Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film Reviews: 5th Avenue Girl & Star of Midnight

"5th Avenue Girl"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Ginger Rogers is one of my favorite actresses and although most people might know her strictly for her partnership with Fred Astaire she was quite a good actress and appeared in many good movies on her own. "5th Avenue Girl" (1939) is one of them.

After her films with Fred Astaire, Rogers stopped appearing singing and dancing in musicals As often. That is quite frankly a shame, but, she wanted to prove that she was capable of more. And she was. But through it all, in every performance, Rogers still had a certain quality to her. She was such a charming actress. So much screen presence. Her persona was often that of an "every woman". Struggling to get by during the hard economic times of the depression. She played the kind of woman you could just walk right up to and begin a conversation yet at the same time I've always felt she had an elegance to her which put her above everyone else. She was incredibly beautiful and that alone made her stand out in a room.

In "5th Avenue Girl" Rogers plays her familiar character; a good, decent woman who has fallen on hard times. She doesn't have any money, isn't sure where her next meal is coming from and has no job prospects yet she is surprisingly good natured. Her luck changes however when she meets a rich millionaire, Mr. Borden (Walter Connolly). He feels his family neglects him. He and his wife (Verree Teasdale) don't share a bed as she is out flirting with other men. His daughter, Katherine (Kathryn Adams) is following in her mother's footsteps and his son, Tim (Tim Holts) is out drinking and partying, he has no interest in work, only spending money, and wants nothing to do with the family business.

On his birthday Mr. Borden is alone and depressed. His family's neglect has finally hit him. When he arrives home he is greeted by an empty house. No one has remembered his birthday. So he takes a walk in the park and there he meets Mary Grey (Rogers). She seems kind and friendly and with that in mind Mr. Borden decides he wants to take her out to dinner to celebrate his birthday.

They end up going to a fancy restaurant where Borden is spotted by his wife and her boy toy. But not distracted Borden and Mary proceed to have a good time and celebrate. And this Borden finds out makes his wife jealous. Could this be the key to winning his family back? Borden decides to pretend he and Mary are romantically involve causing his family to go into an uproar and everyone starts to pay him attention.

What I left out about "5th Avenue Girl" is a strong anti-rich, anti-capitalist streak running through the film. Perfect for the times today. Mary hates the rich. She thinks they are stuck-up snobs. They complain about petty problems while everyday hard working people really have something to complain about. And one of Borden's servants, Mike (James Ellison) is a devoted communist. Warning the wealthy family their day will come when the workers will fight back.

By 1939 I would think the economy was much stronger then it had been in 1929 and '32. Of course I'm aware President Roosevelt's "New Deal" policies never ended the depression, it took WW2 to do that, still the economic times couldn't have still been so bleak. But the film's message would suggest otherwise. And what a daring move for screenwriter Allan Scott, who wrote several of the Astaire/Rogers musicals such as "Top Hat" (1935), "Swing Time" (1936) and "Carefree" (1938), to pepper his dialogue with such class warfare. With films like this it is no wonder HUAC turned to Hollywood in search of pro-communist rhetoric. Even stranger is that Ginger Rogers, a hardcore Republican, would even get involved in such a movie.

But "5th Avenue Girl" also does something else. It tries to show us the rich aren't so different. This was a common theme among movies in the depression. Rich families are made to look dysfunctional. We are suppose to laugh at them. Each member seems a little more goofy than the next. Other examples include "My Man Godfrey" (1936) which incidentally was directed by the same man who directed this film, Gregory LaCava. Also reminiscent to this film is "Easy Living" (1937) written (but not directed) by Preston Sturges starring Jean Arthur. I have reviewed it on here. In that movie as well a poor woman (Arthur) is taken in by a rich family. And this leads us to another theme of depression era movies; good things happen to hard working people. Money is just around the corner. I suppose it offered hope to the audience. It suggested their luck could change any day now.

"Fifth Avenue Girl" also has something in common with another film I have reviewed on here, William Wyler's classic "Dodsworth" (1936). This is almost a comedic version of that story. The film doesn't hide the fact Mrs. Borden sees other men. Though the film doesn't focus on her adventures, it is suggested to us Mr. Borden is in a loveless marriage and could be described as a cuckold. She however actually allows Mary to live in her home as she thinks Mary and her husband are in love. Boy, these people are very sophisticated, aren't they?

