Friday, December 20, 2019

Lionel Barrymore - The Spirit of Christmas Past and Present

Lionel Barrymore was Ebenezer Scrooge for a generation.  For another generation, he became Mr. Potter, perhaps a deeper, more disturbed, and more modern Christmas villain.

In 20 years, he was absent only twice from playing Mr. Scrooge on the radio every Christmas Day; once because of tragedy, and once because of his great generosity.

He began the role on radio in 1933.  He admitted in his crusty fashion that he took the job because radio work paid well, but according to author Hollis Alpert in his biography of the three Barrymore sibling actors: “But it was customary for Lionel to mask the sentimental side of his nature.  Not only did he like Dickens as a writer, but he harbored hopes that Scrooge’s transformation might spark a few good or noble impulses among his hearers.”

In 1936, however, his fortitude was tried and his sentimental side nearly destroyed him.  His wife Irene, to whom he was deeply devoted, died on Christmas Eve. His brother John Barrymore stayed up with him that night to comfort him, and then he took Lionel’s place the next day at the microphone to play Scrooge.  The annual radio event was done live.  Lionel attended Christmas Mass, then collapsed from grief and spent several weeks in isolation at a sanitarium.

It was a horrible end to a bad year.  It was in this year that Lionel broke his hip at home while leaning on a metal drafting board on which he was working, pursuing his other interest and talents as an artist.  The board was heavy, and toppled over, and Lionel fell.  His recovery period was long and painful, but though he managed to walk again with a limp and with a cane, it would be the beginning of his handicap that would eventually put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

He worried most about his career, expecting this would end it.  MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, whose reputation for ruthlessness is the stuff of legend, was truly kind and magnanimous to Lionel Barrymore, keeping him on the payroll when the accounting department questioned it, and found him work in movies simply as a wheelchair-bound character, first in the Dr. Kildare series, and then in a number of other major films. Not only did Lionel’s career not end, it actually thrived and he arguably became the most famous and successful wheelchair-bound person in the U.S., especially when we consider the irony that most Americans in the 1930s were not aware how dependent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his wheelchair.

In 1938, Lionel Barrymore had the second accident that was to put him in a wheelchair for good this time.  Once again, Louis B. Mayer came to his rescue and promised that the screen version he intended to make of A Christmas Carol would star Lionel as Scrooge as soon as Lionel was able to do the picture.

Lionel knew there would be no recovery this time.  He also had a generous streak behind his famous crusty exterior, and suggested that MGM go ahead and make the movie on schedule but with Reginald Owen in the role.  Lionel made himself available on set to coach Owen.  To help promote both the film and Owen in the role, Lionel insisted Reginald Owen do the Christmas radio broadcast as Scrooge that year.

The following year, 1939, Lionel was back at the mic for A Christmas Carol and would continue this annual role for the remainder of his life.  He died in November 1954.  

Today, Christmas for classic film fans is more to be identified with Lionel Barrymore in another role:  the evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Unlike Scrooge, Mr. Potter never had an epiphany or change of heart.  Interestingly, author Hollis Alpert’s book, The Barrymores, which is a wonderful collection of research and stories of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, was published in 1964, long before the annual Christmastime television broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, so the author was just as ignorant as Lionel was of his future importance to classic film fans as Mr. Potter.  The film does not even rate a mention. It was Mr. Potter, and not Mr. Scrooge, that became Lionel Barrymore’s Christmas legacy.

Scrooge embodied a Victorian Christmas, and Charles Dickens is often said to be the creator of the modern Christmas, but Mr. Potter, perhaps, is a figure much more symbolic of our 21st century era—cynical, greedy, unrepentant, and unpunished, reveling in his meanness and feeling that his very self-interestedness gives him actual omnipotence. It is a veil he dare not drop lest he lose his power.

George Bailey is the one with the epiphany in the movie, and if he does not vanquish Mr. Potter in the old movie fashion of destroying the villain, he does something through his epiphany which is perhaps more realistic—he renders Mr. Potter totally irrelevant. 
Becoming irrelevant is a deeper punishment to someone as power-hungry as Potter than even time in prison.  

Here’s wishing you all a very happy holiday season and in the happy new year to come, may all the villains become rendered irrelevant.

