Thursday, February 23, 2017

Happy Land - 1943

Happy Land (1943) is a gentle, yet powerful film of common decency, and the discipline and quiet courage that common decency sometimes requires.  We used to attribute these as American values.  The movie is sentimental about this, and yet bravely forward-thinking for all its nostalgia: there is an underlying current of foreboding almost as if they knew how delicate decency is, and that is must be nurtured.

The title of the movie, as related by the strains of the theme song, comes from the lines in “Hail Columbia,” composed for George Washington’s inauguration, that was often used as a national anthem up until the time “The Star Spangled Banner” was officially made the National Anthem in 1931.  With all due respect to our anthem, I have a preference for “Hail Columbia”.  It is stirring, and sweet, and nobly idealistic, and perhaps a little naïve. “Hail Columbia, happy land!”  Listen to song here on YouTube. 

Don Ameche stars as a man from a Middle West small town at the height of World War II.  He is a pharmacist and owns the town’s drugstore on Main Street, and much of what we see will remind us of a Norman Rockwell painting.  He is married to Frances Dee, lives in a cozy white wood frame house, and his only son is away in the Navy.  He knows all his customers personally.  It is a good life.

At the very beginning of the movie, we see a telegram delivery girl ride her bicycle up to the front steps of Don Ameche’s house.  Perhaps no image ever instilled more fear in the United States during World War II than the telegram delivery person.  Here it is a mere girl.  Her name is Hilda, and Don Ameche, of course, knows her.

Pleasantries are quickly dispensed with.  She hands him the telegram without looking at him.  He stands silently, and the close-up lingers on his expressionless face, on which we see only a flicker of realization that his son has been killed.

The movie is filled with moments like this, strong, gutsy, brave moments that are no less courageous from the actors and the director, Irving Pichel, because they are placed in a comfortable and nostalgic setting.  Sometimes the movie may well remind us of what The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) would have been had it been filmed three years earlier; and it is perhaps no coincidence that the material is from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor, just as Best Years was.

We shift quickly to the town’s newspaper office where the editor composes a hasty eulogy for Ameche’s son in his daily editorial.  There is slight leap forward in time—Ameche takes a leave of absence from his drugstore and his employees are left to run the shop: good old Mary Wickes among them.  The minister calls on Mr. Ameche to lend comfort with the true words, “Suffering and pain are part of life too.  We must accept them.”

But Ameche’s loss of his son Rusty is compounded by his sense of injustice that Rusty “never had a chance at life.  He never went anywhere.  Just a youngster living at home, going to school, working for his dad…It isn’t right.  It isn’t fair.”

Ameche’s next visitor will have a stronger impact: Harry Carey, who plays his deceased grandfather.  We may compare this scenario with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but Harry Carey is no bumbling angel.  He speaks frankly with a kind of homespun horse sense we might expect from Will Rogers or Mark Twain, and though he has been dead twenty-one years, he is still very much alive to Don Ameche.  We know this because of Carey’s prominent portrait in Ameche’s home and at the drugstore.  Grandfather Carey’s influence is strong.  So it is with certain people in our lives, who seem to walk with us now and again even though they’re gone.

Ameche goes for walk into town, and Mr. Carey goes with him, and soon they travel not just through town, but through time.  We are brought to the end of World War I, when Harry Carey and the rest of the town welcomed home a parade of doughboys, including a younger Don Ameche.  (It is really something to consider that Ameche was still playing romantic leads at this point in his career, but in this movie he plays a character who ages, whose main purpose in the film is to be a father.  This would, as it does for aging actresses, signal a turning point, perhaps even a demise of his film career, but this movie is a gem and I hope he didn’t regret it.)  Grandpa Carey ran the drugstore then, and Don becomes a pharmacist as well.  We are then given a tour through Ameche’s adult life, of which his marriage to Frances Dee, and his son Rusty, is the biggest part.

Grandpa Carey died shortly after Rusty was born, and we jump to a Memorial Day of placing flags on Civil War vet Grandpa’s grave when Rusty is about six.  He is impressed, and knows that soldiers get flags.  He says that someday he wants one.  It is a moment of foreshadowing of doom, but Frances Dee confidently notes, “There aren’t going to be anymore wars.”  That, after all, was the slogan of World War I, when it was just still called The World War.