There is another sub-plot going on here concerning the daughter being in love with Mike. She is so in love with him that she starts to embrace his anti-capitalist ideals. She feels guilty being rich. This is taken right out of "My Man Godfrey" but the film doesn't dwell on this aspect of the film so much. It is extremely under-developed I thought, but, maybe LaCava didn't want to be seen as copying himself. The screenwriter, Scott, would have to make up for his communist script during the war when we wrote the American propaganda film "So Proudly We Hail" (1943) which I have to admit is actually a very good movie.

There is a lot going on beneath the surface in a film like this. Some of it may fly over some people's head. I've tried to connect the dots here but "5th Avenue Girl" could be taken as a sweet romantic comedy. The stories dealing with the children I still feel are under developed but "5th Avenue Girl" kept me entertained enough that I simply have to recommend it.

Film buffs will also have fun spotting some great character actors. Franklin Pangborn plays a butler. He appeared in several Preston Sturges comedies including "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) and one of my favorites, "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) . He also worked with W.C. Fields in a few pictures, the most famous being "The Bank Dick" (1940) and appeared in "Easy Living" as well. Also look out for Hungarian character actress Ferike Boros as the family cook and Louis Calhern as a doctor. And, yes, that's Jack Carson, going unbilled, as a sailor. Walter Connolly was also in several movies though this is the first time I've ever seen him get such a high billing (his name comes second after Rogers). He might be best known for playing the father in Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" (1934) and for his role in "Nothing Sacred" (1937).

"Star of Midnight" *** (out of ****)

Here is another solo movie with Ginger Rogers, that is the link between these two reviews.

"Star of Midnight" (1935) is a detective movie which is a complete rip-off of "The Thin Man" (1934) and it even stars Nick Charles himself; William Powell.

Poor William Powell, throughout most of his career the guy played a detective. I guess he had the face of a sleuth. He played Nick Charles in six different "Thin Man" movies and before that played Philo Vance five times. The only Vance movie I have seen is "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933). Even his screen debut was in a detective movie. He was in the John Barrymore version of "Sherlock Holmes" (1922), which I have reviewed. But after the success of "The Thin Man", for which Powell was even nominated for an Oscar, we would see Powell play these carefree, heavy drinking detectives who just seem to stumble upon clues. And it was something only Powell could do.

In "Star of Midnight" Powell plays Clay Dalzell a lawyer who sometimes has fun solving mysteries. A friend, Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) wants him to find his old girlfriend, Mary Smith, who disappeared a year ago. When a news reporter (Russell Hopton) is shot dead in Clay's home, just before he was about to reveal a big secret, Clay agrees to help but is a suspect in the murder himself.

The big secret involves a new mysterious Broadway actress whom Tim claims to recognize. Could it be Mary? But why did she disappear only to return again? There are more questions to be asked concerning an old flame, Jerry Classon (Vivien Oakland) and her third husband, Roger Classon (Ralph Morgan), and a mobster (Paul Kelly) and even Clay's valet, Swayne (played by popular character actor Gene Lockhart).

As for Rogers, well, she plays a wannabe sweetheart of Clay's, Donna Martin. She is our Myrna Loy in this film. She tags along with Clay picking up clues. Here she is an innocent sweet girl who only wants to take care of Clay but can also dish out a wise-crack here and there.

What makes "Star of Midnight" work in my opinion is the actors. Powell and Rogers are a lot of fun to watch though even I have to admit the story follows a clear and established formula. But, that doesn't mean you can't have a good time watching the film. Powell is excellent in these kind of roles and Rogers has her usual sweetness. There are some nice wise-cracks sprinkled around and was I even trying to figure who was the killer. I will say how Clay goes about discovering the murderer is no different then how he does in "The Thin Man".

The script leaves out some small bits of information I think could have been helpful, but, I'm not saying the movie is a masterpiece anyway. It is a nice, formula, star driven movie with some charm.

I also want to mention the movie was directed by Stephen Roberts, who also directed another "Thin Man" rip-off which starred Powell, "The Ex-Mrs. Bradford" (1936) his co-star that time is Jean Arthur. Check it out too.