Tag: Henry Daniell

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Dialogue heavy, drama light, war-time propaganda, that was already dated by the time it was released

Director: Herman Shumlin

Cast: Bette Davis (Sara Muller-Farrelly), Paul Lukas (Kurt Muller), Lucile Watson (Fanny Farrelly), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Countess Marthe de Brancovis), George Coulouris (Count Teck de Brancovis), Beulah Bondi (Anise), Donald Woods (David Farrelly), Donald Buke (Joshua Muller), Henry Daniell (Baron Phili von Ramme), Kurt Katch (Blecher)

In 1940, dedicated anti-fascist campaigner Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) arrives in the USA with his American wife Sarah (Bette Davis) and their children. They are welcomed by Sarah’s mother Fanny (Lucille Watson), but soon discover that America has little understanding of the dangers of Nazism – and that there is in danger in their refuge. Fanny’s other houseguest is Romanian diplomat Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) – whose wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is quietly in love with Sarah’s brother David (Donald Woods) – and he has every intention of selling Muller out to the Nazi embassy if he doesn’t pay him thousands of dollars. Can the Mullers escape?

Watch on the Rhine is adapted from a play by Lilian Hellman. Hellman was otherwise engaged and unable to write the script, so her long-term lover Dashiel Hammett came on board to open up the one-set play into a movie, with Hellman providing some additional speeches. Their best efforts can’t hide the fact this is a painfully worthy, preaching-to-the-choir propaganda piece. It’s packed with on-the-nose (if well-written) speeches and horrifically slow in its pacing and plotting.

First staged in early 1941, the original play did at least serve a clear purpose. It preached about the dangers and evils of fascism to a nation watching Europe tear itself apart. It was a heartfelt cry to understand that Hitler and his cronies were wicked men determined to let all the liberties America held dear burn. Its characters speechified at length about the conditions in Europe, the loss of freedom and the wickedness and danger of a political movement many in America felt was basically someone else’s problem.

This would have carried some real power as a rallying cry if the play had been bought to the screen in 1941. But, by 1943, American soldiers were already fighting Nazi forces in Africa and Italy: it hardly felt necessary to cry for intervention. Even by 1943, it was a period piece, looking back at a moment in time when fashionable types went to the German embassy for fancy dinners with black-shirted diplomats. And certainly, viewing it now, even its 1943 perspective looks slightly naïve and uninformed, in light of the horrors we now know were taking place.

Shorn of its original purpose to educate, the film comes across as a mix of heavy-handed propaganda (“This is why we fight!” it might as well be saying) and civics lesson.  It’s because, frankly, there is very little drama at all to take the place of the political lecturing. It’s fair to compare the film to Casablanca – another film that calls for action, released after a point when action had been taken. That could have been a propaganda piece: instead it’s a fast-paced, drama packed mix of romance and conspiracy thriller where Paul Henreid (remarkably similar to Lukas’ character here) struggles to gain the papers to escape from Vichy with a life-and-death urgency this film never musters.

Although Watch on the Rhine eventually works in a blackmail plot, where Muller’s plan to return to Europe and take on the leadership of the anti-fascists is threatened by George Coulouris’s smarmy diplomat, it takes so long to get to this (nearly an hour of screen time) your attention may well already have been lost.

Watch on the Rhine was directed – rather flatly, in one of his only two films – by it’s original Broadway director Herman Shumlin (heavily assisted by cinematographer Hal Mohr). The cast included several actors recreating their roles, including Lukas, Coulouris and Lucille Watson. Obviously, this left it short of heavyweights for the box office so the studio bought in Bette Davis to play Muller’s wife, expanding the role heavily (and insisting, against her protests, that she get top billing). Davis – exhausted after working intensely on Now, Voyager – took the part out of commitment to its message, but struggled with both Shumlin and serious personality clashes with Lucille Watson over their wildly differing politics.

Shumlin was unable to rein Davis in and Watch on the Rhine features one of her more melodramatic performances. Almost every scene features her staring off into the middle distance, voice trembling (not helped by Max Steiner’s music swelling magnificently practically every time she speaks). It’s a performance that never quite rings true, especially when compared to the underplaying from Lukas, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his low-key, restrained performance. He is quiet and genuine – and his pain and desperation when driven into a terrible moral choice is moving – but it’s hard to shake the feeling this fine performance was rewarded more for the words from his lips (especially since he beat Bogart in Casablanca). Watson was also nominated, playing the sort of role beloved by awards ceremonies, an eccentric old snob with a hidden heart of gold.

