Harlow (1965) ***

Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.

In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).

Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this. 

In the Cool of the Day (1963) ***

Jane Fonda tagged this the worst film of her career but that’s a bit harsh and I suspect it owed a lot to the actress being dressed up Audrey Hepburn-style in outfits that scarcely suited her. While it’s certainly overheated, melodramatic moments indicated by thundering music, a marvellous supporting cast, including a quite bitchy Angela Lansbury, provides ample compensation.

It’s  romance in the Love Story vein, rich young flighty heroine Christine (Jane Fonda) at death’s door half her life, but feeling smothered by understandably over-protective husband Sam (Arthur Hill). When she falls for married publisher Murray (Peter Finch) and sets off on a trip to Greece, chaperoned it turns out by Murray’s bitter wife Sybil (Angela Lansbury), it takes a while for romance to physically bud. That it does at all is only because   Sybil has taken off with suave traveling salesman Leonard (Nigel Davenport).

The movie takes a long time to heat up because, as in The Bramble Bush fashion, there’s overmuch character filling-in to do. Part of the interest in this picture is how the bad guys are effectively good guys, more victims of their partner’s behaviour than anything else, though for story purposes, the audience has to be persuaded otherwise.

So besotted Sam, having dealt with umpteen bouts of his wife’s pneumonia and lung operations, a “slave” to her illnesses, is deemed as treating her like a child rather than a wife, preferring her ill rather than well, and denying her the adventure to which she feels entitled. When she meets Murray she has run away. Murray’s wife has a downer on her husband because, wait for it, he killed her child and left her facially scarred (hidden now by hair but she’s still very sensitive about it) in a car accident he caused.

But she’s portrayed as over-sensitive, worried about her appearance, snippy, blaming him for her distraught life, and worse, a philistine, hating being dragged around ancient Greek monuments. Aware of her husband’s proclivities, she mocks, “You’d be an idiot to fall in love with her.” And any time she ventures out, the music rises to a crescendo as if she is a character straight out of film noir.

When she goes off with Leonard, her love affair is viewed as sneaky rather than redemptive, even though he restores her faith in herself. Triumphantly, she tells Christine, “He’s all yours” and her husband “nobody need feel sorry for me any more.”Admittedly, she does take revenge by informing Christine’s husband, who has entrusted his wife to Murray’s care, of their affair. And you would be hard put to argue, although the film wants you to believe otherwise, that Sybil and Sam have been ill-treated by their partners, Sam, in particular, funding her trip to Greece in the hope that allowing her the freedom she needs will save their marriage.

Of course, the characters of both partners, even if their self-pitying is the result of circumstance, do mean that Christine and Murray are presented as people trapped in bad marriages and for whom love, however brief, provides sanctuary from tortured lives, her physical, his more mental, since he is not averse to guilt. 

Sybil’s lack of interest in tourist Greece handily gives the prospective lovers plenty time to fall in love, amid gorgeous scenery, and breathing in air rich in culture. With all film made in the 1960s and set in foreign parts – Pretty Polly (1967) another example – sometimes the story takes second place to the scenery, so it’s lucky that the romance is played out against such an interesting background, an ideal combination, killing two birds with one stone if you like. Given this is prior to Zorba the Greek (1964), the filmmakers have even managed to sneak in some traditional Greek dancing, albeit on the deck of a ferryboat.

Dress-wise, the lovers are ill-matched, Murray plodding around in a suit while Christine parades the latest often clingy fashion. When Sybil departs the scene, that leaves one happy character of the happy couple free of marital encumbrance, but still leaves open the question of how Christine will rid herself of Sam and, more importantly, will Murray wish to take on the all-consuming job of nursing Christine. He never gets the chance to find out. When she does fall ill – as the result of Murray recklessly keeping her out in a thunderstorm – her mother Lily (Valerie Kendrick) swoops in to rush her to hospital.

Spoiler Alert – I’m telling you that she dies because it seems to me that the ending the filmmakers hoped for is not how the audience will perceive it. Beautiful young woman dies too young, yep that’s there, but the man, now free and able to shake off his dull life and start afresh as a writer, seems a long shot. Given he has now, thanks to the thunderstorm episode, killed two people, I would surprised if guilt was not uppermost in his mind.

Not so-good-it’s-bad, and despite the complications, and perhaps because of the Sybil-Leonard romance, it’s certainly an interesting picture as much, perhaps, because it fails to send the audience in the desired direction.

In only her fifth movie, Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969), exhibiting the nervous friskiness that would become a hallmark, does pretty well with a febrile, spoiled, character. If she falls down at all it’s that she appears uncomfortable wearing Orry Kelly’s fabulous gowns and it would take Hollywood some time to work out she was not a natural successor to Audrey Hepburn. Peter Finch (The Pumpkin Eater, 1964) is perfectly at ease with the illicit.

But Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), a hoot as the wife who turns rejection into triumph, steals the show. Throw in Arthur Hill (Moment to Moment, 1966), Nigel Davenport (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965), for once neither smug nor snippy, Alexander Knox (Khartoum, 1966), veterans Constance Cummings (The Criminal Code, 1930) and Valerie Taylor (Went the Day Well, 1942), John Le Mesurier (The Liquidator, 1965) and Alec McCowan (Frenzy, 1972) and you have a movie where hardly a moment goes by without admiring a performance.

Robert Stevens (I Thank a Fool, 1962) directed from a screenplay by Meade Roberts (Danger Route, 1967) based on the novel by Susan Ertz.

The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) ***

The Husband-Hunting Adventures of Moll Flanders” might have been a more accurate title and if you were seeking a template for a multi-character eighteenth-century Olde English picturing majoring on sexual shenanigans here would be a very good place to start, rather than the shambolic recently-reviewed Lock Up Your Daughters (1969). Of course, Tom Jones (1963) was the precursor but told the story from the male perspective and here it is from the more vulnerable female point-of-view. Despite the hilarity and the sexual proclivities on show, it remains abundantly clear that marriage remains a refuge, where the un-titled can gain either security or status, but also a contract, a means of further enrichment for the already wealthy.

So orphan housemaid Moll Flanders (Kim Novak) has a difficult time of persuading the elder brother (Daniel Massey) of her wealthy employer to marry her. Instead, he takes her as his mistress, leaving her no option but to marry the drunken fool of a younger brother (Derren Nesbitt) and instantly regret her decision. When he drowns, you would have thought that would solve her problems. But this was the eighteenth century and a widow with no fortune (and therefore power) of her own can easily be tossed out penniless.

A widowed banker (George Sanders) might be a prospect especially as she has the wits to prevent him being entirely robbed by highwayman Jemmy (Richard Johnson). Plans to marry him thwarted, she takes a job for food and lodgings with Lady Blystone (Angela Lansbury) and her husband, an impoverished Count (Vittorio De Sica), who are constantly pursued by debt collectors. Meanwhile Jemmy has taken the decision to marry a rich woman and become a kept man.

But this set of characters becomes enmeshed, rather than going off in sundry directions as with Lock Up Your Daughters, so the tale unfolds in classic fashion. Assuming Moll to be moneyed, Jemmy masquerades as the owner of three ships. Nothing, of course, works out for anybody, certainly not those pretending to be something they are not while aspiring to wealth beyond their reach, but it all concludes in propitious fashion as the actions of the various principals become embroiled.

While certainly having an inclination towards the amorous, Moll wishes for that within the context of true love, rather than selling her physical wares to the highest bidder. So for a picture sold on immorality – the “rollicking ribaldry” of the poster – there is an unsung moral standpoint. Finding safe passage into affluence proves very tricky indeed. And what appears at first glance to be merely a picaresque episodic tale turns out to be very well structured indeed. And those looking for cleavage will find it here in abundance, as if some kind of rationing had been imposed on clothing, or that it was matters of economy that dictated that the area around the bosom be left unclothed. Being the lusted-after heroine it falls to Moll Flanders to shed even more of her attire from time to time.

You are more likely to laugh out loud at the moments of offbeat humour – a flotilla of ducks heading in Moll’s direction when she cries for help in a lake, the Count while acting as a butler demanding a tip – but it is more of a gentle satire. There is some of the expected bedroom farce but, mercifully, no recourse to a food fight. It is handsomely-mounted and meets the highest expectations of the costume drama.

Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) easily passed the English-accent-test and carries the picture with ease. Richard Johnson (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) reveals a rakish side so far hidden in his more dramatic works to date. And there is a fine supporting cast including George Sanders (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966), Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), Vittorio De Sica (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968), Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) as Jemmy’s mistress, Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968) as Jemmy’s sidekick going by the name of Squint, Daniel Massey (Star!, 1968) and Derren Nesbitt (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968). In bit parts looks out for Cecil Parker (Guns at Batasi, 1964), Dandy Nichols later of Till Death Us Do Part television fame and Carry On regular Peter Butterworth.

All directed with some style by Terence Young (Mayerling, 1968) and adapted from the lengthy Daniel Defoe novel by Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Roland Kibbee (Valdez Is Coming, 1971).

An old-fashioned romp with, if you can bothered to look, a moral center. You catch this on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure why they have chosen a black-and-white illustration since the film is shot in glorious color.

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