film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rio Grande (1950)

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I have said in the past that I sometimes doze off mid-film and have to go back and watch again.  This time I blame the film for trying to sing me to sleep.

Rio Grande stars John Wayne as “Kirby Yorke”, a former Union soldier stationed in the Texas frontier near the Rio Grande border with Mexico.  He’s got a lot on his hands just keeping his post running – keeping his men trained, keeping their wives and children protected – and coping with the local Apache raiding parties, who keep slipping across the border to Mexico and evading capture.  But then, to complicate things, the Texas marshalls come calling to say that one of his recent recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson), is a fugitive wanted for manslaughter.  Tyree steals Yorke’s horse to escape and lay low in the surrounding desert.

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But Yorke can’t even deal with that because another one of his recent recruits is his own son Jefferson (Claude Jarman Jr.). Yorke hasn’t seen Jeff for fifteen years; Jeff’s mother was a southern belle, and Yorke fighting for the Union in the Civil War caused an understandable rift. So Jeff has instead been at West Point up until now.  And just as Yorke and Jeff have worked out an uneasy truce – along comes Jeff’s mother Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), to persuade Jeff to come home.  And right when Yorke and Kathleen are trying to work things out – there’s an Apache raid.

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Now, that sounds like there’s a lot going on already, for a film that’s just over 90 minutes. And it is. But frustratingly, director John Ford saw fit to throw in about four or five music breaks, with everything grinding to a halt as a group of singing soldiers serenades the cast with one or another folk song.  They sing to Yorke’s men as they all ride out after an Apache party.  They sing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” to Kathleen when she first arrives at the camp.  They sing an Irish folk song to entertain a visiting general.   They sing to a group of kids to soothe them before they are brought to a neighboring camp for safety’s sake.  And each time we hear the entire song, in four-part harmony and full verses.

They sing quite nicely, mind you, it’s just that it eats up time, and the backstory of the characters ends up getting short shrift; we only get a couple seconds of explanation for Tyree’s attempted crime, and almost no time for Yorke and Jeff to reconcile.  The scenes with Yorke and Kathleen touch briefly on their differences – Yorke was part of a platoon that burned Kathleen’s family plantation, and she’s understandably bitter – but never really gets into how a southern belle ended up with a Union soldier anyway, or what she’s even been doing for the past fifteen years.  Just when their scenes start to come close to revealing something about their backstory, suddenly there’s a messenger coming in with news about Tyree, or a warning of an Apache party, or those damn singers come along to sing to Kathleen again, and I’m left in the dark.

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Reportedly John Ford didn’t really want to make this film in the first place. He wanted to move straight on to The Quiet Man (coming later on the list), but the studio ordered another Western from him first.  So he threw this together with Wayne and O’Hara, since they were already on board for The Quiet Man.  And the singing troupe included one of his son-in-laws, so he probably got them for….a song.  In essence, then, this is probably like one of those contractual obligation albums that musicians will do time to time, something tossed off to satisfy a contract.

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Roommate Russ (as he is now yclept) pointed out one interesting shot, though, that was perhaps unintentionally symbolic. There’s a scene where Yorke’s men are trying to rescue a bunch of civilians being held hostage by an Apache party; the civilians are holed up in a church, which has a decorative cross-shaped cutout in one of its front doors; when Yorke’s men sneak in through the back door, the cross cutout makes for a convenient spyhole, and when the Apaches get wise to their rescue attempt, Yorke’s men shoot at them through the cutout.  Roommate Russ mused that the Apaches being confronted with a cross through which people shot at them was one heck of a metaphor for Manifest Destiny.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Los Olvidados (1951)

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Whew, sorry for the delay – some non-movie life things intervened a bit.  But all is now well (considerably better than things have been for a while).  Ironically, this puts me in a better place than the characters in Los Olvidados (she said, desperately trying to bring things back on topic).

This was directed by Luis Buñuel, so I admit that I was pretty dubious when I saw a title card at the top of the film declaring that the characters were based on real people; Buñuel played fast and loose with the truth in Land Without Bread and that had me skeptical.  But something felt very different about this; Buñuel had been working in Mexico for a couple years, and had been profoundly affected by a newspaper story about a twelve-year-old boy’s body that had been discovered in a garbage dump.  Many other Mexican films dealt with Mexico City’s “street kids” in sanitized, heartwarming ways – poverty taught them lessons and strengthened their character, and they all had happy endings. The story of the boy in the dump underscored for Buñuel that this wasn’t the case for the real street kids, and he set out to prove it.

