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I Remember Mama (1948)
I REMEMBER MAMA (RKO Radio, 1948), a Dore Schary presentation, produced and directed by George Stevens, stars Irene Dunne in what many consider to be her most memorable motion picture performance. Based on the play by John Van Druten, and from the novel "Mama's Bank Account" by Kathryn Forbes, it's a heartwarming drama about a Norwegian family of 1910 San Francisco as narrated directly to the screen by Mama's adult daughter, Katrin, wonderfully played by Barbara Bel Geddes. As much as her character nostalgically relates to why she remembers Mama, her story, written in manuscript form from recollections taken from her daily diary, is not only about her mother, but on Mama's family as well.
Katrin Hansen (Barbara Bel Geddes) is an American-born daughter to Norwegian-born parents, Marta (Irene Dunne) and Lars (Philip Dorn). Her ambition is to become an accomplished writer. Among family members of their home on the Larkin Street hill are her elder brother (and only boy), Nels (Steve Brown), and her two younger sisters, Christine (Peggy McIntyre) and Dagmar (June Hedlin). The household also includes Dagmar's male cat she calls Elizabeth. Other family members coming to visit from time to time are Aunt Jenny (Hope Landin), Aunt Sierid (Edith Evanson) and Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby). Trina, a fragile-faced 42-year-old spinster who wants nothing more in life than to marry Peter Thorkelson (Edgar Bergen), a funeral parlor operator. There's also a little cousin named Arne (Tommy Ivo) as well as Uncle Chris Halvison (Oscar Homolka), the very one, except for Mama, everyone fears due to his constant yelling, unaware that's how he speaks to everybody. The Hansen's also have a boarder, Jonathan Hyde (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a dignified English gentleman and unemployed actor earning his keep by reading aloud nightly literary classics as "A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" to attentive family members way into the late night hours. Although Hyde never pays his rent, Mama feels he's offered more than she realizes. Following a series of standout scenes that play like individual novel chapters, Katrin resumes her story about her family life and why her mother was so special to her. Other members of the cast consist of Rudy Vallee (Doctor Johnson); Barbara O'Neal (Jessie Brown Halvison, Uncle Chris's wife); and former silent screen actress, Cleo Ridgely in a small role as a schoolteacher.
It is no doubt that the role of Mama rightfully belongs to Irene Dunne. Nobody else could have played her as effectively as she did. Very much as Dunne earned her well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, the movie didn't fall entirely on her character from start to finish as did Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). She very much shares her story with other family members, some who stand out more than some others. While there were three eccentric aunts, only Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina made enough impression to be singled out for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. And then there's the talk-yelling Uncle Chris, wonderfully played by Oscar Homolka (Best Supporting Actor nominee), sporting huge mustache and bushy eyebrows. What a scene stealer he was. Surprise casting goes to Rudy Vallee, former crooner of musicals and later non-singing stuffy characters, here as the serious-minded doctor; and Edgar Bergen, best known for his ventriloquist act with Charlie McCarthy, in a very rare straight movie role. There were times Bergen nearly talks like his ventriloquist McCarthy dummy. Almost unrecognizable under his glasses, mustache and bald head in the manner of character actor, Victor Moore, it's a surprise that Bergen's role wasn't played by the Norwegian-type actor of John Qualen.
Through its extreme length of 134 minutes, I REMEMBER MAMA moves at a leisurely pace but is never dull. Memorable moments go to Irene Dunne's Mama keeping her promise to her daughter following an emergency operation by sneaking in the hospital and paying her a visit against doctor's orders, followed by her singing a tender lullaby; Mama forced to chloroform Dagmar's sick cat, to surprising results; Mama and Katrin's visit to Uncle Chris at his deathbed, thus learning what a wonderful person he really was; and Mama's clever means of getting to meet with famed celebrity novelist, Florence Dana Moorehead (Florence Bates) regarding her daughter's manuscripts, among others. Philip Dorn as the father, is basically background character here, but does get a tender moment all to himself giving fatherly advise to Katrin regarding her mother's broach and why she should go on with the school play. Let's not overlook Barbara Bel Geddes (Best Supporting Actress nominee) bringing gentleness and joy through her character, Katrin, from teenager to near adult woman author.
Very nostalgic down to the costumes and hilly streets of old San Francisco, I REMEMBER MAMA is more than that. It's a story about family togetherness, and never ending the day in anger with one another. Unforgettable to say the least, considering this to be Irene Dunne's first time at her former home studio since 1940, only to be her last great movie before her retirement by 1952. Based on a popular play that also featured Homolka, I REMEMBER MAMA later became the basis of a long-running but now forgotten television series (1949-1957) starring Peggy Wood.
