Tag Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Gladys Cooper Cuts Loose in ‘The Black Cat’

Poster for Swedish release.

Poster for Swedish release.

It was a dark and stormy night. In a gloomy old mansion, the elderly millionairess, Henrietta Winslow, lies abed, at the very brink of death. Her poor relations are gathered downstairs, waiting impatiently for the wretched old invalid to die. Old Mrs Winslow keeps refusing to heed the fatal summons; she is therefore murdered; more will follow her to the grave. An old dark house, terrible weather and a murderer on the loose: that’s the set up for “The Black Cat” (Universal, 1941). It should have been great, yet it is a terrible picture — needlessly terrible. It’s not a total loss, however: there are plenty of pleasures mixed in with the dreadfulness. Every second that Basil Rathbone, Gladys Cooper, Cecilia Loftus and Gale Sondergaard are onscreen, the picture’s a lot of fun. Rathbone, alas, has not nearly enough to do, but he does everything to perfection. This may be the tawdriest picture Gladys Cooper ever appeared in, but it’s very probably the juiciest part she ever played on screen. She made her Hollywood debut only a year before, playing Laurence Olivier’s sister in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” Later that year, she played Dennis Morgan’s regal, Philadelphia snob mother in “Kitty Foyle.” It was only her second Hollywood picture, and for the rest of her career she was typecast as imperious widows and seriously displeased doyennes, usually with at least one child who was likely to be the death of her (Charlotte Vale’s mother in “Now, Voyager,” Mrs Railton-Bell in “Separate Tables,” Henry Higgins’ mother in “Pygmalion” and again in “My Fair Lady”). The Scottish character actress, Cecilia Loftus, plays the batty old millionairess who, after not-quite-dropping dead once too often, is murdered. This is the first picture Gale Sondergaard made after she played the spooky Eurasian widow who murders Bette Davis in the last moments of “The Letter”; in this one, she plays the spooky housekeeper.

Unfortunately, the desperately unfunny Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford are thrown in (up?) as comic relief. Crawford plays a big, loudmouth jerk — it’s a stretch. About halfway through the picture, he becomes a semi-love interest. (What were they thinking?) Crawford is obnoxious and repulsive, but then there’s Hugh Herbert, who gets my vote as the most insufferable, wearisome low clown in pictures. His popularity in the thirties and forties has always mystified me. I never laugh at the Three Stooges, but I understand why others do. I’m rarely amused by gross-out humor, but I recognize it as humor. But Hugh Herbert? He pats his palms together, flutters his fingers and emits little falsetto hoots — that’s his act. In “The Black Cat,” he bumbles into a scene, brings the action to a halt, inadvertently knocks something over, stammers something incoherent, does his little falsetto woo-woo, then bumbles off. That’s his shtick. Half a minute later he bumbles into another scene and does the same thing. And so on for the rest of the picture. A Star Is Born. André Previn, in his memoir about his years at MGM, “No Minor Chords,” wrote that his idea of Hell is being forced to watch the last half hour of Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette” for all eternity. I’d take that form of damnation over ten minutes in the presence of horrible, exasperating, unfunny Hugh Herbert.

The Vultures in the Parlor

This is the first scene in the picture. Alan Ladd plays the son of Basil Rathbone and Gladys Cooper — not, I may say, entirely believably.

What I like best about this picture is its musical score, which is a compendium of spooky movie clichés played with great brio and flair. “The Black Cat” is unquestionably a low budget B picture, but the score is far more exciting and entertaining that what pass for musical scores in today’s A budget pictures. Shamefully, the three composers who scored the picture are not listed in the onscreen credits. They are: Hans J. Salter, who composed more than a dozen horror picture scores in the forties. His first horror score was “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940), his last was “Attack of the Slime People” (2008). Frank Skinner, who scored all the big, plush Douglas Sirk pictures in the fifties also contributed. Stock music written by Charles Previn is also used.

Sondergaard Laughs!