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And the kids in the film do have things pretty rough – and are pretty rough.  We largely follow the story of a small gang led by “El Jaibo” (Roberto Cobo), a teen newly escaped from reform school. He’s determined to find the kid who ratted him out to police – purportedly Julian (Javier Amézcua), a former gang member now working with a local butcher. Jaibo pays a surprise visit to Julian, accompanied by Pedro (Alfonso Mejia), a younger boy who idolizes Jaibo and who lures Julian out from the butchers’ to talk to Jaibo.  But Jaibo attacks Julian, walloping him with a rock.  He intends only to hurt Julian – but to his shock, realizes that he’s killed Julian.  He swears the shocked Pedro to secrecy and runs off to hide.

Jaibo’s act, and the other characters’ circumstances, drive a lot of the story from there. Pedro is so thrown by the murder that it effectively scares him straight, and he seeks out a job with a local blacksmith.  His mother’s so disappointed in his street-kid friends that she’s all but thrown Pedro out of the house – but she then starts fooling around with the barely-legal Jaibo. There’s a subplot with a lost boy from a nearby farm town, abandoned there by his father, who’s befriended by Pedro and taken in by a blind street performer; they make regular visits to a grocers’ with a teenage daughter, Meche (Alma Delia Fuentes), who gives the blind man some of the family’s milk every day. But then the blind man starts molesting Meche one day and the country boy has to reconsider his loyalties.  He’s already had to come to Meche’s rescue when Jaibo tried having his own way with her.

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In short, it’s a pretty bleak tale. No one’s hands are completely clean, but no one is entirely without their own misfortune either. And no one ends happily.  That was enough to earn Buñuel criticism for the piece, even when he was making it – crew members were asking Buñuel throughout why he was shooting in such ugly places (garbage heaps and abandoned lots), and one hairdresser even quit on the spot when she learned about the events in the scene they were shooting that day.  But Buñuel stuck to his guns, even in the face of the Mexican critics and audiences who felt personally attacked by the film (reportedly the wife of Spanish poet Leon Felipe had to be held back from attacking Buñuel after she saw it).

But Buñuel had some supporters, including the Mexican poet Octavio Paz – who happened to be in Mexico’s diplomatic service at the time. Paz used his influence to get Los Olvidados a spot at the Cannes Film Festival, and then personally flew to Cannes to stand outside Los Olvidados’ venue with a placard promoting it.  Los Olvidados took home an international critics’ award and Buñuel was named “Best Director” at that year’s festival.

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It really isn’t a pretty story, and the print I was watching had some puzzlingly simplistic subtitles. But the tale itself gradually drew me in – as well as some feel to the piece that at the time I couldn’t name.  It just plain didn’t feel like Buñuel somehow (there is one dream sequence Pedro has that harks back to the Buñuel of L’Age D’Or, but even here it has a good deal of context from the growing story).  Ultimately, this seems to have been a passion project for Buñuel, and I think I was picking up on that.

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Ace In The Hole (1951)

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The sharp-eyed reader will note that I have a new tag category for my entries now – for this film joins Top Hat and Adam’s Rib as being a film where I suddenly understood why a given Hollywood notable I’d been hearing about all my life was….well, notable.  In this case, I finally Got It about why people speak so highly of Ace In The Hole’s Billy Wilder, who directed, produced, and wrote for the picture.

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In this case it was the script itself that made me sit up and take notice. Kirk Douglas stars as “Chuck Tatum”, a down-on-his-luck reporter trying to bounce back from a run of bad luck when he strolls into the head office for an Albuquerque daily paper.  He’s written for the big leagues, he brags – papers in New York, Chicago, and other big cities – but some drinking and philandering got him fired. He’s cleaned himself up, he swears, and is looking for a chance to get back on the job.  The bemused head editor agrees to take him on, but keeps Tatum on a tight leash for the ensuing year thereafter, sending him out to cover things like Boy Scout jamborees and low-level weather events.  Tatum grumbles a lot – in one scene he rants to the rest of the office about how bored he is – but everyone has learned to ignore him, and the head editor keeps sending him out to do puff pieces.