For many years, I REMEMBER MAMA aired regularly on commercial television dating back to the 1960s, especially on Mother's Day, before availability in video cassette, DVD, and cable television broadcasts, notably on American Movie Classics (prior to 2001), and Turner Classic Movies. Enjoy. (**** Mother's Day cards)
Speak Easily (1932)
Footlights and Fools
SPEAK EASILY (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), directed by Edward Segwick, stars Buster Keaton in one of his better sound comedies for the studio. Still unable to recapture the creativity and wit from his silent movie days of the 1920s, SPEAK EASILY did manage to resort Buster back to character-type of old as a good-natured half- wit, this time with the comedy support of Jimmy Durante. For their second of three movies as a team, though here more basically as partners, it allows each to perform their individual styles before joining forces together for the climax.
Taken from the story by Clarence Budington Kelland, the plot introduces Timoleon Zanders-Post (Buster Keaton) as a professor at Potts College, whose life is a lonely one. Aside from his classroom teachings, he has no friends nor any outside interests. His servant, Jenkins (Sidney Bracey), advises him to go out into the world and find life. After getting a bogus telegram of he inheriting $750,000, the Professor quits his job, cleans out his bank account, and goes out to enjoy life, even if he has to buy it. While on board a train bound for Chicago, the professor encounters James Dodge (Jimmy Durante), a member of the a theatrical troupe called The Midnight Maids Company. Also in the troupe are a would-be actress and dancer named Pansy Peets (Ruth Selwyn) and her stage mother (Hedda Hopper), Reno (Edward Brophy); among others. Because the troupe is in financial straits, the Professor offers to pay off its back dues. By doing this, he is made manager of the company. Taking the show titled "Speak Easily" to New York City for a tryout, its stage director, (Sidney Toler), calls it the worst show he's ever seen in his 30 years on Broadway. During the course of the story, the professor falls victim to another member of the troupe, a vamp named Eleanor Espere (Thelma Todd), while comedian James tries to make his witless jokes funny. Problems arise on opening night when a summons man (Fred Kelsey) comes to the theater with an injunction to close the show because of the professor's mythical inheritance.
With the title being a parody of bars at the time called a "Speakeasy," SPEAK EASILY might have been a title used for a Three Stooges comedy short, but turns out to be one for MGM's 80 minute feature. The roles of both Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante are difficult since it calls for both to be acceptable and likable through their comedy performances. Before Clifton Webb made being serious funny in his movies of the 1950s, Buster Keaton does so here playing a no- nonsense yet shy professor, dignified with glasses, speaking in high vocabulary words and always carrying an umbrella for a rainy day. As in his previous MGM efforts, Buster often acts confused and resorts to occasional pratfalls. Co-star, Jimmy Durante, is completely opposite. He's outgoing, confident and obnoxiously talkative. He often tries getting laughs through his unfunny jokes but does get the love of his audience through his traditional piano playing songs communicating with the camera through his eyes. Durante does have a memorable scene that was later clipped in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT (1974) as he plays the piano to stage director (wonderfully played by pre "Charlie Chan" actor Sidney Toler) introducing his latest composition of "Singing in the Rain," a song originally introduced in 1929, which for 1932, be far from original. Other moments of comedy include one at the train station mishap involving Buster's trunk and later the baby of a stereotypical Italian couple, Tony (Henry Armetta and Rosa (Inez Palage); Thelma Todd's vamping Buster and each getting drunk should have been funnier than played; and the climatic show where everything goes wrong. Also included are songs such as: "Good Times Are Here Now," "I Could Do Without Broadway" (sung by Jimmy Durante) and "Speak Easily."
Built upon the premise of an outsider taking part of show business, SPEAK EASILY is a kind of attraction to hold an audience attention, mainly due to total opposites as Keaton and Durante taking the limelight separately or together. Otherwise, just another MGM comedy that tries hard to become a comedy classic. Distributed on video cassette in the 1990s, and later DVD, availability on cable television is often found these days on Turner Classic Movies. (**1/2)
Talent Scout (1937)
TALENT SCOUT (Warner Brothers, 1937), directed by William Clemens, is a very minor "B" musical/comedy that could have been an exceptional programmer about Hollywood and the movies, but it isn't. Taken from an original story by George R. Bilson, the product is far from original since it contains some elements lifted from the George S. Hoffman and Most Hart 1928 play and later screen adaptation to ONCE IN A LIFETIME (Universal, 1932) along with TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (Warners, 1934) featuring Pat O'Brien. Donald Woods goes against type doing a Pat O'Brien in the title role through his fast talking, quick thinking fashion. While the studio's relatively newcomer, Jeanne Madden, following her promising movie debut opposite Dick Powell in STAGE STRUCK (1936), gathers the most attention, for her second screen performance,unfortunately turns out to be both unrewarding and unmemorable.
