Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Best Things in Life are Free - 1956

The Best Thingsin Life are Free (1956) is a delightful entry in the "musicals about composers" genre, presenting an array of Broadway tunes from the team of Buddy DeSilva, Ray Henderson, and Lew Brown. What I particularly like about this movie is it illustrates (probably inadvertently) the enormous impact of Broadway in the 1920s on American pop music.

In this era, Broadway brought us the tunes on the radio, tunes played by the dance bands, and records played on the Victrola. These three gentlemen were responsible for much of that – as the prologue tells us – “for seven years they were the hit songs of the nation.”

Songs like “Button Up Your Overcoat;” “This is My Lucky Day;” “Good News;” “Black Bottom;” and, of course, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” Gordon MacRae and Ernest Borgnine play the team of Buddy DeSilva and Lew Brown. They are polar opposites – MacRae is charming, ambitious, and Borgnine is the sour, grumpy, hot-headed pessimist – but with the secret heart of gold. Though MacRae is the more pleasant fellow, he will prove to look out more for himself and less for the needs of his partners.

Dan Dailey joins the boys as their third partner – and affable family man who works several jobs to support his wife and kids, and who wants a career in popular music composing. Sheree North is a chorine in their latest show, and she’s also Dan Dailey’s sister-in-law.  She is part cheerleader and part mascot of the group.

Through the course of the 1920s the boys turn out a string of hits and their fame grows on Broadway. Happily, the songs are presented in their entirety and not just a fast blur of montage clips.  Eventually, of course, Hollywood calls, and this will bring out the breakup of the group as MacRae yearns to strike out on his own for greener pastures and leaves his pals behind (DeSilva founded Capitol Records). Sheree North is stuck on Gordon, but he is less attentive and she gets the message, sensibly keeping herself at a safe distance from any more hurt. Ultimately, the crew reunites in an effort to start all over again – and though that is a pleasant end to the film, there perhaps could have been more, like some portent that these were the last golden days on Broadway in the late 1920s – the Depression would bring an end to the party on the great White Way.

Sheree North is a terrific dancer, but her singing is dubbed by Eileen Wilson.  Some of the dance numbers are quite daringly surrealistic and erotic.  Dan Dailey adds much to the story as the linchpin to MacRae and Borgnine, but it is not one of his song and dance man roles. He’s mostly sitting behind the piano.

Gordon MacRae is one of my favorites; that rich, baritone voice is fantastic. For Gordon MacRae fans, check out his performances on radio’s The Railroad Hour which are available for download on the Internet Archive – it’s in public domain – for probably the best examples of his marvelous singing voice. The productions are very challenging condensed operettas and musical stage shows, with some terrific guest stars. One of my favorites is his rendition of Brigadoon costarring Jane Powell.

Ernest Borgnine is a pleasing surprise in this movie. The gruff palooka with the heart of gold is stuck on Sheree North.  It’s a disappointment they didn’t end up with each other, as he proves to be a quite gentle family man underneath it all, visiting Dan Dailey’s family for a taste of home life.

But Ernie loses the girl to Gordon MacRae. No surprise, with the way old movies run, and perhaps he is no Gordon MacRae in his singing either, but I got a huge kick out of listening to him sing. His range is very limited, but the tone of his voice kept purposely at a soft register reminds me a little of Nat King Cole’s style. Ernie can actually harmonize.

John O’Hara wrote the script and the wonderful Michael Curtiz directs, so as far as musicals about musical composers go, this one has quality. All the numbers are performed in the setting of stage numbers so moving from one song to the next is quite natural. And they are great tunes. An amusing segment is when the boys are asked by Al Jolson to write a song especially for him, and as a practical joke they come up with what they think is the worst song imaginable with the stupidest lyrics – “Sonny Boy.” They laugh their heads off as they write it.  And what do you know? Jolson loves it, puts it in his act, and it became the huge hit that those of us who are familiar with the American songbook recall.

Come back next Thursday for I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947), the story of Joe Howard, starring Mark Stevens and June Haver.

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, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Another Man's Poison - 1951

Another Man’s Poison (1951) is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between leads Bette Davis and Gary Merrill.  The twists and turns of the often surprising plot, punctuated by some clever lines, create a fast-paced psychological drama with an O. Henry ending.

We take a little break from our series on musicals about composers to review this new release from Classic Flix. Another Man’s Poisonwill be available in a restored version on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday, March 28.

