Radio Theater: Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson as Holmes and Watson (1955)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson

I'm on the eternal hunt for the ideal Holmes and Watson pairing.

Oh, of course, many come close, like Jeremy Brett and David Burke in the celebrated BBC television series from the 1980s, or even Ian Richardson as Holmes, but alas, I can't recall his Watson, which is never a good sign.

Photo of Sir John Gielgud
Sir John Gielgud
But I believe I may have finally found the ideal paring in Gielgud and Richardson, both esteemed stage actors in their own right with all of the professional training needed to make radio theater a success.

In a word, they're marvelous.

I mentioned Ian Richardson a moment ago, and I actually hold him up as the ideal Holmes. They only thing he didn't have was Holmes' height, but everything else was absolutely 100% spot on, from his mannerisms to his appearance.

John Gielgud is the same, only on the radio.

One doesn't need much imagination to conjure an image of Sherlock Holmes while listening to Gielgud's radio theater performance. He has just the right touch of arrogance and humility in his performance, the proper notes of conviviality paired with the behavior of a social recluse. That mixture is what makes Arthur Conan Doyle such a delight to read. It's not everyday that a lead character can be offensive and still likeable.

Gielgud plays Holmes with a genuine fondness for Watson, a nice change from some of the more unpleasant incarnations of the man, and he absolutely sells that the story is happening in real time, at this very moment. No small feat.

Photo of Sir Ralph Richardson
Sir Ralph Richardson
Then there is Ralph Richardson, not to be confused with Ian Richardson. RR is a marvel. I've not encountered him very often in my movie watching ventures. He just sort of slipped on by me, as it were, although he does play Lord Mere in The Divorce of Lady X with Laurence Olivier and Merle Obern, one of my favorite romcoms from the 1930s.

I guess the real question is who do you see when you think of Dr. John Watson? I don't see an idle, fat man with absolutely no brains at all. I'll be forever troubled that Watson is often cast as such when there is no evidence at all in the canon that he was overweight and stupid. Opposite Holmes, almost anybody would seem stupid.

RR's Watson is delightfully amiable, awash with a warmth and enthusiasm for life that just makes the listener smile. He can and does keep up with Holmes on their ventures. His radio theater performance in The Dying Detective, the hurt and dismay he feels in thinking Holmes doesn't trust his expertise as a doctor, is perfection itself. Those authentic emotions are like nothing you have ever heard.

As if it were possible to improve on perfection, somehow this radio theater series managed it in the simple act of casting Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem. Welles delivers an understated, calm performance as the devious Moriarty, a refreshing change to the Moriarty performances which hint at just a bit of crazy.

Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles performing the radio play Sherlock Holmes: The Final Problem
Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles

Paired together, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson elevate the Holmes canon with their performance.

They show how the stories can and should be performed. I would give almost anything for a new television rendering of the stories if I trusted the BBC to get it right. But I don't trust them to not stay true to Doyle's original stories, so there's no point in my even going on about it, alas.

On a complete side note, my one annoyance with the series is the narrator's continued ignorance. He insists on calling Watson, Dr. James Watson! I mean, really!?

The radio series has 16 episodes (how I wish it were longer!)

Dr Watson Meets Sherlock Holmes
A Scandal in Bohemia
The Red-Headed League
The Six Napoleons
The Blue Carbuncle (an absolute gem)
The Speckled Band (shivers galore)
The Disappearance of Silver Blaze
The Golden Pince-Nez
A Case of Identity
The Final Problem (an absolute must)
The Empty House (again, an absolute must)
The Second Stain
The Bruce-Partington Plans
The Dying Detective (my personal favorite)
The Norwood Builder
The Solitary Cyclist (another favorite)

You can find them all HERE for free streaming, which I think is a lovely service.