The story opens on a cross country tour bus with outdoor sign reading "Beauty on Wheels" with Steve Stewart (Donald Woods), publicity man and talent scout for Apex Pictures riding along with numerous Hollywood starlets. After the bus gets stuck on in the mud, Steve hitches a ride with Jed Hoskins (John Pearson), a country yokel, to the nearest service station ten miles away for help. Dropped off at Joe's Place, Steve makes a collect call to A.J. Lambert (Joseph Crehan), the studio head, informing him of the situation, but gets fired instead "as of last Saturday." Stranded, Steve hitch-hikes his way to a small town in Detroit where he stops in a burlesque theater where he sees Mary Brannigan (Jeanne Madden) performing. Amazed by her talent, he takes her back with him to Hollywood at a promise of grooming her to major movie stardom. Following a screen test, M.B. Carter (Charles Halton) and Smith (David Carlyle) become disappointed with her song delivery through suggestions by Steve. However, he discovers the error in his ways after listening to Mary later singing a ballad in her own manner. She gets a spot singing at a charity benefit at KFWB Radio where this time, she becomes a sensation. Having her name changed to Doris Pierce, she soon stars in a series of motion pictures starring Raymond Crane (Fred Lawrence), much to the chagrin of Bernice Fox (Rosalind Marquis), his frequent co-star who loves him. Through the course of a year, Pierce and Crane have become a popular screen item. Having fallen in love with her, Steve intends on proposing to Mary, but finds she has other plans for her future. Others appearing in the cast are Teddy Hart (Moe Jerome); Helen Valkis (Ruth); David Carlyle (Bert Smith); and Frank Orth (The Theater Manager). Although Warner Brothers contract players as Allen Jenkins, Joan Blondell and Patricia Ellis are said to have cameo appearance in TALENT SCOUT, their scenes are actually clipped from their earlier movies, notably Jenkins from TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (1934) and Blondell from Broadway GONDOLIER (1935).
With a forgettable story comes such forgettable songs by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl as: "Silent Picture Days," "Silent Picture Days" (reprise); "I Am a Singer, You Are the Song," "I Am the Singer, You Are the Song" (reprise, all sung by Jeanne Madden); "No, No Senor" (sung by Rosalind Marquis, dance by ensemble); "Born to Love," "I Was Wrong" and "Born to Love" (all sung by Fred Lawrence and Jeanne Madden). Only "No, No Senor" gets a slight production number status at a movie studio set.
The problem with TALENT SCOUT is that it tries to put so much in its tight 62 minutes, resulting to very brief bits here and there indicating heavy editing and deleted scenes before the movie was released in theaters. Madden is introduced singing a song about silent picture days, but is not sung throughout. She sings a few bars of the song, then followed immediately with a scene where she's approached by the talent scout, and suddenly she's on her way to Hollywood. On the comedic side comes a rustic named Jed Hodkins who, for offering the talent scout and discoverer of "Dick Powell, Kay Francis and Pat O'Brien" a ride, and having the scout patiently listen to his rendition to "Am I Blue?," takes the talent scout seriously by coming to Apex Pictures later on to look him up for a job, only to get the run- around. Then there's Mary Treen as the no- nonsense secretary, Janet Morris, who allows playwrights Muscleman and Twirp (Eddie Acuff and Donald Kerr) to await in the waiting room for four months to meet with the studio head. And what's become of the stranded bus full of starlets earlier in the story is never revealed.
As hard as the cast tries to deliver a fine performance, it just doesn't work. Jeanne Madden would appear in one more motion picture, SEA RACKETEERS (Republic, 1937) before leaving the motion picture business forever. Donald Wood would resume his usual style of acting for many years to come (playing the father in THIRTEEN GHOSTS (1960), for example), but never developed himself to a top leading mustache actor as Clark Gable. Never distributed to home video, this rarely seen TALENT SCOUT has been presented every so often on Turner Classic Movies, especially on themes of Hollywood's Hollywood, but don't expect too much. (**)
Up the River (1930)
UP THE RIVER (Fox, 1930), directed by John Ford, has nothing to do with a show boat floating through place to place on the Mississippi River, but in convict's terms as someone who's "sent to prison." Basically a comedy-drama, the movie itself has very little significance except for it being the feature film introduction to future screen legends, Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, in their only movie together. Being a buddy/buddy type of movie in the tradition of Fox's own Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, UP THE RIVER uses the same premise of sorts between Tracy and fellow studio contract player, Warren Hymer, as both leading man's good friend and comic foil.
At a state's prison in the south, Saint Louis (Spencer Tracy) and Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) are making a prison break. As they enter an automobile, Louis takes off leaving Dan behind after tricking him into checking the back tire. Later in Kansas City, Dan is seen with a band of Salvation Army people preaching goodness and forgiveness for others, only to forget himself when he sees Louis in the crowd of spectators, followed by a fight. Back in prison, this time at Bensonatta in the Midwest, Louis and Dan share the same cell with a baseball coach called "Pop" (William Collier Sr.) and Steve Jordan (Humphrey Bogart), a rich young man serving time for murder, leaving his family back home to believe he's away in China. About to be paroled in a few months, Steve, who has an office job, meets and interviews a new inmate, Judy Fields (Claire Luce, in movie debut), sentenced to three years in the woman's section of the nearby prison. Steve falls in love with Judy and wants to marry her upon her release. After Steve's parole, he returns to his New England home, unaware he's being followed by Frosby (Morgan Wallace), the man who framed Judy, and is out to blackmail him or expose his whereabouts to his family. When Louis learns of Steve's situation through Judy's letter, he and Dan make another escape to help their former cellmate out of a jam. Other members of the cast consist of George MacFarlane (John Jessup); Louise MacIntosh (Mrs. Massey, the social worker); and Richard Keene (Dick). Look fast for familiar faces in smaller roles as Ward Bond as the prison bully, and Bob Burns as an inmate named Slim.