Bette Davis plays a successful mystery writer. She lives in an English country house, an imposing brick and stone mansion on the edge of rugged mountains and a deep lake. The movie is very atmospheric and dark, typical for postwar British dramas. Directed by Irving Rapper, and filmed in England, one of the producers was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Barbara Murray is Bette’s secretary who transcribes her novels from dictation. Anthony Steel plays Barbara Murray’s fiancĂ©. Almost immediately, we are introduced to an uncomfortable romantic triangle. Bette and Anthony Steel are having an affair behind the secretary’s back. It’s just a fling for him, but Bette doesn’t want to let him go. She’s not a desperate clinging older woman, however; she’s a demanding, commanding siren who gets what she wants.

Gary Merrill shows up. He emerges from the shadows, an intruder in her home in a spooky and terrifically framed shot over the back of an easy chair as Bette pours herself a drink in the background. She gasps, and we jump.

Gary is the partner-in-crime of Bette’s estranged husband, who has not been seen in these parts in over three years. They robbed a bank together, and when the caper went sour, a man was shot and killed. The husband pulled the trigger, and Gary doesn’t want to be blamed. He has retrieved the gun used to commit the murder to prove that the fingerprints on it are not his and to force the husband not to back out of his plan to get them both out of the country. Bette tries to offer Gary money to go away – her lover is due any minute – but Gary is adamant he will not leave until she tells him where her ex-husband is.

Exasperated, she announces she has killed him.

It’s an eye-opening, matter-of-fact statement and a bit hard to believe until she brings Gary into the study where the corpse lies on the couch. She casually plays an instrumental record of “Stardust” on the console record player as Gary, confused and grim, examines the body of his partner, and ponders the loss of his alibi and means of escape.

She tells Gary that her husband was blackmailing her over her romantic liaison and that would hurt her career.

Gary incredulously responds, “Will murder make your sales jump?”

There is more to their estranged marriage – she says her husband hit her, that it was self defense, and she rubs her shoulder. Gary, disbelieving, grasps the neckline of her dress and pulls it down to look at her shoulders and back. The image captured on the movie poster is seductive, but the moment in the film is not. Gary grimaces because apparently there is a bruise, and she is not lying.

When they are lying and when they are telling the truth is the trick of the game as they try to fake each other out for the rest of the movie. Gary insists on remaining, pretending to take the role of her husband as a way of hiding in plain sight. Anthony Steel and Barbara Murray arrive to spend the weekend. Though they are featured characters important to the plot, neither really gets a chance to match the intensity of Mr. Merrill and Miss Davis. Their characters are just not as interesting, and their conflicts are not as fleshed out as the leads.

We get a better sense of conflict and irony from the minor characters of a comic shopkeeper in the village, played by Reginald Beckwith, who keeps pestering Gary Merrill to speak at his civic club; and the housekeeper, played by Edna Morris, who suspects Gary is not really the master as she uncovers an old photo of Bette’s real husband.

The local veterinarian, who is treating Bette Davis’ prize horse, is the catalyst for the story. He applies the pressure, with almost Columbo-like questioning behind the mask of a bland smile, keeping the story off-balance, but we don’t know if he’s going to stumble onto the truth accidentally and possibly become the next murder victim, or if he’s really smarter than they are and is teasing them, annoying them purposely because he knows about the murder. He is played by Emlyn Williams, who wrote the play The Corn is Green and who also acted as script doctor for this film when Merrill and Davis felt the script needed work.

There are several breathless moments in the nonstop shell game Davis and Merrill play, getting increasingly daring and dangerous. For the most part, it’s Davis’ vehicle. She was just off her marvelous role in All About Eve (1950), but unlike the troubled Margo Channing, here Davis does not mourn middle age but embraces it, seems to barely notice it. She is not glamorous, even appears rather heavy and wears little to no makeup, but striding around in jodhpurs with her hair pulled back is the picture of a star who has courageously embraced vigor over elegance.

Gary Merrill is, for me, more intriguing than Davis’ scenery chewing. He is strong, clever, but also vulnerable and trapped. Despite being a dangerous criminal on the run who will resort to anything, he actually attracts our sympathy and we want to see if he will succeed.

But the flip-flop of who has the upper hand is constant, and we never find out the destinies of the two firebrands until the last moments of the film. For my money, the end is a little too simplistic, despite the surprising O. Henry ending.

But you can decide for yourself when you watch the restored suspense story from Classic Flix.

Classic Flix provided a DVD of Another Man's Poison in exchange for this review.

