Monday, June 30, 2008

The African Queen at Key Largo

The above photo was taken Key Largo, Florida. The sign tells us only part of the story; that this is the original boat called “The African Queen” used in the 1951 movie of the same name.

Humphrey Bogart’s and Katherine Hepburn’s movie boat is on free public display docked in an ocean access canal next to the Key Largo Holiday Inn. We’re not told how the boat got here from the movie location. I'd love to know.

This boat was built in Lytham, England in 1912 for service on the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert where the movie was filmed. The British East Africa Company used the boat from 1912 to 1968 to shuttle passengers and cargo across Lake Albert located on the border between the Belgian Congo and Uganda.

Key Largo, is of course, the name of the 1947 "Key Largo," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. We see establishing shots of the Overseas Highway at the beginning of the film.

As for what business “The African Queen” has doing on Key Largo, that is perhaps pure Hollywood. For more on the boat and how you can visit or even charter it, have a look at this website.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Veronica Lake References

Some Veronica Lake trivia: The actress with the iconic “peek-a-boo” wave of blonde hair cascading over her right eye made such a hit with the public in the early 1940s that she instantly became a part of popular culture.

She is referenced in “The Major and the Minor” (1942) when a flock of teenaged girls in party dresses all copy her hairstyle.

“Best Foot Forward” (1943) features the song called “The Three B’s” in which Nancy Walker, exclaiming the joys of “boogie-woogie” music, belts out the line, “It’s got a kick like mountain licker/and it’s as slick and hard to take as Veronica Lake,” as she covers her eye with her palm to imitate Miss Lake’s hidden eye.

In “Shadow of a Doubt,” also in that same year of 1943, little Edna May Wonacott, saying her bedtime prayers, includes Captain Midnight, Veronica Lake, and the President of the United States among those on whom she beseeches God to cast His blessings.

Miss Lake parodies herself in “Star Spangled Rhythm” (1942) in the song “A Sweater, A Sarong, and a Peek-a-Boo Bang.”

Decades later, after the height of Veronica Lake’s career had passed, she evidently had not slipped from her iconic place in popular culture. The denizens of Bullwinkle’s hometown, Frostbite Falls, Minnesota named a body of water “Veronica Lake”. This, you will remember, became the site of the adventure of the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam.

Any others?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cyd Charisse - Dancing in the Dark

Cyd Charisse, who recently passed away and is justly lauded as Hollywood’s best, and certainly sexiest, dancer, conveys another intriguing quality in “The Band Wagon” (1953) when she goes “Dancing in the Dark.”

Teamed here with Fred Astaire, the brief number is a courtship dance. The two characters, a well-known hoofer and a rising ballet star, must sort out their differences to make their Broadway show in the works a success.

Miss Charisse, a classically trained ballet dancer in the Russian tradition, joined the Ballet Russe when she was still in her teens. Reportedly she was encouraged by her father to take up ballet lessons as a child in part because she had been frail after contracting polio. It was thought that ballet would strengthen her.

Her strength is one of the most remarkable qualities exhibited in the lovely “Dancing in the Dark” number, a slow and romantic pas de deux. Here her trademark long, sexy legs are mostly covered by the mid-calf white dress, whose accordion pleats swish every now and then to give us the briefest glimpse of thigh. No high heels in this number; she dances in flats, gray ballet slippers. No draping her slinky body over her partner; it is nearly a full minute into the dance before she and Astaire even touch each other. No jazz beat, no revealing costume, yet it is one of the most sensual dances she has ever performed.

And though we see less of her body, we seem to see more of Cyd. We see her self-contained world where dance is a most revealing self-expression. Her confidence is riveting. She does not seem to be playing to the audience as much as she seems to be pleasing herself. It’s one of those rare moments were we get to watch a person doing what that person was born to do.

