Blue Movie

I recall a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Doug Bonner, at the great and now sadly disappeared Boiling Sand blog, about Out of the Blue. It’s a low-budget 1947 film that’s gained a reputation in recent years, as a ‘wacky’ comedy awaiting re-discovery in the great, roiling sea of Public Domain.  Bonner’s point was that the film was a product of the Eagle-Lion studios, one of those near-poverty-row outfits that, per Bonner, aspired to major status but never quite made it. Conceive of it as a specialty B-film factory, taking up the slack right when the majors were dropping their own B-units. Often it would cast on-the-way-down or not-quite stars in atypical roles, hiring them when they were at loose ends, in-between contracts, or needing a job. Actors would have a chance to try something new, to swing free of restrictive typecasting, but not attract too much notice if things didn’t work out.

As Bonner noted, Blue has more than enough of fading or hard-to-cast stars in offbeat roles. The usually suave George Brent plays a mousy husband terrified of his nagging wife; comedienne Carole Landis (a poor man’s Carole Lombard) is the shrewish spouse; exotica star Turhan Bey is an All-American ladies’ man who paints pin-ups for magazine covers; and drama queen Ann Dvorak plays a comic drunk. Virginia Mayo may be more typical as a sweet young woman being romanced by Bey, while Elizabeth Patterson and Julia Dean are almost too perfect as a pair of old-maid nosy neighbors who comment, Greek-Chorus-wise, on all the whoopee-making going on. Did the marvelous Elizabeth Patterson ever play anything besides maiden aunts and elderly spinsters? No doubt it would have been more radical (and fun) to have cast her as a murderess or a brothel madam, but I suppose some limits are to be observed.

The under-the-radar B-ness of Eagle-Lion’s product may also account for Blue’s loose-louche air, its anything-goes approach that seemingly eludes the squint-eyed glare of the Breen Office purity squad to romp free in fields of innuendo (the ‘Blue’ in the title may refer to more than the unexpected). The film’s plot is a prolonged wink and a nudge, in which the the comic drunk, after meeting the timid hubby in a bar, invites herself for a weekend stay right after his henpecking wife has left for one, while the randy artist mistakes the nice young lady for a nude model (“I’ll be right with you,” he calls out as Mayo enters the room, “just take off your clothes”), and the nice young lady herself wants Bey’s prize canine to sire puppies on her dog (how’s that for getting around the Production Code?). There’s also a healthy dose of black humor in a not-quite-subplot about a serial killer, whose busy, if dubious, career is conveyed via lurid dialogue snippets: “They found another,” says the first nosy neighbor, perusing a newspaper. “Another what, dear?” asks the second. “Body,” says the first, firmly, “wrapped in a blood-stained blanket—the fourth inside of a month”; then adds, with quiet satisfaction, “Must be a Fiend.”

Basically the film’s plot is farce, weaving its various horny, repressed, and “out of the blue” characters in, out, and around each other in a series of cat’s-cradle entanglements, all spinning off the tipsy lady’s repeating tendency to fall into catatonic trances and be mistaken for dead. Thus the panicky Brent, after Dvorak has passed out on his carpet, dumps the seeming corpse onto neighboring playboy Bey’s apartment balcony (apparently on the theory that one more stiffed female in that busy bachelor pad won’t attract notice), where Bey, on discovery, promptly dumps it back on Brent’s. Meanwhile the snooping old maids, assuming the Fiend has shifted headquarters to Bey’s and Brent’s verandas, call in a group of Keystonish cops. And that’s just the first half. The film builds on an accumulation of Dvorak’s death-and-rebirth cycles, each new collapse necessitating a search for a fresh dumping ground, each new recovery causing ever more confusion. And all the while the weekend’s passing brings closer the dreaded return of the termagant wife, who’s ready to put the kibosh on anything that resembles fun.