Listen here for Lionel Barrymore's final radio performance as Scrooge.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Anne Shirley in Screen Guide

Anne Shirley from Screen Guide, May 1942.  A brief blurb laments her recent divorce from John Payne, but supports the young mother and working actress in Hollywood style by following her every move.  

When a personal life-changing event happens, the only recourse is to up the glamour.  We can both applaud and pity the stars under such circumstances.  So many decades later we still have their films and they continue to entertain. Could they ever have imagined that?

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Listen to THE WAR OF THE WORLDS - 1938

Have a listen to my favorite Halloween tradition -- "The War of the Worlds" as heard on October 30, 1938 on the Mercury Theater radio program.  For more on the broadcast as it compared to the 1953 movie, have a look at this previous post.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

90th Anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash

James Stewart's dazed expression at the panicked customers demanding all their deposits in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash speaks volumes to the audience who remembered the crash and lived through its aftermath.  His quick decision and energetic parceling out of meager funds saves the bank with two dollars to spare at closing time.  Today we mark the 90th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash.

Many movies of the 1930s reflected and illustrated the Great Depression with unblinking frankness despite, as Mary Astor noted in her memoir Mary Astor--A Life on Film:

“The national situation was tragic, but it wasn’t our tragedy.  It was something that was happening ‘out there’ and wasn’t it awful, but did you read Variety today?  People stood in line at the employment agencies but they also stood in line at the theaters.”  (p.81)

“These were the years called by the extravagant name of the Golden Years, maybe because nobody ever had it so good as the movie-makers.  In our fortress of films we were safe from dust bowls and grinding poverty, breadlines and alphabet agencies.”  (p. 109)

The buildup to the Crash was also extensively covered by Hollywood in its 1920s pre-Code party mode -- the vamps, the lascivious key-hole views of wild parties, and occasionally, a look at the even more wild spree on Wall Street.  The Marx Brothers capped the madness by adding more of their own in The Cocoanuts from 1929 a few months before the crash, which we covered in this post.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) attempts to cover it all -- the boom, the bust, the gangsters that appeared to usher the era in and out again, but takes the Crash with a clearly clich├ęd and nostalgic view.  It's easier to put a label on an event or an era when we are looking at it in the rearview mirror.  Here 90 years on from that event, from which we have only a few images of people swarming to the Stock Exchange when the panic began, we still dismiss it with a bemused and somewhat condescending eye.  We cannot imagine ourselves running to our local banks and screaming for our money, and not getting it (not all banks were so fortunate as to have George Bailey and his two dollars left).

We covered The Roaring Twenties here in this post -- ten years ago on the 80th anniversary of the Crash.  Have I really been writing this blog for twelve years?  We were coming down off a financial crisis then, ten years ago.  I have, I confess, feelings of more ominous foreboding for the one we're entering right now, but I can still take comfort in George Bailey's desperate and gusty response to a crisis. 

The timeline of the crisis that ultimately launched us into all those great Great Depression movies was this:

On Wednesday, October 23, 1929, the stock market fell about 4.6 percent, but rallied on Thursday the 24th in heavy trading.  Bankers stepped in and bought up shares, similarly to what the Fed is doing today, to prop up the market.  By Friday the 25th, the crisis seemed to have been averted.

But Monday, October 28th, when the market reopened, stocks dropped again.  Tuesday, October 29th, "Black Friday," the bottom fell out and the stock market collapsed.

That event is what we like to peg the beginning of a new era, but the market did not actually stop falling.  It slid down a bit more through several months and did not actually hit its bottom until July 1932, when 90 percent of its 1929 value had been lost.

Of course, as devoted investors like to point out, if one had bought stocks in August 1932 and held them, they would be rich because the stock market went up after that.  Well, yes, but it did not reach its 1929 level until 1954 -- 25 years later.  Fine if you're young and bought in (not a whole lot of people had the money, let alone confidence in Wall Street, to buy stocks in the depths of the Depression), but if one was middle-aged or a senior, the ball game was over.  What was lost was never to be recouped.

History, as is said, does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, in a quote often attributed to Mark Twain.  I like to take a lesson from charts and graphs, from the testimony of people who experienced an event -- and from George Bailey, who always seemed to be behind the 8-ball but who thought fast and stayed on his feet.