It’s while Tatum is on his way to one such puff piece – a charity rattlesnake hunt – that he discovers breaking news. He and his photographer Herbie (a fresh-faced Robert Arthur) have stopped for gas at a tourist trap in a tiny town, but no one is manning the station – because they’ve just rushed over to the cave behind the station, where the station owner’s son has just been trapped under a fallen rock.  Tatum rushes back to the cave, eager to cover the story and report on the rescue effort.  But when he hears their rescue plan should take only a few hours, however, he talks them into a more complicated plan, one that might take a few days.  Oh, and can he stay at the station and cover their efforts?…

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In the days when “fake news” is a popular insult, Tatum’s behavior seems pretty familiar as he massages the situation for the sake of the story. He cozies up to the local sheriff – a lackluster career lawman up for re-election – and promises to talk up his reputation if the sheriff keeps other newsmen away.  He persuades the victim’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who was on the verge of leaving him anyway, to stay around and play the loving spouse – and make thousands off the crowds now coming to watch the spectacle.  He makes very public visits to the cave every day to get his exclusive interviews with the victim Leo (Richard Benedict).  In short, he does everything he can to prolong the situation, riding Leo’s plight so hard that he nearly forgets that they’re supposed to be rescuing him.

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At the time of its release, other critics found the story pretty unbelievable. Tatum is heavily unpleasant (I turned to The Roommate during Tatum’s rant to his fellow reporters and said, “So, I’m just checking – it’s not just me, he’s a jerk, right?”), and manages to bowl over the locals involved in the rescue pretty easily.  Lorraine is also all too willing to play along for her own ends, going so far as to bring in a circus tent and carnival rides to cater to the growing crowd (a sign primly states all proceeds go to Leo’s rescue fund).  But Wilder was inspired by a similar pair of human-interest stories involving people trapped in caves – one is even name-checked during the film, with Tatum citing the reporter as a role model.  And from what we’ve seen of human nature in the years since 1951, it doesn’t require that much of a leap of imagination to accept that a reporter as persuasive and selfish as Tatum could cause a good deal of ruckus, particularly when he meets equally selfish people to collude with.  In fact, I found Wilder’s script to be remarkably astute, and that was part of its appeal for me.

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The leads are all fine and dandy, as well – I didn’t like watching Douglas as Tatum, but that had more to do with Tatum just being a jerk, and paradoxically speaks to how well Douglas was doing in the role.  The scenes that really stick with me, though, are all long crowd scenes, charting the growing spectacle; in one, a train pulls up across from the gas station, bearing a cloth banner proclaiming that it’s a special train rigged up to bring people to the site.  Passengers all start pouring out of the doors before the train even comes to a stop, everyone racing towards the cave and losing themselves in the huge carnival that’s sprung up alongside it.  And towards the end, after the events have run their course, there’s an equally-quick exodus of spectators, leaving Leo’s father wandering alone in the clearing before the cave, staring dumbstruck at the emptiness and silence and looking utterly small.

You know that if such an event happened today that someone like Tatum would be working to make #SaveLeo a trending topic on Twitter and that we’d be seeing Instagrammers posing for selfies by the cave, with the circus moving on just as fast – if not faster – when the whole thing died down.  And that, like I said, is why I found Wilder so prescient – he was writing about 21st-Century social media in 1951.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

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I feel like I’m cheating a little, because I’ve already seen this and already knew I liked it.

Odds are you have too – this is an often-seen and often-quoted classic tale of fading glory and the twilight of one of Hollywood’s golden ages. But as depressing as that sounds, it’s a bit of a black comedy, famously starting with the discovery of aspiring screenwriter Joe Gillis’ body floating in a pool, as Joe’s voice (William Holden) begins to tell us the Story Of How He Died.  We then jump back six months to find Joe struggling and down to his last dime – an early visit to his agent yields nothing – and fleeing from some repo men after his car when he seeks refuge in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

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But someone lives there after all – Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star turned eccentric recluse, with only her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) for company.  Max and Norma think that Joe is someone else, and all but drag him inside – giving him a glimpse of the baroque decay in Desmond’s mansion and a taste of Norma’s eccentricity (they think he’s a coroner there to deliver a coffin for Norma’s dead pet   chimpanzee).  Joe manages to set them straight, but is so desperate that they not turn him in that he praises Norma to the skies, and readily agrees when she asks him to read a script she’s written.  It’s terrible, of course, but Joe sees an opportunity and persuades Norma to hire him as a co-writer.