Watch on the Rhine is a rather dull civics lesson full of worthy speeches and very short on drama. It also has some of the most irritating child actors you will ever see (already infuriatingly precocious, the kids communicate their German background with stilted, precise accents). Even in 1943, its moment had passed and it never manages to create any dramatic point compelling enough to make you want to rewatch it. A film less worthy, and more willing to indulge in espionage thriller, would have been a distinct improvement.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

A court case hinges on a heck of a twist or two in Wilder’s well-mounted Christie adaptation

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), John Williams (Mr Brogan-Moore), Henry Daniell (Mr Mayhew), Ian Wolfe (Carter), Torin Thatcher (Mr Myers QC), Norma Vaden (Emily Jane French), Una O’Connor (Janet McKenzie), Francis Compton (Justice Wainwright)

Agatha Christie is better known for detectives who unearth murderers, not lawyers defending those accused in court. But that doesn’t mean Witness for the Prosecution, a very effective courtroom drama, shirks on classic Christie flourishes. Witness has a single stonking twist that huge numbers of people never see coming (the end of the film comes with a sonorous warning entreating people not to spoil the surprises, the sort of anti-spoiler warning that would make Marvel proud).

Leonard Vole (an unlikely Tyrone Power) is the soldier and would be entrepreneur, who stands accused of the murder of a rich older woman (Norma Vaden) who conveniently left Vole her money. Defending Vole is richly-toned, highly-skilled barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), recovering from a heart attack and doing his very best to dodge the overly attentive concern of his private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Vole’s case looks difficult, with much circumstantial evidence stacked against him and worries about whether his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will stand by him or not?

Billy Wilder directs with a smooth professionalism – he later modestly claimed of his Oscar nomination, that it was like giving the crew that moved Michelangelo’s Pietá an award for best sculpture – but his real contribution (with fellow writer Harry Kurnitz) was sharpening the dialogue, expanding Christie’s characterisation (in particular adding much more shrewdness and eccentric pomposity to Robarts) and upping the zip of Christie’s original. It certainly met with the approval of the grandé dame of crime who listed this, and Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, as the only two adaptations of her work she liked.

The film is largely based around the courtroom dynamics, as witnesses are examined and cross examined and facts gently dragged into the light. There is plenty of quality theatrics, not least since Robarts and his opposition counsel Myers (a fearsome Torin Thatcher) are more than a little skilled at keeping things sparky for the jury. There is a hint of cynicism in Witness: Robarts needs to convinces himself of a client’s innocence, but there is a suggestion this is because it helps him work out how to effectively defend them, less because of any moral reasons. And certainly, the entire mechanics of the trial operates largely as a show, an entertainment with jokes and compelling stories offered by both sides.

There is of course no better showman than Robarts. Played by Charles Laughton in one of his last great – and possibly most enjoyable – performance, Robarts is an affectionate, witty performance of carefully studied eccentricity and barking bluffness. But there is also a vulnerability in him: Robarts needs to belief in his own legend and his ability to separate truth from lie (he even prides himself on his “monacle test”, using a reflection from it to shine in suspects eyes, believing a liar will get flustered and trip themselves up – needless to say it turns out to be faulty).

Wilder – with Laughton as a brilliant collaborator – transforms Robarts into a far more forceful and charismatic figure, making the late plot twists even more of a shock. If someone as professionally adept and plugged in as Robarts can be taken in, what chance do the rest of us have? Oscar-nominated, Laughton, a twinkle permanently in his eye, powers through moments of high court theatricality but also heartily enjoys the banter of real life, taking a real delight in his schoolboy mischief as he persists in having his own way.

A large part of that, is a running of dodging treatments and sticking to a diet of things that are bad with him. Wilder’s finest change from the original, in introducing Robart’s ill health and his love-hate relationship with his nurse Miss Plimsoll. Who is, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife. The chemistry between these two is spot-on, with Lanchester (also Oscar nominated – and unlucky to lose to Miyoski Umeshi in Sayonara) in particular playing the combination of world-weary exasperation and growing affection for Robarts perfectly.