May we all be here in ten years, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Sound Era with curious, bemused, and somewhat condescending commemorations of the Crash of 1929.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Bertha Kirk - a Studio "Extra" Mystery

In September 1928, a gentleman named H. J. Pepper, 60 years old, retired hotelkeeper from Manitoba, Canada, and now eager silent movie "extra," met character actress Bertha Kirk at a studio while working on a film.  Though married, he became infatuated with her, but stalked her and shot her, then turned the gun on himself.  She was 50 at the time. 

I recently received a request for info on this subject by a researcher named Scott who wanted to know if I could help him find the titles of the movies Bertha Kirk might have played in, or obtain a photo of her.  Unfortunately, I knew of only the bare facts of the case.

It's an intriguing mystery, and Scott adds a hypothesis from his research (his remarks are slightly abridged by me for brevity and clarity):

"Halsey James Pepper was promoted to “Gas Officer” during the First World War and joking, attributed his promotion not to skill but to his tolerance for high-fume gas. And in June of 1928 just 3 months before the shooting a short film was released titled “A background Extra” full title being “The Life & Death of 9413, a Background Extra” and the working title from the studio being “The suicide of a background extra.” Unlike most experimental films of that time, it was not shown in the living room of a producer or home audience, it was promoted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who saw the genius behind the film's portrayal of Hollywood and the never-ending loops you must jump through only to be disregarded altogether as background material. Nothing more than a prop. So it was shown in 300 select theatres across America that summer. The story is almost uncanny to the real-life event that unfolded...most bizarre is a small scene near the end where a “Captain” character is seen laughing at background extra 9413 in his grave. This character has no credit nor does he appear in any other scene. I’ve tried to find a reference to his meaning but nothing comes up about him. This to me is almost supernatural and I feel something more was at play but to conclude my current hypothesis, Captain Pepper was suffering from some form of brain deterioration caused by years and years of exposure to high-fume gases. The fact that he went 50 years living a relatively normal life managing hotels seems bizarre to up and leave for Hollywood and in his mid 50’s at that. The short film that came out right before this event unfolded could be the key that unlocked the insanity manifesting inside Captain Pepper." 

The newspaper blurb above is from a wire story printed in an Australian newspaper, so while it must have gained some notoriety at the time, the headlines were probably short-lived since the police case would have been closed due to Pepper's committing suicide.  Had they arrested the murderer and put him on trial, there would have been daily reporting and possibly some photos and more background on Bertha Kirk.

I'd like to turn this over to our classic film fan community and see if anyone can come up with any more info on Bertha Kirk or the story, especially those among you who know more about the silent film era.  Feel free to leave your comments on this post, or email me at, and I'll pass the word along to Scott.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fred MacMurray sings "I'm in the Market for You"

Before he was a Hollywood actor, Fred MacMurray was a saxophonist and a singer who entertains us here with the timely tune from 1930:  "I'm in the Market for You"...

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shore - Since You Went Away (1944)

Since You Went Away (1944) is a tribute to the American home front during World War II, its cozy, meandering plot glowing with quiet moments of breathtaking truth. Sentimental, certainly, but no less truthful for its sentiment, and never more so than the important scene toward the end of the film when we see Claudette Colbert learning a lesson on what it is to be an American.

She takes a coffee break in the canteen at the shipyard where she is doing war work. Her co-worker, an immigrant from Europe, recounts of the terror of the old country, of clutching her child, hearing, "the sound of heavy boots marching down the street."  

We do not know the country, or her religion, or how she came to arrive in America, only that her little boy did not come with her. We cannot imagine the circumstances of what we presume was his death, or what happened to his father. 

"We'd pray together that God would let us go to the fairyland across the sea."

Nazimova plays Zofia Koslowska.  Her name, Claudette Colbert writes to her husband, "is nothing like we ever heard at the country club."  Nazimova describes her visit to the Statue of Liberty upon arrival in the country, and recites from memory over the lunch counter, over their coffee, as Claudette listens, watching her face with awe, the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the bronze plaque on the pedestal of Lady Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

"I know it so well here," she points to her head, "because I feel it so much here," she points to her heart.

It was Nazimova's last film; she died the following year at 66 years old.  Another veteran of the European stage, Albert Basserman, plays another immigrant in the film, and producer/screenwriter David O. Selznick prefaces his appearance with the tender, and pointed, quote on a plaque by another American poet, Carl Sandburg, 

"America, thy seeds of fate have borne a fruit of many breeds..."

