Classic Movies

“Oh, why did I ever begin this dark deception?”

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In March of this year, I made the mistake of opening an e-mail I received from Milestone Films.  (Okay, there was no gun placed to my temple…but you’d think I’d learn by now.)  They were advertising a sale on DVDs in their inventory featuring female filmmakers (to celebrate Women’s History Month) and one of the offerings that caught my eye was 1971’s Winter Soldier, the critically-acclaimed documentary that spotlights members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War publicly testifying about war crimes committed during the conflict in Vietnam.  (Among those who worked on the picture: Nancy Baker, Barbara Jarvis, and Barbara Kopple [who helmed one of my all-time favorite documentaries, the Oscar-winning Harlan County, USA].)

dvdI’ve been curious to see Soldier for many years now and so, seduced by the 20%-off Milestone was promising, I stuck it in my shopping cart along with Captured on Film: The True Story of Marion Davies (2001).  The bad news is that Captured was not eligible for the discount (you can’t blame me for thinking so—Davies worked both in front and behind the camera)…but the good news is that it didn’t make no never mind because I’d been wanting a copy of that disc as well.  Captured was released to DVD in 2002 by Milestone and Image Entertainment and had been OOP for a good while (you should see what they’re asking for it at Amazon) but recently resurfaced in a MOD (manufactured-on-demand) version.

Captured was originally shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in 2001 (noted Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner was executive producer) and it still makes the rounds on TCM from time to time (usually when they have a day of Davies’ films on the schedule); narrated by Charlize Theron, it’s an entertaining focus on the underrated actress who starred in such silent movie classics such as When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) and Show People (1928).  As noted in the documentary, Marion Davies’ talents were for many years ignored because folks unfamiliar with her films tended to associate her with the loosely-based portrayal of her as “Susan Alexander” in 1941’s Citizen Kane…not realizing that “Alexander” and Davies were Patty and Cathy Lane (different as night and day).  Captured rightly gives Marion her due with clips from her films (Little Old New York [1923], The Red Mill [1927], etc.) and interviews with such distinguished film historians as Cari Beauchamp, Kevin Brownlow, and Charles Champlin among the persons of interest.

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Conrad Nagel and Marion Davies in Quality Street (1927)

I grabbed a copy of Captured the last time it aired on TCM, so my interest in ponying up for the Milestone DVD can be found in its bodacious bonus: Davies’ 1927 feature film Quality Street.  Based on a hit stage play by James M. Barrie (the guy what did Peter Pan) and adapted by Hanns Kraly and Albert Lewin (with titles by Marian Ainslee and Ruth Cummings), Street is a period romance between demure Phoebe Throssel (Davies) and dashing Dr. Valentine Brown (Conrad Nagel).  (Oh…he’s a doctor!)  Phoebe, not to put too fine a point on it, is mahd about the boy; sadly, Dr. V.B. did not get his Ph.D. in love because he’s far too slow in…well, the movie amusingly describes it as “declaring.” (For the layman—and laywoman—the Good Doctor is reluctant to make an honest woman out of our heroine.)

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Davies and Nagel

When word gets out that Napoleon is planning to invade England with a few friends (about 100,000 of them), Doc Brown decides to enlist in the armed services…but before he gets around to that “declaring” thing.  Years go by, and since Phoebe’s not getting any younger she figures “what the hey”–she’ll go full spinster (she’s even become a schoolteacher).  Then (music sting)…Dr. V.B. returns from the wars to pick up where he left off (nice timing, Val) and is understandably a little taken aback by Phoeb’s startling “Old Maid” appearance.  Phoebe decides to put her intended to a test; she’ll pass herself off as her younger niece “Livvy” and if Brown falls for Liv, she’ll know he’s merely attracted to pretty faces (and she’ll kick him to the curb).

The title “Quality Street” may ring a bell with my fellow movie mavens—it was remade in 1937 with Katharine Hepburn and Franchot Tone, and while Kate’s version is pretty good I have to admit that I prefer Davies’ turn in the role.  The (always reliable) IMDb notes “This film will unlikely surface on TCM, it has some unfortunate deterioration that obscures some important plot turns.”  This isn’t an entirely accurate statement (I didn’t have any trouble following the plot) but they are right about the deterioration, which really starts to take hold in the second half of the film (as always—nitrate won’t wait, folks…we’re fortunate to have this.)

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Marcelle Corday, Davies, Flora Finch and Margaret Seddon

Quality Street was the second of three feature films that Davies and Nagel appeared in together (they had previously graced Lights of Old Broadway in 1925 and their last the MGM spectacular The Hollywood Revue of 1929), and despite Davies’ string of box office successes Street had the lowest gross of any feature that she made at the studio. (It still made money, however.)  I thought Marion quite luminous as Phoebe (she’s one of those actresses I find appealing in just about any movie she’s in) though I’d note that Helen Jerome Eddy made more of an impression on me as Phoebe’s supportive sister Susan.  Nagel doesn’t really light any fires with his performance until the latter part of the movie, once he’s been made aware of Phoebe’s deception by the maid (Kate Price), and then his charm kicks in.

qualitylobbyQuality Street was directed by Sidney Franklin (Private Lives, The Good Earth), and I was most impressed with his determination not just to rely on a static camera (he executes several nice dolly shots and finds interesting ways to stage scenes such as going in for an extreme close-up of the motormouth of one of the Throssel Sisters’ busybody neighbors as she gossips about Phoebe and Dr. V.B.).  There’s a title card in Street that reads: “I have not worn well, have I, Captain Brown?”  To me, Quality Street can still hold its own among Davies’ finest pictures; my favorite of her silents may remain The Patsy (1928—and I say this acknowledging Show People’s comedic brilliance) but I was giddy about being able to cross Street off my “movie bucket list.”

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