Combined with those twists, it’s the interplay between these two that is the real highlight in the film – well that and the twists. Many of those twists are bound up with Marlene Dietrich’s character. Dietrich gives one of her most colourful and wide-ranging performances here. The secrecy of the film probably stopped her from landing an Oscar nomination (much to her regret – Wilder even apologised to her). Power is miscast – he lacks the required natural innocence and looks both too old and incongruously American – but fortunately spends most of the film in the dock.

The final twist is a doozy, perfectly delivered by the actors and Wilder. Wilder directs throughout with quiet authority – as well as fine sense of humour, in particular a stair lift scene that sees Robarts using the device as a tool to dodge being told what to do. Laughton and Lanchester in particular are wonderfully funny. It’s got some excellently handled courtroom tricks and you won’t forget how it turns out. It’s a solid example of Wilder’s skill behind the camera – but a very enjoyable film and a must for Christie fans.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Three stars at the top of their game in the classic comedy The Philadelphia Story

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven), James Stewart (Mike Connor), Ruth Hussey (Elizabeth Imbrie), John Howard (George Kittredge), Roland Young (Uncle Willie), John Halliday (Seth Lord), Mary Nash (Margaret Lord), Virginia Weidler (Dinah Lord), Henry Daniell (Sidney Kidd)

In 1938 Katharine Hepburn’s career was over. After the flop of some now forgotten (wait, hang on…) screwball comedy called Bringing Up Baby, she took centre place on the Independent Theatre Owners list of “Box Office Poison”. Flops after flop hit Hepburn (all of them are classics today of course), and the studios did their damnedest to drop her. So, Hepburn returned to the stage, developing The Philadelphia Story with Philip Barry – and creating a lead role for herself that would play to all her strengths and help win back public affection. And which (with a little help from Howard Hughes) she would own the rights for: so, if and when they wanted to make a film, she could insist she starred. The rest is history.

The Philadelphia Story is perhaps the best example of the Code-approved genre, the “remarriage comedy” (because the code wouldn’t countenance the idea of a couple cheating). Daughter of a rich Philadelphia family, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is to marry her dull fiancée George Kittredge (John Howard). George’s main attraction is he’s the complete opposite of her charismatic ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Dexter crashes the build-up to the wedding, bringing along reluctant society journalist (he’s really a renowned short-story writer) Mike Connor (James Stewart) and press photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey), promising to introduce them as distant friends of the family so they can report on the wedding. But then Tracy finds herself drawn to Dexter and Mike and George as well – who will she end-up walking down the aisle with?

Perhaps the best thing about The Philadelphia Story is that you really don’t know who it will be – and the film successfully keeps the question both up-in-the-air and deeply entertaining. There even seems a chance (unlikely as it is) that Tracy really will stick with George (a tedious nouveau riche businessman with priggish middle-class morals who can’t even mount a house – imagine!). Directed with the sort of unfussy smoothness Cukor excelled in – and helped get the best out of actors – it’s a superb comic treat, with a sparkling adaptation by Donald Ogden Stewart.

At the heart of it, Hepburn is superb in a role that riffs considerably off her own public personality. Hepburn was smart enough to know most audiences saw her as far too clever by half. Her sharpness, acidity and no-nonsense unwillingness to suffer fools had made her hard to relate to. Quite correctly, she felt she needed a role where she could “fall flat on her face”. Which , by the way, is more or less the first thing she does – a hilarious prat fall while throwing Cary Grant’s Dexter out, him responding to her snapping his golf clubs by gently putting his hand on her face and pushing her off-balance (only Grant could have got away with that by the way).

Tracy Lord is a version of the Hepburn many people felt they knew. Tracy genuinely believes she’s smarter and better than anyone else, with unquestionable judgment and superior morals. The film is a gentle exercise in pricking her balloon, showing her she is as prone to mistakes, prejudice and, above all, getting giddy and silly in love, as anyone else. This is a fiercely practical woman, who sets high standards for those around her, suddenly finding herself falling in love with three men at once. It’s the exact flighty lack of commitment she spent years condemning her estranged father for.

This is all scintillatingly played by Hepburn, at her absolute best. The rat-a-tat dialogue (with its classic, Wildean comedy of errors and mis-identification) is under her complete control. She’s delightful when, under the influence, she flirts with Mike – Hepburn showing the world (clearly they missed it in Bringing Up Baby) that she could be as silly and vulnerable as the next girl. Hepburn knew people wanted to see her personae deconstructed, and for her character to learn that (in the words of another comedy) nobody’s perfect. It works a treat – and this remained one of her greatest (and funniest) performances.