Then we see a university degree awarded to Sigmund Gottlieb Golden, M.D., a kindly psychiatrist treating a young serviceman in a veteran's hospital, played by Craig Stevens, who is suffering from what we today call post-traumatic stress.  The doctor's name, like Zofia Koslowska's, would never be heard at the country club.

But middle class WASP Claudette Colbert, and her daughter played by Jennifer Jones, embrace these "wretched refuse" as role models and as friends.  We next see Nazimova as a guest at a party at Claudette's home.

Selznick uses these inferences and examples of the strength, nobility, and virtue of a culturally diverse America -- and the white Christians openly accepting the newcomers who are different -- not as a shaft of conscience, but as a source of pride during a desperate war against fascism.  Our cultural diversity and our pride in that was one of our greatest weapons against evil.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

One Small Step - The Moon Landing and the Movies of the Day

"Today's Headlines!" the ad above for 2001: A Space Odyssey announces, referring to the first moon walk by astronauts in July 1969.  Today we commemorate the enormity of the event, particularly for those of us who remember it, but also we look back at the movies playing at that time to see where America was, culturally, during that monumental moment when man first set foot on another celestial body outside the Earth.

This wrinkled front page is from the newspaper my family read and which my mother saved from Monday, July 21, 1969.  As we can see by other front page newspapers below, the moon landing was the biggest news of the day -- of all time, we thought.  I especially love this front page of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News because, unlike the other newspapers, there is no headline and no story -- just the dramatic fuzzy image of two astronauts and their lunar module craft on the moon.  No words were needed.  No words could adequately express our awe.

The astronauts were, of course, Neil A. Armstrong, the civilian commander, and Air Force Colonel Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin.  Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins remained in the command vessel orbiting the moon, called Columbia.  The lunar module was the Eagle, as in those triumphant words, "The Eagle has landed!"

The mission was called Apollo 11 and the Saturn 5 rocket was launched July 16th. People all over the globe watched excitedly and followed the progress of the mission.  On Sunday the 20th, a little after 11 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and onto the surface of the moon.

In commemorating that event, many will recall the inspiring pledge of President John F. Kennedy at the beginning of that decade that we would be on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and will recall a time when the  nation was more idealistic, more driven to setting technological and intellectual goals, and with a far more robust economy that would allow us to provide for the expenditure for such a space program.  

Those of us who were children in those days recall watching the series of Gemini and Apollo flights on TV at home and even at school.  We had our space toys, and believing we would certainly have a Jetson's car when we were grown.

But from the standpoint of pop culture as it is expressed in the movies, have a look at what we were looking at in the drive-ins, the neighborhood movie houses, and the new cinema complexes in the summer of 1969...

We were really more interested in the 2001: A Space Odyssey above, or was the topical comedy How to Commit Marriage more appealing? We see that in the late sixties, stars of the Golden Age like James Stewart and Gregory Peck, Doris Day, Anthony Quinn and Sir Lawrence Olivier were still starring in feature films, often now alongside younger box office stars and apparently trying to adapt to new subject matter and to new audiences.  Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, and Jane Wyman starred, and in the movie at the bottom of that ad, we see Bandelero! with James Stewart and Dean Martin paired with Raquel Welch.

In this ad, another theater carries How to Commit Marriage, and a drive-in is showing Bullitt with Steve McQueen.

We seemed to have a greater variety in movies at that time -- dramas, comedies, westerns, sci-fi, Shakespeare, and musicals -- and a wider variety of venues in which to see them.

Note that the ad above stresses the theater is "air conditioned" and has "exclusive air-flo rockers."  

If we were glued to the TV for those several days the astronauts were on their trip to the moon, the movie theaters might not have gotten as much business.  In the next decade, many of the theaters above would close. It might have been the last time that stars of classic films and contemporary actors would have equal footing in pop culture.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941) and Spring Reunion (1956)

Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary (1941) celebrates the high school graduation of Mikey Rooney as Andy Hardy, a member of the class of 1941.  Spring Reunion (1956), starring Betty Hutton and Dana Andrews, is a look at another class of ’41 at their 15th reunion.  The first movie idealistically launches teenagers into their newly proclaimed adulthood at the first major accomplishment of their lives—commencement, and the latter film looks back with a wistful sadness and even frustration, questioning just what have they accomplished since.  