In this scene, we come upon Mrs Winslow, down in the family crypt, where she is busy incinerating one of her beloved cats. Poor little friend! Oh, it’s all very queer, and that’s a fact: there was nothing at all the matter with the poor little fellow. How could it have happened? One moment he’s lapping milk intended for Mrs Winslow and the next moment he’s as cold as any stone.

Gale Sondergaard made her Hollywood debut in 1936 in “Anthony Adverse,” for which she became the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, which category was introduced in 1937. She tied with Mme Maria Ouspenskaya for being the first actress to be nominated for her debut performance (Ouspenskaya was nominated for her amazing turn in “Dodsworth”). Sondergaard usually played villainesses; she was one of the inspirations for the Evil Queen/Witch in Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In “The Black Cat,” which was released the year after “Rebecca,” she’s pretty obviously doing a parody of Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers, but Sondergaard’s fearsome dolor makes Dame Judith Anderson seem like Little Miss Muffett by comparison.

That laugh! The first time I saw her do that take, I couldn’t stop laughing for the next ten minutes. The more Gale Sondergaard pictures you’ve seen, the funnier it is likely to seem. She was not a merry presence.

Miss Cooper Misbehaves

From the mid-Nineteen-teens through the Nineteen-twenties, Gladys Cooper was the unrivalled queen of the West End stage. She was never a truly inspired actress; it doesn’t appear that she possessed the sacred fire that greatness requires. For the first several years of her career, critics complained that her stately, almost immobile acting style had plenty of tableau about it, but skimped on the vivant. Of her performance in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (1919), Aldous Huxley wrote: “Miss Gladys Cooper hardly does justice to the part of Victoria. She is too impassive, too statuesque, playing all the time as if she were Galatea, newly unpetrified and still unused to the ways of the living world.” None of this seemed to matter to audiences, who loved her long before she began to impress the critics favorably. Whatever she may have lacked in fire and music, she made up for in diligence and commonsense. The improvement she made in her technique impressed Maugham so deeply that, in an essay he wrote some thirty years later (in 1953), he praised her for “turning herself from an indifferent actress to an extremely competent one.”

She played Peter Pan for the 1923 and 1924 Christmas shows at the Adelphi Theatre. Much as I love Gladys Cooper, I can’t imagine her in that role; had I been a child in the audience when she came swooshing in through the nursery window (she was the first Peter Pan to enter on a wire), I believe I’d have been distill’d almost to jelly with the act of fear. Her glacial austerity is impressive, majestic, worthy of veneration, but it’s not a quality that causes children to frisk about. (She would have been well cast as Frosty the Snowman’s trophy wife.)

It’s not every day you see Miss Cooper murder Bela Lugosi in cold blood. She had, of course, famously shot a man before: she was the original Leslie Crosbie in the stage version of Maugham’s “The Letter.” Just as Bette Davis did in the excellent movie adaptation, Miss Cooper started the evening by shooting her lover in the back, then followed him as he staggered on to the veranda, where she shot him five more times, twice while he staggered and fell, thrice when he was down. People who saw her in that part said no other actress ever came close to matching her performance. But that was in 1927, when she was still considered the most beautiful and glamorous woman in England and the toast of the West End, with a theatre named after her.

L to R: Gladys Cooper in the 1910s;  Hugh Cecil's 1926 portrait; Cooper on stage, circa mid-1920s.

L to R: Gladys Cooper in the 1910s; Hugh Cecil’s 1926 portrait; Cooper on stage, circa mid-1920s.

Miss Cooper, the Human Torch

Having been a great beauty for many years, Miss Cooper had little patience for unattractive actors. She especially admired actors who began as models, as she had, who had struggled and fought to be taken seriously as real actors. In 1916, while starring in “The Misleading Lady,” she was quite taken by the twenty-five year old Ronald Colman, who played a tiny part. One night he overheard a remark she made about him while she stood in the wings waiting to make her entrance: “Such a handsome young man, but why does he have to be such a terrible actor? So very clumsy — and those feet!” I invite you to keep this in mind while you watch Miss Cooper share the screen with that study in dishevelment, Broderick Crawford. How she must have loathed him! But can you blame her?

