may not be among the best historical epics ever produced, it’s still a very good film, one that showcases the talents of two actors who would go on to even bigger and better projects, both in the movies and in their personal lives.


  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? Selznick Pictures, released by Select Pictures, 1921. Eugene O’Brien, Winifred Westover, Arthur Houseman, George Lessey, Warren Cook, Arthur Donaldson. Director: Alan Crosland. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Based on “The Open Door,” a Saturday Evening Post story by George Weston, this attractive film traces the fortunes of a young office worker who’s framed for a crime and after unsuccessfully trying to make a fresh start selling typewriter ribbons, has his suicide all planned and ready to be carried off when he rescues a young woman who’s fainted from hunger in a park.

   He carries her off to his boarding house and puts her in the care of his sympathetic landlady. He keeps delaying his suicide as he establishes a business with the young girl’s help to convince her that she’s repaying his good deed. The business unexpectedly takes off and he becomes wildly successful. Then the man who framed him reenters his life, and it appears that the young man’s success may be short-lived.

   Lewis Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, apparently liked the story in the Post so much that he rushed the film into production. I’ve not read the story, but I certainly liked the film that resulted from it. It’s basically an Alger story with some wry twists that lift it out of that time-worn groove.

   I suppose that much of the attraction of the film lies in innocence reestablished and generosity rewarded, with a healthy dash of rooting for the young couple. In any case, I thought the film was a standout for its sympathetic characters and compelling situation.


THE MARKET OF VAIN DESIRE. Triangle, 1916. H. B. Warner, Clara Williams, Charles Miller, Gertrude Claire, Hutton. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Director: Reginald Barker. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.


   Mrs. Badgely (Gertrude Claire) has engineered a marriage between her reluctant daughter Helen (Clara Williams) and the too smooth and obviously villainous Count Bernard d’Montaigne (Charles Miller). (You have to suspect that he’s not all he seems to be since no true French aristocrat would drop the “e” in d(e) Montaigne.)

   Pastor John Armstrong (H. B. Warner, warming up for his role as the Christ in DeMille’s King of Kings), upset by the blatant insincerity of the arranged marriage, preaches a sermon in which he compares the “selling” of a daughter to a woman selling her body on the street, bringing home this message with the introduction of a streetwalker (Leona Hutton) into the service.

   The congregation is horrified and when Helen’s father calls off the engagement, the “Count” confronts and assaults the minister. When the fake aristocrat is exposed, the members of the congregation are reconciled with their pastor, and he and Helen, realizing that they love one another, pledge their troth.

   I like a meaty melodrama, and this heady mix of religion, prostitution and social climbing was to my taste. I wasn’t raised a Southern Baptist for nothing. The moral lessons I absorbed in countless sermons and bible classes still resonate in the proper setting and with the right material.

   I noted with some surprise that C. Gardner Sullivan was both the author of the scenario for Hairpins [reviewed here ] and of the story for the very dissimilar Market.


HAIRPINS. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, 1920. Enid Bennett, Matt Moore, William Conklin, Margaret Livingston, Grace Morse. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Art director: W. L. Haywood. Art titles: F. J. Van Halle, Carl Schneier, & Leo Braun. Director: Fred Niblo. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

HAIRPINS Enid Bennett

   This film, which I had seen before, was substituted for Over There, a WWI patriotic drama. I like to expand my repertoire, but since Hairpins is a charming light drama, I happily sat through it again.

   Muriel Rossmore (Enid Bennett) has settled too comfortably for her husband Rex’s liking (Matt Moore) into the role of frumpy wife, so he begins a dalliance with Effie, his attractive, nattily dressed secretary (Margaret Livingston).

   When Muriel finds out about the affair, she consults her stylish neighbor, grass widow Mrs. Kent (Grace Morse), who supervises a new look for her and introduces her to Hal Gordon (William Conklin), a playboy friend who pays her the kind of attention that husband Rex finds mightily offensive when he stumbles on to what his wife is doing during his evenings out wth Effie.

   Fred Niblo married his star during the production of this film, and his direction is a tribute to her charm and beauty. I’ve credited the art director and the creators of the attractive intertitles for their contribution to the style and wit of this delightful film.



 MICHAEL O’HALLORAN. Republic Pictures, 1937. Wynne Gibson, Warren Hull, Jackie Moran, Charlene Wyatt, Sidney Blackmer, Hope Manning, G. P. Huntley Jr. Based on a novel by Gene Stratton Porter. Director: Karl Brown. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   One of the great film reference books is Jack Mathis’s Valley of the Cliffhangers, a fascinating detailed history of the Republic serials, and during his research for additional volumes on the studio,he was allowed to have prints made from studio negatives of some rare titles. Three of these ware shown during the weekend.


   Unfortunately, this film, in which Wynne Gibson, an irresponsible party girl, attempts to present herself as a fit parent in a custody struggle with Sidney Blackmer, her dull respectable husband, continues the Cinefest tradition of scheduling a dog to initiate the screenings.

   The plot is mainly an excuse to showcase what my fellow attendee Jim Goodrich referred to as the “unquestionable” talents of a popular young child actor, Jackie Moran, whose invalid sister becomes the do-good project that Gibson takes on to improve her image.

   About twenty minutes of the film don’t survive (except for the soundtrack) and that was something of a blessing. It didn’t, however, deprive us of an especially saccharine (and inept) imitation of Shirley Temple by a child actress who does a walk-on.

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