Perhaps because her legs are covered, our attention is diverted more to the straight line of her back, and her broad shoulders as her arms are extended wide in a kind of yoga “warrior” pose. It is a picture of strength. Her white sleeves are rolled up at the elbow, like a person who has work to do. There is power in her movements as much as grace, and in a of the few moves it almost appears as if she is leading Astaire in the dance, holding his arm extended in her hand clasp, and bringing him forward. It is feminine strength, displayed as it never was by any other female dancer of the era. The frail child is gone. The physically strong woman remains.

Their movement together is precise, flowing, and self-controlled. One can see the athleticism of the ballet dancer, a strength and control of the body an Olympic decathlon athlete would admire.

They have created one of the most intimate, and most lovely moments in film. Watch it again here on YouTube.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Strangers When We Meet (1960)

Sometimes what’s happening in the movie is not just what’s happening in the movie, but is reflective of wider influences, either intentionally or unintentionally. To certain respects that is what Another Old Movie Blog is about; movies are not made in a vacuum. Consider “Strangers When We Meet” (1960), which stars Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak, and Suburbia.

The plot, which involves adultery between the two stars who are married to other people, as well as the considerable screen presence of both these two actors, are strangely almost difficult to concentrate on when there are so many suburban artifacts to amuse and entertain. The big cars, just beginning their streamlined 1960s look in which they cruise from shopping plaza to home. The houses in the suburban subdivision, the stuff inside. It’s like looking at old family photos, like recalling from Kodachrome memory what you thought was forgotten.

Peg-legged Scandinavian-inspired furniture and decorative boxes on the coffee table that housewife Kim Novak fills with cigarettes. She bumps into Kirk Douglas at the grocery store, a circus of bright colors and food preservatives, a bazaar of angle parking and time saving meals for people on the go. No Diet Caffeine-Free Coke. No organic veggies or free-range chicken. No such thing as gluten allergies. Just modern pre-packaged foods with good nourishing things like salt and sugar, and plenty of cigarettes to have on hand for the guests. Grapefruit may be 19 cents a pound, but these two skip fresh veggies and fruit for the stuff in cans. It’s the modern way.

Douglas is a freelance architect who works at home. Driving his little son to the bus stop, he sees Kim Novak, the mother of another little boy, and takes an immediate interest. He is the pursuer and she the reluctant object of his interest. With a seemingly stable home life, a wife played by Barbara Rush, with whom he appears to have a good relationship, we are uncertain as to why he pursues Kim Novak so keenly. He does not seem a skirt chaser, and is absorbed more by his work than by anything else in his life. When he meets prospective client Ernie Kovacs at a restaurant to discuss plans for Ernie’s new house, Douglas is full of talk of design and is oblivious to the waitress, whom Kovacs ogles.

Kovacs, who is a novelist, and Douglas provide an interesting contrast between two men who are both self employed in creative endeavors. They have that in common, and there is an understanding between them because of it, the struggle to produce work that is meaningful and not merely commercial; the ever-present challenge to come up with something new. Do they still have what it takes? They soon have Kovacs’ new house in common as well, the big project Douglas hopes will prove a challenge for his abilities and an achievement for his reputation. It is as much Douglas’ house as it is Kovacs’, and there is even a subtle emotional battle between them as to whose house it really belongs to, the owner or the creator?

Kovacs, egotistical, emotionally brittle, and skirt chasing, is at a crossroads in his career. He fears failing, but also fears churning out the same material to play it safe. Douglas challenges him to take chances with his new book, to go out on a limb and write about what is most important to him, not to play it safe.

Douglas wishes to do the same with his work as an architect. This is perhaps the only bone of contention we see between Douglas and his wife. She runs the home with confidence and a sense of command. She appears to quash her husband’s artistic side for the more commercial aspects of his work, regretting his decision to go freelance, and badgering him to accept a safe and dull job with a firm he does not want.

