Thursday, June 30, 2011

Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

After WWII, a different type of movie leading man began to appear. One could say that he embodied the psychological turmoil and soul-searching of the movie going public, as they grappled with the post-traumatic stress of war and the horrors of the atomic bomb.

This leading man's conflicts were inside himself, rather than against some external villain. Actors such as James Dean, Sal Mineo, Cliff Robertson, Anthony Perkins, Robert Wagner, and Montgomery Clift made it their specialty to explore this difficult psychological territory - creating male characters who were fearful, unpredictable, psychologically damaged, and potentially dangerous, in direct contrast to the self-assured ruggedness and dependability of earlier male icons like John Wayne and Clark Gable.

These new men had an interesting and often conflicted sexuality. While uniformly handsome on screen, they were rarely sexually confident or competent, and sometimes sexually violent. Rather than being the traditional romantic leading man who woos an ingenue, they were more likely to be pursued by experienced women who were sexually assured and interpersonally confident.

My favorite of all the "men on the verge of a nervous breakdown" is Richard Basehart. While he may now be best remembered as the stalwart Admiral Nelson in the long-running TV series "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," in his earliest screen roles he played characters who were usually either homicidal or suicidal, and often on their way into (or escaping out of) a mental asylum or prison.

Below, in "Fourteen Hours" (1949), he spends the entire movie out on a ledge threatening to jump. The source of his dismay: his sexual difficulties with fiance Barbara Bel Geddes. (His mother is Agnes Moorehead - no wonder he has problems!)

Very handsome, with expressive eyes and a beautifully resonant voice, the brilliant  Richard Basehart could make you sympathetic and wary at the same time.

In "Outside the Wall" (1950) he plays a man who is finally paroled after essentially growing up in prison (he served 15 years after accidentally killing a man as an adolescent). Emerging into the world, he is overwhelmed by its crowds and demands, and is profoundly awkward and unsure of himself around women...although it's clear from the way they look at him that they know exactly what they want him for.

Below, a waitress at the cafe where he gets his first job makes a forward pass, but the awkward and inexperienced Richard fumbles.

Later, when he applies for a new job as a lab assistant in a hospital, he is required to get a physical examination. In one incredibly erotic scene, the befuddled Richard is ordered by the platinum blonde nurse to "Strip," although he has never undressed in front of a woman before. In a total reversal of the usual male-female sexual dynamic, he is completely vulnerable while she is in absolute control.

Below, the sequence in which he undresses. Note the way her "thermometer" points up at him like an erection.

When she gives him an injection, the camera stays close up on their faces. She "penetrates" him and he flinches like a virgin, then their eyes meet and he settles back down in his chair, a satisfied smile of gratitude appearing on his face.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Bath with George Raft

Famous for being Mae West's screen debut, the vastly underrated "Night After Night" (1932) also was George Raft's first starring vehicle. Later he would become associated mostly with gangster roles, a la James Cagney, but initially his studio planned to make him the next Valentino.

Thus, his first starring scene is one in which he slowly strips down out of his pajamas and steps quite obviously naked into a bath tub, where he lounges, scrubbing himself and chatting with his valet.

So much sex appeal has George Raft in the film that no less than three women are frantic for his bod. In desperation, one pulls a gun, another throws a violent tantrum and wrecks his bedroom, and the third - Mae West - has her own special way of coping which I'll get to in a minute.

This pre-code film also has distinct homoerotic overtones in the relationship between Raft and his male valet, who is also his lifelong friend, confidant, and watchdog. They share a physical intimacy in the form of affectionate wrestling until the valet is giggling and gasping, and also in the way the valet cares for George's dressing and appearance, tugging and patting and smoothing fabric over George's shoulders and backside.

Further, there is an obvious lesbian subtext. When Mae West is thrown over by George Raft, the pan-sexual Mae takes the jilting in stride and instead ends up in bed with a drunken and frowzy Alison Skipworth!

If you're patient through the deliberate pacing at the start of "Night After Night," the film will reward with some hilarious scenes, as well as some biting commentary on society and its sexual mores.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Posting Schedule, and a Preview

For the summer, I'm going to slow down my posting schedule a bit, with a new post going up each Thursday. (Up until now I've been posting twice a week.)

As always, I greatly enjoy sharing my screen visions with you, and love hearing your responses.

This Thursday, stop by and join me in taking a bath with George Raft.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jeffrey Hunter: All Man, All Heart

Jeffrey Hunter, one of my very special favorites, has a rare combination that I love so much - beauty and heart. He brings a warm emotionality to his roles, and also chose many films that provided humanistic portrayals of often mis-represented people, such as American Indians (White Feather), Japanese-Americans (Hell to Eternity), African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge).

His breakthrough role was a second lead in "The Searchers" directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. His pairing with Wayne is interesting because they each represent very different kinds of masculinity - John Wayne's manliness is stoic, while Jeffrey Hunter's manliness is very emotional. Throughout his career, Jeffrey Hunter would continue to play sensitive male roles, not being afraid to show his feelings or even cry.