I think it’s safe to say that “The Black Cat” is the only time you’ll ever see Miss Gladys Cooper run from a room, shrieking and flailing her arms and engulfed in flames. But even without the fire, she probably would have made the same exit to remove herself from Broderick Crawford’s odious presence.

Sugar Daddy: Notes on Otto Kruger

Otto Kruger in 'Cover Girl': One of his rare non-villain roles -- even so, we root against him.

Otto Kruger in ‘Cover Girl’: One of his rare non-villain roles — but we still root against him.

In 1905, when Otto Kruger was still a very young man, he earned his living by playing the piano for silent movies. He was an accomplished pianist as well as a violist and cellist, but when he left Toledo, Ohio, to attend Columbia University, he decided to become an actor instead of a musician. If he was as fine a musician as he was an actor, it was the music world’s loss. What a shame he never seems to have played an instrument in any of his motion pictures!

Here’s how Kruger once described his career to an interviewer: “For a while I played sad husbands. Then I got nothing but lawyers, and during the War, I specialized in Nazis . . . Then they had me play sugar daddies.” I can’t think of a better overview of his career than his own. The lawyers he played were nearly always crooked; most of his business tycoons were blackguards in pinstriped suits. Kruger’s villains nearly always wore stripes (pin or chalk), but never horizontal ones.

‘Saboteur’: The Nazi in White Tie

Here he is in one of his best known roles: Tobin, the Nazi spymaster, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” (Universal, 1942):

Robert, the butler, who saps Bob Cummings at the end of his patriotic spiel, is wonderful old Ian Wolfe, who had an amazingly long movie career (from 1934 to 1990), throughout which he seemed to stay the same age. “Dick Tracy” was the last of his 294 pictures.

‘711 Ocean Drive’: The Dyspeptic Mob Boss

One of Kruger’s best baddies is in an unjustly neglected crime drama, “711 Ocean Drive” (Columbia, 1950). In this one, he’s Carl Stephans, the milk-drinking kingpin in charge of a national wire service, and as mean as they come. His very first line is one of the funniest in the picture. (I love the ceiling in this scene and laugh at the ludicrous cityscape backdrop. That’s real Poverty Row stuff we’re looking at: Columbia’s B-pictures were shot for next to nothing.)

Carl Stephans: Man or Kitten?

“Ugh, ghastly stuff! If I hadn’t picked up this duodenal worrying about our affairs, I’d be able to eat like a man instead of a kitten.” I love the way he pronounces “duodenal” as “dwadinuhl” (it’s a legitimate pronunciation, but I’d never heard it before). Kruger’s character is the most interesting in the picture: he’s an arch-fiend, but he’s also a fraidy-cat with a weak stomach. Don Porter is Larry Mason, the henchman to his immediate right; Bert Freed is the four-eyed lug to his left. His glasses are too small for his head — the earpieces don’t come close to touching his ears. Nice touch, that: it makes his head look bigger than it is.

Kingpin Vows Revenge

Here he is, coming from Larry Mason’s funeral; Mason was rubbed out by a rival from within the syndicate. Trouble is, the one who had him whacked is Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) — he’s the guy making time with Mason’s widow (Joanne Dru). She doesn’t know Granger’s guilty, but Carl Stephans has a sneaking suspicion — as he makes clear.

What Makes Sammy Sweat?

And here he is sweating poor little Sammy White, who played a lot of nervous schlemiels in the fifties — perhaps most famously as Lana Turner’s long-suffering agent in “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Pay attention to the way Kruger jumps when Sammy gets slapped, then his reading of “Besides . . . that’s Peterson’s department.” On the page, that line doesn’t seem like much, but just listen to what Kruger manages to do with it. He turns it into a three act play. What an actor!