We’ve mentioned before the deeper meaning of being a member of a high school graduating class in the spring of 1941 in this previous post on Peyton Place (1957).  Though World War II had already begun and most young people were likely expectant that the U.S. would join the Allies sooner rather than later, it must have been a strangely unsettling feeling graduating from high school that spring of 1941.  Plans for further education, or job options, would have been made probably only tentatively, with an uneasy suspicion of the lack of permanence in a world catching fire.

Andy Hardy plans to go to college, but with his typically jubilant frenzy, he never gives the impression he suspects his plans might be knocked out by the war.  (We discussed his next venture in this post on Life Begins for Andy Hardy - 1941) Mikey Rooney, a workhorse actor whose well over 300 films began when he was barely old enough to tie his shoes, had traded a long run as “Mickey Maguire” for a long run as Andy Hardy by 1937 and Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary was tenth in the series.  He could play the part with his eyes closed, and the mugging all-American fella in the sweater vest was Louis B. Mayer’s schmaltzy paean to American boyhood, a mantle not always worn comfortably by Rooney.

Lewis Stone is his long-suffering pop, Judge Hardy; Fay Holden is his adoring and somewhat ditzy mom; Sara Haden is back as doting maiden Aunt Milly who lives with them, and who teaches English at the local high school.  Older sister Marian is absent from this entry in the series and it is explained that she’s away in New York City.

Ann Rutherford’s back as Mikey’s best girl Polly, and spends most of the movie in a jealous snit.  The main diversion for the Hardy clan, besides Andy’s struggle to graduate, is the Land family.  Widower Ian Hunter lives in a small cottage on the other side of the tracks with his son Harry, played by Todd Karns; and his daughter Kathryn, played by Kathryn Grayson in her first movie.  She is the reason Ann Rutherford’s in a jealous snit. The secondary characters are always more interesting in the Hardy series because we already know Andy’s going to be okay no matter what. His family will always bail him out, and he’s Uncle Louis B. Mayer’s pride and joy.

Young Miss Grayson is fresh-faced and natural, and I think her appearance here is actually less affected than some of her later performances when her career had hit its peak in the following decade.  Her voice, of course, is lovely and she gets to display her talent more than once in this film, most notably in selections from Lucia di Lammermoor.  Louis B. Mayer convinced her to turn down her dream of an operatic career in favor of the movies.  A purely unselfish act on his part, you understand.

Todd Karns, son of our favorite smarmy bus passenger, Roscoe Karns (“Shapely’s the name, and that’s the way I like ‘em”), also made his film debut in this movie.  It is never said that the Land siblings are twins, but they are both graduating, and because they are poor, Karns does not have the requisite white flannel pants, and Grayson does not have the requisite silk stockings (still available even with the war on?) to take part in the ceremony.  Mickey Rooney, their fairy godfather, will take care of that.

They had lived with their dad in Europe for several years, but the war has put a damper on his travel business (nobody wants to vacation in war zones, go figure), and working in a garage is the only job he’s been able to find.  His ability to speak nine languages will be just the angle for Judge Hardy to give him a hand up at the end of the movie.  Anybody who enters the Hardys’ magical sphere is always the better for it.  

There is something amusingly snobbish about Louis B. Mayer’s version of a perfect America where Andy Hardy, the son of a judge, and Polly Benedict, the daughter of the local banker, are regarded as typically middle class—both will be presented with brand-new cars by their dads—while Mr. Land, who must work in a garage as a mere “working man,” the expression used to be, is regarded as somehow pitiable.  Judge Hardy must remind his son to be nice to the Land kids and include them in their own graduation ceremony.

Kathryn Grayson is the private secretary in the title, assigned to help Mickey in his duties as class president in the final hectic weeks of senior year.  He has the ceremony to arrange, the yearbook, is writing the class play, and as a result of his over-extending himself, he flunks his English final.  Even Auntie Milly could do nothing to save him.

Todd Karns, who is understandably fed up with Mikey’s antics with the resentment a poor kid has for an upper-middle class kid who’s getting a brand-new car for graduation, nevertheless finds the loophole to get him a makeup test and together with Kathryn and Ann Rutherford, stays up all night and force-feeds English grammar rules into Mickey’s thick head.

Kids today might regard the importance of English grammar on the same level of unbelievability as the apparent social shame of not owning white flannel pants.

