Last Days of Warner Oland: On Anniversary of Death

DATELINE: Charlie Chan & Curry College

WO Oland in character

Ten years ago a little documentary biography was put together on actor Warner Oland. It can be found online.

We have long been a fan of his gentle, Method-acting style, immersing himself into playing (and living life) as the legendary Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers’s famous detective.

Oland, with his exotic name, was the first and best of all the Chans—so much so that many thought he was Asian. His heavy eyelids made him look the part. However, he was born in Sweden, next to Garbo, one of their earliest American immigrants to acting.

Oland loved playing Chan, and even gave interviews in character—but his drinking problem seemed to have exacerbated with a doomed marriage in 1938.  On the set of his last film Charlie Chan Ringside, he simply walked off the studio lot and disappeared.

The movie was shelved, and Oland went back to his native Sweden in the pre-war turmoil of Nazi troubles. There, welcomed home by Swedes, he caught pneumonia and died. His last Chan film was Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo, a delightful performance. His close friend Keye Luke loved him as a Number One son might! Oland was cultured and cerebral.

Oland caught our attention years earlier, of course, on old-TV film festivals—but our real fascination came when we discovered he graduated from Curry College, then located in Boston as an elocution/speech school for actors.

We cut our own teeth at Curry for 30 years as a professor, of film studies, no less.

When we watched a Chan film this week, we went to the ubiquitous Youtube to find all our favorites. To our shock, we learned Warner Oland died 79 years ago the day we found a slight biographical movie called Charlie Chan is Missing: the Last Days of Warner Oland.

Charming and mysterious, Oland preferred his home in central Massachusetts, not far from our preferred home, and his wife had his body brought back to Southboro where his gravestone was the step to his beloved home in that town.

The film is short and chock full of info, but the clues to Warner Oland’s strange character disappeared with him.

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Our Town Too Close for Comfort

DATELINE:  Thorton Wilder Classic

the deadDoro Mirande, Fay Bainter, and Martha Scott, stand out among the dead.

With music by Aaron Copland and set design by William Cameron Menzies, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town of 1940 is an emotional wallop, despite Hollywood’s interfering new-fangled ending. It’s the sort of thing that gave Hollywood a black eye for years.

Once the staple of high school reading lists, Our Town has fallen out of favor being the work of a dead white guy. Of course, that was the point of the play: but we now agree that Our Town is wasted on anyone young. And wisdom is never an easy lesson.

If you are beyond middle-age, seeing this again will be chilling. Instead of a homespun tale of Americana, this is a cynical and downbeat tale of birth, life, and death.

Though it starts out with amusing details of a 17-year old boy (William Holden, looking adolescent) and his next door girlfriend Martha Scott, as George and Emily. Set in 1901 until 1913, it seems like a quaint Mayberry in New England story.

Grover’s Corners was fictional, of course, set on the border of New Hampshire. Well, that’s where we live now—which certainly gave us pause. We are in the midst of the world of Our Town (exteriors filmed nearby). Wilder wrote the play while staying in Peterborough at the writers’ colony.

The setting feels more like Rindge or Jaffrey, NH, than artsy Peterborough.

The final third of the film takes place in the graveyard, brilliantly depicted with the dead (most of the cast) standing in solitary, morose fashion. It is a frightful depiction of what death means, and what life becomes.

According to this story, you have one day to re-live, as a ghost in time travel. These are trendy concepts today, let alone in pre-World War II America.

The ghosts debate that you should choose the most unfortunate day to re-live because happy times will be unbearable.

Performances are powerful—realistic and distressing. This is not a story for young people, but in 30 years they may be drawn to the play’s extraordinary insights, even those scornful diverse young critics of today.

Death is a great equalizer. The film is not tragic, only whimsical.

 

Shooting the Messenger?

 DATELINE:  Drama at Its Most Gripping

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In 2009 director Owen Moverman teamed up Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as captain and staff sergeant whose onerous duty is to inform people that their loved one has been killed in action. The story is The Messenger, about those who deliver the worst news to the official next-of-kin of America’s fallen soldiers.

It is horrific duty and makes compelling drama. Foster takes on a sympathetic and unusual role of heroic character, next to hard-ass officer who also must keep up regulations as a defense mechanism as civilian next-of-kin receive life-altering news.

The job is standard operating procedure, militarized and standardized. In years past there was only an impersonal telegram of bad news. Today it is the human face on inhumanity.