If you do get a chance to listen, what is your favorite of the stories? What do you think of the performances? And, most especially, which of the Holmes stories do you wish they had performed!
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Angela Lansbury and Raymond Burr in Please Murder Me! (1956)

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Angela Lansbury and Raymon Burr in the film noir Please Murder Me! from 1956

Angela Lansbury has been synonymous with Disney and Jessica Fletcher for so long that it's hard to remember that she was an actress long before she ever jumped on the Disney bandwagon. It's even harder to realize that she played some pretty unpleasant characters. She was the "other" woman opposite Judy Garland and John Hodiak in Harvey Girls which I love and reviewed HERE. She was also absurdly cast as Elvis Presley's mother in Blue Hawaii and even as Queen Anne in The Three Musketeers that starred Gene Kelley as D'Artagnan.

And now I've seen her in an even more startling deviation, as accused murderess in the 1956 black and white film noir Please Murder Me! opposite Raymond Burr.
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Radio Theater: Orson Welles in Noël Coward's Private Lives (4/21/1939)

Friday, August 2, 2019

Orson Welles preparing for a radio play

I honestly don't know how I lived before finding Orson's radio theater performances! I mean, seriously!

Private Lives is a crazy combination of hilarity and tragedy that appeals to my macabre sense of humor. Orson Welles plays Elyot and actress Gertrude Lawrence plays his ex-wife Amanda (Gertrude actually played opposite Noël in 1930 in this play on the stage!). Each of these individuals has remarried and each of them is on their honeymoon, I would say the wedding night, actually. And of course, each couple stays in the same hotel!

And of course, they have suites right next to each other!

Elyot and Amanda see each other, turn white as a sheet (assumedly, since it is radio), and immediately beg their new spouses to agree to move to a different hotel. Which is hilarious because each of them wanted to go to Paris so they would have run into each other there too. Apparently, Amanda and Elyot both love the same hotels/resorts. Can't imagine how that happened.

Anyway, the new spouses are frustrated at this new itchy, irritating side to Elyot and Amanda and dig in their heels, refusing to change hotels. Each of the new spouses storms off to have dinner alone in the resort, leaving, CUE DRAMATIC MUSIC, Elyot and Amanda alone!

The divorced couple gets to talking, realizes how very much they still desperately love each other despite the smackdown drag-out fights they indulged in when they were married. Yah, that sounds healthy. After indulging in a bit of desperate guilt, the two set up a phrase, or in this case, a name, Solomon Isaacs, that each of them has the right to say to call a cease-fire for several minutes should an argument break out. Then they run away together, off to Amanda's apartment in Paris.

Whoo boy.

Yes, Private Lives is hilarious.

But my heart also breaks for the other spouses. These poor people, Sibyl and Victor, had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this insanity. The only thing they did wrong was fall in love with fickle people who can't live with each other and can't live without each other either. It's not a comforting thought to realize that the only way your husband/wife would be faithful is if they never saw their ex-spouse in the flesh. Yipes!

Down to the nitty-gritty of the radio theater performance.

Orson uses a delightful hoity-toity British accent as if he were a second son of a lord or duke. It's a lovely accent, made even more so by the absurd lines in the play that he gets to perform. Gertrude must have been a hoot on the stage because I absolutely adore her in the radio play! She has this charming selfishness to her voice that suits the character perfectly. And together, you buy that Elyot and Amanda are still in love. They just sell it, even though they each had their own microphone they were performing from, you can picture them in each other's arms, both arguing and kissing at the same time. It's insane to be able to capture that type of authenticity on the radio!

The secondary casting for Sibyl and Victor was excellent as well. Sibyl (Naomi Campbell) is this sweet little voice that you empathize with because she's right when she says that it's all so squalid. And Victor (Robert Speaight), well, he's a bit of a dullard, sort of white bread with mayonnaise, which is fine, but Amanda should have known better than to marry him. She would have been bored within a week.

And then there's the manager of the hotel. Oh my gosh, I LOVE him and I have no idea who played him. He's this officious little Frenchman who's an impartial observer to the insanity of Amanda and Elyot reconnecting. He's, in effect, the chorus or the narrator, and is positively brilliant.

Private Lives is in my top 5 favorites of Orson's radio theater productions. It's a perfect representation of the 1930s lackadaisical attitude towards marriage and I just can't help loving it.

