Monthly Archives: March 2013

Charles Laughton in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’

Witness for the Prosecution Original Poster

‘Witness for the Prosecution’: Original Poster

When Billy Wilder was asked to name the best actor he ever worked with, his reply was immediate and final:  “Charles Laughton.”  Wilder worked with Laughton only once, but it’s easy to see why he held him in such high regard:  Laughton really was one of the most remarkable actors of his time.  Unlike Claude Rains, Laughton was often terrible — he veered far beyond the bounds of sentimentality time and again, and if he weren’t held in check, he had a tendency to ham it up.  But in the right material — not necessarily good material — with the right director, Laughton was as great as they come.  The picture Billy Wilder directed him in was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s stage play, “Witness for the Prosecution.”  With one notable exception, the acting is of so high a calibre, one barely can tell how thin the material is or notice the many holes in the plot.  The cast is full of first rate character actors, along with one or two amusingly second rate character actors (e.g., Henry Daniell, the ubiquitous Nellie from the 40s and 50s).  But the star is unquestionably the third-billed Charles Laughton, who appears to be having a fine time as the eminent barrister, Sir Wilfred Robarts (known by his admirers as “Wilfred the Fox”), who defends a man by the name of Leonard Vole in a murder trial.

Most of the picture takes place indoors, in one of two settings — Sir Wilfred’s law offices, and a courtroom at the Old Bailey.  Laughton and the supporting cast put on such a great show, there’s no sense of claustrophobia.  Indeed, the only claustrophobic scenes are those outside of the main settings . . . and that’s due almost entirely to Tyrone Power, who has top billing in the picture.  Power, at 44, is at least ten years too old to play the defendant, repeatedly referred to as “young man” — and looks at least twenty years too old.  The poor man died the following year, and he looks as if he might drop dead at any second.  He was never a good actor; when he was young, he was so stupendously attractive, nobody seemed to notice — but he aged badly (in “Witness for the Prosecution,” he often looks like Bela Lugosi — see below).  Without his youthful good looks, Power’s incompetent line readings had nowhere to hide.  Never mind — the rest of the cast are game, and more than a few of them have aces up their sleeves.

Ravages of Time:  Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932 O fearful meditation!  Where, alack,  Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back, Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?  (Shakespeare Sonnet 65)

The Ravages of Time: Tyrone Power circa 1937, Power 1957, Bela Lugosi circa 1932
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
                  — William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

Leonard Vole is accused of the murder of Emily Jane French, a well-to-do widow who had befriended him several months before her death.  Mrs French is played by the estimable Norma Varden, who had more than 150 credits to her name when she died.  She is perhaps best known as the wife of the monocled Englishman in the zebra-striped tie who gets his pocket picked in the first scene of “Casablanca.”  She was also the dithery clubwoman who is nearly strangled at a party by Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train.”  Mrs French is a small role, but Varden makes the most of it.  I’m always glad to see her whenever she pops up in a picture.

Norma Varden as Emily French:  She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, "ripe to die."

Norma Varden as Emily French: She is, what is known in Agatha Christie stories, “ripe to die.”

Varden’s amusing, pathetic Emily French is but one of several lively performances in the picture.  I’m particularly fond of the hatchet-faced, always welcome comedienne, Una O’Connor, who was so memorable in “The Invisible Man,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and indeed, every one of the 84 pictures she appeared in.  Her turn as Emily French’s devoted servant, Miss Janet McKenzie in “Witness for the Prosecution” was her last, and perhaps her very funniest.  I hope you can tell from the pictures below that she is riotously funny every second she’s on the screen.  She’s also perfectly believable:  she does not play Miss McKenzie as a sweet old dear — no Helen Hayes she — no, she plays her as a querulous, suspicious old bitch.  There’s nothing remotely camp or overbroad about her desiccated little termagant . . . just honest hilarity.  Here she is in the witness box.

Witness OConnor 02

Witness OConnor 03

Witness OConnor 04

Witness OConnor 05

Witness OConnor

Una O’Connor: The many moods of Janet McKenzie — all of them ill-humored.