While the plot about prison inmates bonding and helping one another in their time of need is believable, the original story by Maurine Watkins, asks its viewers to accept this to be a prison which seems more like a college campus. Other than having a baseball team as a recreation, and a annual show consisting of minstrels named Black and Blue doing comedy routines, and Morris (Gaylord Pendleton) singing a sad "Mother" song, there's also a child named Jean (Jean Marie Lawes), the warden's (Robert Emmett O'Connor) little daughter, who both plays with the convicts and asks and replies to their riddles.
Being a sort of movie one would never believe would ever get to see again, UP THE RIVER has finally surfaced on cable television, including BRAVO (1987); The Disney Channel (1988); Fox Movie Channel and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 10, 2007, and availability on DVD with John Ford's other feature, WHEN WILLIE COMES MARCHING HOME (1950) on its flip side. (On a personal level, the DVD edition should have had on the flip side, BORN RECKLESS (1930), also directed by John Ford with Warren Hymer in the cast instead). The major flaw and concern with circulating prints of UP THE RIVER is its constant jumping both in dialogue and story actions, indicating missing material in between scenes, shortening its original 92 minute length to its now available 84 minutes.
While Tracy and Hymer collaborated again in GOLDIE (Fox, 1931) opposite Jean Harlow, the idea of their future pairing ended there. No longer a team, Hymer appeared in other Tracy starring movies as 20,000 YEARS IN SING-SING (First National, 1933), DANTE'S INFERNO (Fox, 1935) and SAN FRANCISCO (MGM, 1936), either in smaller or uncredited bit parts. Revamped with same title by 20th Century-Fox (1938) starring Preston Foster, Phyllis Brooks and Tony Martin, the original UP THE RIVER remains a major curiosity due to the presence of both Tracy and Bogart under its direction by John Ford more than anything else. (***)
Prisoners of Love
CONDEMNED! (Samuel Goldwyn/United Artists, 1929), directed by Wesley Ruggles, is an early sound prison movie where "The action takes place at the French penal colony to South America's community known as Devil's Island." Starring Ronald Colman in his second full-length talkie, it seemed unlikely finding Colman, best known for romance stories of the silent screen, in such a premise. Founded upon the book, "Condemned to Devil's Island" by Blair Niles, with screenplay by Sidney Howard, CONDEMNED! turned out to be another winner for the popular actor, even to a point of earning him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor (along with his talkie debut as BULLDOG DRUMMOND) to his resume.
Following the opening credit titles super imposed over the ocean water waves with vocalization to "The Song of the Condemned," the story begins as a prison ship docking on Devil's Island with its handful of new prisoners behind bars, including Michel Oban (Ronald Colman), a gentleman thief of Paris, and his friend, Jacques Duval (Louis Wolheim), sentenced to life for murder. Jean Duval (Dudley Digges), a tough warden living on the penal colony with his young wife (Ann Harding), who's biggest fear is living amongst the surroundings of convicts, meets his new prisoners giving them warning that there is no escape on Devil's Island, which "lies between the jungle and the sea of sharks." Vidal, who finds Michel (Number 7232) to be an "unusual type of criminal thief," assigns him as servant houseboy to his wife's daily duties. While out on the market grounds, Michel brings a smile to Madame Duval's face with a good deed by buying her a pet monkey so she won't be so lonely at home. Losing her fear over this debonair prisoner, she soon becomes attracted him. Rumors by gossipers spread about these two, forcing the jealous warden to place Michel in solitary confinement for six months, and substituting Jacques as his wife's new household servant. After learning the warden is to send his wife back to Paris, Michel makes his daring escape to be with her, only to be surprised by the outcome. Also in the cast are William Elmer (Pierre); Frank Campeau (Gilbert); Ernie Adams, Lionel Bellmore and Constantine Romanoff.
While not as famous or stronger than some of the latter prison movies of the early 1930s, CONDEMNED! is sadly an overlooked item. A bit advanced in camera angles and movement as opposed to other 1929 sound releases, CONDEMNED! holds interest throughout its 87 minutes. Cast against type, Colman allows himself go be shown unshaven, and brave danger while being chased by prison guards through the marshes. Other than that, he continues his debonair style with his distinguished voice and mannerisms that has made him popular throughout his career. Dudley Digges as the sadistic warden whom his wife fears and hates, does a splendid job. He gives the sort of performance most worthy for a Charles Laughton had he been assigned the part. Ann Harding, a stage actress also appearing in her third talkie release, is believable, although looking way too sophisticated for playing a woman who loves a convict. Louis Wolheim is also unforgettable, right down to the giant eye tattoo posted on his chest.