Laurence Olivier and his first wife, Jill Esmond
Laurence Oliver and Jill Esmond
On a completely unimportant side note, Laurence Olivier performed as Victor in the stage play with Noël and Gertrude in 1930 and even married Jill Esmond, the girl who played Sibyl. This, of course, was before the Vivien Leigh debacle. As the narrator of the radio play would say, "These people are crazy!"

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The Lovable Ruffian - James Cagney with Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931)

Thursday, August 1, 2019

James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

"Now the world owes me a living, and I'm gonna collect it, see." - James Cagney in Blonde Crazy

Pre-code films are spectacularly vulgar and this one is a humdinger!

I think until now the earliest Cagney film I'd ever watched was probably A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1935, which is brilliant, by the way. But I'd never ventured into any of his earlier films simply because they're a pain to track down. But I know a gal who found a way for me to watch all of these amazing old movies, so yay!

James Cagney was made for pre-code films. There's a certain raw, brutishness about him that you just can't get away with today. He's not even playing one of his infamous mobster roles in Blonde Crazy, he's just a guy who's an impressively foolish con artist and wow, quite the playboy!

James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

If I met a man who drawled out "hoooooonnnneey" that way, I'd be tempted to sock him in the nose. Maybe that habit was common in 1931?

Let me expound on my reason for labeling James Cagney as The Loveable Ruffian.

Because I know that at this point he really doesn't sound all that loveable!

It's that raw energy, that wolfish twinkle, that I find repulsive, but at the same time, Cagney possessed enough acting chops to incorporate glimmers of regret, yearning, and genuine selfless love to make my label him as that loveable ruffian. He's kind of this way in most of his roles, at least the ones I've watched so far.

James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

Blonde Crazy is entertaining because he's a guy who's always out to make a fortune anyway he can, even if it means selling his own hooch or pulling a fast one on visitors to the hotel where he works. Enter the plucky Joan Blondell, who I've never seen before but absolutely love. I'll have to track down more of her films, apparently she and Cagney were paired together quite often.

Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

Anyway, Joan gets employed at the same hotel as a linen lady. Cagney takes an immediate shine to her, just as he would any girl who would get the job. Ladies man, like I said. But she'll have none of it. In fact, just as often as he drawls out "hoooooonnnnneey" she'll whip around and slap him in the face. I'm guessing that's what made him really fall for her? A girl who wasn't fooled by his tricks.

James Cagney in Blonde Crazy from 1931

They do partner up as con artists, although she feels a bit guilty for it. Together they make thousands of dollars by conning suckers who can afford it. She finally has enough, falls for a good guy (or convinces herself she has), just as Cagney realizes he's in love with her.

The ending is quite the pip. I didn't quite see it coming, but I liked it, really, because it's a bit unpredictable, but also made sense.

Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

One thing that could be either objectionable or admirable depending on your point of view is the pre-code era's take on sex. They actually acknowledge that it's a thing! They also acknowledge, whether they mean to or not, that men can be pigs. Perhaps it's my modern moralizing self looking almost 90 years into the past that sees this, but all of the men in this film, at some time or another, treat the women in their lives as possessions, something to be bartered or bought. That makes them pigs, but it was normal for men in that era to wolf whistle and eye a girl up and down as if she were nothing more than a hunk of meat.

Cagney's character helps Joan's character get a job and then he expects her to sleep with him. They didn't come right out and say that, but it's what he was thinking and required very little reading between the lines.

It's not the cleaned up version of Hollywood that sometimes gets presented. But like I said, I kinda admire that about really old Hollywood. They didn't put blinders on, just created movies to represent the morality of the era in which they were living.

James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy from 1931

I would actually watch Blonde Crazy again.

For one thing, I adore the absurdity of 1930s fashion. Some of it made perfect sense and was super stylish and some it was just insane, usually the ladies' evening wear. Sometimes I spent a good chunk of time wondering how the women held their gowns up!

Joan Blondell is delightful, just delightful. And Cagney's character is probably 50/50 turd to nice guy. All he needed was a little push in the right direction. And even when he realizes he can't have Joan, he actually turns his life around anyway. It's kinda funny.

If I were to label them as anything, I would say a realistic version of Bonnie and Clyde. It is the era, after all!
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