Check out his first starring film, "Sailor of the King" (1953). He's wonderful (and often shirtless!). In fact, he shows plenty of skin in most of his films - thank goodness!

Another interesting point of trivia - Jeffrey Hunter was the first choice for the lead on the TV series "Star Trek." In the role of "Captain Pike" he filmed the series pilot. Unfortunately, commitment conflicts prevented his going through with the full series, so the character was renamed "Captain Kirk" and cast with William Shatner instead. However, the original pilot with Jeffrey Hunter was re-edited and became an excellent 2-part episode called "The Menagerie."

Sadly, Jeffrey Hunter had an untimely death at the age of 42. Injured by an explosion while filming in Spain, he then suffered a stroke after returning home. Collapsing, he hit his head, fracturing his skull, and died during subsequent surgery. He was just starting to age into a very handsome middle-aged man, and was branching out in his characterizations, taking on more challenging and off-beat roles. A tremendous loss.

To see an example of Jeffrey Hunter's later work, where he stretches to explore a character's darker side, you can watch this episode of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" from 1962 on Hulu.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Guy Madison: Hey, Sailor

During World War II, real life sailor Guy Madison was discovered and signed on to play... a sailor, in the film "Since You Went Away" (1944). Although his appearance in the role was brief, he created such a sensation (look at his pics and you can see why) that when he came back from his tour of duty, he had a ready-made career in film.

Although most critics have been less than generous regarding his acting talent, I have found him to be quite a competent actor - not that that really matters considering his incredible sex appeal. He made quite a few westerns and action-type films, and also starred in a TV series "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock" in the early 1950s.

Best role I've seen him in: "Till the End of Time" (1946), as a GI returning home to San Diego, having a hard time finding his place in civilian life after fighting in World War II. [Although not released to DVD (yet?) there may still be some old copies of this movie floating around on VHS.]

Now, here's Guy...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Adonis in Distress #2

If a Greek god said "Supersize me," he'd come out looking like Burt Lancaster. Burt is more of everything masculine. More handsome, more tall, more powerfully built, more athletic (he started out as an acrobat), more brooding, more intellectual, more long-lasting (he appeared stark naked in "The Swimmer" in his fifties and still looked awesome).

All that's masculine and then some: Burt Lancaster

So there is something perversely titillating about watching this big slab of manhood being forced into total physical submission by evil Paul Henreid in "Rope of Sand."

Burt knows where a diamond mine is, Paul wants to find out, so what better way than to strip Burt, hang him upside down, and whip him? Henreid's character seems not only to want information, but relishes breaking and humiliating Burt in a way that seethes with frustrated sexuality.

"Rope of Sand": Paul has fun with Burt. This eyeful of Burt's pit-hair alone is worth the price of admission.

Best known for playing romantic second leads (such as in "Casablanca"), Paul Henreid makes a surprisingly hot villain. When he's evil, his blandly pleasant face takes on a sexily menacing sneer, and he's more likely to flash some flesh (for example, in "Night Train to Munich"). Directors of his romantic roles, in which he's always suave and erudite, probably felt that the animal lurking under Paul Henreid's clothes didn't fit the image. But when he plays bad, we're treated to glipses of his well-muscled and hairy torso.

Paul Henreid flashes some hairy flesh in "Night Train to Munich"

A look at the career of the director of "Rope of Sand," William Dieterle, shows he has a long-standing interest in exploring male-male sexual tension. All the way back in the silent era, he directed and starred in "Sex in Chains," which was part love story, part erotica, part melodrama - all about male-male sexuality in prison.

"Rope of Sand" director's 1928 film about male-male passions in prison.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mildred Pierce's Ape Man

In "Mildred Pierce" (1945), poor Joan Crawford is saddled with a daughter from hell (Ann Blythe) and a bland, unambitious husband (Bruce Bennett). She laments, "I felt as if I'd been born in a kitchen and spent all my life there, except for the few hours it took to get married."

For Mildred's sake, I hope she got to spend some time in the bedroom too, because her husband was a former Olympic gold medalist, and one of the screen's most sinewy Tarzans.

Below, Mildred Pierce's husband with his clothes on... and off...

But that was his secret identity. By the time he appeared in "Mildred Pierce," the athlete born Herman Brix — who won the medal for shot put in 1928 and then starred as the ape man in 1935's "New Adventures of Tarzan" — was known by a new name: Bruce Bennett.

Frustrated by type-casting that followed his appearance as Tarzan — indeed he is hard to forget once you've seen him with his clothes off — Herman Brix dropped out of sight for awhile. When he reappeared, he had his new name and a new image - sensitive, intelligent, introspective, brooding, cultured.

To be fair, even as Tarzan, the articulate Brix was far closer than other interpreters to Edgar Rice Burrough's original concept of the ape man as an intellectual, swinging through the jungle by choice, while being fully capable of living in genteel society as well.

Nothing like an erudite ape man.

And his body never failed him: he lived until just shy of his 101st birtday.

Below, Herman Brix in the 1928 Olympics: