Monday, December 31, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (1948)

Mermaid movies turn up every now and then; the most famous is certainly Splash (1984), with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, and among the more recent you'll find the modern tween fairy tale, Aquamarine (2006). Long before either of these films, however, dapper William Powell fell for a mermaid of his own in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), which pitches the encounter as a mid-life crisis being experienced by Powell's character. Instead of a convertible or a human mistress, Powell's character lands a mythological maiden, much to the distress of his irritated wife. Although it certainly has fallen into obscurity, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is no lost masterpiece, but it's a fun little film for a quiet afternoon, and Powell fans will enjoy it just for another outing with the inimitable star.

Powell plays Arthur Peabody, a respectable Bostonian on vacation in the Caribbean after a serious illness. Peabody's convalescence is marred by the arrival of his fiftieth birthday, and he feels that his wife (Irene Hervey) is taking him for granted now that she sees him "safely" past the age of indiscretion. Her assurance is shaken, however, when Peabody accidentally lands a mermaid (Ann Blyth) and installs her in the resident fish pond. Peabody adores his ichthyoid idol, but the locals begin to wonder about his sanity. When his wife disappears, the resulting investigation threatens to ruin Peabody's romance and force him back to reality.

Powell really carries the picture, primarily because the female characters function as mere satellites to his protagonist. Ann Blyth is beautiful but mute as the mermaid (a sexist commentary on the perfect woman, no doubt), while Irene Hervey is rather shrill as the wife and Andrea King much too aggressive as the would-be paramour. That said, the scenes with the mermaid do have a magical quality of the type that viewers in 1948 might well have associated with Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs, where the famous live mermaid shows had just begun the year before. The sexual subtext of the plot is subtle enough that small children will probably enjoy watching the movie for the mermaid without noticing that it's really a story about midlife crisis and the idea of an extramarital affair as the cure for that ailment.

If you enjoy fish stories of this sort, try Miranda (1948) and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964). For more of William Powell, see The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). You'll find Ann Blyth playing a much darker role in the Joan Crawford classic, Mildred Pierce (1945), but she also stars in The Great Caruso (1951) and The Helen Morgan Story (1957). See Irene Hervey in Destry Rides Again (1939), A Cry in the Night (1956), and Cactus Flower (1969). Director Irving Pichel also made the 1932 film, The Most Dangerous Game, which serves as a more intense example of his professional talent.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is not currently available on DVD, but you can usually find it, along with dozens of other minor classics, on streaming sites like Netflix Instant Viewing and Amazon Instant Video.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: SUSPICION (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock had broken into the American movie-making scene with Rebecca in 1940 and then quickly turned out a number of additional films, including the 1941 romantic thriller, Suspicion, which reunited the director with Rebecca star Joan Fontaine. This second outing with Hitchcock would win Fontaine an Oscar for Best Actress, and she certainly does have an intriguing role to play as a heroine who is simultaneously consumed by both passion and paranoia. With Cary Grant making his first of four career appearances in Hitchcock films, Suspicion offers plenty of classic Hollywood appeal, although its premise may tug at the conscience of the astute modern viewer.

Fontaine stars as Lina McLaidlaw, a "carefully brought up" English girl who falls for rakish Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) and elopes with him after a whirlwind romance. As it turns out, she knows very little about him, and his inability to manage or earn money begins to cast a shadow over their marriage, especially because he habitually lies to his wife about their finances. Johnnie then cooks up a real estate scheme with one of his pals (Nigel Bruce), but it begins to look like murder might have been Johnnie's ultimate plan, and Lina suspects that she herself will be his next victim.

Hitchcock has a great talent for bringing out the darkness in the usually genial Grant, and Suspicion uses that side of his persona to great effect. As Lina grows increasingly uneasy about her husband's true nature, we see the camera focus more and more on Johnnie's tightly controlled expressions whenever he stands behind her. What is he thinking? We are kept on edge about his intentions, and the suspense winds the audience just as carefully as it winds the anxious heroine. The ambiguity in Grant's character allowed the director to make changes to the plot of the film as it went through production, and it really is impossible to predict the ending from the earlier scenes. One of the best and most famous moments is the shot of Johnnie carrying a luminous glass of milk up a flight of dark stairs. The lit glass glows eerily in the frame, suggesting a hidden, sinister nature. Is it poisoned? Will Lina drink it, anyway?

That question brings up the biggest problem with the film. Murderer or not, Johnnie is a rotten husband, a liar and a swindler from the start, yet Lina loves him so helplessly that she melts every time she gets the slightest sign that he might really care for her. Watching Fontaine's heroine is almost painful at times because she not only tolerates but even seems to take pride in suffering Johnnie's lies and temper. There's a classic "Dear Abby" letter hidden somewhere in the subtext of the film, and it seems doubtful that marital counseling could solve the issue at hand, although a good divorce lawyer and a restraining order might be about right. Perhaps it's one of the ways in which the film shows its age, but the sexual politics that underlie the story might be the most horrific part of the whole picture.

Suspicion earned three Oscar nominations in all, including a nod for Best Picture, but Fontaine scored its only win. Look for English character players like Cedric Hardwicke, Heather Angel, and Dame May Whitty in the supporting roles along with Nigel Bruce, who is best remembered today as Basil Rathbone's bumbling Watson in a series of Sherlock Holmes films. If you like Hitchcock's early Hollywood work, be sure to see Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), and Notorious (1946). For more of Joan Fontaine, try Jane Eyre (1943). You'll find Grant teaming up with Hitchcock again in Notorious as well as To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966)

Why does Hollywood love nuns? For an industry generally obsessed with sex and skin, the motion picture business has produced a remarkable number of movies about those black clad, celibate sisters over the years, including serious dramas like The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Doubt (2008), romantic musicals like The Sound of Music (1965), and even wacky comedies like Sister Act (1992). The Trouble with Angels (1966) falls somewhere in the middle between drama and comedy; it is by turns serious and silly, and its view of the cloistered characters changes throughout the film, depending upon the moment and viewpoint being perceived. Those who feel a certain affection for nuns, the Catholic Church, or girls' boarding schools will find these institutions treated with respectful humor in The Trouble with Angels, although anyone looking for riveting drama or brashly provocative comedy had better skip this lightly handled tale of girls coming of age under the watchful eyes of their holy guardians.

Hayley Mills stars as Mary Clancy, a new student at St. Francis Academy for Girls, who arrives ready to give the nuns plenty of trouble in return for their efforts. She quickly recruits another new student, Rachel Devery (June Harding), as her best friend and co-conspirator, and the two of them proceed to stir up the well-regulated lives of the students and their teachers. They replace the nuns' sugar with bath salts, smoke in the bathrooms and the basement, and give the other students tours of the nuns' private quarters. Over time, however, Mary begins to see the nuns in a new light, especially the stern Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell).

There are both strengths and weaknesses in director Ida Lupino's approach to this tale. The plot of the film ranges over a period of several years, but the summers are treated as blank time, with the students shown departing the school in the spring and then returning each fall, a little older and a little different as a result of their months away. This tactic keeps the movie rolling along, and it does not feel very long, even though it runs 112 minutes from beginning to end. The scenes that we see are like snapshots taken at different moments over the course of this journey; we look in on Mary, Rachel, and the nuns at key points in their lives and then move on. This long view keeps the tension of the plot at a very low level, since we don't stay long enough in a particular moment for there to be much development. It may seem at times that the film is, indeed, just wandering along its path, stopping to look at items of interest now and then, but without much of a destination in mind. Mary, however, is a dynamic character, although her maturation over the course of the story is generally quite subtle. We can only understand how much she has grown and changed when we see the film's conclusion, and I don't want to give too much of that away.

I normally find that a little Hayley Mills goes a very long way, meaning that The Parent Trap (1961) has always struck me as sadistic in its insistence on twice as much Mills as any person could reasonably withstand, but Lupino has a very good sense of her women's stories, and perhaps it is her influence as the director that helps Mills give one of her most truthful and interesting performances. Mills' Mary also gets support from Rosalind Russell's strong presence as the Mother Superior; she gives us a very believable woman, never a caricature or a stereotype, but a real person who struggles to keep the school afloat and treats her students with patience, dignity, and love. June Harding has comparatively little to do as Rachel; her character remains static and functions primarily as Mary's sidekick, but the other nuns make up an interesting group. Mary Wickes brings her trademark comedy to the cloister as Sister Clarissa (she would play nuns several more times and even appeared in Sister Act and its sequel in the 1990s), and Marge Redmond brings gentle humor and goodwill to the role of Sister Liguori. Look for Binnie Barnes, Camilla Sparv, and Dolores Sutton among the other sisters at St. Francis. The most amusing small part in the film has to be that of Gypsy Rose Lee as a special teacher brought in to educate the girls about feminine "grace." The very idea of Gypsy Rose Lee setting foot inside a Catholic girls' school is enough to justify the entire film's existence.

If you are not familiar with Ida Lupino's work as an actress, be sure to check out films like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and The Man I Love (1947). Having created moving, complicated female characters onscreen herself, she was the perfect director for a picture like The Trouble with Angels, which focuses so delicately on the lives of the women and girls of St. Francis. Her other directorial efforts include Not Wanted (1949), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and many episodes of various television series. For more of Hayley Mills, try Pollyanna (1960), In Search of the Castaways (1962), and That Darn Cat! (1965). Four-time Oscar nominee Rosalind Russell is best remembered today for His Girl Friday (1940), Auntie Mame (1958), and Gypsy (1962). Last but not least, don't miss the very funny Mary Wickes in the holiday standard, White Christmas (1954).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: MODERN TIMES (1936)

Long past the point where Hollywood had turned to sound, Charlie Chaplin continued to believe in the silent film, although Modern Times (1936) does make use of sound in its own unique way. This would be the final appearance of the Tramp character whom Chaplin had first introduced in the Keystone comedies over twenty years before, and, fittingly, it reveals a bittersweet sentimentality, mingling real suffering and injustice with its slapstick laughs. For many Chaplin fans, Modern Times ranks as the greatest of the artist's films, and it certainly retains its charms today, demonstrating the eternal appeal of Chaplin's work and his sympathetic everyman hero.

The Tramp, as usual, encounters wildly varying highs and lows over the course of his adventures, which begin with his employment in a large, impersonal factory. He soon suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of the monotonous, grinding work on the factory floor and is committed to an asylum. When he recovers, he learns that the factories have closed and work is scarce. Mistaken for the leader of a workers' protest, the Tramp is thrown into jail, but he becomes a cellblock hero when he prevents a jailbreak. He likes jail so much that he begs to stay even after his actions win him a pardon. Determined to return to the comforts of his cell, the Tramp aids a young street urchin (Paulette Goddard) in the hope of being arrested, but his relationship with the penniless girl eventually alters the course of his efforts.

Watching Modern Times in the current historical moment is a strange experience; sometimes it seems too modern for comfort. The film details the miseries of unemployment and poverty when work is hard to find, and it reveals the dangers of an automated, assembly-line society, where people literally function as mere cogs in the machine. Work of this kind will kill the soul, but its absence starves the body, and the Tramp is all too right in preferring his prison cell to such a terrible set of choices. Early in the film, voice and power are given to the factory boss, who sits idle in his office while he demands an increasingly breakneck pace of labor from the workers. The Tramp and the girl later find a temporary respite from hardship in the world of performance, where they support themselves by singing and dancing. The Tramp's song number, a comical tune sung in a gibberish language, finally gives him a voice, too, but outside forces conspire to rob the downtrodden pair of their refuge, just as political persecution would drive Chaplin himself from the United States in 1952.

Chaplin performs the Tramp brilliantly, as always, but Modern Times has the additional attraction of Paulette Goddard as the Gamin. Chaplin's girl characters were often melodramatic innocents, like the mission worker of Easy Street (1917) or the blind flower girl in City Lights (1931), but Goddard plays a feisty, scrappy girl of the streets, a dirty rebel who steals bananas and dances about with barefoot grace. When she appeared in Modern Times, Goddard was still an unknown appearing in uncredited bit parts, but she went on to have a successful Hollywood career; she even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in So Proudly We Hail! (1943). As the Gamin, her flashing eyes and defiant posture make her a fascinating foil to Chaplin's gentle Tramp, and she deftly proves her own ability to hold the screen with that iconic character. In real life, Goddard and Chaplin were romantically involved when this film was made, but their relationship ended in the early 1940s.

Modern Times is also known for its use of Chaplin's great musical composition, "Smile," which serves as a theme for the film. For more films starring The Little Tramp, try The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). Along with Modern Times, City Lights (1931) is considered one of Chaplin's best pictures. Look for Paulette Goddard with Chaplin again in The Great Dictator (1940). She also makes memorable appearances in The Women (1939), The Ghostbreakers (1940), and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)

Although not as well-known, perhaps, as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or White Christmas (1954), Christmas in Connecticut (1945) is a holiday charmer justly beloved by many classic movie fans. Headliner Barbara Stanwyck makes an engaging heroine in this comedy of yuletide romance, but the real attractions here are the supporting players, particularly Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall as two funny fat fellows who constantly steal the show from the more serious leads. With lively direction from Peter Godfrey and entertaining performances from Dennis Morgan, Reginald Gardiner, and Una O’Connor, Christmas in Connecticut is a great addition to the “must-see” list of holiday films.

Stanwyck stars as Elizabeth Lane, a successful columnist whose idyllic tales of married domestic life are pure fiction. Her elaborate deception catches up with her when a Navy war hero (Dennis Morgan) and her unsuspecting publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) ask to spend Christmas at her imaginary farm, forcing Elizabeth to procure a home, a husband, and a baby on short notice. Elizabeth is even set to marry bland boyfriend John (Reginald Gardiner) to sell the holiday ruse, but sparks fly when she meets Jeff, the handsome hero, even though he’s engaged to another girl.

Stanwyck is best remembered today for her femme fatale roles in noir classics like Double Indemnity (1944), but she was adept at romantic comedy, as well. Christmas in Connecticut shows a softer, more relaxed Stanwyck than we see in most of her other films. As Elizabeth, her hair is longer and her look is more natural; she’s not playing the tough cookie type this time. The love triangle of the plot gives her two leading men to play against, the wet blanket, all work and no play architect played by Gardiner and the all-American wartime good guy played by Morgan. Of course Morgan’s Jeff is the man for her; we know it from the way her eyes light up the moment he walks in the door, but the fun comes from seeing how the two of them will overcome the obvious but largely fictional obstacles to their romance.

As good as Stanwyck’s performance is, the comedians in the supporting roles are the real gems. Greenstreet and Sakall, both portly character actors with talent as great as their girths, are simply hilarious, especially as they begin to work in cahoots near the movie’s close. Una O’Connor has less to do, but she’s in fine form, sporting her full Irish accent and the usual busybody bluster at which she excels. I would say Joyce Compton’s drawl as Mary Lee is a bit much had the actress not been born in Kentucky, but she certainly does pour it on. Try watching the 1939 short, Hollywood Hobbies, for a different sense of Compton’s sound and style.

See more of Stanwyck’s comedic roles in The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941). Greenstreet is celebrated today primarily for his debut role in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but you’ll also find him in Casablanca (1942) and Across the Pacific (1942). S.Z. Sakall appears with Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and also has a role in Casablanca, but he turns up in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), as well. Look for Dennis Morgan in Kitty Foyle (1940) and My Wild Irish Rose (1947). Don’t miss the marvelous Una O’Connor in classics like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952)

Marilyn Monroe is best remembered today for her work in musical comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959), but the blonde bombshell appeared in darker films, as well, among them the 1952 psychological thriller, Don't Bother to Knock, in which Monroe plays a mentally disturbed young woman whose employment as a hotel babysitter turns out to be a Very Bad Idea. Fans of Monroe who have only seen the lighter pictures will find this film a fascinating glimpse at a different side of the iconic star, one that demonstrates her talent as a real actress in a complex dramatic role. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the movie also features Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft, along with an excellent supporting cast that includes Elisha Cook, Jr. and Jim Backus.

Widmark plays the lead character, Jed, a pilot whose relationship with hotel chanteuse Lyn (Bancroft) is on the rocks. Stung by her rejection, Jed puts the moves on Nell (Monroe), but he soon discovers that the young woman is dangerously unhinged. Her instability spirals out of control as she confuses Jed with her own dead lover and blames her charge, Bunny, an innocent little girl, for coming between them.

Widmark, a veteran of noir thrillers, is an interesting choice for the lead, but he pulls it off. We expect him to be callous and unsympathetic, but his shifting perspective over the course of the picture works well. His girlfriend correctly accuses him of lacking "an understanding heart" during the opening scenes, and we see that flaw demonstrated in his willingness to lie to and seduce Nell; later, however, he comes to pity and worry about both Nell and Bunny. This encounter changes Jed in some profound and positive ways, putting him on an upward arc even as Nell slides down. Anne Bancroft makes her very first screen appearance as Jed's girl, Lyn, and she's a good foil to Monroe, although she appears in relatively few scenes. Elisha Cook, Jr. makes excellent use of his small part as the elevator operator who is also Nell's uncle, while Jim Backus provides plenty of personality for the supporting character of Bunny's businessman father.

Monroe brings fragility and fierce energy to her role as Nell; we realize right away that there's something wrong with the girl, but it's hard to pin down until the details of her past start spilling out. When she first appears she seems repressed, plain even, and very, very young; there's no hint of the sex appeal for which the actress would become so famous. Later, in borrowed finery, she plays at being a woman of the world, but the broken heart and mind of her character remain central to our perception of her. It's a shame that Monroe didn't get more parts like this one over the course of her career; it might have given more substance to our sense of her.

Try Niagara (1953) for another thriller with Monroe. You'll find Richard Widmark playing more typical characters in Kiss of Death (1947) and Road House (1948), but he also turns up in some good Westerns and more straightforward dramas. Anne Bancroft would go on to win a Best Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) and achieve Hollywood immortality as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967). If you like Donna Corcoran as Bunny, catch her in Angels in the Outfield (1951), as well. Roy Ward Baker also directed A Night to Remember (1953) and a number of Hammer horror films.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIG HEAT (1953)

Many noir devotees rank Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) very highly, and it certainly does have a great noir look and many memorable scenes, but I find that I much prefer some of Lang's other genre outings, like The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), to this more celebrated 1953 picture. My reluctance to embrace the movie has a great deal to do with gender; this is the opposite of a women's noir film, set in a deeply misogynistic world where matrons and molls are equally doomed. That's not to say that the movie is not worth watching, since it features great performances from Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame, but I don't think The Big Heat is a film that I will want to revisit any time soon.

Glenn Ford stars as police sergeant Dave Bannion, whose investigation of a fellow cop's suicide uncovers a ring of corruption and crime that goes all the way to the top brass in town. His interview with a barfly (Dorothy Green) leads to the girl's murder, but Bannion refuses to be bullied out of his pursuit, even after his own wife (Jocelyn Brando) is murdered in a car bombing meant to kill him. The local crime lord, Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), sends his thugs after Bannion, chief among them Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), but Stone's girlfriend, Debby (Gloria Grahame), gums up the works by taking a shine to Bannion and then aiding him in his investigation after an irate Vince disfigures her with a pot of boiling coffee. The body count rises as Bannion closes in on the truth, but the detective himself edges ever closer to becoming like those he hates as his anger and need for vengeance drive him forward.

The story reflects a lot of noir conventions, with its good cops and bad cops, its depictions of women, and its bloodthirstiness, but Glenn Ford's Bannion is never very compelling as the protagonist. He's too much of a man's man, stiff upper lip and all that, and he mostly emotes stony anger that breaks out into barely suppressed rage. He is presented to us as a man who does not cross the final line that separates him from the bad guys, but we get the sense that really he crossed it a long time ago, and only circumstances hold him back now. In other words, for a good guy he's too bad, and for a bad guy he's too good, and he either needs to soften up to be a real hero or toughen up and become a proper piece of work. His wife, Katie, played by Marlon Brando's older sister, ought to provide that softening, but the film doesn't show us enough there, especially in the way of her death scene, and Bannion seems tense around her and their daughter rather than domestic.

The bad guys have fewer issues with their identities, and they end up being the stronger and more interesting characters. Lee Marvin is just despicable as the sadistic Vince Stone, and that's exactly what he is supposed to be. Gloria Grahame's Debby enjoys playing with fire by hanging around Vince and taunting him; she wants to know how far she can go before he does something about it, and she gets her answer in a pot of hot coffee flung into her face. The dead police officer's wife, played by Jeanette Nolan, is another nasty prize; Debby claims that they are "sisters under the mink," both of them rotten women who have done horrible things for all the wrong reasons. All of these roles are played to the hilt by their performers, and they work so well that they wrest our attention away from our ostensible hero.

One thing that really strikes me about The Big Heat is the number of female characters in the movie. We have Debby the bitter mob girl, Katie the sweet wife, Lucy the earnest barfly, and Bertha the conniving widow. All of them end up dead. The film presents a lot of ugly ideas about women as disposable characters. Katie dies for being married to Bannion, Lucy dies for trying to do the right thing, Debby dies because she is sexually and morally tainted, and Bertha dies because that allows the hidden information to come out and clear the air. Another young woman, merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, is attacked by Vince with a lit cigarette; it seems that he has a penchant for torturing women by burning them. Perhaps the cigarette burns and the flaming death car give another meaning to the film's title. The deaths of all of the major women characters suggest that the world has no place for any of them, rather like some of Shakespeare's tragedies, where new world orders seem to be formed entirely of the surviving males. I don't know that male film critics notice these kinds of things, but for me, the film's treatment of its women constitutes a major concern, especially because the deaths are so brutal and absolute. There's a sadism at work here beyond that of Vince Stone, one that treats all female characters as mere sacrifices to men's plots, both fictional and cinematic.

Don't start an exploration of noir with The Big Heat unless you really like your films pitch black. Glenn Ford has more interesting roles in Gilda (1946) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Be sure to see more of Gloria Grahame in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Lee Marvin also has memorable roles in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Professionals (1966), although I admit to adoring his awful singing in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Fritz Lang's earlier work includes masterpieces like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931); he also directed the interesting Gothic mystery, House by the River (1950).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: IT'S A JOKE, SON! (1947)

Southerners are known for their regional devotion, but the hero of It's a Joke, Son! (1947) takes that loyalty to absurd levels in this quirky comedy inspired by skits from Allens' Alley, a popular radio show hosted by comedian Fred Allen. Directed by Benjamin Stoloff, It's a Joke, Son! is a delightfully silly film, full of comic mischief and good humor, with truly funny performances from its leads. The comedy of the picture depends upon a gentle ribbing of Southern institutions and a more complex engagement of the gender struggles found in so many classic films, and fans of O Brother, Where art Thou? (2000) will find many similarities in tone and content between the two movies.

Kenny Delmar, who created the character for Allen's Alley, stars as the Southern fried hero, Beauregard Claghorn, whose devotion to Dixie is matched only by his subservience to his wife, Magnolia (Una Merkel). The Claghorns are at odds with one another over the romance of daughter Mary Lou (June Lockhart) with suitor Jeff Davis (Kenneth Farrell), whom Beauregard likes but Magnolia finds unimpressive. Their disagreements become more pitched when Magnolia and Beauregard end up running against one another in a political campaign, but the corrupted incumbent tries to disrupt the election by kidnapping Beauregard.

Jokes about Southern traditions abound. The Claghorns live off the income derived from a family mint farm, which supplies the necessary ingredient in mint juleps. Magnolia is first induced to run for State Senator at the prompting of The Daughters of Dixie, a clucking flock of old biddies who sit around lamenting the fall of the Old South and calling for the return of Prohibition. In one particularly entertaining scene, Beauregard accidentally serves the chattering scolds a potent mixed punch that soon loosens them up beyond all decorum. Beauregard's devotion to the South is so great that the only sure fire way to summon him is to play "Dixie," a tactic that his nagging wife frequently employs to roust him out of hiding.

The War between the States has given way, however, to the war between the sexes, and most of the plot of the movie revolves around Beauregard's attempt to stave off his domineering wife's efforts to get him completely under her thumb. Beauregard only runs for State Senator because, as he says, "My life wouldn't be worth living" if Magnolia were to achieve that kind of public, political power. Una Merkel's Magnolia is certainly one of the steel variety of that flower; even her daughter implores her to be kinder to her husband, although it takes a drastic turn of events for Magnolia to relinquish arms. Beauregard begins the movie thoroughly hen-pecked, but the end offers a sense of greater balance between the spouses, although we (thankfully) get no hint of punitive masculine revolt like that seen in Kiss Me, Kate (1953) or McLintock! (1963).

Classic movie fans will find a whole host of great character actors in this film. Look for Douglass Dumbrille and Jimmy Conlin as the crooked politicians. June Lockhart, of course, went on to television immortality as Timmy's mother on Lassie, and Daisy the Dog appeared in the popular series of Blondie films. Kenny Delmar, who had been the announcer on Allen's Alley, went on to do a fair bit of voice work on cartoons like Underdog, which is ironic because his own Senator Claghorn also turned out to be a cartoon character in the making. Beauregard Claghorn helped to inspire the creation of that memorable Looney Tunes rooster, Foghorn Leghorn, who borrowed not only the Senator's Southern pride but many of his catch phrases, as well.

It's a Joke, Son! is now in the public domain, so you can watch it online at the Internet Archive or other sites that stream legally available films. You'll find a very young Kenny Delmar in the 1921 D.W. Griffith film, Orphans of the Storm, but he mostly turns up on television programs and in cartoons. Catch Kentucky native Una Merkel in classics like 42nd Street (1933), Destry Rides Again (1939), and Summer and Smoke (1961), the last of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. See more of June Lockhart's early career in Sergeant York (1940), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and Son of Lassie (1945). Douglass Dumbrille also stars in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and A Day at the Races (1937), while Jimmy Conlin turns up in small roles in all sorts of places, but especially in Preston Sturges comedies like Sullivan's Travels (1941) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Having Myself a Classic Movie Christmas

We're a full week into December, and it's time to get serious about classic Christmas movies. TCM is showing 33 of them this month, including several fan favorites and a lot of less obvious choices, but I'm mostly a traditionalist when it comes to classic holiday films (with a few notable exceptions). Here are six movies I have to watch over the holidays this year, or it just won't be Christmas.

1) It's a Wonderful Life (1946) - My father loves this movie, and I grew up watching it several times each holiday season. It still gets to me today, and I love the huge cast of memorable performers, from the big name leads to the veteran character players. This year I actually get to host a screening of the Capra classic at our local library!

2) White Christmas (1954) - I just love everything about this film, from its WWII patriotism and selfless themes to its crazy drag version of "Sisters" and Mary Wickes' nosy housekeeper. The songs are fantastic, the mood is nostalgic and sweet, and the holidays aren't complete without Danny, Bing, Rosemary, and Vera-Ellen.

3) Three Godfathers (1948) - So I've got a well-established thing for classic Westerns, especially those John Ford/John Wayne collaborations, and this one is simply a Yuletide treasure. Yes, it's another iteration of the now familiar "three men and a baby" plot, and not even the first Western to have the title or tell the story, but the Duke, Pedro Armendariz, and Harry Carey, Jr., are just so lovable and rough that I can't resist them. Personal favorites like Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, and Jane Darwell help to make this one a holiday essential at my house.

4) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) - Yes, there are lots of great versions of Charles Dickens'  Christmas tale, but this one is my favorite hands-down, not just for the goofy Muppet humor but for the incredible puppetry work on the Ghosts, especially the Ghost of Christmas Past. Hey, I love the Muppets so much I co-edited two books about them, so nobody can be surprised if I spend time watching Muppet holiday movies every time December rolls around (I watch all of the other Muppet holiday shows, too, but this one is the best). Gonzo as Charles Dickens? Genius! Michael Caine as Scrooge? Fabulous!

5) Scrooged (1988) - Bill Murray's irreverent take on A Christmas Carol is a riot, and it's even got Robert Mitchum! The Ghosts are especially fun, thanks to over-the-top performances from David Johansen and Carol Kane. Bobcat Goldthwait steals his scenes as an ex-employee pushed a little too far by Bill Murray's modern-day Scrooge.

6) Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) - Having grown up a veritable resident of the Island of Misfit Toys, I find Rudolph's outcast protagonist deeply sympathetic in this quirky TV classic. We actually watch all of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials each year, but this one is especially funny and poignant, and full of quotable lines thanks to Larry Mann as Yukon Cornelius. "It's a night not fit for man nor beast! Here's the man... and here's the beast!" - such lines are endlessly repeated in my family this time of year.

Of course, I'll be watching other holiday films this month, including Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), 101 Dalmatians (1961), A Christmas Story (1983), and even Gremlins (1984), but these six are at the top of my nice list when it comes to Christmas pleasures. Bake some cookies, make a cup of cocoa, and tell me about your favorite Christmas movies in the comments section below!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

How does one make a movie about burlesque strippers during the height of the Hays Code? It seems like an impossible task, but that's exactly what Lady of Burlesque (1943) attempts to do, with Barbara Stanwyck as the titillating titular lady. It's a minor film from Stanwyck's body of work, directed by William A. Wellman and adapted from a novel by burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, but it has certain charms, including a really striking quantity of exposed female flesh. As a backstage murder comedy, Lady of Burlesque delivers some laughs, several corpses, and an interesting perspective on the changing world of stage entertainment in the early twentieth century.

Stanwyck plays Dixie Daisy, the new girl in a burlesque show staged at an old opera house. She deals with the usual backstage politics, including jealousy and fighting among the girls and romantic entanglements among the various performers, but the atmosphere becomes even more heated when one of the strippers turns up dead, strangled by her own g-string. Dixie and an amorous comic, Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea), dance around their attraction to one another while trying to figure out who is conniving to ruin the show by killing off its stars. In the meantime, the killer strikes again, and the cops are ready to nab the first likely suspect in a crowd of offbeat characters.

The worst part of the movie might be Stanwyck's singing, but she looks great in the skimpy burlesque costumes and gives the dance numbers a good go. She seems perfectly at home in the backstage setting; in fact, Stanwyck herself was a product of that world, having been raised by her showgirl sister after the early death of their mother. The other girls are all amusing characters, especially Stephanie Bachelor's irritating prima donna, the Princess Nirvena. Michael O'Shea's Biff is a fun guy and a good match for Stanwyck, although Pinky Lee is funnier as the childlike comic, Mandy.

If you like Stanwyck's comedic turns in The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), you'll enjoy Lady of Burlesque, as well, and it's also good for those who like the backstage shenanigans of "puttin' on a show" films like 42nd Street (1933). Lady of Burlesque earned an Oscar nomination for its score, but there were a whopping 16 nominees for the award that year, including Casablanca (1941), although the winner was ultimately The Song of Bernadette (1943). Oddly enough, William A. Wellman's other 1943 picture was The Ox-Bow Incident.

For more of Stanwyck's lesser known films, try Night Nurse (1931), Baby Face (1933), and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). She earned an Academy Award nomination for Stella Dallas (1937) but is probably best remembered today as the scheming murderess of Double Indemnity (1944). Gypsy Rose Lee appeared in several films, including Stage Door Canteen (1943) and The Trouble with Angels (1966), but the memorable film associated with her is the biopic, Gypsy (1962), with Natalie Wood playing the striptease celebrity. See more of director Wellman's work in The Public Enemy (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and Westward the Women (1951). He made several other excellent Westerns over the course of his career.

Lady of Burlesque is now in the public domain, so you can watch it for free at the Internet Archive or on various streaming video providers like Netflix Instant Viewing.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

The vast array of memorabilia that has sprung up around It's a Wonderful Life (1946) over the last two decades tends to support the general sense of the holiday staple as the ultimate example of director Frank Capra's corny sentimentality, strengthening that idea we have of the movie being all about angels and family values and the treacly sweetness embodied in a kid named Zuzu. There are snow globes and coffee table books, Christmas tree ornaments and talking greeting cards, all of them spouting the fuzzy warmth of the movie's ending: "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!"

These things, as ubiquitous as they are, do not go to the heart of It's a Wonderful Life; they show us only the the last glimpse of a story that has endured not because of its few bright moments, but because of its deeper understanding of the dark side of Christmas and of life, as well. It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas story for the losers, the nice guys who finish last, the Bob Cratchits drowning in a world of Scrooges. It's a holiday film for those who find themselves miserably and helplessly depressed, not in spite of the season, but because of it. For these reasons it remains ones of the best and most truthful of seasonal films, and people who only ever catch the ending have missed everything that matters about it.

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a good man, yes, but this is a story that finds him trying to commit suicide at Christmas; his life has overwhelmed him so completely that the view from the bridge looks awfully tempting. Neither his loving wife (Donna Reed) nor their brood of young children are compelling enough reasons to keep George from jumping; it takes divine intervention to interrupt his despair, and that intervention turns up in the person of a daft little fellow named Clarence (Henry Travers), who tells a skeptical George that he is an angel. George, still miserable, wishes that he had never been born, and with this utterance the action of the story gets into gear, telling both the story of George's life and the story of life without George.

The memorabilia enshrines only the final scene of the film, that of a happy George and his family beneath the Christmas tree, but the darker scenes work themselves more subtly into the viewer's memory. George, having never been born, meets the woman who would have been his mother, and of course she does not know him. Lovely Mary, a lonely spinster, runs from him in fear. The grief stricken pharmacist whom George saved from a fatal mistake now wanders the town a broken drunk, mocked and reviled. Loathsome Potter, like a fat spider, looms over this town full of flies, and in George's absence the whole scene sinks and gasps and gives itself up to despair. Without George, the town becomes like him at the beginning of the film. His suffering is replaced by that of everyone else in Bedford Falls.

Of course, the ultimate message is positive, that one person makes a difference, that people will come together and do what is right when the time comes, that it really is a wonderful life, no matter how bad it may seem in the short term. Still, it acknowledges depression and suffering as a part of the Christmas experience, and it presents George as a sympathetic protagonist even when he is most unhappy. Looking at George's life in review, we have to admit that he has plenty of things to be unhappy about, and the redemption of George's faith at the end of the film is not a correction of his erroneous attitude so much as it is a long-overdue evening of the balance. George is not Scrooge, hardened and cruel, but Cratchit pushed one last lump of coal too far. We want to see him win for a change because we feel like him, overburdened, always one step behind our dreams, never in the right place at the right time to make life work for us for once.

Most of us have days when the view from the bridge looks tempting, and it's because of that shared misery that George speaks to us. If you have been a winner all your life and are happy at Christmas then you don't need to watch It's a Wonderful Life; it's not for you. It's for those of us who doubt, who grieve, who harbor sadness in our hearts as the carols are sung. It's for those of us who need to be reminded not so much that it's a wonderful life, but that we aren't alone in sometimes feeling that it's not.

If Capra's holiday classic is your only experience with the director, be sure to see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). George Bailey was Jimmy Stewart's first post-war role; see him in Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) for more pre-war work, and then compare those with other post-war films like Rope (1948), Winchester '73 (1950), and Vertigo (1958). For more Christmas classics, try Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: STOWAWAY (1936)

We watch a fair bit of Shirley Temple at our house, in part because my daughter has declared her to be "just awesome." Watching Stowaway (1936) with a hardcore Temple fan like that is an interesting experience; rarely does one see a picture with such a gushing devotee. While few adults are likely to share a little girl's passionate attachment to the curly-haired waif, Stowaway is a perfectly watchable and entertaining example of the Temple canon, and it features several adult stars, especially film buff favorite Alice Faye, who are likely to catch the more mature viewer's attention.

Temple is, as usual, an adorable little girl whose misfortunes put her in the market for a new family. Here she plays Barbara "Ching-Ching" Stewart, whose missionary parents were killed in China some years before the film opens, and whose strict foster parents also succumb to local violence when bandits descend on the village where they live. Ching-Ching escapes with the help of a kindly Chinese mentor (Philip Ahn), but she ends up on her own in Shanghai, where she encounters Tommy Randall (Robert Young), a wealthy American playboy who takes the orphan under his wing. Through his relationship with Ching-Ching, Tommy becomes involved with the attractive Susan Parker (Alice Faye), but Alice's engagement to another man proves a stumbling block to Tommy's romantic aspirations and to Ching-Ching's adoption by her newfound friends.

The Oriental exoticism of Stowaway sets it apart from other Temple pictures like Captain January (1936), Heidi (1937), and The Little Princess (1939). The plots of most of Temple's movies are so similar that it takes a unique atmosphere to differentiate them, and the Chinese setting is a nice choice, with lots of crowded street scenes, attractive costumes, and opportunities for the extravagantly cute star to speak Chinese. Tonally, the movie offers a mix of predictable Chinese stereotypes and more even-handed depictions, but it at least avoids the worst offenses that sometimes pop up in films of this era. The Sun-Lo character, played by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, is clearly intelligent and a strong paternal force in Ching-Ching's life, but he functions mainly as a source of quaint proverbs and more or less vanishes from the movie once Ching-Ching leaves her foster parents' home.

Veteran comedy director William A. Seiter keeps the movie rolling along, and there's good chemistry between the adult performers to engage the audience's interest. Robert Young, best remembered today as television's Marcus Welby, MD, makes an affable hero whose affection for his young friend seems natural and sweet. Alice Faye is the feistier of the sparring pair; her upturned nose, sexy little overbite, and surprisingly deep singing voice bring a distinctive charm to a fairly straightforward role. Popular character actor Eugene Pallette, always a memorable presence, makes sporadic appearances throughout the film as one of Tommy Randall's drinking pals, while the ever proper Arthur Treacher plays Tommy's long-suffering valet, Atkins. Treacher performs his trademark butler character in several Shirley Temple films, including Curly Top (1935), Heidi, and The Little Princess, and there's a natural comic rapport between the two that enlivens their scenes together in most of their work.