Todd is given the chance to pay off his graduation fee and contribute to the festivities by being allowed to decorate the high school auditorium for graduation.  Not only does he win the prestigious $25 prize for academics and citizenship, but his artistry is rewarded by being offered a job creating window displays for a local department store.  This is more than just a convenient happy ending or a deus ex machina, at least for our purposes in examining the cultural background of movies.  It tells us a little more.  These are kids who want to work, have seen their father struggle, and they want to help him and pay their own way.  The Great Depression is receding, but it’s all these teens remember and it will mark them for life, and a job, any job, made one a winner, at least in one’s own mind. We might wonder how Kathryn can have such a polished coloratura soprano voice with no mention of voice teachers, but we can accept that Todd might not have plans for college and be thrilled at starting a career in a department store.  

If you can find a department store in your town that is not a chain, they still likely may have an outside advertising agency handling that for them.  Once upon a time, retail was local, every facet of running the store, nothing outsourced, and the boss was the owner.

At one point, Mickey announces, “I don’t live in the present.  I belong to the future.”

The future, at least fifteen years down road, is where Spring Reunion takes us. The town of Carson might not be so very different from the Hardys’ town of Carvel, but the seaside burg has undergone a lot of real estate development in the backwash of the war. Jean Hagen, who plays Betty Hutton’s girlhood chum, returns to her old hometown for the reunion with the bemused, incredulous, “What happened to this town anyway?  Supermarkets, ranch houses….”  

The movie sinks us into sleepy springtime nostalgia with the opening credits taking the form of yearbook pages.  Betty Hutton had been “most popular girl.”  Dana Andrews had been “most likely to succeed.”  Jack Frazer plays the football hero.  Jean Hagen had a less stellar high school identity; she is comically noted as a chess club captain and assistant proofreader of the yearbook.  When she arrives to attend the reunion, she is on a much-needed vacation from her husband and four kids. She is perhaps back not so much to relive the glory of her high school days—they were not so glorious—as she is on much-delayed, last-chance at being the person she wanted to be then.

Betty Hutton is one of the organizers of the reunion, and it’s easy to see why she was voted most popular.  No “clique” is inferred here, her popularity comes from her genuine likeability and her friendliness with everyone.  Betty Hutton is really quite appealing in this quiet role.  Some of her other movie performances tend to jump into your face and choke off your air.  This role, her last film, perhaps because of the nuance of wistfulness, of sadness below the surface, is more intimate and draws our interest and our sympathy.

Betty’s problem, opposite from Jean Hagen’s, is that she is not married and has no children.  She helps her father run a successful real estate business, but the refreshing sight of seeing a woman in this period capably handle a business with authority is tempered by the sight of the woman questioning her self-worth because of not being in a romantic relationship.  Her bigger problem is one she does not see:  Her father, who calls her “Kitten,” is entirely too clingy.  Played by Robert F. Simon, Papa seems to enjoy his daughter’s company more than his wife’s.  She is played by Laura La Plante, and her eyes are wide open to the situation, and she tries to tactfully pull him away.  A subtle point made with the set decoration is seen late in the movie when we see two photos on either side of her father’s desk at the office.  One is a portrait of his wife.  The other, perched across the desk on the other corner as if in a world of its own, is a photo of he and his daughter together.

We see some old friends at the reunion, character players who would find more prominent places in pop culture in television: Irene Ryan as the innocent class advisor growing tipsy on spiked punch would later play Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.  Herbert Anderson was the dad of Dennis the Menace, Ken Curtis was Festus on Gunsmoke, Richard Deacon came back as Lumpy Rutherford’s dad in Leave it to Beaver.  Betty Hutton would also make a break for the world of TV in her The Betty Hutton Show as her next gig.  It was a time of new beginnings.

Though she is mocked as a no-talent leftover from an old school show, voice actress Sara Berner is splendid as Paula Kratz, who does impersonations of movie stars being interviewed by Louella Parsons.

There are the usual jokes at the reunion about weight gain, hair loss, and the anxiety of not measuring up to who they thought they’d be fifteen years down the road, still dwelling in the identities they had in high school. The football hero is the only one who seems to be a case of arrested development, enjoying game reels of himself and reliving past glory on the gridiron.  The others are more uncomfortable with themselves.