Seldom shown on television since the mid 1970s, CONDEMNED! did show up on occasionally on cable TV over the years as Wometco Home Theater (1986); Nostalgia Television (late 1980s); Turner Network Television (1989-91; and many years later, Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: August 21, 2017) as part of an all-day Ann Harding movie tribute. Never distributed on video cassette or DVD, CONDEMNED! remains a curiosity as best for early Ronald Colman years before he became THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). (***)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Bye, Bye, Byline
"His Girl Friday" (Columbia, 1940), produced and directed by Howard Hawks, has the distinction of being hailed next to LIBELED LADY (MGM, 1936) as one of the fastest and most funniest newspaper comedies ever made. Being an updated version to "The Front Page," originated as a successful 1928-29 stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (starring Osgood Perkins and Lee Tracy), it was followed soon after by a 1931 motion picture of the same name starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. This latest edition starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell teams these two for the first and only time, and what a pair they made. The main distinction between this movie and the earlier editions is the fact that the central character of Hildy Johnson was changed from male to female, otherwise this remake is no doubt a much better movie, enough to inspire latter remakes that follow this pattern the most.
Opening title: "It all happened in the 'Dark Ages' of the newspaper game - when to a reporter 'getting that story' justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press room. Ready? Once upon a time --" As the camera tracks through the crowded newsroom of reporters and switchboard operators doing their daily routines at the Morning Post, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), former reporter, arrives with Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a life insurance man she met while on vacation in Bermuda, now the man she intends to marry. She breaks her good news to Walter Burns (Cary Grant), both her former editor and ex-husband, with the intention of giving up the newspaper game and living a simple and normal life, but most of all, being as far away from her ex-husband as possible. After meeting and dining with both Hildy and her future husband-to-be, Walter plots to keep Hildy under his employ by assigning her to the Earl Williams case. Earl Williams (John Qualen), an unemployed bookkeeper, is accused of shooting a policeman, and has already been tried and found guilty of the crime and to soon face execution by hanging. Hildy is to grant the newspaper an interview with him before he dies, and make this her final story for the paper. Putting their train trip to Albany on hold for a few hours, Hildy does the interview while Walter works every unthinkable scheme to do away with both Bruce and his mother (Alma Kruger). In the meantime, Sheriff Peter Hartwell (Gene Lockhart) and the mayor (Clarence Kolb) do whatever possible keeping Joe Pettibone (Billy Gilbert) from delivering Earl's reprieve for their own political gain in the upcoming election. Also in the cast are: Porter Hall (Murphy); Cliff Edwards (Elliott); Regis Toomey (Sanders); Roscoe Karns (McCue); Frank Jenks (Tim Wilson); and Ernest Truex (Roy V. Bensinger, poet), as press room reporters at the Criminal Court Building; Abner Biberman ("Diamond Louie"); Frank Orth (Duffy); Marion Martin (Evangeline); and Helen Mack (Mollie Malloy), among others.
While "His Girl Friday" basically follows the plot elements closely to both play and original motion picture, it certainly holds its own from start to finish as something quite original. The first 15 minutes of the story is certainly priceless comedy, showing both Grant and Russell at their comic-timing best. Yes, there are some moments of serious emotions involved, including Mollie's (Helen Mack) tearful emotions towards the condemned man she feels to be innocent for his crime; or John Qualen holding Hildy hostage in the press room at the hold of a gun. Even with these dramatic scenes, the story moves at a fast pace before reaching its 92 minute climax. Ralph Bellamy, who's no stranger playing the naive mother's boy he initially enacted in THE AWFUL TRUTH (Columbia, 1937) which also featured Cary Grant, offers more of the same here for his record. Before Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's "Road to" comedy series over at Paramount, HIS GIRL Friday does have its share of in-joke humor incorporated into the story, the most famous being Walter's description of Bruce Baldwin looking like that movie actor named Ralph Bellamy. Be sure to hear what Cary Grant has to say about some guy named "Archie Leach!"
The plot was later reworked as a musical titled THE THRILL OF BRAZIL (Columbia, 1946) featuring Keenan Wynn in the Walter Burns-type characterization, with Evelyn Keyes and Ann Miller in support. Later reverted back to its original title of THE FRONT PAGE, the latest 1974 Universal edition retained its original play structure of the late twenties, featuring Walter Matthau (Walter Burns) and Jack Lemmon (Hildy Johnson) in the cast. "His Girl Friday" was revamped once more in plot and script structure as SWITCHING CHANNELS (Tri-Star, 1988) starring Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve, switching the setting from news room to television station.
For "His Girl Friday," it became one of the many public domain movie titles displayed on video cassette by various distributors in the early 1980s, as well as being most televised on television either on commercial, public or cable channels (namely American Movie Classics or Turner Classic Movies). Once seen, "His Girl Friday" regardless of its age, remains an instant classic of screwball newspaper comedies of Hollywood's golden age. -30- (***1/2)
Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
"Be a Clown, Be a Clown ... All the World Loves a Clown"
LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1928), produced and directed by Herbert Brenon, returns Lon Chaney to playing the role of a tragic clown, a type of role he earlier portrayed in his earlier screen adaptation to HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (MGM, 1924). Though it's easier to confuse one film from the other, particularly where Lon Chaney and his clowning are concerned, yet for this silent melodrama, taken from the play elements by David Belasco, and story by Tom Cushing, it's somewhat predictable Chaney to say the least.
Opening title: "Spring comes early in the Italian hills. Peasants hearts are light and the voice of the traveling circus is heard in the land." This strange tale opens with Tito (Lon Chaney) and Simon (Bernard Siegel), a couple of sideshow entertainers traveling through an Italian village where they entertain and invite the public to attend their upcoming circus show where they perform as clowns. Following their performance, Tito rests up by the lake where he washes his clothes. At a distance he hears some crying, only to find an abandoned infant girl whose feet are tied to a branch. Releasing her from her bondage, rather than taking her to an orphanage, Tito decides to adopt her, much to the chagrin of Simon until he names the baby Simonetta. Years pass. Simonetta (Loretta Young), now a young girl, is being trained by Tito to become a tight rope walker. Later, while accidentally getting her foot caught in barb wire, Simonetta is rescued by the passing Count Luigi Babelli (Nils Asther), who takes to her beauty. After inviting her to his home, Simonetta's presence causes friction between Luigi and his girlfriend, Lucretta (Gwen Lee). During their argument, Simonetta leaves. Later, Luigi finds himself suffering from uncontrollable laughter due to life of self-indulgence while at the same time, Tito suffers from depression involving Simonetta. As both men pay a visit to a neurologist (Emmett King) in Rome, he advises individually that they find a girl to truly love and marry. In order to break from his crying spells, Tito resumes life as Flick the clown, while Luigi attempts winning the love of a circus girl. Situations become complex as Simonetta learns the true love from both men, and whether or not they can ever overcome their inner troubled emotions. Others members of the cast include: Cissy Fitz-gerald (Giancinta); and Julie Devalora (The Nurse).
Aside from the know-how melodramatic elements given by the legendary Lon Chaney, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is also notable for being the first major movie role for the third-billed Loretta Young, then about age 15, yet looking very much like a grown mature woman here. Radiant, beautiful and still new to the movie business following numerous uncredited bit parts dating back to the early 1920s or beyond. Young, whose role could have been performed by other MGM contract performers as Anita Page, Dorothy Sebastian or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED co-star, Norma Shearer, shows how she can hold her own even at a very young age as a serious actress. Working opposite the ever popular Lon Chaney certainly proves to be a big advantage to her career. Nils Asther, better known to film scholars mostly for his co-starring roles in silent dramas opposite another popular MGM performer, Greta Garbo, performs his task well as the troubled young Count.
Out of circulation for decades, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH, a sort-after Lon Chaney melodrama, premiered on Turner Classic Movies cable channel (TCM premiere: February 26, 2003(, accompanied by a new original score composed by J. Scott Salinas. Though one would wish for the original score that accompanied this 1928 production, the Salinas orchestration proves to be quite satisfactory during its current clock time of 74 minutes. For such an unusual story with no laughs, and very much a one man (Chaney) show, it's plausible though its fine performances made believable by Chaney and his co-stars. Available on DVD, LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH is a welcome edition to the other Chaney movies during his MGM years (1924-1930) and worthy viewing for the presence of a girl named Loretta when she was young. (***)
Give Me a Sailor (1938)
GIVE ME A SAILOR (Paramount, 1938), directed by Elliott Nugent, is a minor comedy with notable casting leads of Martha Raye, Bob Hope and Betty Grable. Based on an play by Anne Nichols, the plot sounds very much like a Cinderella story with Raye playing an ugly ducking competing with her attractive sister (Grable).
The slight plot finds sailor brothers, Jim (Bob Hope) and Walter Brewster (Jack Whiting) going on shore leave in San Francisco where Walter intends on proposing marriage to Nancy Larkin (Betty Grable), his childhood sweetheart, who's quite popular with the other fellas. It so happens that Jim wants to marry Nancy as well. For ten years Jim has plotted schemes with Nancy's unattractive sister, Letty (Martha Raye), by arranging her to marry Walter, whom she has loved since childhood. During the course of the story, Letty sneaks away to be alone with Walter in Paradise Valley by hiding in the trunk of his car, only to have her scheme backfire when Jim becomes the driver instead and ends up alone with him. Due to unexpected circumstances, Letty's accidental photographed legs were submitted by her cousin, Meryl (Emerson Treacy) to a contest that wins, turning Letty from homely household cook to a popular celebrity, much to the chagrin of Nancy, who finds Walter has changed his affections from her to Letty. As Jim's schemes to get Walter married to Letty, Letty begins to have second thoughts. Other members of the cast include: J.C. Nugent (Mr. Larkin); Clarence Kolb (Captain Tallant); Irving Bacon (The Film Processor); Eddie Kane, among others.