Along the way, Kruger played some good guys, but he played so many rat bastards that to see him in a good guy part is almost as disorienting as to see Lana Turner play a great actress (e.g., “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Imitation of Life“): so unconvincing as to be a joke. Actually, I prefer Kruger’s good guys and red herrings because such parts are always underwritten and his unflappable insincerity adds more body, depth and interesting weirdness to those characters than they really deserve . . . and of course, the mismatch between his evil persona and a good guy part always makes me laugh. As a baddie, he’s so believable that after you’ve seen him as a Nazi fink or a crooked shyster, his honest characters never seem entirely on the level. When he plays a rock-solid citizen, I always expect all sorts of creepy crawly things to skitter out from under his feet as he walks. Kruger must surely be the most debonair bounder ever to come out of Toledo, Ohio.

‘Magnificent Obsession’: The Pious Humbug

'Magnificent Obsession': Kruger awakens the sleeping Rock Hudson. Religious instruction to follow.

‘Magnificent Obsession’: Kruger awakens the sleeping Rock Hudson. Religious instruction to follow.

Of the few dozen performances of his that I’ve seen, my favorite by a long, long chalk is his turn as the simpering, sermonizing do-gooder, Edward Randolph, in “Magnificent Obsession”  (Universal-International, 1954). It’s impossible to know if Kruger had any idea how funny his performance is: he’s Lloyd C. Douglas’ mouthpiece (though the character doesn’t exist in the book or in the 1935 picture); it falls to him to give out with Douglas’ sanctimonious pay-it-forward rigmarole every time he shows up. Kruger plays it straight — none of it would be funny if he didn’t. I find it impossible to divorce his performance from all those venomous reprobates he played so often and so well. As Edward Randolph, therefore, Kruger presents a very strange, quasi-alien personage — a cardigan-wearing just-folks aristocratic weirdo with a pipe in his mouth, a homily on his lips, and a choir celestial to punctuate the pious humbug he spouts. He assures the Widow Phillips (Jane Wyman), “You don’t talk much about this belief . . .” but then for the rest of the picture, he never shuts up about these secret teachings. (In the novel, this information is carefully set down in code in a manuscript called “Dr Hudson’s Secret Journal”:  pssst . . . pay it forward — don’t pass it on!)

Here are three clips from that performance.

Edward Randolph Hints at the Secret Belief

Can you believe the nerve of this guy?  “You don’t talk much about this belief. When somebody’s ready for it, they accept it.  Perhaps Wayne felt you weren’t quite ready . . . or, Mrs Phillips, that you were pretty perfect without it.” This is the first time he’s ever met the woman: how the hell would he know why her late husband kept his most cherished beliefs to himself while he gave his money away to deadbeats, thus leaving his youngish widow to drag along in leanest penury? And how does he know that she’s “pretty perfect”? To my ear, what he says sounds like a veiled insult followed by the worse insult of blatant flattery. Had Otto Kruger not played so many cold-blooded, smiling villains, it’s unlikely I’d be so ready to read malice in his benign observations.  But intentional or not, this ambiguity makes his performance a lot more interesting and certainly much funnier.

Randolph Lays It on the Line for Rock

I find it striking in the following clip how similar some of this saintly fellow’s patter is to that of Tobin’s in “Saboteur,” especially when he speaks of learning about “how to get what I want.” That’s what I mean when I say I can’t separate his saints from his sinners. His good and evil characters all want what they want, and will go to great lengths to get it; they smirk when they talk and speak in an oleaginous, authoritative voice; they habitually place great stress on the alliteration and consonance in their sentences (e.g., “the moron millions,” “probably the most important part,” etc.), which casts a shadow of artifice and insincerity on everything they say.

Randolph Cheerleads His New Convert

“You’ll find this furnishes your motive power!” Say what? God, I think that’s hilarious . . . “furnishe[s your] motive power” is straight from the novel. The expression is not explained in the book, either, but is presented as if it were a well-known concept.