Francis Compton, likewise, is wonderfully droll as the learned judge.  He was primarily a stage actor.  This was the last picture he appeared in.

Francis Compton as the Judge

Francis Compton as the Judge

What all of these actors, beginning with Laughton, have in common is that they elevate the material.  By their very nature, courtroom dramas rely more heavily on exposition than most other movie genres, so it’s important that the actors who speak the exposition have enough personality to make the retailing of facts interesting.  Here’s an example of what I mean.  This is Sir Wilfred’s opening statement to the jury, before he puts his client on the stand.  In it, he tells us only what we already know.  The speech lasts just under two and a half minutes.  Except for an insert about halfway in, Wilder lets Laughton deliver it in a single take.  I expect Laughton did the whole speech in one take, and Wilder chose to add an insert to keep it from being overly static.  But it’s a marvel of great acting.  A recitation and repetition of facts that Laughton makes riveting, by sheer force of technique and personality.  In his heyday, it was said that Laughton could wring tears from an audience by reading the phone book.  The clip below suggests that this claim was not an exaggeration.

It would be ungentlemanly of me to neglect Marlene Dietrich.  Her performance is wonderful, everything it should be.  It’s even in the way being of a tour de force, albeit a quiet one.  She and Laughton play together beautifully.  They must have liked each other enormously.  But what must she have thought of Tyrone Power . . .?

Manhattan Melodrama

Manhattan Melodrama Original  Poster.

Manhattan Melodrama Original Poster. After Dillinger was gunned down, W.R. Hearst had Cosmopolitan’s name removed from all prints.

There are a number of historical footnotes associated with “Manhattan Melodrama” (directed by W.S. “One Take Woody” Van Dyke) that lend it more glamour than perhaps it deserves, but it’s not a bad example of mid-thirties disposable entertainment — so long as you don’t take a word of it seriously. It’s the first time William Powell and Myrna Loy appeared together onscreen. The next picture they made together, also directed by Van Dyke, was their most celebrated: “The Thin Man.” “Manhattan Melodrama” features a beautiful Rodgers and Hart tune called “The Bad in Every Man”; after the picture was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics (to make the song more commercially appealing) and renamed it “Blue Moon.” Perhaps most interesting of all, “Manhattan Melodrama” was the last picture Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, ever saw: he was gunned down by Melvin Purvis’ G-men outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater immediately after seeing it. Myrna Loy was said to be Dillinger’s favorite movie star. It was reported that Dillinger had come out of hiding specifically to see her latest picture. Many years later, Loy’s response to this was characteristic: “Personally, I suspect the theme of the picture, rather than my fatal charms, attracted him, but I’ve always felt a little guilty about it, anyway. They filled him full of holes, poor soul.”

William Randolph Hearst owned Cosmopolitan Productions, which he formed to showcase his mistress, Marion Davies. After Dillinger was killed, Hearst insisted that the Cosmopolitan name be withdrawn from all prints: he didn’t want his company’s name sullied with associations to Dillinger. The opening credits were quickly altered; ever since, the names of producer David O. Selznick and director W.S. Van Dyke, rather curiously, appear twice.

John Dillinger Slept Here.

John Dillinger Slept Here.

Two years later, Van Dyke would direct the granddaddy of all future disaster pictures, but the opening episode of “Manhattan Melodrama” gave him a good warm-up for the extended shake and bake sequence that takes up most of the last twenty minutes of “San Francisco.” “Manhattan Melodrama” begins aboard the General Slocum, a popular excursion steamer on the East River, on the morning of June 15, 1904. It was on that day that the boat suddenly caught fire, was quickly engulfed in flames, and sank. More than a thousand people died in the disaster, most of them women and children. Van Dyke stages the sequence with a surprising amount of brutality: an overweight middle-aged man yanks the life-jacket off the shoulders of a young woman and roughly throws her down as he leaps to safety. Women and children are trampled under the feet of panicking men. Except for one kindly priest, who offers assistance to two boys who are drowning, nobody acts with dignity or honor, let alone courage.  A few minutes later — several years have passed — there’s another crowd scene which turns into a melee on the barest of provocations . . . Through these turmoils, we see the two boys who nearly drowned grow to manhood — bad boy Blackie Gallagher (Mickey Rooney, who grows up to be Clark Gable(!)) with his swindles and his crooked dice, and goody-two-shoes Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler, who grows up to be William Powell) with his nose forever in a book. They have nothing in common, yet they’re inseparable best friends. No explanation is offered for their friendship . . . but after all, it’s Clark Gable and William Powell, so why the hell not? Of course they’re best friends . . . Myrna Loy shows up eventually, as Gable’s long-suffering girl friend. Then she ends up with Powell, which only makes sense. Gable thinks so, too.