When his relationship, at first only friendship, with Novak begins, Novak takes a keen interest in his work. She likes to discuss it. She has read articles about him. They discuss Kovacs’ last book, which they have both read. She does not insult Douglas’ artistic talent by demanding he forsake it. When he shows her the lot where he plans to build Kovacs’ new house, she takes one end of the measuring tape he hands her. We watch how far they can go.

Though Novak is the more reluctant of the two to begin an affair, we see that she is the more unhappy in her marriage. Her husband, dull and preoccupied, seems unresponsive and utterly lacking in passion for her. In one melancholy scene, an anxious Novak greets him half dressed, lights dim, their son sleeping over at a neighbor’s, trying to seduce her husband, pleading him to make love to her. His awkward brush-off is as baffling as it is heartbreaking. We are not given explanations as to his indifference, because we never really get to see his side of their marriage, but it would have been a different movie if this has been explored. We are shown their twin beds, and that’s all we get.

So desperate is Novak for a physical relationship that she confesses to Douglas a disturbing incident where she once allowed a man who made a pass at her to have sex with her, after she had taken enough sleeping pills to get her passively through the experience. If her emotionally damaged vulnerability is what also appeals to Douglas, then she displays plenty of that. But her lack of courage, her passivity, will also be the biggest hurdle in their relationship.

They fall in love, and for Novak it seems to begin when he calls her “Maggie,” which is what her father called her. To her husband she is Margaret, and to her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship, she is Margaret. Played by Virginia Bruce, mother once had an affair that hurt her marriage and destroyed her daughter’s affection for her. When her mother catches on to Novak’s affair with Douglas, there is a knowing look exchanged between them. We imagine that Novak has begun to understand that mother is a human being, just as we all must come to terms with our parents being human and messing up. This, too, unfortunately, is not explored in great depth.

Baby boomers will watch this film with the irresistible attachment of nostalgia. Many had dads who looked like Kirk Douglas in the movie, with the slacks and golf sweaters, the short haircut that never seemed to change. We never knew when 1960 dad went to the barber, because his hair was always the same. He wore a jacket and tie to a house party. 1960 dad did not dress like junior. He never put himself on the same level as junior. In many ways, he was a mystery to us.

Most dads did not work at home. If they were home, they were out of a job, or on vacation. When on vacation, they painted the house. Particularly in blue collar neighborhoods, vacation trips were rare. A day at the beach or the ballpark was a treat.

But even in the working class neighborhoods, the houses were not too different from one in the neighborhood of Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. Even if working class 1960 dad and mom could not afford the same furniture and artwork that the professional classes did, they bought cheaper copies, so it looked the same. They might have furnished the whole house from the S&H Green Stamp catalogue, but it looked like the same imitation wood grain Formica coffee table. When something big was purchased, like the first color TV or the hi-fi with the automatic record changer that played Nat King Cole and Andy Williams, the neighbors were brought in to see it.

Walter Mathau, who plays another neighbor in this intriguing suburban world, makes a comment that wives view their husbands as part of the furniture. One could say that the Baby Boomer kids viewed both their parents in that way. You went home from school, there was mom, and the TV. Dad was in the basement sharpening the lawnmower blades. They were part of the house, like the appliances.

The house was the whole world. The kids might rove in great wolf packs on the street on their Schwinn bikes, but the house was the center of the universe. Dad and Mom evidently felt the same way. A $10,000 mortgage was not taken lightly; it required all their commitment, to paying the thing down, and to each other. In a sense, their lifestyle was geared not just to living in the house, but living up to it.

Even if they managed on one paycheck, they might have still had two cars. Without the car there would be no suburbia, it was like the chicken and the egg. Everywhere you wanted to go was someplace else. You stopped walking downtown. You drove there. Then you drove past there and didn’t stop anymore. There was a whole new world of shopping plazas out on the highway that in many communities was called The Magic Mile. You needed a car. It was your passport to life. They created the world we live in today, where we need a car.