The picture comes to a fittingly preposterous climax, in which former playboy/rotter Rock Hudson, having reinvented himself as America’s pre-eminent brain surgeon/philanthropic moneybags, performs a spectacular, never-before-attempted operation to restore Jane Wyman’s sight. Kruger watches the procedure from on high, like an Olympian deity gazing down upon a battle during the Trojan War. Frank Skinner’s underscoring is a souped-up variation of Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 3 in E major.

Holy Toledo! Demi-god Kruger shines graciously upon a gentle brain-man (Dr Rock Hudson).

Holy Toledo! Demi-god Kruger shines graciously upon a gentle brain-man (Dr Rock Hudson).

The same year Kruger appeared in “Magnificent Obsession,” he also played a small part in 20th Century-Fox’s CinemaScope Technicolor semi-noir mystery called “Black Widow” (a very bad picture that I can’t get enough of — it has become my Less-than-Magnificent Obsession). On the DVD’s generally excellent commentary track, film historian Alan Rode describes Kruger’s performance as “sugar daddy lite.” Yes, that’s so. One of the final pre-production memos from Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to Nunnally Johnson, who wrote, produced and directed the picture, included an instruction to dress Kruger in a silk dressing gown to “get a slight suggestion of sex interest” into Kruger’s role (he plays a stage actor with the improbable name Gordon Ling). In “Black Widow,” he’s the guiltiest looking red herring I’ve ever seen.

Otto Kruger, Van Heflin in 'Black Widow.'

Otto Kruger, Van Heflin in ‘Black Widow.’

If Kruger’s Gordon Ling were on trial in “12 Angry Men,” they’d find him guilty as charged; not even Juror Eight (Henry Fonda) would say a word in his defense. There’s not a reason in the world to suspect Gordon Ling of anything criminal, except that Kruger makes him seem so absolutely untrustworthy that it’s impossible to believe he hasn’t been up to some kind of deviltry. He reminds me of an old Arnie Levin cartoon that appeared in “The New Yorker” back in the nineties.

Cat Canary

The sinister oiliness of Kruger’s charm, his sphinxlike smirk, and the menacing glint in his eye always give me the sense that the sugar daddies he plays have seen and done a lot of unsavory things, and that they have decidedly unorthodox methods of satisfying their shameful lusts. One can easily imagine any one of his reprobates having a fully equipped sex-dungeon down in the sub-cellar and more than a few children buried under his porch.

‘Sex and the Single Girl’: The Last of Otto

Here’s Kruger in the first of two scenes he has in “Sex and the Single Girl” (Warner Bros., 1964), the last picture he ever made. He’s the head of a sex institute — not a stretch. The picture is terrible; he is hilarious. In the interest of time, I edited the clip with a very heavy hand, to leave out patches of dialogue that don’t involve Kruger. I paid no attention to making smooth edits, yet my re-edit is no more abrupt or jerky than the original. The picture was obviously thrown together in great haste. It’s unbelievably amateurish for a star-studded (Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall) release from a major studio.

‘Dirty Delusions of Grandeur’ — I Don’t Like This, I Don’t Like It At All

Listen to how brilliantly he reads the first line. He’s so much funnier than anyone else in the room. He acts Natalie Wood off the screen and he doesn’t even stand up from his desk to do it. He breaks a cardinal rule of acting — he emphasizes nearly every word — but he gets away with it.

Last Scene of All/That Ends This Strange Eventful History

                            . . . Last scene of all
That ends this strange eventful history . . .
As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

This is Kruger’s last half minute on film. Perhaps it’s a shame that this fine actor should end his career in such a terrible picture, but I prefer to think of it as a touching Pyrrhic victory: in the worst drivel, he’s still great. Kruger’s claim to fame (if he has one) is his ability to give interesting performances in bad pictures. After this picture, Otto Kruger suffered a series of strokes, which forced him to retire. He died ten years later on his eighty-ninth birthday, September 6, 1974.

My God, who wrote this shit? Ah, yes, now I remember . . . The title was written by Helen Gurley Brown; the screenplay was written by Joseph Heller.