Edward G. Robinson Spotlight: The Stranger

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Greetings,readers! All month I’ve been highlighting hidden gems in the career of versatile actor Edward G. Robinson. To close out Edward G. Robinson month,I have chosen The Stranger from 1946. Robinson did a lot of work in the world of film noir. His most famous noir role came in the classic Double Indemnity. He also had leading roles in the Fritz Lang noir gems Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. While The Stranger is lesser known,it’s a discovery you should make time for.

The Stranger is about a detective from the War Crimes Commission named Mr. Wilson (Robinson),who travels to Connecticut to track down a Nazi war criminal. The Nazi in question is Franz Kindler,the mastermind of the Holocaust. Kindler has relocated to Connecticut,erased his identity,and is now passing himself off as Professor Charles Rankin. Rankin is played by Orson Welles,who also directed the film. Wilson tracks Kindler to Connecticut by releasing Kindler’s former comrade Meinike (Konstantin Shayne). Meineke leads him to Harper,Connecticut,but is killed before being able to identify Kindler. Wilson’s only clue is Kindler’s fascination with antique clocks. He eventually enlists the help of Noah Longstreet (Richard Long),the brother of Rankin’s  new wife Mary (Loretta Young). How this all comes together I’ll leave for you to discover. It’s a treat watching all the plot elements fall into place.

This film is another great performance in the career of Edward G. Robinson. He could just as easily play a gangster as he could the conscious of a film (examples include The Stranger and Double Indemnity). He also has great co-stars in this film,including Loretta Young and Orson Welles. Welles is best known for Citizen Kane,but I prefer his work in the noir genre. The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil are great as well. But this one is my favorite. Without giving too much away,there’s a great scene on a clock tower. It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of film noir. Welles really makes you feel his paranoia as Robinson closes in on him. Loretta Young is wonderful as Welles’ vulnerable wife Mary. And Robinson is solid as always. It’s a film that doesn’t get mentioned enough in discussions about his career.

Edward G. Robinson is an actor who I still don’t think gets enough credit for his body of work and versatility. Most people think of him only as a gangster,which he did so convincingly in Little Caesar and many others. Before all was said and done he had 113 film and television credits. Not too shabby! I hope my blog entries this month will inspire you to check out some of his lesser-known films and appreciate his talents.

That’s it for Edward G. Robinson month! Join me in the New Year when I kick things off with a month-long spotlight on director Michael Curtiz.

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Fantasia at 75

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Disney has produced many great films through the years,including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,the first feature length animated picture. But the best (IMHO anyway) and most ambitious of all of them is Fantasia. Released in 1940,it’s a film with no real narrative. Fantasia is a series of animated vignettes set to classical music. One of the most iconic is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,with Mickey Mouse in full wizard garb wreaking having through his misuse of a magic hat. There’s also Night on Bald Mountain,with the haunting music and horror film-style imagery and The Rite of Spring with its striking images of dinosaurs (the original piece was supposed to be a music composition about primitive life). Merely listing the pieces doesn’t do Fantasia justice.

While Fantasia was a dismal box office failure upon its initial release,re-releases have slowly given it the recognition it deserves. In 1991,its release on home video broke sales records. There was a sequel made to it (Fantasia 2000),but the original is still the best. It raised the bar. Classical music is not exactly embraced by the public. So what a stroke of ambition to even come up with the idea to make it. Bravo,Walt Disney! On a personal note,Fantasia inspired me to learn an instrument years later. I first saw it in kindergarten and it left such an impression on me that I’ve been playing saxophone since the 5th grade. All those great pieces conducted by Leopold Stokowski with the great Disney animation were something to behold. Disney originally intended to re-release it each year with new music segments (among the proposed segments was Ride of the Valkyries),but that proved to be overambitious. Whether you like classical music or not,let Fantasia‘s imagery and magic wash over you. 75 years later it’s still a landmark to be cherished by every generation.

Happy Birthday,Bogie!

December 25th is Christmas to most people. But it’s also a significant day for Hollywood. It’s the birthday of the greatest actor who ever lived (IMHO): Humphrey Bogart. From his breakout role in The Petrified Forrest (1936) to his last film The Harder They Fall (1956),Bogart gave one great performance after another in some of the best films ever made. His resume included Casablanca,The Maltese Falcon,The Big Sleep,Sabrina,Dark Victory,Angels With Dirty Faces,Key Largo,The Cain Mutiny,In a Lonely Place,The African Queen,To Have and Have Not,Treasure of the Sierra Madre…the list goes on.