Kirk Douglas drives his two-tone big ol’ convertible with the fins to the site of Ernie Kovacs’ new house. We see the house going up, bit by bit. He drives to a seaside motel for trysts with Kim Novak. They drive and drive and drive, because gas is cheap and plentiful as water.

At one point they lie on the beach, and as she tenderly strokes his naked back, she asks him about his experience during the war, confirming that her husband had also spent time in the service. It was something 1960 dads had in common; they were almost all, except very young dads, veterans of World War II or the Korean Conflict or both, though they didn’t like to talk about it. Some moms, too. This was another reason why they were so adaptable, so eager for modern things. We may look back upon them as old fashioned, but they were the most forward-looking generation of all. When they looked back, all they saw were the childhoods spent in want during the Great Depression, and the friends they knew that had been killed in the war. They wanted to move on, right now, away from all that. They got there fast. They took the car.

If 1960 Dad was a mystery, then 1960 Mom was taken for granted. Her opportunities for a career were limited. She may have pondered this; we didn’t. She must have done more than shine up her flour and sugar canisters on the kitchen counter, but we never knew. She was always busy. When the new department store opened up out on the Magic Mile, she and dad went there in the car, dressed as if they were going out to a nice restaurant. She wore stockings. He shaved, again. It was a big deal. Mom never left the house without her white gloves.

She lived in a confining world, even if that world of her suburban house was partly of her own making. For her, the confinement started from the skin out. It was a prison of girdles and garters and chastity belts.

We don’t really know what Douglas’ wife does with her time, if he’s the one bringing their boy to the bus stop and doing the marketing. She puts the groceries away, (we have several scenes of her and of Novak in their separate kitchens) and he hoists his rear end up on the kitchen counter, which is a nice touch. It’s a suburban thing to do, sit on the kitchen counter. She looks busy, impatient, as if she has somewhere else she must be, but we are never told what else is happening in her life. She seems only an appendage of her husband.

She plans a house party, and the neighbors all show up, ladies in dresses, men in coats and ties. Douglas floods the charcoal briquettes on the patio barbecue with about half a can of lighter fluid. No state of the art gas grills, here. Not a propane canister in sight. Just dump enough flammable liquid on warm coals and admire the chest-high flames.

Kim Novak and her husband arrive at the party, too. If it is a tense moment for Kirk, who flies about the place trying to be busy, trying to outrun his guilt with another martini, it is a deeply sad revelation for her. She sees the home he has made with his wife. She chats with his little boy. When she retrieves her coat from their bedroom, she sees that their twin beds are pushed together.

The guests discuss crabgrass and parenting. Her boring self-satisfied husband discusses with the other guests how hard it is to be a good father. Asked if he thinks he is a good husband, he remarks, “I think I’m a good husband. I haven’t heard any kicks yet.”

Kim Novak is not one to complain. She is too passive. Her one attempt to confront his coldness to her failed. Later, when Douglas tells her they can’t continue as they are, she resists either breaking off or asking her husband for a divorce. She cannot make herself do anything but keep things as they are.

Douglas shows her his home office and tells her, “This is where I miss you most,” still equating his passion for her with his passion for his work, which only she understands.

The real catalyst at the party is Walter Matthau, in what must have been a fun role. Early in the film he appears to be a rather solid, pontificating, dull as dishwater suburban husband and father. He complains about another man’s off-color jokes. He is, by his own admission, old-fashioned.

Not entirely. He follows Kirk Douglas around as the party winds down, insinuating he knows Douglas is having an affair. We learn that Matthau lives a double life, and has affairs with other women. Pleased that Douglas has joined the club of unfaithful husbands, he gleefully needles him. Matthau tells him his wife already suspects, and Douglas is paralyzed by that thought.