Grandpa Carey’s ghost remarks to Don Ameche, “She was right.  That’s the way to bring up American kids, not to be thinking always of conquests and battles, but to learn to enjoy the homely, simple things that are here all around them.”  It is a mighty thought, that to be peace-loving and grateful should be patriotic, for if we do not appreciate what patriots have won for us in war, we do not deserve the peace.  Then the strain of “Hail Columbia” repeats in chorus during this exchange.  The tune becomes our conscience.

We see Rusty playing with his friends at being Indians in a cornfield, and being dragged home by Mom to take his nap.  He balks at being called and answers, “Me no Rusty, Woman!”

Rusty gets spanked by Pop for refusing to go to kindergarten, but goes and makes pals there of two brothers who live on the other side of the tracks.  He brings them to the drugstore to meet Pop, and Ameche gives them free ice cream and orders some groceries for their family.  Their dad is out of work.  Ameche tells Rusty, “When you come across a fellow that hasn’t got anything and you’ve got things, why, you just give him some of your things.  Some folks call that charity.  I don’t like that word.  All it is, is being friendly.”

Rusty grows older, joins the Boy Scouts, and saves for a hatchet to take on a camping trip with the Scouts.  He’s almost got enough, but when he’s left in charge of the store and an old man comes in for medicine and can’t pay for it, Rusty buys it for him with his own money. Ameche witnesses the scene.  The expression of pride on his handsome face is exquisite.

He buys the hatchet for his son, and we see Rusty with other Scouts singing “MyDarling Clementine” to a harmonica accompaniment.  We are back to homespun pleasures, and a montage of scenes as Rusty plays football and runs track in high school.  He was not always the star, but tried his best, and his father notes with equal pride, “He was a good loser.” This is a virtue as important as being a good winner.

Rusty dates, and his eventual best girl, Ann Rutherford, shares with him an unusual but pleasingly respectful relationship, an old-fashioned courtliness borne of modern wariness.  She does not gush over him, and withholds her kisses from him because she has seen him lose his head over flashier girls and she will not lower herself to compete.  He must win her, and with gallant gentlemanliness, he acquiesces to kisses only on the forehead until the moment when the time for passion is right.

Rusty, played by Richard Crane as an adult, is touchingly mature.  He and his friends have fun at a late summer backyard party, but listen to Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the radio and soberly understand, wise beyond their years, that their future has just been altered.  As President Franklin D. Roosevelt had said only three years earlier in 1936: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events.  To some generations much is given.  Of other generations much is expected.  This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Back at the drugstore, Old Ben, who works in town as a night watchman, played with eloquent, natural grace by Leigh Whipper, veteran of Broadway and the first African American to receive membership in the Actors Equity Association, remarks of the latest news on the radio about the threat of fascism, “It’s the same old thing, weasel talk.  The same old bunch of gangsters and killers out to make slave of the rest of Europe.”  Mr. Whipper’s too disgusted to be scared.  He sets a fine example in righteousness for the Rusty and his pals planning on joining the service, some fighting in these pre-Pearl Harbor days for Canada.

Along with Leigh Whipper, we must note how well chosen the cast is, from Richard Crane, who despite the enthusiasm of a boy coming of age really plays his role in a careful, understated manner which makes his character very likeable that makes us, like his father, seem to take pride in him.

His best friend is played by Dickie Moore, and Ann Rutherford’s character is played as a child by Darla Hood.  Also for the trivia buffs, this was five-year-old Natalie Wood’s first movie.  She has a brief walk-on as a child who drops an ice cream cone.  It also warms the heart see Adeline De Walt Reynolds in a brief role as a patron of the drugstore who trades homemade loganberry wine for a “snake oil” tonic. (We discussed her career in this previous post.)  The wine is reprised in several scenes as Rusty shares his first drink with Dad, and other momentous occasions.

Rusty decides, rather than enlist in a knee-jerk reaction to the world news, that he will go to pharmacy school.  After the war, he wants to join his father in business, and he feels that if he has his pharmacist’s license, he will be of more use to the service with this skill.  Don Ameche is once again beaming with pride, and invites his son for a toast of loganberry wine.

Rusty’s a strapping sailor in his Navy uniform.  But the world comes crashing down on us when we see his smiling face in the bus window pulling out of town and Ameche says in his soft, low voice, “That was the last time I saw him.”

Grandpa Carey is at his side again; we’re back in the present.  Carey says, “It was all worthwhile, the whole thing.”

We know what he means, that just because Rusty’s life was short doesn’t mean it didn’t have value, and that he didn’t pack a lot into it.  Ameche understand, too, but responds, “Rusty led a good life.  You’re right about that.  I know all the other things you’re hoping I’ll say, but I can’t.  He was my boy.  And now he’s dead.  I miss him.  I can’t help it.  I’ll always miss him.  I’ll always wish he was back, as long as I live.”