It helps she had two of the greatest to riff off. Cary Grant is at his light-comedic best here, turning Dexter – a manipulative reformed alcoholic it would be easy to dislike – into the embodiment of sophistication, charm and playful wit, who we adore as much Tracy’s family does. James Stewart won an Oscar and matches Grant gag-for-gag in a comedic masterclass. He’s a master of hilarious comedic and physical reactions – and lovable enough to turn a chippy newspaperman into a sort of hilariously droll sage. His ‘drunk’ acting is also some of the funniest you’ll see on film (even Grant can be spotted cracking up just a little as Stewart hiccups his way through a scene).

Hepburn’s chemistry with both actors is sublime. Her romancing scenes – both the worst for wear for drink, but also empowered to say things they’ve clearly been burying all day – with Stewart are not hugely romantic, but also rather sexy (Cukor’s direction here is also exquisitely spot-on). It’s a masterclass in on-screen flirtation – and you can see why George gets as pissed off as he is. Hepburn and Grant meanwhile bicker and taunt each other with all the chemistry of a match and a fire.

Each scene has a bounce that teeters between heart-felt and farcical. The set-ups are frequently silly – but they work because they hinge on characters that feel immensely real. Every performer is spot on – credit also goes to a superb Ruth Hussey, one of the few grown-ups in this weekend of flirting, feuding children. Set in a sumptuously rich Philadelphian mansion, for all of Mike’s chippy criticism it’s a celebration of the smooth upper classes over hard-working, dull prigs like George. Its sole fault might be it’s too long (at just under 2 hours, a few scenes and set-ups outstay their welcome). But, as a classic Hollywood comedy, it’s pretty much the top of the class. Box-office poison no more.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Holmes and Watson have a few more tourist destinations pointed out to them. Altogether now: “Magnificent!”

Director: Roy William Neill
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr. John Watson), Marjorie Lord (Nancy Partridge), Henry Daniell (William Easter), George Zucco (Heinrich Hinkel), John Archer (Lt. Peter Merriam)

With Sherlock back on our televisions, it’s always great to revisit the old Basil Rathbone classics for a neat comparison. They also serve as reminders to us that setting the stories in the modern day is far from a new idea as, in this picture Holmes takes on a Nazi spy ring in the heart of the American capital.

Of course anyone watching with even an ounce of experience of watching films will quickly suss out nearly everything in the film within seconds. A British agent goes missing en route to Washington carrying some crucial government secrets (in a rather nifty opening sequence we follow our antagonists trying to work out who among the passengers on a train is the British agent). Holmes is called in and the trail soon leads to Washington. The game’s afoot!

It’s all quite good fun clearly inspired by Hitchcock and Chandler, odd as it is to see Holmes running around with American gumshoes or flick Watson a thumbs up. Rathbone carries it all off with style although his deductions are elementary to say the least  (the British agents home is full of photography and microfilm equipment – I wonder what he might have done the letters…) and he has a lot of fun with a few snide put downs and later when disguised as a bumbling Brit in a antiques shop (don’t ask). His smooth, cool authority makes the final scenes really work.

There is also some quite effective comic relief from Nigel Bruce’s Watson, here obsessed with Americana, seen picking up slang, slurping milkshakes and chewing gum. In fact there is a touching pride from the film makers for their travelogue sections, the camera lingering on aerial shots of buildings and stills of famous buildingw. Holmes arrival sequence is almost completely given over to shots of Washington landmarks followed by Rathbone stressing their “magnificance” to Watson and the audience. Later of course Rathbone sings America’s praises and uses a Churchill quote to show that “we are all allies together”. Yay for the allies!

This is silly stuff and highly predictable, but it’s professionally made and bounds along. A sequence at a party mines a lot of humour from the casual passing around of a match book containing the vital microfilm. Most of the American support is pretty forgettable (although Clarence Muse gives a great cameo as a bus boy), but Henry Daniell makes a good heavy and George Zucco’s late introduction as a master agent makes a decent antagonist. Rathbone is authoritative amongst the nonsense and Bruce actually quite fun (though his Watson remains a moron). It’s a fast moving, totally predictable, rather silly spy film that happens to have Sherlock Holmes in it. You’ll enjoy it. And if you forget it don’t worry – you’ll work it all out again as soon as you see it.