Matthau has his own motives. When he discovers Douglas’ wife alone, Matthau boldly enters their home, interrupts her when she is about to take a shower, and attempts to seduce her. Her reaction to Matthau forcing himself on her is one of panic and hysteria, leaving Matthau more soundly rebuffed than if she had hit him with a waffle iron bought with S&H Green Stamps. His expression of humiliation is very subtle acting, and terrific. But his embarrassment does not last long. When confronted by Douglas, Matthau sneers accusingly, “How am I any different from you?”

It hits home to Douglas, and he is sickened. And though at first his angry wife confronts him about his affair, tells him to get out of her life, with Miss Rush getting some great dialogue here, she later recants and begs him to stay.

Kirk Douglas’ inner conflict isn’t solved, but he ends his wife’s pain by accepting a new job in Hawaii where he is to draft plans for an entire new city. Thousands of acres of pristine native bush will be paved over for progress, and Douglas’ eyes light up at the thought of it. His wife and kids will go with him on this five-year mission. They will escape suburbia to create a new one.

But 1960 Dad and Mom likely just grew older in their three-bedroom ranch. How much alarm they felt as years passed when they noticed their daughter’s skirts getting shorter and their son’s hair getting longer we need not imagine, because we remember. We were getting older, too, and about that time they stopped being fixtures in the house and became people instead, people with whom we sometimes argued. The political and social turmoil of later decades hit them pretty hard sometimes, but mostly they weathered it. Their house was their haven from the increasingly baffling outside world. With faith and hope, they exchanged the avocado kitchen appliances for “Harvest Gold.”

Today the neighborhood has changed a bit. The houses don’t look exactly identical anymore. It’s now a land of vinyl siding covering the old cedar shakes, and replacement windows. Additions were put on over the years, sunrooms, two-car garages. The people living in these more individual-looking houses are probably more diverse, too. A lot more of them, like Kirk Douglas, are working at home now.

Then one day there’s a “for sale” sign on 1960 Dad and Mom’s house. A 50-year tenancy is over. We see their stuff at the yard sale, all over the front lawn. Remember those electric carving knives? And the vinyl LPs of cocktail music. An archeological dig couldn’t come up with more telling artifacts.

Kirk Douglas meets Kim Novak at the building site of Ernie Kovacs’ house, really their pretend house, one last time to say goodbye. The house is finished. They walk through it. It is empty, Kovacs hasn’t moved in yet, so there is no furniture, no stuff. Just the house itself with all its promise.

The builder walks in to check a few things, and he thinks Miss Novak is Mr. Douglas’ wife. They do not bother to correct him. How odd, when they have expended such effort to escape their suburban prisons, they spend their last few moments together “playing house.”

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) is such a product of its time that it is fascinating that the movie can still remain so powerful. There is a fable-like quality to the film that seems to transcend the decades between then and now, during which we have learned in more detail the horrors of drug addiction, the criminality of the drug world, and the hopelessness of a life of dependence. More sophisticated films in after years have given us valid, accurate information, a more realistic presentation, and an intense experience; but they have not always given us a reason to really care about the characters and see ourselves in them.

Perhaps it is simply the nature of more realistic films to narrow the focus on a particular character and set of circumstances. We are shown a lifestyle, a neighborhood quite possibly dissimilar to the lives and environments of most of the audience. Therefore, the movie, no matter how engrossing, becomes a film about “them.”

Likewise, along this vein, a modern film might focus on a particular economic class, i.e., the wealthy Hollywood addicts whose addiction is emblematic of their super-charged and privileged lifestyle. Or, we might be shown the lower class junkie scratching for survival in a dangerous world of gangs. If the film becomes focused on an economic class, it also gets focused on race. More and more, peeling away the layers and focusing on a narrow viewpoint, it becomes a story about “them.”

“The Man with the Golden Arm”, though certainly considered gritty and realistic for its day, and attracted some controversy, nevertheless opens the story outward rather than focuses inward, and the Runyonesque characters lend a kind of “everyman” quality to Frankie Machine and his neighbors. It’s not so much about “them” as about everybody.