Come back next Thursday when we return to musicals about composers in The Best Things in Life are Free (1956) with Dan Dailey, Ernest Borgnine, Sheree North, and Gordon MacRae.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Wild Irish Rose - 1947

My Wild Irish Rose (1947) is an example of post-World War II Hollywood nostalgia for simpler times, a rambling, ambitious entry in what I always felt should be its own separate genre—the musical about music composers.  It is artificial in the sense that it is cardboard cutout simplistic, yet beloved for its artifice, and is an unrelenting cutesy salute to the Irish. 

It is, in true Hollywood fashion, nothing more than a caricature of Irish Americans (Irish from Ireland, in some respects, have always felt that the Irish Americans were an odd caricature anyway), but that is just what Irish Americans are comfortable with, and so they seem happy enough with the garish cartoon.  Because this is a movie I recall from many a St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, it carries, if not authenticity, then at least familiarity. I believe familiarity was all that the studios were aiming for when they made such movies, as homey as a hand-stitched sampler.

This is our first entry into a brief exploration over the next few weeks of that “genre”:  the musical about composers. 

Oddly enough, though My Wild Irish Rose purports to be a biography of composer and lyricist Chauncey Olcott, there is no recognition of his participation in the creation of many American pop songs of musical theatre in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and depicts him only as a singer/actor.  His partnership with composers Ernest Ball and George Graff are left out of the film.  Though star Dennis Morgan sings snippets of many songs associated with Olcott: “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Mother Machree,” “TooRa Loo Ra Loo Ral,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” the movie does not inform us that Chauncey  Olcott had a hand in creating and publishing these songs.  Olcott has been elected into the American Composers Hall of Fame, but you’d never know it from this movie.  Upon his death, one of his pallbearers was the great man of Broadway himself, and in many respects his “American” counterpart, George M. Cohan.

Just what the movie does accomplish is a little hard to say, except for an historically accurate representation of the 19th century minstrel show (scenes which may cause acute disgust and embarrassment today, though I feel any such scene is valuable if historically accurate), and for showcasing Dennis Morgan’s lovely tenor singing voice.

But not everybody was charmed, even in 1947.  What we may have forgiven over the years, what the critics of the day were less likely to overlook. This is from The New York Times of December 25, 1947:

“To say that My Wild Irish Rose tells a story is a gross overstatement, and, even in this season of extraordinary benevolence, one cannot truthfully say that there is a recommendable spirit to the interminable song, dance and specialty interludes that fill out this picture.  As an Irish tenor, Mr. Morgan's singing will hold best with the tone-deaf, and that brogue he affects, and let's not overlook Alan Hale either in this regard, is—just call it murderous.  Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the film is so patronizing and professionally Irish in sentiment that it is downright embarrassing.”

Did the reviewer not find the minstrel affectations embarrassing?  Hmm.

I give the movie full marks if only for casting William Frawley as William J. Scanlan, the grand old man of nineteenth century Irish-themed operettas whom Chauncey Olcott was fated to replace.

And for giving our old friend Grady Sutton a brief role (we discussed Grady in this previous post).  And for casting dear Sara Allgood as Chauncey’s mother.  Trivia buffs may also note that Ruby Dandridge, the mother of Dorothy Dandridge, plays the maid of famed musical theatre star Lillian Russell; and little Kristen Morgan, Dennis Morgan’s real-life daughter, makes a brief appearance as a little girl to whom he sings on stage. 

We won’t discover too much about Chauncey Olcott’s life from this movie, but that should cease to be a surprise about any Hollywood biography.  What we have is John Chancellor Olcott of Buffalo, New York, who runs away from home and a job on a tug boat to make his fortune on the stage; gets involved with a traveling minstrel show; meets Andrea King, who plays Lillian Russell; falls in love with Arlene Dahl, whose da, Alan Hale, thinks he’s not good enough for his little girl.  George Tobias plays a Greek businessman who trails Dennis Morgan throughout the movie with malapropos babble.  George O’Brien is his body builder pal who beats up people who are mean to Dennis, and Ben Blue is his bumbling misfit pal.

Chauncey gets to New York, charms the Tenderloin, replaces the sickly William Frawley with an Irish accent even phonier than Frawley’s (which the movie notes with wry humor and is therefore the most honest thing about the tale).

We may smile over a scene set at Delmonico’s, and at Ruby Dandridge’s wondering how flowers can be “wired” to arrive at a dressing room “how  do they send flowers over telegraph wires?” and Lillian Russell doesn’t know, either.  I love all scenes set in theaters, the plush atmosphere, the palace-like settings, the communal nature from the box to the balcony.