Joe soon learns Norma has an agenda of her own – instead of a straightforward business arrangement, Norma moves Joe into her mansion outright, in the room right next to hers, and “paying” him with expensive gifts instead of cash and placing ever more demands on his time, attention, and loyalty. By the time Norma stages a lavish New Year’s Eve party (complete with a hired band) just for the two of them, Joe has figured out Norma’s after a more prurient arrangement. But the only alternative is to go back to poverty, so a resigned Joe stays put.  Only a chance meeting with his best friend’s fiancee Betty (Nancy Olson), a studio script reader who’s had ideas about rewriting one of Joe’s own scripts, spurs Joe to think of getting out – but Norma’s growing madness, and his own shame over his plight, give him pause.

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I really liked this when I saw it a few years back, and still do.  The plot could have made for an over-the-top mess, but Norma’s delusions are actually handled pretty sensitively.  Gloria Swanson’s Norma is still a mess – insisting that her fans are all just waiting for her comeback, and that the studios are just waiting with bated breath for her call.  Her mansion is a sort of shrine to her glory days.  But to spare her, the faithful Max does what he can to shield Norma from the truth (and has his own reasons for doing so), and in time so does Joe.  Nevertheless it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before Norma disappears into her own memories entirely – and while this is horrific, it also comes across as quietly tragic.

Sunset Boulevard also flirts with verisimilitude pretty hard.  Norma’s card-playing neighbors are all silent film stars, all playing themselves (including Buster Keaton, which was a nice surprise).  A later scene where Norma makes a surprise visit to the Paramount set to pitch her script sees her seeking out her old friend Cecil B. DeMille and barging onto the set of his latest picture.  Director Billy Wilder actually cast DeMille in the part, and used the set DeMille was actually using for his latest film (the only reason that DeMille’s lead Hedy LaMarr didn’t make her own cameo is because she asked for an exorbitant sum of money).  Even the silent films that Norma Desmond screens in her house are from Gloria Swanson’s own filmography, with one in particular having been directed by Erich von Stroheim to boot.  It lends a richness and color to “the good old days” that makes it understandable why Norma would prefer to live out her days there – and makes it a little understandable why Joe might be willing to sacrifice so much to join her there.

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Swanson, fortunately, seems to have been more like Margo Channing in her own life – a couple years after Sunset Boulevard she stepped quietly out of the Hollywood scene, returning to theater and making occasional guest spots on television shows.  She received several scripts immediately after the film, but turned them all down – her roles were always pale imitations of Norma Desmond, and she didn’t want to ruin that performance with a bad copy.  Which seems somehow like a very un-Norma thing to do.

 

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Winchester ’73 (1950)

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So I had the weird idea that Winchester ’73 could have gone in a different and more intriguing direction, and if it had done so I would have liked it a lot more.

And I’m not talking about the main plot, necessarily.  That’s a fairly conventional Western Movie story, with Jimmy Stewart as “Lin McAdam,” a frontiersman on the trail of a fellow named Dutch (Stephen McNally). They run into each other in Dodge City, but can’t settle their score because Dodge City’s sheriff, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), has initiated a “no guns” policy in Dodge, requiring all travelers to surrender their arms into his care upon entering the town.  Lin and Dutch, reduced to eyeing each other warily, have little else to do so they both enter a marksmanship contest in town – the grand prize being a new 1873 model Winchester rifle.  Both soon take the lead, demonstrating greater and greater feats of shooting, but Lin finally wins – and Dutch ambushes him shortly after, stealing the coveted prize and leaving town, with Lin once again in pursuit.

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And here starts the most interesting part of the film, as the gun passes through a series of very different hands in a variety of different ways. It’s added to the pot in a poker match, it’s part of a trade with a Sioux war party, it’s dropped on a battlefield, it’s given to a milquetoast dandy, it’s used in a robbery; in short, it has its own set of adventures, and it’s peripatetic voyage – and the reasons people want this gun in the first place – made for a more interesting story to me than the Saga Of Lin And Dutch. Each of the little vignettes that make up the gun’s travels felt like their own little story, except for Lin and Dutch – even their backstory is only added as an afterthought, with Lin’s sidekick “High Spade Frankie” telling a saloon girl “how do Lin and Dutch know each other” in a very brief scene towards the very end.

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So to me, this looks like the filmmakers really wanted just to make a story of a gun – their title card at the beginning gives the history of the Winchester company and touts the fame of the 1873 model in particular – but were forced to throw in a plot about A Person to get the studio on board. Which is understandable. But I felt it was a lesser film as a result, and also feel like they could have chosen a better story to play up.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

All About Eve (1950)

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Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this was a film I knew by reputation only; and also like Sierra Madre, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by All About Eve.