This exchange, during the height of World War II, was a very frank thing to say, and brave in its open-faced acknowledgement of grief.  We are most respectful to the grieving not when we try to cheer them up, but when we acknowledge their grief.  There is no cheerleading here, but the end of the movie gives us and Ameche a startling task.  It dares us to continue our lives and force ourselves to find a purpose.

The gentle but no less firm admonition for Ameche comes in the form of Henry Morgan.  He’s a young sailor, a shipmate of Rusty’s.  He shows up to the drugstore on furlough, and in an exchange of very few words, almost as if they are reading each other’s minds, Ameche invites Henry, who has no family of his own, to stay at his house.  Frances Dee, also awed by an unspoken epiphany, kisses Henry upon meeting him as if he was her son, and they, without talking about it, suggest he take Rusty’s room.  We know their bond is sealed when Ameche takes out the loganberry wine.

The strains of “Hail Columbia” rise again with lyrics, “peace and safety we shall find.”

But we shall only find it together.

Special thanks to fellow blogger Moira Finnie (see her blog The Skeins) for introducing me to this movie.  You can watch it here on YouTube.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

For the Defense - 1930

For the Defense (1930) presents a gritty Depression-era drama, but very much on the cusp of the 1920s “era of wonderful nonsense” and a semi-biographical take on one of its outrageous characters.  It is grim, fatalistic, but with that cheeky spark of chip-on-the-shoulder humor that marked the character needed to survive the Great Depression, and which we see abundantly in films of this era.

William Powell stars as a clever, charming, hard-drinking New York attorney whose tactics sometimes actually skirt legality.  He is immaculately dressed and performs in court with Shakespearean flourish, never loses a case, but he is flawed, and eventually must suffer the consequences.  Despite his eventual downfall, he is not, however, a tragic figure in the sense that he is the master of his own destiny.  He gambles with his clients’ lives, with his own, and refuses to take life on anything but his own terms.  No hero, but we can’t help but smile at his success, particularly during a long-played out courtroom scene where he takes a vial of nitroglycerin that is a piece of evidence and smashes it on the floor to the horror of everyone.  He knows it is not really nitroglycerin (and so do we, as the scene telegraphs that to us beforehand).  His greatest courtroom trick, however, is his bribing of juries.

Far more shocking than the nitro scene, at least to modern sensibilities, perhaps, is Powell’s self-destructive drunkenness.  It is not played for comic effect, despite his wisecracks.  The real  ugliness of the drunkenness is its treatment as being normal, being necessary to fuel the engine of a driven man.

The character is based on real-life New York champion lawyer and marathon inebriate William Fallon, who is said to be the inspiration as well for the rogue lawyer Billy Flynn in the stage and screen musical Chicago, as well as other films.  His life of hard drinking left him dead in 1927 at only forty-one years of age.

More tragic, perhaps, is the character played by Kay Francis, who loves Powell and wants to marry him, but his uncomfortable, gentle response is, “After all these months, don't you think that would be rather silly?”  He clearly loves her, but it’s a slap in the face, and we feel her humiliation. 

Kay Francis, who would go on the make six films with Mr. Powell in all, plays an actress, and her flapper’s severely short bob make her look more devil-may-care than Powell in his conservative three-piece-suits, though she is far more traditional, at least as regards her feelings about marriage.  She really looks startlingly modern compared to Powell and stands out in appearance from the Depression-bedraggled cast, as if she hasn’t gotten the memo that the 1920s are over.

Obviously, noting their relationship, the drinking, and Powell’s clever flouting of the law, we are distinctly in Pre-Code era, unrepentant and blasé about rules.  It’s also a marvel to note that Mr. Powell’s screen presence is magnetic and, unlike his cast mates, really quite natural.  Even Kay Francis, who had a strong screen presence, comes off as extremely mannered in performance compared to the smooth William Powell, who never plays to the camera, and seems not to know there’s a camera in the room.

The plot takes us from Powell’s many victories in the courtroom getting criminals off, to a tragedy when one of Kay’s admirers, played by Scott Kolk, tries to lure her away from Powell by proposing marriage.  Kay and Kolk get into a car accident which kills a pedestrian, and Kolk goes on trial, though Kay was driving.  He tries to protect her, and Kay tries to keep her involvement with him a secret from Powell, knowing he will never forgive her for being out with his rival.  Powell refers to Kolk as her raccoon coat, because that is what he wears—more shades of the previous decade.  Their scenes in a speakeasy also flout the law, and remind us that Prohibition was not repealed until 1933.