I find the film not quite as wacky as its fans crow. Its set-up, of Dvorak’s inconvenient and repeated ‘demises,’ with characters taking turns to dispose of her carcass, takes a while to get going, and then it doesn’t know when to stop. Brent and Bey’s midnight ride to bury her (really a dummy dressed in Dvorak’s clothing), for example, seems like one of those ideas that sounds hilarious in late-night, caffeine-fueled bull sessions, but when viewed onscreen it drags on to little point. And Brent plays his role too dull and conventionally, relying on a high-pitched vocalizing and purse-mouthed prissiness that combines the worst of Richard Haydn and Billy De Wolfe. He seems desperate to let us know that he’s not at all like this character, but that, honest, he’s only playing.

In its loosey-goosey way, though, Blue is indeed funny. It’s sharp in its observation of character (note how Bey sleeps in a roomy double bed while Brent and Landis are confined to narrow twins), and its dialogue can be equally trenchant (when Dvorak’s drunk insists on another drink, the prissy Brent protests that he’s already washed the glasses). And it’s great to see Turhan Bey get out of those Maria-Montez-fantasy-harem-extravaganzas and into the 20th century. Bey was one of those studio-age Hollywood actors who had more talent than he was credited for, but was typecast by his accent and flamboyant looks. Given the chance, however, he could grab it. Here he’s droll, charming, and sexy; you sense he doesn’t take his role too seriously but he’s enjoying it anyway. For us aficionados, the B-movie universe has its own treasures to seek out, and Bey is always one of them.

But the comic stand-out is Dvorak as the drunk. It’s risky to play a drunk for laughs, especially a drunken dame. It can look too sloppy and ugly; and Dovorak’s character is drunk through the entire film. It can also get annoying, as the intoxicated lady keeps passing out and reviving and never knows when to go home. But Dvorak keeps the interest going in this one-note part, mainly, I think, because she plays it lightly, imaginatively, without the cliché slurs and stumbles. Instead, she plays for grace. When she walks, she doesn’t stagger or flop; she moves loosely, slightly off-tempo as if her body were breasting water. In the bar scene there’s a long take in which she leaves a table and crosses the room. Why hold the camera for just that? But Dvorak gives it meaning, rising from her chair in sections—first a shoulder, then the chest, followed by the hips—with the slow, weighted dignity of the Queen Mary leaving drydock. The way she moves is not that of Generalized Drunk; it’s how this particular woozy woman rises and crosses a room, in her own particularly woozy way.

Dvorak is more than imaginative in her role; she can be inspired. Take the scene in Brent’s apartment, a hideous concoction of chintz, doo-dads, and tacky knick-knacks, in which Dvorak, after a long lament when Brent suggests she go home, picks up and unburdens her grief to a ceramic bird. Was that in the script or was it Ann’s own idea? Croaking her lines like a sorrowing crow, she affects an affronted dignity and spills out her feelings without anyone asking for them, the way a drunk behaves. It’s hilariously dead-on; Dvorak lets you see this woman’s weird, private world, where porcelain eagles can become emotional confidantes. There’s also the bit when she insists on listening to repeated renditions of the title tune, over Brent’s objections: “But, Arthur,” Dvorak cries, “it’s our song”; and she puts so much outraged, forlorn feeling into that phrase that I laughed out loud. In spite of its B-surroundings, this performance is one worth notice.

There are two other things I like about this movie. One is that the dogs are named Rabelais and Xanthippe. I always like those literary allusions in old Hollywood films, especially when they’re not explained; I’m flattered by their assumption of my knowledge. The other is its setting. It’s in 1940s Greenwich Village, but it’s Hollywood’s 1940s Greenwich Village, where the apartments are huge, glamorous, and well lighted, and the denizens are chic, witty, and beautifully dressed. And of course everything is in the best of taste. When Paterson refers to the Fiend as the “Greenwich Village murderer,” Dean demurs. “Greenwich Village Murderer, indeed,” she sniffs, “he’s probably from uptown.” I assure you, Greenwich Villagers will find that very funny.



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