As I told my roommate –   it’s like Single White Female meets A Star Is Born. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a renowned Broadway actress, and Anne Baxter is Eve Harrington, one of Margo’s mega-fans. Margo’s friend Karen (Celeste Holm) takes pity on Eve hovering by the stage door one night and invites her backstage to meet her idol, along with the rest of Margo’s creative team – playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), frequent creator of Margo’s star vehicles and Karen’s husband, and Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), Margo’s usual director and longtime boyfriend.

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Everyone is charmed by the depth of Eve’s ardor, and then touched by her hard-luck story (brought up penniless, a young widow of a World War II pilot, saving all her pennies to see Margo again and again) and Margo spontaneously offers Eve a job as a sort of personal assistant, even though she already has one, longtime maid and dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter).  Birdie’s the first to spot some of Eve’s “helpfulness” as ambition, but gradually the others start to realize that Eve doesn’t just admire Margo – she wants to be Margo, complete with a starring role in one of Lloyd’s plays, swank penthouse apartment, and an admiring boyfriend as her collaborator (although she’s gunning for both Lloyd and Bill).  Worst of all, everyone realizes just how skillfully Even has been manipulating them all from the very start.

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The story of an older star getting shoved aside by a younger one isn’t an unfamiliar one. What fascinated me about All About Eve, though, was how it addressed why Margo was in danger of being brushed aside. Margo is pushing 40, but the plays Lloyd has been writing for her still cast her as the same dewy-eyed ingénues she’s always played – because the public doesn’t want to see her playing women her own age.  One day – and it won’t be long – she’ll just be too old for the part, and Eve plans on being ready and waiting for that day to arrive (or plans on hurrying it ahead a bit).  There’s a lengthy conversation between Margo and Karen at one point where Margo laments her lost youth and the loss of options for actresses her age – and rails against the double standards that have left her with such few options in the first place, not just in acting but in life overall.  Granted that this film was just a decade off from Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, but I was surprised to see these kinds of complaints given a voice.  Margo eventually finds a way through the situation with some grace intact, but after her conversation with Karen, it still feels the price is fairly high.

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Critics have pointed out that Sunset Boulevard (which I’ll be getting to soon) also dealt with a similar aging-actress-has-to-cope theme; both films came out the same year, so there must have been something in the zeitgeist.  All About Eve, though, is the one that took home the Oscar for best picture that year.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

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feel that at this point I can get away with breaking out this riff again:  “It’s a film noir, you know the drill.”

Okay, it wasn’t that bad.  Asphalt Jungle is yet another look at the criminal underworld – gangsters, criminals, robbers, mob bosses, corrupt policemen, and crumbling streets.  In this case, the action follows a whole web of people drawn together in a conspiracy, concerning a jewel robbery in a smallish city and the many parties brought in to launch the plan and cover it up.  And there are indeed many parties – from “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the recent parolee who thought up the plan while still in prison, to lawyer Al Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the corrupt lawyer putting up the money to hire the hired help and turning a blind eye to the caper in return for half the profits.  And there’s Dix Handey (Sterling Hayden), a criminal mercenary who’s only in the game trying to win big and buy back his family’s Kentucky horse ranch.  There’s a handful of other characters as well – smitten girlfriends, corrupt beat cops, your usual assortment.

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And yet the film caught my attention as time went on; it’s almost inevitable that the group’s plans go bust. But watching specifically lets you explore just how it does – a little petty jealousy here, a little distraction there, an errant gunshot here, a sharp-eyed witness there…the first half of the movie painstakingly sets up the machinations of the plot, while the second (the part I ultimately liked better) showed how the unknown elements both within and without the group caused the whole thing to collapse. It was like watching someone setting up an elaborate domino stunt and then getting to watch the whole thing finally fall down. And that got weirdly fascinating.

On the other hand, the script saw fit to throw in some painfully earnest lines about the nature of crime, the civilizing influence of the police, and the folly of man.  The plot lead me to forgive most of it, but there was still some dialogue towards the end – especially in a scene when the police commissioner is lecturing some reporters – that nearly made me cringe.

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Of special note: this was Marilyn Monroe’s first big part, playing the mistress of the disgraced lawyer.  I’ve had the breathy sex-kitten “Happy-birthday-Mister-President” image of Marilyn in my head so long that I literally didn’t recognize her when I first saw her – and through her biggest scene, I was squinting at the screen and thinking “dang, that looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe, I wonder who it actually is?”  This was a very different Marilyn – still kittenish, but with more sincerity than campiness. I was pleasantly surprised, especially with how she handled what were some pretty cheesy lines.