We love Warner Archive Instant and so should you! This week our Must Watch Warner Archive picks include George C. Scott as a one man rage against the machine in his directorial debut Rage (1972); the platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow as … well … Jean Harlow in the 1933 proto-screwball Bombshell; and an insane Robert Montgomery and a super sexy George Sanders duke it out for the love of beautiful Ingrid Bergman in Rage in Heaven (1941).
What’s that you say? You don’t have a subscription to Warner Archive Instant. No excuse. The service offers a one month free trial, so get to it!
After all, you really do not want to piss off George C. Scott … speaking of which …
Wade’s Pick: Rage (1972)
There’s nothing more enjoyable for me than George C. Scott losing his shit. He owns it. You do NOT want him on your bad side, whether he’s got an eye patch and crawling across a burning barn to a little girl who can start fires, or is trying to save talking dolphins by shrieking at them, “Pa is NOT!” — he is a force to be reckoned with.
So I have been saving myself for the Scott starrer Rage, which was also his directing debut. C’mon – a film with that title, and a movie poster depicting his yelling mug while giving the business end of a shot gun to someone’s face with flames bursting all around him has to be good. And it is. It’s actually better than you might suspect. But if you’re looking for George C. to be shouting and yelling and bullying, you’ll be surprised to find he does very little of that until the last 20 minutes. And then he literally lets all hell break loose.
Rage tells the story of a very benign rancher who, along with his son, is accidentally poisoned by a mysterious nerve gas released from an army helicopter. After sleeping out on the range one night to watch his sheep, he wakes up to find his son comatose and bleeding. He rushes him to the town hospital passing over 200 head of his dead sheep. As soon as he arrives, he’s attended to by a young and thoroughly disarming young doctor (Martin Sheen) who seems to know what the mystery ailment is, but doesn’t give out with any useful information. Soon the military is involved, and behind closed doors we learn that this MX-3 gas has never been tested on humans, and since Scott and his son are the only ones exposed, they decide to watch how it destroys the human body and let them both perish.
What makes the film so frustrating (and by its very nature successful) is how easily Scott and other ordinary folks accept what authority figures tell them. By today’s standards, if you were put under guard and kept in a hospital ward for two days without being able to see your stricken son, continually told, “relax, everything’ll be alright” and “your son is fine,” while elsewhere they’re opening up said son’s chest with a bone saw, you’d be fighting to see him. But this was still the early seventies, when we drank the Kool-aid our government served and liked it. And that’s the point. It’s a not so subtle critique of the public’s acceptance of the Vietnam War and apathy towards the truth.
Besides several unusual and unnecessary slo-mo shots of chewing tobacco spit flying or water poured over surfaces that call way too much attention to themselves, Scott’s direction is first rate. And like all good ’70’s films, he may not “change the world” with his one man “rage against the machine,” but that makes it an even more realistic and sobering statement on the military’s complete unchecked autonomy getting out of hand. Scott is a man on a mission, and woe be it to the bureaucrat who tries to stop him. Or even ask him for identification.
Carley’s Pick: Bombshell (1933)
Art imitates life in this sharp, witty satire on the Hollywood machine. Jean Harlow is Lola Burns, but really, she’s Jean Harlow, and Bombshell is a thinly veiled take on the platinum blonde bombshell’s life. Lola is a next-door-girl in a sexpot’s body who views being a movie star exactly as a hard knocks girl would: a job. (“ I gotta go to work,” she says, just the way you or I say it.) Her celebrity has brought out the worst in her family, acquaintances, and strangers alike.
Lola finds herself constantly beseiged for money by her layabout lush of a father (Frank Morgan), she can’t trust her scheming, sticky-fingered secretary (Una Merkel), she has a seriously creepy stalker who is very good at making a public scene everywhere she goes, and her rose-colored glasses have blinded her to the fact that her boyfriend is just as crooked as all of them combined. And then there’s the studio press agent. Lee Tracy (who else?) is the Harvey Levin of the 30s (see Blessed Event) and no dirt is too dirty (or dirty enough) for him to dish on Lola who is embroiled in a battle with the studio to change her image from tawdry temptress to wholesome home girl who only wants to settle down and have babies. Sorry Lola, but scandal sells and Tracy is a genius at drumming up drivel for the papers. Adding to the fracas is Franchot Tone: a handsome “millionaire” who is nothing but aristocratic elegance, claiming a disdain for “movie folk” and therefore having not a clue who “Lola Burns” is. Of course, the ruse works like a charm, and Lola falls head over heels in love for the fake. Master of deception Lee Tracy spots the wooden nickel a mile away and, after having gone too far with his gossip on Lola, goes out of his way to rescue her from Tone. It’s hardly a happily-ever-after because we really don’t want Harlow with Lee Tracy any more than we want her with Franchot Tone.