The film is shot on a set, but while probably its attempt at realism would have been better served with location shooting, even this adds to the fable quality of the story. Here, in this tight little neighborhood, Frank Sinatra returns from a six-month prison term with a new set of drums and high hopes for a better life. He has kicked a heroin habit and learned a new trade in jail, and intends not to return to his old lifestyle as a card sharp working for the local tough guys.

We see, perhaps even sooner than the optimistic Frankie does, that he is being drawn into his old life and habits that will lead to disaster. Frank Sinatra, in one of his best roles, plays the part with compassion and sensitivity. Eleanor Parker is good in an ugly role as his clinging wife, who wants him to remain as a card dealer in the illegal game down the block, is threatened by his talk of pursuing a career as a drummer in a big band, and wants him to remain tied to her. She is in a wheelchair, her injury caused by an auto accident with a drunk Frankie at the wheel. His guilt is part of the reason he turned to drugs, and her continuing to manipulate his guilt will drive him back to the local drug pusher. We learn early in the film that she is faking her injury, only one of a number of people surviving by playing angles in this depressed little world.

Eleanor Parker, whom most likely remember as the elegant and subtly treacherous Baroness in the “The Sound of Music” (1965) had a versatile career. Scrambling out of the B-movie jungle in the late 1940s, she seemed to hardly ever play the same type of role twice, and she digs her fingernails in on this role. Though manipulative, her character is probably as much a victim of her own ignorance in a world where survival skills are based on what you can take from others.

Kim Novak plays the woman Frankie would most like to be with, were he not duty-bound to remain with a dependent wife who needs him. She works in a local dive, supports a lazy, dependent, alcoholic boyfriend, and though as much a product of this grim world as Parker’s character, she looks beyond it, and shows Frankie the encouragement and support he needs to get off on the right foot. More than just the long-suffering woman behind the man type of role, this is one of the few strong female roles in the 1950s when damsels in distress, neurotics, or fallen women were the usual fare. Novak holds Frankie’s future in her hands, and eventually she sees this and takes responsibility. She and Frankie are the heroes because of the risks they take and the courage they display.

Arnold Stang is Frankie’s squirrelly sidekick, a simple chump whose particular survival skills are a knack for petty thievery and a true gift for friendship. He also, if helplessly, tries to steer Frankie from old habits, because he loves him. Stang is ironically believable in this role, considering it is such a cartoon.

Darren McGavin plays the smarmy drug pusher, who first got Frankie hooked and wants him back. He and Novak, though they are both the cleanest-looking and best dressed people in the film, are at opposite poles, and they work on Frankie from opposite motives, the devil and the angel on either of his shoulders.

That Frankie appears to be his only customer in the neighborhood makes us wonder a bit what Mr. McGavin did while Frankie was in jail.

Another star in film, besides Sinatra and Novak, is the penetrating score by Elmer Bernstein, played by Shorty Rogers and his Giants. We hear the blare of the trumpets in a jazz nightmare whenever Frankie is about to fall off the wagon. The use of the music to indicate what is going to happen is a trigger to the audience that also seems to belong to this era. We don’t see too much of this thing anymore, except in horror or suspense films, i.e., the swimmer-is-about-to-be-attacked-by-the-shark music in “Jaws.”

A couple scenes from the film illustrate the fable quality in a rather sweet way. One is when Sinatra and Novak stand before an appliance store window. Male and female mannequins are set up in a modern kitchen display, the sort of 1950s suburbia heaven that people from Frankie’s neighborhood might hardly dare believe is real. Sinatra and Novak pretend a make-believe scenario and dialogue for the mannequin couple, and we see that Frankie is reaching, innocently if earnestly for not just a better life, but a nicer one. His anticipation over his upcoming audition for a band is not just about hitting it big and striking it rich. One imagines he would make a lot more money dealing cards for the racket, where he is famed as “The Man With the Golden Arm.” He doesn’t want that anymore. That’s all his self-interested wife wants for him, but he wants more for himself, and her, and his little buddy Arnold Stang.