On the musical soundtrack by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, songs include: "The U.S.A. and You" (sung by sailors); "What Goes On Here in My Heart?" (sung by Betty Grable and Jack Whiting, followed by a slight dance); "A Little Kiss" (sung by Martha Raye); "A Little Kiss" (reprise by Raye); and "The U.S.A. and You" (instrumentally played by parade band). Though the songs are okay, they are mostly unmemorable and forgotten.
At first, GIVE ME A SAILOR starts off like a nautical musical in the tradition of BORN TO DANCE (MGM, 1936) with singing sailors on board ship. Once the sailor brothers (Hope and Whiting) go on shore leave to be with their gals, they spend much of the story in civilian clothes with little references about their ranks. With both Hope and Grable not major star attractions as of yet, it's most interesting seeing these two together in the same movie. Their previous film, COLLEGE SWING (1938), also with Raye, had the more apart than together. Yet, GIVE ME A SAILOR belongs very much to Martha Raye. Aside from her antics answering telephone calls for her sister, chasing Ethel May Brewster (Bonnie Jean Churchill), a bratty child, around the kitchen, getting her face trapped in a clay pack that hardens, and hiding under the bed to avoid scandal of being found inside the Inn bedroom alone with Jim (Hope), she also gets her very rare moments of sympathy when finding herself rejected, along with later becoming glamorous in fur coats, expensive clothes, jewelry and beauty parlor hairstyle. While Raye's character got much publicity about her legs here, it would be Betty Grable a few years later who would be known for having her "million dollar legs." As much as Raye would have more screen time with Hope than with other members in the cast, they have little opportunity together showing how funny they can be as a team. However, they did have better luck getting some belly laughs in their final film together of NEVER SAY DIE (1939).
Once broadcast regularly on the late show in the seventies before shifting to public television in the 1980s. GIVE ME A SAILOR has become available on both video and DVD formats in later years. One of its known cable television showings to GIVE ME A SAILOR has turned up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: August 30, 2014). (*** Bells)
Me and My Gal (1932)
Two of a Kind
ME AND MY GAL (Fox, 1932), produced and directed by Raoul Walsh, not to be confused with the Judy Garland and Gene Kelly musical, FOR ME AND MY GAL (MGM, 1942), is a nifty little comedy/drama that teams Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett for the second time (following their initial pairing in SHE WANTED A MILLIONAIRE (Fox, 1932)). Although Tracy reportedly didn't have much regard for the movies he did over at Fox during his five years (1930-1935) at the studio, he was said to have been proud of this production, and it's easy to see why. Under the good direction of Walsh, ME AND MY GAL has both good story and sharp dialogue to keep the pace moving at a high degree.
The story revolves around Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy), a new Irish cop on the waterfront beat of New York City's Pier 13, going through his daily duties. After acquiring a dog and dealing with Joe Morgan (Will Stanton), a stumbling drunk, Dan comes to Ed's Chowder House Sea Food diner where he meets Helen Riley (Joan Bennett), a sassy, gum- chewing waitress/cashier with all the answers to Dan's questions. Helen has a sister, Katherine (Marion Burns), who's engaged to marry a nerdy buck-tooth, bespectacled Eddie Collins (George Chandler). Katherine has a shady past, having previously been involved with Duke Castenega (George Walsh), a gangster she cannot resist, especially when wanting her to go against her will by giving him a combination number list for safe deposit boxes. After saving a man's life from drowning, Dan is promoted detective working along with Al Allen (Adrian Morris), a fellow detective who earlier missed seeing Duke and his thugs departing the ship from South American on Pier 13. Duke gets arrested for a robbery and later breaks out of prison. As for Dan's courtship with Helen, he gets to meet the rest of her family, including Kate and their father, Pat (J. Farrell MacDonald). Situations become involved as Dan is assigned to locate Duke's whereabouts, unaware that he's hidden away in the attic of Kate's apartment as witnessed by Kate's war veteran father-in-law, John Collins, (Henry B. Walthall) paralyzed in a wheelchair with his only means of communication blinking code signals through his eyes. Others in the cast include of Noel Madison (Baby Face Castenega); with Eleanor Wesselhoeft, Russell Powell, Billy Bevan and Frank Moran in smaller roles. Be sure to stay tuned for J. Farrell MacDonald's full face close-up fade-out.