With some notable exceptions, Bombshell is very much the life of the young Harlow in 1933. Harlow had a complex family life, aggravated by her power-hungry stage mother and a notoriously shady step-father who pushed Harlow to the limit to ensure their financial security. She was also in a constant battle with MGM publicity agents to soften her salacious image and take on more girl-next-door persona. And then, of course, there was the whole matter of love. Lola is forever falling in and out of love, often blindly, and such was certainly the case with Harlow. The film even makes mention of Lola’s re-shoots on Red Dust—the famous Jean Harlow/Clark Gable starrer that—due to some censorship issues from the good ol’ Hays office. (One of the only films of its period, by the way, to jibe the office so blatantly–your first clue that it’s a pre-code film.) Even Louise Beavers as Harlow’s maid is unintentionally factual: in the film, Harlow declares that Beavers is the only one in the whole house who actually cares about her. In real life, Harlow’s personal maid was also one of her very closest friends.
But perhaps most important of all: Bombshell is the film that really introduced Jean Harlow as a gifted comedienne. The rapid-fire dialogue was perfectly suited to her rather common, Midwest accent, and Harlow fires off the lines like a machine gun. The form and pacing are early screwball—perhaps one of the very first of the genre—and while it certainly overstays its welcome (Tone doesn’t even appear until more than halfway into the film) Bombshell is still an enjoyable investment. Harlow made better films (the earlier Dinner at Eight and the latter Libeled Lady, for example), but watch Bombshell to watch her. She’s glorious in every frame—yes, even when she grates on your nerves— because she’s so perfectly imperfect: charming, infuriating, delightful, immature, divine, common, childish, glorious, stubborn. A movie star not afraid to be flawed? My kind of gal.
Jill’s Pick: Rage in Heaven (1941)
Released by MGM in 1941, and directed by W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, Rage in Heaven stars Robert Montgomery, the charming George Sanders, and a young, delightfully fresh-faced Ingrid Bergman.
Robert Montgomery is Philip Monrell, heir to a British steel magnate. He’s also completely insane. After escaping a mental institution in France, Philip reunites with his best friend, or more accurately his best “frenemy”, Ward Andrews (Sanders). Ward is unaware of Philip’s mental illness and led to believe that Philip has been on holiday in “the wilds of Africa” (imagine that line in Sanders’ distinctive voice, paired with an endearing “old boy” for good measure). The two friends travel to Philip’s home to visit his mother, who has been very ill. While her son was away, Mrs. Monrell (Lucile Watson) employed Stella Bergen (Bergman) to act as a secretary and companion. Upon their arrival to the Monrell estate, Philip and Ward are greeted by the luminous Stella. Both men are immediately struck by her beauty and innocence. There is an instant connection between Ward and Stella, causing Philip’s deeply rooted jealousy of Ward to slowly rear its head. Over time, Phillip’s jealousy escalates into frightening psychotic obsession. Good times!
Rage in Heaven is a bizarre, yet solid B-picture with atypical performances from its two male leads. Adorable Robert Montgomery plays crazy unbelievably well. Actually, it may change the way you see him in his lighter, more romantic roles. Everyone’s favorite cad, George Sanders, is delightful as romantic lead. He’s not just delightful, but–and I’ll probably get shit for this– he’s really sexy. Don’t judge, because you know it’s true. Ingrid Bergman’s seemingly effortless and natural acting style, which we all know and love, was apparent even in those early performances. Although their pairing may seem odd, Bergman and Sanders make a wonderful on-screen couple. They would come together again 13 years later in one of my personal favorites: Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954).
It’s hilarious to finally see “Rage in Heaven” after reading Christopher Isherwood’s account (from his published diaries) of the troubles they had making it — specifically Robert Montgomery’s “sabotage” and how they finally dealt with it:
‘Montgomery sulked from the beginning. He disliked the script — chiefly, I think, because Gottfried hadn’t invited him to sit in on our story conferences…. When the front office ordered Montgomery to play in the picture, on pain of suspension, he became sullen, snooty and obstructive. He did all his scenes deadpan, speaking in a dull, weary voice. When Sinclair tried to remonstrate with him, he snapped back: “What do you expect me to do? Chew up the scenery?”
‘Finally, Arnold, the president of the Actors’ Guild, was called in to see the rushes. His verdict was, “Sure, that son of a bitch is sabotaging you, but you’d have a hard job pinning it on him legally.” Gottfried wanted to release Montgomery from his role, but the front office was mad by this time and insisted that he stay, even if the picture could never be shown….
‘After the sneak preview, we had to have a lot of retakes. Thoeren and I had the idea of writing in a scene in which the psychiatrist, describing Montgomery, says: “At first, you might think he is quite normal, quite sane. But, if you watch him carefully, you’ll notice a curious lack of expression in the face, a tonelessness in the voice, an air of listless fatigue-” This speech served a double purpose. It explained away Montgomery’s bad performance and made it seem deliberate. (So effectively that many people told me they thought his underacting was simply brilliant.) And it was our private message to Montgomery himself. It told him exactly what we thought of him. The picture was actually quite a fair success. As Gottfried put it, “We escaped with a black eye.”’