The other moment in the film is the well-known cold turkey withdrawal scene. Having hit some setbacks, Frankie turns to heroin again, and seeks Novak to give him money for a fix. By this time, Novak wants something better too, has found the guts to search for it, and so kicks out her lush boyfriend, moves away to a different apartment, and tries to get on with her life. When Frankie finds her, we see she has a metal lunchbox and her street clothes indicate she’s not working in a dive anymore. She challenges him to get through his withdrawal and get off the heroin, and locks him in her apartment so that he can.

Frank Sinatra’s intense scene that follows, with him bouncing off the walls in agony, is impressive. The scene, like most of the film, is a fable of humanity, and losing it, and finding it, more than it is of drug addiction. An unexpectedly sweet moment, keeping the fable on track, is when Frankie collapses shivering to the floor and Novak, covering him with blankets chokes a broken prayer, and seeing that the blankets are not helping, crawls on top of him to warm him with her own body.

Maybe is it these moments of helpless innocence that make a fable out of subject matter that is so sad and so ugly. The film has no triumphal ending, only a glimmer of hope, a sense of peace, of calm after tragedy, but that is enough. Mr. Sinatra’s and Miss Novak’s characters don’t really seem to be asking for much.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bob Anderson - Young George Bailey

It was announced over the weekend that Mr. Bob Anderson died, who you will remember as Bobby Anderson, the boy who played young George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Mr. Anderson had bit parts in other notable films of the era, including “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949). According to the IMDb website, his last role on camera was in the Disney serial “The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty” (1956). Those of you who remember the “Triple R” song (“Way up there on the Triple R, Yippee-ay, Yippeeo/The horses there are the best by far, Yippee-ay, Yippeeo”) may now sing.

In after years Bob Anderson worked in production behind the camera, but because of that role as young George, who saved a family from getting the wrong medicine at the hands of the distraught druggist, Mr. Gower, and getting slapped around for it, Anderson enjoys a sentimental immortality. It’s true what our teachers told us. Things we do at 12 years old remain on our Permanent Record.

For more on the life and career of Bob Anderson, see this obituary.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mary Treen

Mary Treen plays Monica the maid in “Casanova Brown” (1944), discussed in the previous blog post. She helps Gary Cooper hide the baby in the hotel room, and dons hospital gown, mask and gloves like he does, like a couple of stumblebum faux scientists, to come up with the best baby formula. She accepts his marriage proposal, her ego being easily flattered, not understanding it is a marriage of convenience so he can keep the baby. When the ceremony does not go through, she shrugs it off and would rather go the movies anyway.

Though in her late 30s at the time of the film, her goofiness makes her seem younger. It was one of a string of roles she played in her long career of maids and waitresses, nurses and secretaries. She was relegated to plain Jane roles that were invariably funny. Sometimes a film is only as good as its supporting players.

She’s one of the Bailey Building and Loan office team in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), and Ginger Roger’s roommate in “Kitty Foyle” (1940). She gets a rare turn at drama as one of the front lines nurses in “So Proudly We Hail” (1943). Ever likeable, easily eccentric, willing to play up the wallflower image for a laugh, Miss Treen’s career extended into decades of television guest roles. She could steal a scene, too.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Casanova Brown (1944)

“Casanova Brown” (1944) gives us a re-teaming up of Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright after their successful “Pride of the Yankees” (1942), in which both had been nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor and Best Actress. It’s a classic case of looking for another hit by going back to the well, except that “Casanova Brown” and their characters are worlds apart from “Pride of the Yankees.”