A very fast-paced 79 minute production with Tracy and Bennett doing their best competing with one another. Their most memorable moment is their parody to Eugene O'Neill's stage production (and later 1932 MGM drama) to STRANGE INTERLUDE where the two speak out their thoughts through their minds heard only by the movie going audience. This may be a loss to contemporary viewers, but in 1932, many understood the humor of it all.
Remade by 20th Century-Fox as PIER 13 (1940) starring Lloyd Nolan and Lynn Bari in the Tracy and Bennett roles, there's no doubt which version is better. Tracy and Bennett wouldn't work together again until many years later in the classic FATHER OF THE BRIDE (MGM, 1950) and its sequel, FATHER'S LITTLE DIVIDEND (MGM, 1951). Never distributed to home video, ME AND MY GAL did enjoy some rare showings in revival movie houses, public television in the early 1990s, before turning up on cable television's Fox Movie Channel, Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: October 2, 2012) and then availability onto DVD. Considering how movies from the old Fox Film library have been lost or lay forgotten in the studio vaults, at least this not only is still available for viewing, but also one that can still be seen and surprisingly appreciated today. Check! (***)
The New Frontier
TUMBLEWEEDS (United Artists, 1925), Directed by King Baggott, stars the legendary William S. Hart (1865-1946) in what proved to become his final screen appearance. Virtually unknown by today's standards, Hart was a popular leading cowboy actor dating back to 1914, whose success would be categorized as a sort of Gary Cooper or John Wayne of his day. Hart was versatile in other roles, but westerns were his specialty, with many, including Hart himself, ranking TUMBLEWEEDS as his finest of all his westerns.
Opening title: "Man and beast both blissfully unaware that their reign is over." Set in 1889, Dan Carver (William S. Hart), a range boss of the Box K Ranch, known as "just another tumbleweed," is introduced as a sympathetic cowboy who fails to shoot a rattlesnake only because it has as much right to be around as anyone else. He also takes in a couple of orphan wolf dog puppies to find them a home after their parent dogs have been poisoned. The plot develops as the United States Government allowing ranchers to graze cattle on their payment to the Cherokee Land Strip, 12,000 square miles of undeveloped prairie land between Kansas and Oklahoma. Riding to Caldwell, Kansas (population 200), on the edge of the Cherokee Strip, Dan spreads the news to its local residents. Journeying to his destination with "Kentucky Rose" (Lucien Littlefield), they encounter Mrs. Riley (Lillian Leighton), a widow woman with three children, who takes a liking to Kentucky Rose. After intervening with Noll Lassiter (J. Gordon Russell) for abusing a boy, Bart (Jack Murphy), and his dog, he forces the brutal man to apologize to both. Dan immediately bonds with Bart who now looks up to him as a father figure. However, after accidentally roping a young girl (Barbara Bedford) in a saloon, Dan soon learns that the girl, named Molly, happens to be sister of Bart and half-sister to the villainous Noll Lassiter. Because of his interest in Molly, Dan decides to settle down and stake out a homestead claim for himself, with the possibility of having Molly become his future wife. Noll, however, unwilling to overlook Dan's defeat over him, schemes with Benton, alias Bill Freel (Richard R. Neill), to have Dan put out of the way. They arrange in having Dave accused and arrested as a "sooner," which finds him being held prisoner inside a bull pen while the bad guys so as much as commit murder so they can legally stake the claim for themselves.
Most circulating prints of TUMBLEWEEDS consist of a 1939 reissue from Astor Pictures introducing eight minutes of spoken prologue by William S. Hart himself where he talks about his "greatest picture" from his Horseshoe Ranch in Newhall, California. After listening to Hart's speaking voice, it is much regret that this once popular actor of the silent screen never starred in at least one talkie western, even possibly a sound remake to his greatest movie, TUMBLEWEEDS. Chances are had be proceeded in his career in talkies, he most definitely would have succeeded, even if later reduced to matinée cowboy star as Tim McCoy or Ken Maynard for example. However, this 1939 prologue is the one and only chance for viewers to get to hear him speak, through his wonderful tribute to both himself and the movie itself.
Home video to TUMBLEWEEDS dating back to the 1980s either from Blackhawk or a decade later from Republic Pictures also contain the Hart prologue. Rather than the orchestral score with off-screen singing to title card songs, both video/DVD editions are piano scored by William H. Perry for the Killiam collection. Clocked at 77 minutes (not counting the prologue), it seems a shame that this and THE TOLL GATE (1920) to date have become the only two Hart westerns to have limited broadcasts on public television some decades ago. Considering that TUMBLEWEEDS is hailed as Hart's best movie makes one wonder if his other silent westerns are equally as good or even better? The films of William S. Hart deserve better recognition in movie history. At least TUMBLEWEEDS is still available (on DVD) to remain one of the finer westerns to come out from the silent movie era, along with being both an introduction and rediscovery to the great quiet-type cowboy hero named William S. Hart. (***)