Olcott’s great influence on American pop music before World War I would have made a better movie, and though the story is supposedly based on a book his widow wrote of his life, the thin romance spread across too many years and miles with Arlene Dahl (in her first featured movie role) is a weak story thread; he always seems to spend more time with George O’Brien and Ben Blue.  Dennis Morgan plays a man driven to sing, yet we rarely hear him finish a song in the endless array of montages.

It’s a Technicolor movie, but the predominant shade is green.  Irish-American green, as cartoonish as a box of Lucky Charms.  But that’s all it’s supposed to be.  That is what Americans have created of St. Patrick’s Day.

What should also be noted is the camaraderie, the blending of ethnic groups, the mutual kidding, even the foolish minstrelsy, displays a younger
America more comfortable with itself, more frankly acknowledging of its melting pot.  To be American was to be hyphenated because all save the descendants of native tribes were products of immigrant families.   It was okay to be an immigrant; it was worn like a badge of honor.  The point was they chose to be Americans, and in doing so, honoring we who were born here.

Chauncey Olcott and friend

You can have a listen to this rare audio of the real Chauncey here on YouTube.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it.
My scheduled talk at the Agawam Historical Association on Wednesday was changed to tonight at 7 p.m., due to the blizzard.

- I'll be speaking about my book on the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Mass. and its importance during the Civil War for the Agawam Historical Association, at the Captain Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Mass.  Free and open to the public, the time is 7 p.m.

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - I'll be speaking about Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain at Blue Umbrella Books, 2 Main Street, Westfield, Mass., free and open to the public, 3 p.m.

The time:  1895 to 1965

Setting:  A wooden, barn-like summer playhouse…in an amusement park…on the top of a mountain…in a New England factory town

It was as unlikely a place as you will find for stage plays, but as much a part of the community as the stores and businesses and the red brick maze of factories and canals down below the mountain in the so-called “Flats” by the Connecticut River.  The place was Holyoke, Massachusetts.  For some seventy years live theatre created magic on the mountain above the city.

Though a small theater may seem like a world unto itself, it is not; not entirely.  It reflects its era and its location, that larger world outside its wooden walls; therefore this story is as much about Holyoke, the tri-city area of Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield, and the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, because this was the audience for the little playhouse on Mt. Tom.  If you are familiar with these towns, then you will find much in this book to jog your memories, for this is your story.

Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain covers seventy years of live theatre on Mt. Tom, from vaudeville, operetta, WPA-sponsored shows in the Great Depression, and its heyday from 1941 to 1962 with a resident repertory company called The Valley Players.  In the early 1960s, two new incarnations: The Casino-in-the-Park, and finally, the Mt. Tom Playhouse with touring packaged shows featuring well-known stars from television and movies.  Many stars of stage and screen, and many newcomers who would one day become stars, performed over several decades on Mt. Tom.  Through interviews, newspaper reviews, and many photographs, you will relive their performances, and go backstage for personal experiences that were both comic and tragic, and enjoy again the excitement of opening night.


Speaking of opening nights, I'd like to extend best wishes to the two theatre companies that will be performing my play Sketching the Soul this month.  The first is the Hummingbird Theatre Company of Rochester, New York.  They open tonight, Thursday the 16th:

Hummingbird Theatre Company (formerly BART Productions) presents: Sketching the Soul

by Jacqueline Lynch 
Directed by Donald B. Bartalo

Thur. March 16th - 7:30pm
Fri. March 17th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 18th - 7:30pm
Sun. March 19th - 2:00pm
Thur. March 23rd - 7:30pm
Fri. March 24th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 25th - 7:30pm

Chelsea Logan is an artist struggling with the conflict between her growing celebrity and her Amish upbringing, which she left behind to pursue her ambition, and which she neglected to mention to Mike (her boyfriend), new friends and colleagues.

The past and present, celebrity and spiritually come to a head one frenetic weekend when her younger sister Sarah arrives unexpectedly. Chelsea must explain her sister, and the lifestyle she kept a secret, to Mike, an attorney struggling with his own ethical priorities, and to Maureen Nash an aggressive journalist who arrives with a photographer for an interview (during which Chelsea, with a rather un-Amish-like attitude, pummels the photographer into surrendering the film he has shot of Sarah!) Sarah and Mike together help Chelsea to accept and acknowledge the power of her Amish heritage and to move toward a future she had not expected.