Powell will lose his first case, and find himself shipped to Sing-Sing for his chicanery , but the sordid tale ends on a note of hope when Kay promises to wait for him.  He promises to marry her, if she does.

Director John Cromwell gives us a lean and strong, quickly shot story.  Look for him also in a bit part as a reporter.  The dogged district attorney is played by William B. Davidson.  Also popping up in the cast is George “Gabby” Hayes as a waiter.

There is a sense—I wonder if it was perceived even when this film played in theaters—that we were stuck treading water in a period of time where one era was finished, but the new one had not yet acquired a personality of its own.  We were waiting warily to be introduced.  Rather than a sense of foreboding, there was a only a weak smile and a shrug of the shoulders.  We hadn’t touched bottom yet as a society; we were still in the freefall, waiting to land. 


Come back next Thursday when we shift gears to an era of another kind of anxiety but a greater message of comfort – the gentle wartime home front story of Happy Land (1943) starring Don Ameche.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Easy Living - 1937

Easy Living (1937), despite the surface of innocent goofiness, is a remarkably sophisticated reflection of Depression-era attitudes and coping.  We should expect nothing less from the marvelous Jean Arthur.

The tale is deftly told, both in term of script, direction, and the precise timing of the actors; and yet the premise is ridiculously simple: Jean Arthur, a struggling working girl rides in an open-top bus and an expensive fur coat lands on her head.  That triggers a series of events involving mistaken impressions, taking us and Jean on a riotous adventure.  Along the way fools are exposed, suffer consequences of their own making, and are ultimately redeemed.  There are no real villains or heroes—though Jean is an Everywoman who rides the waves with dogged determination to just get by.

Edward Arnold plays a blustering millionaire banker with his usual aplomb, but this is no bad guy such as he played in Meet JohnDoe (1941).  We really have to admire his ability to use basically the same techniques and equipment to play sinister as well as he does silly.  One of Hollywood’s most talented and solid character actors, Mr. Arnold could do both with ease.  Part of the film's sophistication lies in the very presentation of Edward Arnold’s character, though rich and supporting an indolent wife and son living in wasteful fashion, his not being an evil rich man.  He’s really just a regular guy—not overly nice, but not overly terrible, either.  Just a guy; and we may even feel sorry for him when his spendthrift son, played by Ray Milland, spends $11,000 for a foreign sports car, and his wife (played by Mary Nash) spends $58,000 on yet another fur coat (she has a closet full of them.)  Fed up, Mr. Arnold throws the new fur coat off the roof of their townhouse.

Though the cook’s charge to him, “Go fry yourself in lard, you dirty capitalist,” is pretty funny, it's a lightweight comment on Arnold's extreme wealth; he’s just mad he was told to use lard in his cooking.

The fur coat lands on Jean’s head, and though she attempts to return it when she meets up with Arnold, he insists she keep it because he’s furious with his wife.  She does not know it’s mink; he has told her (because his wife has told him, in a lie) that it is a Kolinsky, which is a species of weasel from which inexpensive coats were made (as well as artist’s sable brushes).

She is also blissfully unaware that those who have observed her with Edward Arnold and wearing his gift of a mink coat—believe that she is his mistress.  The fawning florist, played by the wonderful Franklin Pangborn, who can take disdain and disgust to levels of high art, and Mr. Louis Louis, played by Luis Alberni, who runs a downtown hotel and is in debt to Banker Arnold are two such gossipers.  He offers Jean a resplendent suite in the hotel to appease Mr. Arnold, curry his favor, and get him to extend his loan.  Soon, the whole town is talking about Banker Arnold and his mistress, but he has no idea of the gossip, and neither does Jean.  But her newfound reputation as a kept woman has left her jobless—her publisher at The Boy’s Constant Companion fires her for the rumors over her questionable lifestyle—and has left her homeless, as she is  behind in her rent already, and being without a job will put her on the streets.

Two indelible scenes are the result: when Jean smashes her piggy bank for food money and comes up with only a couple coins, and when she takes the coins to the Automat.  We covered the old movies’ love affair with New York’s Automat in this previous post.

The piggy bank is a master class in comedy.  Jean puts a Kleenex blindfold on the pig before she tries to hit him with her shoe.  Her first swipe misses completely—no one does comedy like this better.  We are all prepared for the smashing of the ceramic pig, and she bangs the dresser top with the heel of her shoe instead, just missing the pig.  We are fooled, and it’s hysterical.