Dana Andrews has no interest in the reunion.  He’s only in town to sell his family’s beach house, which Betty, as a real estate agent, is happy to handle.  It is only a desire to see her again that evening that he shows up reluctantly at the reunion.  The event fills him more with disgust than nostalgia.  He had been class president, but squandered opportunities through the years with an inability to be happy at anything.  Perhaps he could have used a secretary like Kathryn Grayson.

They leave for a long walk and what ends up being a long night of talking about themselves, escape on a sailboat, and renewing something of what could have been a romance in high school if either had been ready for it.  They may not be ready for it now, but their mutual attitude is they have nothing left to lose, and maybe nothing left to expect from life.

They end up on the rocks—literally, as the sailboat takes refuge below the lighthouse where the local lighthouse keeper, played by our old friend James Gleason, longs for company and card players. He and Dana are old friends.

Meanwhile the football hero, his wife out of town, cozies up to Jean Hagen, who is half excited and half scared to be finally paid the attention she never was in high school.  She comes daringly close to an affair, but will think the better of it by morning when she decides she wants to return to her family.

Betty and Dana have not come to their senses in the light of day.  They decide to run off to be married, but her dad makes one last ditch effort to keep her by dangling a job, a partnership for Dana. Dana walks out, because he always walks out on opportunities and doesn’t want to feel trapped, and it is supposed to be a moment of triumph for our Betty when she runs out into traffic with her suitcase to go with him.  Perhaps her first impulsive move will be his first effort at commitment and both will be happy at last.

Where were Kathryn and Harry Land fifteen years after graduation?  Did he make it through the war?  Did she ever sing in public again?  Did they go to their 15th reunion at Carvel High?


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

D-Day 75th anniversary - Earn This.

Marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day today, Turner Classic Movies is showing a roster of films related to this monumental event.  Probably chief among them is The Longest Day (1962), which is of special interest to classic film fans because of its large cast of notables from the heyday of the studio system. I'm not sure that even with the recreation of the most horrible moments of battle we have come to understand or appreciate the significance of the military effort, equally parts poignant and Homeric.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), made long after the studio system ended but still boasting Everyman/star Tom Hanks to head the team, perhaps makes the best show of recreating the chaos and horror of the landings.  Those sequences are heart-stopping.  But for me, it is the end of the movie when Tom Hanks (oh, look, if you don't like spoilers, why do you even read this blog?) is mortally wounded and, in a haze of sincere and almost sardonic acknowledgement of his circumstances, tells Matt Damon, the Private Ryan whom Hanks and his men have come to save, "James, earn this.  Earn it."

In the film's final moments, Harrison Young, who plays Ryan as an elderly man returns to the military cemetery at Normandy to pay tribute at the grave of Hanks's character, a scene which brings me to tears no matter how many times I've seen it. He speaks to the grave marker cross and, as if in defense, tells Hanks he has tried to live his life the best he could.  When he and his family are about to leave, he asks his wife to tell him he's a good man.

This hints at the larger message of D-Day, when U.S., Canadian, and British troops desperately hurled themselves against Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" in a campaign long planned and not without problems and tragic mishaps. Thousands of men died, and all who participated knew that would happen.  It was the beginning of the end of the grip of fascism on Europe, and Europeans, including young Anne Frank in her secret annex, prayed for the day to come, rejoiced when it did. Anne wrote in her diary,  “'This is D Day,' the BBC announced at twelve. 'This is the day.' The invasion has begun.”

Classic film fans are perhaps more aware than those who are not of the powerful idealism of that era, and of that generation that journalist and author Tom Brokaw justly coined, "The Greatest Generation."  We can show the recreations of explosions in a movie made after the fact, made more successful at the box office by using famous actors, but the best way to learn from and cherish the event is to remember the idealism that made so many give up everything, including their own futures, for us to have a chance at ours.

Now, fascism has taken foothold on our shores and in our government, even among some military personnel who dishonor their uniforms with political patches that announce their slavish allegiance to a man instead of the Constitution, and among civilians the Nazi emblems and thuggish imitators have unleashed idolatry unthinkable to those men struggling to reach the beaches, to stay alive a few more feet, and then a few more.  Private Ryan was warned to earn their sacrifice, and he worried that he had not.

We need to worry more about that.  We cannot honor the service personnel of D-Day if we have squandered the gift of freedom from fascism and the world they saved just for us.

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