The picture is a lot of fun until the last third, when Jim Wade is elected Governor of New York. From that point on, the story begins to darken until it turns fantastically, excruciatingly sententious. Every big studio obeyed the No Crime Shall Go Unpunished commandment of the Production Code, but the moralizing over at Metro was always the most rigorous and gruesome. It would be interesting to know what Dillinger made of “Manhattan Melodrama”: for most of the picture, the charming outlaw, Blackie Gallagher, is zestfully, unapologetically amoral (much like Gable’s Blackie Norton in “San Francisco”). We know Blackie’s a scamp, but he’s loyal to his old pal, even after Jim becomes district attorney and swears to shut Blackie’s illegal operations down. Audiences must have admired Jim Wade, but Blackie was the one who had their heart. Jim loves Blackie, but that won’t stop him from sending his dear old pal to the clink the first chance he gets.

Clark Gable, William Powell

Clark Gable, William Powell

Of course it’s all nonsense, but for most of the picture, it’s played lightly, which keeps it in a Runyonesque fantasy underworld. But once Blackie murders a vicious political blackmailer, the fun drains out of the picture . . . Had “Manhattan Melodrama” been produced at Warner Bros., Blackie would have been sent up the river for a long, long time. His crime would not go unpunished: there would be some yammering about how private citizens must not take the law into their own hands, but some allowance would be made for Blackie’s having done a public service, albeit in an unlawful fashion that must not be condoned. But this was an MGM picture, so Blackie needs must sizzle for his crime — and it’s a melodrama, so it’s his best friend who must insist that the punishment be carried out, just to show how honest he is. Appalling. Wait, there’s more: at the last moment, Jim proves himself a weak sister — he can’t send his friend to sit on Old Sparky.Blackie therefore confesses to a second murder and forces Jim’s hand. So Governor Jim gives the order, and Blackie rides the thunderbolt. Now that justice has been served, Jim goes before the good people of New York and resigns his office. In a ringing oration, he confesses that for a few awful moments, he had put his personal affection for an old friend ahead of a barbaric law and therefore is unfit to govern. What did Dillinger think of this? Well, whatever he thought, he didn’t think it for long . . .

During the Production Code era, no Hollywood studio let criminality go unpunished (though Warner Bros., in 1943, after considerable wrangling, got a special dispensation from the Hays Office for “Watch on the Rhine,” which allowed a noble patriot to escape punishment for murdering a Nazi spy on American soil), but Metro was the only one to produce a series of shorts called “Crime Doesn’t Pay,” which were intended to awe and terrify audiences with stories of the impossibility of committing a crime and escaping detection . . . At Metro, even the good guys went to hell if they so much as entertained a dishonorable notion in the back of their minds. In MGM crime dramas, the criminals were rarely as implacable or nearly so ruthless as the lawmen who hunted them down and punished them. Even in the Andy Hardy pictures, Judge Hardy’s punishments of his son’s trifling, adolescent missteps tended to be of the severity you’d expect to find in the works of Victor Hugo.

“Manhattan Melodrama” would be a lot more fun without the moralizing. Before the crusading kicks in, there is much to like about it; some of the writing (by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz) is nice and punchy. Arthur Caesar won the Oscar that year for Best Writing, Original Story. That’s Hollywood for you: the worst thing about the picture is the story. The screenplay goes a long way to hiding its faults, but the screenplay wasn’t even nominated.