CHELSEA LOGAN…………….……………Sara Bickweat Penner

MIKE GRIMALDI…………………………..Brian Tan

SARAH RICHTER………………………….Laura Thompson Pratt

NANCY………………………………………….Stephanie Sheak

MAUREEN NASH…………………………..Denise Bartalo

ARTHUR COAKLEY……………………….Joseph Barcia

Tickets are $12 in advance and $15.00 at the door. 

The second group to perform this same play will be the Belhaven University Theatre Department in Jackson, Mississippi.  They run March 30th to April 1st, directed by Dr. Elissa Sartwell.

JAMES KENYON as Mike Grimaldi
LECI GRAY as Chelsea Logan
RILEY PLEASANTS as Sarah Richter
RACHEL BROOME as Maureen Nash
MAC MITCHELL as Arthur Coakley

Production Staff & Crew
Director: Dr. Elissa Sartwell
Stage Manager: Frannie Maas
Scenic Design: Hannah Kenyon
Technical Director/Lighting Design: Michael Tobin
Costume & Hair/Makeup Design: Alice Bryant
Sound Design: Brittany Lyday
Props Master: Laina Faul
Dresser/Run Crew: Grace Reeves

Admission $10; Seniors/Students $5; Complimentary admission for Belhaven students, faculty, staff and their immediate families. Doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. We hope that you will join us at the theatre! To reserve tickets for any Belhaven Theatre production, please call 601-965-7026 or email your request to Tickets may be purchased with cash or check.

My thanks and very best wishes to both companies.  Break a leg!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Robert Osborne - Requiescat in Pace

When I recorded a movie on Turner Classic Movies, I often tried to get Robert Osborne's intro on the recording.  I will miss that very much.

Classic film fans mourn the passing of our Robert Osborne this week.  It is, for us, the end of an era.

We know something about the ending of eras.  To love classic films is to be acutely aware of the passage of time.  Fractures in the timeline are part of the study of classic films as much as they are in life.  Acknowledging them involves a degree of mourning, to be sure, but they always are accompanied by the sweet, blessed balm of pleasant memory and lessons learned.  So it will be with Mr. Osborne.

We'll always have Paris.

His appeal as a host to me and millions of old movie fans of all ages -- he is as dear to the millennials as he is to senior citizens -- is likely that rare mixture of wisdom, geniality, gentleness, and the respect he gives us as movie buffs.  Such gentlemanliness engenders our respect for him.  Also, for those of us who began our fandom long before the days of the Internet, who know what it was like to research a favorite film or actor from Who's Who volumes in the local town library -- we appreciate what effort it must have taken for him to compile his first book in 1965, Academy Awards Illustrated. Maybe we even used that book, if we were lucky enough that our library had a copy, for our own exploration of info on old movies.

Mr. Osborne is gone.  But that's almost like saying Humphrey Bogart is gone, or Clark Gable, or Barbara Stanwyck.  Are they really? If TCM gives us regular visits with our friends on the silver screen, then how are they gone?  We will still enjoy Mr. Osborne's influence in our lives, and enjoy the memory of his visits with us.

TCM is to hold a tribute weekend next week showing some of Mr. Osborne's many interviews.  I hope that they will make this a regular feature on the channel, perhaps at least once a week.  It will be delightful to visit with him again, in between our reunions with Hattie McDaniel, Bette Davis, and Paul Henried.

Several wonderful classic film bloggers have paid tribute to Robert Osborne this week.  Here are a few of them:

A Shroud of Thoughts by Terence Towles Canote.

Comet Over Hollywood by Jessica Pickens

Journeys in Classic Film by Kristen Lopez

Thursday, March 2, 2017

10th Anniversary

That's my twin brother John and I at the famous Paramount studio gate in Hollywood.  It was 2006, and as you may surmise, we were not "discovered" and given movie contracts.

Which, frankly, was a surprise to us, being so photogenic, and because that sort of thing happens all the time in the old movies.

Their loss.

However, the guard photobombing us behind the gate was powerless to keep us out.  It was two against one.

As I recall, we were taking a guided tour, along with a small group of tourists from Japan.  They were less impressed by Old Hollywood, but became more excited when we approached an outdoor "New York" street scene that they recognized from Seinfeld.

We all bring something different to the table.

It was the year before I started this blog.  I had no idea I was going to be writing about old movies in less than a year's time.  I had no idea I'd still be writing about them a decade later.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog.  I hope it has been more than just another old movie blog.  It certainly has meant a great deal to me, and I marvel that the site has received over a million page views.  This, despite the copycat sites that still steal posts from it.  That readers continue  to manage to find their way here amazes me.

Thank you so much for the pleasure of your company.  I really appreciate it.

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