Of course, Shirley Temple is the real star of the film, as winning and spunky as always as she tackles Chinese dialogue, song numbers, and a very amusing dance routine with a dummy of Fred Astaire. Her effervescent charm still melts the hearts of children and sentimental adults, but mere cuteness is not the limit of her appeal. She really does sing, dance, and act beautifully.

If you enjoy Shirley in Stowaway, you will appreciate her other films, as well. Avoid The Little Princess as a starting point if you are watching with young children; although it has become her signature picture, it contains too much emotionally wrought material for them to handle. The same goes for Wee Willie Winkie (1937), which is more a John Ford movie with Shirley Temple in it than a typical Temple film. Devoted Temple fans might also enjoy seeing her as an adolescent with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), while those who want something darker might prefer her performance with John Wayne in Fort Apache (1948).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942)

Billy Wilder would direct some of the most memorable films to come out of the Hollywood studio era, including Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959), but every director has to start somewhere, and the relatively lightweight comedy The Major and the Minor (1942) was Wilder's first time directing an American film. Wilder and frequent collaborator Charles Brackett wrote the screenplay for this charmingly perverse picture, which foreshadows Some Like It Hot in its focus on the romantic misadventures that individuals can stumble into when they pretend to be someone they aren't. With a rich, if rather risque, subtext and lively performances from stars Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland, Wilder's The Major and the Minor is well worth watching, even if it doesn't pack the same cinematic punch as the illustrious director's later work.

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) has been trying to make it in New York City for a couple of years, but she finally gets sick of the constant sexual harassment and unwanted attention and decides to head home to Iowa. She has prudently kept just enough money for a return ticket sealed in an envelope since her arrival in the big city, but she is devastated to learn that the train fare has gone up in the interim. She solves this problem by disguising herself as a twelve year old in order to qualify for the half price fare, and in this persona she ends up in the sleeping compartment of kindly Major Kirby (Ray Milland). Kirby's imperfect vision prevents him from discovering Susan's ruse even in close quarters, and he gallantly offers to help the "little girl" get home to her mother. The pair end up at the military school where Kirby teaches, and there Susan must attempt to perpetuate her deception in the face of Kirby's fiancee, the rest of the faculty, and an entire academy of eager adolescent cadets.

The well-developed Ginger Rogers is not particularly credible as a twelve year old, but that's part of the gag, especially because the rest of the adults are so good at seeing what they are told to see rather than what is right in front of their noses. Rogers has wonderful fun switching back and forth between her identities as adult Susan and childish "Su-Su," and her scenes with the lovestruck cadets are simply hilarious. Ray Milland is clueless but lovable as the myopic major; he's the ultimate straight man for all of the shenanigans that are going on around him, never quite figuring any of it out. Stealing her scenes as usual is the fantastic Diana Lynn as Lucy Hill, the sharp-eyed younger sister of the thoroughly nasty woman Major Kirby intends to marry. Lynn's precociously adult personality and hard-boiled way around a line make her a perfect foil for Rogers, and the two have some great scenes together as they plot against their common nemesis, Lucy's older sister, Pamela (Rita Johnson).

You could probably watch The Major and the Minor with the kids and have a swell time with the comedy of errors surface, but the subtext of the picture digs down into some of Wilder's favorite adult themes, including seduction and manipulation, along with an eyebrow-raising flirtation with pedophilia. We as the audience know that Susan Applegate is really an adult, but Major Kirby doesn't, and this makes his increasing attraction to "Su-Su" rather alarming. There is a foreshadowing of Lolita here, played for laughs, of course, but the idea of Ray Milland as an amiable, accidental Humbert Humbert is bound to make a modern viewer a little uncomfortable. Luckily for Wilder, Nabokov's novel wouldn't be published until 1955, so his original audiences were spared what is now an inevitable association.

Wilder's film depends upon two great assumptions about the sexes: men are born pigs, and women are born liars. The cadets at the school behave no better than the men in New York City, a point made more obvious by having one student actually be the son of the last metropolitan masher to put the moves on Susan. Only Kirby remains above this sort of behavior, a kind of masculine ingenue, which might help to explain his interest in the seemingly infantile Su-Su. Susan, Pamela, and Lucy all display a natural talent for deception; they play a vicious, complicated game with one another in which the men and boys are their pawns, with the unsuspecting Kirby as the final prize. This is heady stuff, either hilariously funny or unforgivably faithless; what Wilder here spins in the direction of comedy also spirals toward tragedy in Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd.

Take a few minutes to appreciate Ginger Rogers' real mother, Lela Rogers, as Susan's mother in the film. They bear a very marked resemblance to one another, and it's an amusing example of the intermingling of life and art. For more of Rogers herself, see Top Hat (1935), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Monkey Business (1952). Ray Milland is best remembered today for his Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend (1945), he also stars in The Big Clock (1948), Rhubarb (1951), and Dial M for Murder (1954) If you enjoy Diana Lynn's performance, which you certainly should, be sure to catch her in Preston Sturges' crackerjack comedy, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). Lynn also makes an appearance in the Martin and Lewis remake of The Major and the Minor, the 1955 film You're Never Too Young. Drew Barrymore's cute romantic comedy, Never Been Kissed (1999), offers another iteration of the same basic concept that drives Wilder's picture.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.