It’s an uneven comedy, but with moments of sublime laugh-out-loud ridiculousness that make up for the potholes in the plot. Gary Cooper is a university professor who travels to New York in hopes of publishing his manuscript on his rogue ancestor, the original Casanova. No luck on getting published, but he does meet college girl Teresa Wright and marries her. This is told in a flashback as he is about to prepare for his second marriage.

The first marriage to Miss Wright did not work out from the moment he inadvertently burns down her parent’s mansion. It is a great scene where the gag begins slowly and then builds to an incredulous degree. Miss Wright’s parents, played by the terrific Patricia Collinge (see this previous blog entry on Collinge) and Edmund Breon, are eccentric types. He is stuffy and proper, and she is obsessed by astrology. When Cooper is told mother does not like smokers, he puts his cigarette out in his hand, stuffs it in his handkerchief, and forgets about it. So do we, until a one object after another in their beautiful home catches fire.

It looks like it might have been a dangerous scene to film, with angry flames lapping at the walls and the furniture, and the principle actors running around it all. Finally we are shown the charred remnants of the mansion smoking in the distance, while they, and the servants, are sitting in the street. Mr. Breon explodes, saying he wants to kill Cooper, and if he had a gun he’d shoot him. The chauffer instantly pulls a gun from his pocket. This, and a few other scenes in the film have a kind of “Monty Python” flare to them.

The wedding is annulled, partly because of her parents’ disgust with a son-in-law who burns them out of their home, and partly because we are told Miss Wright is not of age.

Later, when Mr. Cooper is about to embark on a second marriage, he receives word that a child was born of his first marriage, and is about to be put up for adoption. He rushes to kidnap the baby. Cooper, as good as anyone in Hollywood at comedy, has a wonderful dramatic way of doing it. He is not a clown. He is an actor, and he draws sympathy from us by the transparency of his feelings. One scene which illustrates this way he has of being both poignant and funny at the same time is when, hiding in a hotel room with his baby daughter, he sees that she is gaining weight on the formula he is feeding her. Most parents would regard this as a good sign, but being a neophyte, he is afraid she might have a glandular condition.

Desperately he tells the sleeping child, “Daddy is always going to be with you, and Daddy’s always going to love you. No matter how big you get.” He is near tears, and we laugh at the “awwww” moment.

Likewise, we laugh his seriousness in describing to the hotel chambermaid, his new accomplice, played by Mary Treen, how the baby took her bottle and then “threw up.”

Sneaking the baby and the baby paraphernalia past the hotel manager is not easy, and when the manager misunderstands, thinking Cooper wants to bring a goat into the hotel as a pet, he anxiously exclaims, “Get yourself a goldfish. No trouble at all, and they die overnight.”

Such great lines are tossed lightly through a plot that is half screwball comedy and half social commentary. Cooper gets to make some interesting remarks on a father’s rights and ability to raise a child himself, which predates “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) by decades. Cooper had creative control of this film, and particularly wanted Teresa Wright for his co-star, though the film gives her little to do. She brings her trademark warmth and ingĂ©nue innocence to the role, but she is there mainly to react to the oddball actions of others.

Anita Louise, who plays the prospective second bride starts out strongly in the film, and then is dropped altogether. The film really belongs to Frank Morgan, who plays her curmudgeonly father. He gets the most audacious and wickedly funny lines, and delivers them like d’Artagnan wielding a rapier. He is Cooper’s pal, and refers to his own daughter as a “revolting female.” When Cooper asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Mr. Morgan replies, “Are you out of your mind?”

The most sensible person in the film is Jill Esmond as the obstetrician who delivers his daughter, and who was supposed to oversee the adoption until we have our happy ending and the natural parents decide the keep the baby and each other. It is heartening to see a female physician played with intelligence and warmth, with no hint of her being a less feminine because she is a scientist or less a doctor because she is female.

It is a film where the laughs come at moments that are delightfully unexpected, where innuendo is witty, and Morgan’s rudeness is sometimes more entertaining than a tangled plot.

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