Bogart excelled at playing wounded heroes,like Rick Blaine in Casablanca. But he was a force to be reckoned with in any part he played. He did several films with his wife Lauren Bacall,who he fell in love with while making To Have and Have Not. He also made five films with Edward G. Robinson (Bullets or Ballots,Key Largo, Brother Orchid) and a few with James Cagney (Angels With Dirty Faces,The Roaring Twenties). Bogart was one of a kind. He’s my favorite actor of all-time!

If you want to understand why,just put on some of his films. There’s a charm and a natural screen presence you won’t see from any other actor in Hollywood history. It’s difficult to put his greatness into words. That charisma,that face with all its character,his ability to disappear into roles…he’s kind of an enigma. The term legend gets thrown around a lot these days to far few people who deserve it. Bogart is definitely worthy of that label. Happy birthday Bogie!

Edward G. Robinson Spotlight: Five Star Final

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It’s week three of my monthly spotlight on hidden gems of in the film career of Edward G. Robinson. This week’s pick is one that really packs a wallop. It’s Five Star Final. The film re-teams Edward G. Robinson with Mervyn LeRoy,who directed his star-making turn in Little Caesar.

Five Star Final is a brilliant expose on yellow journalism. Having studied print journalism in college,this film speaks to my soul. In it,Robinson plays Randall,city editor of the New York Gazette. The paper’s publisher,Hinchcliffe (Oscar Apfel),is concerned that Randall’s ethical journalistic policies have caused a drop in circulation. So Randall is pressured against his better judgment to run more sensational stories. One of the stories involves the resurrection of a 20-year-old murder case. Nancy Vorhees was accused of murder,but freed when her actions were judged justifiable. Since then,she has been living in anonymity as a model citizen. Hinchcliffe insists on Randall revisiting the story. Randall assigns the story to Isopod (Boris Karloff),an alcoholic degenerate. Isopod worms his way into the Vorhees home,masquerading as a minister to get the story. In the end,yellow journalism wins and an innocent woman’s name is dragged through the mud. All of this has tragic consequences.

Five Star Final was based on a play of the same name by Louis Weitzenkorn. Byron Morgan wrote the screenplay. The dialogue crackles and does a brilliant job of capturing the world of print journalism in the 1930s (the film was released in 1931). Robinson has a particularly powerful monologue at the end that I could watch on repeat. If you’ve seen Double Indemnity (and I sincerely hope everyone has at this point),you know that few people deliver monologues better than Robinson. Another treat of this film is Boris Karloff as Isopod. He plays the sleazy reporter so well. As great as he was in Frankenstein,it’s great to see him break out of typecasting for a quality film like this.

This film is a great cautionary tale about journalism and what tabloid journalism does to people’s reputations/lives. It would make a great double feature with Network (that one does the equivalent for the broadcast journalism side). Director Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson worked together three times: Little Caesar, Five Star Final, and Two Seconds. All three are excellent! They were great collaborators. Even though Five Star Final was made in the 1930s,its story is relevant as ever. Have you seen the 24-hour news channels? Anything for a story! This film should be studied by classic film fans and journalists alike. It’s as powerful as it was in 1931.

Edward G. Robinson Spotlight: The Whole Town’s Talking

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Greetings,readers! This week my monthly spotlight on hidden gems of Edward G. Robinson’s film career continues. This week’s pick is The Whole Town’s Talking,directed by John Ford and co-starring Jean Arthur. It’s a rare comedy in Robinson’s career. He easily proves he can do comedy as well as he does drama.

Robinson plays Arthur Jones, a meek clerk. He leads a very regular life and is never late for work,until one fateful day. He gets a new alarm clock one day. Of course it doesn’t work. He oversleeps and is late for work for the first time,just as his boss is looking to make an example of employees who show up late. He’s fired as an example. After being fired,Jones goes out for a bite to eat with co-worker Miss Clark (the always entertaining Jean Arthur). While there,Jones is arrested on the suspicion of being a notorious killer named Mannion. The resemblance is uncanny! The police eventually turn Jones loose once they realize their mistake. Then the police give him papers to show around town so the mistake won’t happen again. Mannion then comes in and takes advantage of the situation,even moving in with Jones and forcing him to do whatever he wants.