The Automat is more of a traditional set-up to a food fight.  Ray Milland, son of the millionaire banker, is, unexpectedly, working there as a busboy.  He and his father have split over differences and Ray has no income beyond his father’s largesse.  He feels sorry for Jean, tries to slip her some food from the Automat’s little cubbies, but the boss catches him and a furious melee ensues with street crowds coming in to take advantage of the chaos and eat free food.

It’s the Great Depression.  Nobody in the audience blames them for trying to sneak a meal, but no one is sorry, either, when some of them get the worst of the food fight.  Ray Milland’s not the hero, and the boss who catches him isn’t the bad guy, but nobody blames anybody for doing what they have to, to survive, and to maybe make life a little happier.

But even though everybody’s side is understandable, there is a brilliant put-down to everybody not to take themselves so seriously.  The stuffy and officious publisher of the boy’s magazine (just the name “The Boy’s Constant Companion” is a suggestion of unrelenting bludgeoning piety), is told off by Jean, “You don’t have to get mad just because you’re so stupid.”

Ray, of course, loses his job after the Automat food riot, and Jean, feeling sorry for him, invites him to stay at her palatial suite at Luis Alberni’s hotel.  We tease the Production Code in several scenes, most notably when they both lie in different directions, but head-to-head on a divan close together and engage in sleepy pillow talk.  He seals a quick kiss, and she rouses, but instead of shock or insult, smiles at him with delightful cheeky knowing, and it’s the ol’ Fade to Black.

Of course, in the next scene, she wakes up alone in her large bedroom, and we are told Ray just went out that earlier that morning, so we really don’t know where he spent the night and, with what is true sophistication—it isn’t dwelled on.  We can connect whatever dots we want to ourselves.

Just a note as well on the phone conversations: Jean speaks into two phones at once at her bedside when she is roused by other people wanting to curry the banker’s favor to offer her stuff.  She has no idea what’s happening, she’s harried, a little panicked, and she speaks as if she’s really trying to have two phone conversations at once.  (“I just want to brush my teeth!”)  She never leaves the audience with the impression that she’s faking it; we can easily believe there are people talking to her and badgering her with their salesmanship.

Though her hotel flat is opulent, to say the least, it is not presented—either by Mr. Alberni’s grand tour of the place or in Jean’s reaction to it—as something we should envy.  It all seems less awesome than it is comical, including the large shell-like bathtub that leaves everyone who examines it stupefied as to what it is.  The scene where Ray and Jean inspect it, and accidently get caught in a sudden spray of multi-water jets, is another cheeky jab at the censors as the couple innocently and fully clothed share a bath together in bacchanalian setting.

Another proof of Edward Arnold’s being just a guy is his insistence when he takes a room at this hotel, that he wants “a room with a bath.”  Alberni tries to—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—get him a joining suite with Jean, but Mr. Arnold insists grumpily he wants a room with a bath, as if he’s at the YMCA.

By the way, some of the best exchanges are the rapport between blustering boss and his secretary played by the wonderful Esther Dale.

Ray and Jean are falling for each other, and even though he doesn’t seem like a hero worthy of our Jean, if not the sharpest tool in the shed, he’s a nice guy.  She proves to be the biggest mensch of the lot: when a series of daffy circumstances brings her $18,000 from a stock tip, she gleefully shares half of it with Milland, as if they are teenagers going Dutch at the malt shop.

It is only at the end of the story that she finally understands that Alberni thinks she’s Edward Arnold’s mistress.  Her indignation is smashing: “And you thought I took a sable coat from him?!” She slaps him twice.  We’ve been waiting for that.

To juggle all these characters with their separation motivations, foibles, and failings and make them all gloriously ridiculous but likeable, and to keep Jean the moral compass of all is a splendid coping mechanism with the social, psychological, and emotional ills of the day.  The wolf might not have been at the door in Hollywood where stars made fabulous salaries and moguls owned them, but the movie industry had canny knowledge of what the public wanted, what it needed, and what it was willing to take.  Classic films, like popular music of the day, were a barometer of hard times, good times, scary times.  Despite splashy musical fantasies, there was more that was real in old Hollywood than there is today.  There was a fearlessness, as if, along with Jean, we dare to survive and even to be happy, because there is nothing left to lose. There is something quintessentially American in such good-hearted sensible…nonsense.


Come back next Thursday when we sit in court with William Powell in For the Defense (1930).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

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