Everyone acts differently to the news, just as everyone acts different to death. They don’t know these people and enter only as minor, nearly dehumanized, figures delivering major news.

Ethics, pity, and duty, come to a crossroads as these soldiers face the most painful of all parts of a solider’s life: his death from combat.

You could say this is an actor’s film, and Moverman is clearly an actor’s director. He gives the performers some highly charged, internal and external emotional moments. It is riveting to watch heroes suffer and do what most of us could never want to face. The actors prove their abilities.

Young Staff Sergeant Montgomery has difficulty with maintaining an impersonal and unemotional attitude. On the other hand, Captain Stone, with a name to symbolize what looks like a callous demeanor, takes his job harder and buries the pain deeper.

Without characters making bad decisions, you likely never have a conflict in war movies. These are not automatons, but real men re-living post-traumatic events repeatedly. 

The film is too emotionally charged to be depressing or sad. An ultimate catharsis makes this a literate man’s war film.

Collateral Beauty: Time for Love & Death to Take a Holiday

 Mirren Kills'em.jpg Mirren Kills’em

DATELINE:  Bereavement Hallucinations

Every once in a while a movie comes along that invites insult and derision. This time it is  Will Smith’s dramedy called Collateral Beauty.

It has echoes of so many other, better stories, that we aren’t sure where to begin the diagnosis.

From the trailer you might believe this is a fantasy film on the lines of Love, Death, and Time, Meet in New York. You’d have been deceived, sort of.

A depressed man, dealing with the death of his child of six, has business associates that want to have evidence to commit him to a looney bin.

So, they arrange for actors to play Love, Death, and Time, to pay him a visit. It’s Gaslight—but as Helen Mirren, playing Death, discovers in the course of the movie, no one remembers that classic film, known for its good acting. No one will remember this one for that same reason.

When you start out with some of the most unlikable characters all woven into one plot, you are already behind the Oscar voting. Will Smith knows about being overlooked for a good performance—and lets his natural gray hairs show his love for acting this time as the movie lay dying.

We presume this is a cautionary tale—but we aren’t quite sure if we are being warned about sneaky business partners, cruel fate, or bloated self-pity. There is plenty of that stuff to go around in this movie. Just call it a sentimental journey.

Here’s the rub: you probably will watch it and hate yourself in the morning, which may be the opposite emotion the film wants you to have. It preaches at the audience enough to cause a backlash.

You may actually begin to think those “actors” playing at Death, Love, and Time, may be the real thing, like a coven of witches hanging out in the Big Apple for laughs.

At one point, Helen Mirren says, “This is not Noel Coward. It’s more like Chekhov.”  Yes, the movie never falls short on lofty pretensions. You could do worse.

James Dean Died 60 Years Ago Today

DATELINE: A Small Tribute

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Would the ultimate Rebel Without A Cause actually be 84 today if he had lived? It is unlikely he would have survived the 1960s or the 1980s with his lifestyle.

Yet, we still think of his eternal adolescence, painful youth, and promise lost.

This week as a tribute to Dean we decided to give away copies of our caustic biography of the star, THE NEXT JAMES DEAN. The book featured some insider knowledge of Dean never published before—or since. One fan accused us of snapping a photo of his dead body for the cover image.

Then we took on all the imitators, clones, and clowns, who tried to emulate James Dean. Some were guiltless victims of studio publicity, but many went slightly bonkers trying to emulate him.

Dean made ten times the number of TV shows as his movies. And, most fans probably have not seen hours and hours of his live TV performances. Some are stunning, years ahead of their time.

Few fans know that ghoulish Alfred Hitchcock decided to film one of his seminal suspense scenes at the site of Dean’s deadly car crash. Yes, that desolate stretch of highway is where Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster in North by Northwest. Well, it’s actually a model, a drone by today’s standards.

Fans may not know that the same stretch of road is thought to be haunted by the ghost of Dean and his mysterious and missing death car. Each year on September 30th, around 6pm in the sunset, you can hear a sports car racing down the highway, but end up in a crashing sound. It is the ghost car of Dean.

Fox News is now reporting the car has been found, hidden away behind a false wall to prevent it from killing new victims.

We thought Dean was deader than a door-nail by now. One of his few surviving contemporaries thinks he won’t last. Yet, when we put our e-book up for free taking in honor of James Dean, about 300 fans downloaded our testimonial book. We were delighted.

There were no strings, catches, or tricks. We just gave the book away to dedicated fans. We think Jim Dean of Indiana would have approved.