All of this leads to some great comedic moments. Robinson plays both Jones and Mannion. It’s a great way for him to show off his acting chops. Very few actors can pull off both sides of a dual role. But he’s equally convincing as the shy,down-to-Earth Jones and ruthless Mannion. And then there’s Jean Arthur as his co-worker/love interest. There’s a real ease to her comedic acting skills. Her chemistry with Robinson is superb! They make an absolutely adorable couple.

The Whole Town’s Talking was directed by John Ford,a man known mostly for his westerns. That’s for good reason,as they’re some of the best ever made (The Searchers is my favorite,but that’s a blog entry for another day). This film is a delight from beginning to end. I watched it for the first time on Turner Classic Movies this year,and it’s quickly become a favorite. The real draw here is the rapport between Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson. It’s  always great to see Robinson break out of his gangster persona. Don’t get me wrong;he’s great at that. But those roles didn’t fully display his range as an actor. And if you like The Whole Town’s Talking as much as I do,I highly-recommend The Man With Two Faces,another film where Robinson plays dual roles. Both films are worth your time.

Edward G. Robinson Spotlight: Our Vines Have Tender Grapes

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Greetings! Sorry for having been absent in November. Each month from now on I’m going to do a spotlight on an actor,director,genre,etc. Weekly entries will be posted on Saturday. This month my theme is hidden gems of Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson was known for playing gangsters/tough guys in films like Little Caesar and Key Largo,but in reality he was a very cultured man and a versatile actor. Each week in November I’ll be writing about a film of his I think has been overlooked. This week’s selection is Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a wonderful slice of life film. It can be enjoyed by the whole family,so it’s perfect for the holidays. Set in Fuller Junction,Wisconsin, it’s the story of a family of Norwegian immigrant farmers and their life adventures. The family is the Jacobsons. Daughter Selma is played by Margaret O’ Brien,one of the best child actors the screen ever saw. Her father Martinius is played by Edward G. Robinson and her mother Bruna is played by Agnes Moorehead.

They’re salt of the earth midwestern folk who live on a farm. Selma spends most of her time with cousin Arnold Hanson (Butch Jenkins),another great child actor. Selma spends most of her time going between her farm and her cousin’s farm. Together they have many adventures and some misadventures,including a barn fire and wild ride down a river in a washtub. At the center of all of this is Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford). She comes to Fuller Junction from Milwaukee,largely due to her Norwegian heritage. She has to do one year of a teaching practicum. Selma is one of her students. Johnson does have a friendship with Nels Halverson (James Craig). The locals call him Editor. Halverson is the second-generation owner and editor of the local paper The Spectator.

That’s the film in a nutshell. It’s about the lives of locals in a small town in Wisconsin. There aren’t any real villains in the film. It doesn’t have a lot of overdone melodrama,gratuitous sex/violence,or anything like that. It’s a fascinating character study about very likable people.

Margaret O’ Brien does a wonderful job playing Selma. Watching her experience the highs and lows of her young years is a joy to watch. Butch Jenkins as her cousin is excellent as always. But the real revelations for me here are Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead playing Selma’s parents. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes gives both actors a chance to break out of typecasting. Robinson is brilliant as the wise father figure. Down to Earth and loving,he’s everything a strong father figure should be. People who know him from films like Little Caesar may be surprised to see that he can pull off portraying such a kind man so convincingly. It’s one of the best performances of his career that no one knows about. Agnes Moorehead is equally great as mother Bruna. Moorehead was typecast for playing shady characters like Endora on the TV show Bewitched. Here she gets a chance to really show off her acting chops. She’s the glue that holds the family together. The relationship between Moorehead and Robinson is genuine and touching. Their chemistry is incredibly natural. It’s a shame this is the only film they made together.

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes was directed by Roy Rowland. He does a wonderful job weaving together the stories of the lives of all the characters. The screenplay was written by the great Dalton Trumbo and based on the book For Our Vines Have Tender Grapes by George Victor Martin. Trumbo was one of the most talented screenwriters in Hollywood history. He wrote the screenplays for Spartacus, Roman Holiday,and Gun Crazy,to name a few. Sadly he was blacklisted and had to write screenplays for much of his career under pseudonyms. His screenplay here is up with his best. The screenplay by Trumbo as well as the performances by the superb cast,including a great turn by Robinson as the father,are why Our Vines Have Tender Grapes is a hidden gem worth discovering.