Saturday, December 4, 2021

Lillian Randolph

Lillian Randolph must have been a warm and lovely lady, for there is something in her portrayals that goes beyond talent and is supercharged by perhaps empathy or a deep sense of knowing.
  She is instantly relatable and somehow more genuine than the stars she supports.

Taking a break from the Christmas series today to join in on the 10th Annual What a Character Blogathon hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.  Stop by any of their blogs for a full list of great bloggers participating in this wonderful event that celebrates our cherished character actors.

Likely, most classic film buffs are familiar with Lillian Randolph’s brief role as the cook and housekeeper Annie in
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  When George Bailey is down and out, she laughingly donates her life savings to him, money she was saving for a divorce in case she ever got married.

As with African-American actors of the day, Miss Randolph spent most of her career playing domestic servants, and that was unfair, but in her talented grip, not a tragedy.  She made these characters interesting and threw her whole self into them. 

We discussed her role in the comedy
Once More, My Darling (1949) here in this previous post.  The movie stars Ann Blyth and Robert Montgomery as a pair of eccentric misfits, and Lillian Randolph is the maid of Montgomery’s wealthy mother, the only person in a house of sophisticates who understands ditzy Ann Blyth and supports her with bemused fascination.  Quoting just from a bit of that essay:

"The only one she connects with is Mamie, the maid, wonderfully played by Lillian Randolph.  Miss Randolph has a stronger role in this film than most domestics, and not stereotyped.  She has a personality of her own, and is clearly amused and delighted with Ann.  She seems to be the only one who is not repelled by her perfume." 

While it is true that the Black servants of the movie world were stereotypes, as noted above, Lillian Randolph never played them that way.  She seemed to understand them as personalities and to get a kick out the roles she played. There is sense of joy in her work.

She began in radio, and her work stretched across many decades through film, television, and suppled the voice for the now notorious Mammy Two-Shoes in several Tom and Jerry cartoons.

Blessed with a gloriously rich contralto singing voice, she also performed as a blues singer. We can hear her sing in several episodes the long-running radio comedy
The Great Gildersleeve.  As the cook and housekeeper Birdie, Miss Randolph was a mainstay of the house, really a main character in the family of bumbling bachelor Gildersleeve and his niece and nephew.  As the series progressed, she was more like the counterpart of Gildersleeve.  They were not spouses, but they were domestic partners in running the house and raising the children in every other sense. The Gildersleeve series later became adapted for television and a few movies.

Have a listen here to the Easter 1952 radio episode where Lillian Randolph sings “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  beginning about 23:02.  (We discussed her Gildersleeve co-star, Walter Tetley, in this previous post.)

In another episode, Birdie’s singing talent is discovered by a visiting impresario, and he wants to send her away to study voice, Randolph sings “Goin’ Home” at about 10:54 and reprises the song later in the show.  It is a stirring, beautiful piece. (Her daughter Barbara Randolph also became a singer.)  She would also sing the “Coventry Carol” on many Gildersleeve Christmas episodes.  She recorded “Were You There” also in 1956 on a 45-rpm record.  Later on in life she reportedly taught acting, singing, and public speaking.

“What a fine woman!” Gildersleeve remarks of Birdie, and in an era where African-American performers were relegated to playing characters that were not often afforded much dignity, Lillian Randolph’s appealing and loveable personality, her vibrancy, silliness, and canny playing off her castmates made her a star in her scenes if not on the marquee.


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

It Happened on 5th Avenue - 1947

It Happened on 5th Avenue
(1947) is a pleasant romantic comedy that tackles the problems of two couples of different generations, the post-World War II housing shortage, juggles tropes of the happy hobo, and the millionaire who needs to get back in touch with the common man, throw in a couple songs even though it’s not a musical – and Christmas.  This last element is not the focus of the movie, and that, as we have mentioned in the earlier movies of this series, is what makes this film an appealing adventure. 

We’re back in New York City, the location for Fitzwilly (1967), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), and one of the fun points of this movie is several rear-screen projection scenes of New York.  I don’t know about you, but I like rear-screen projection. I wish it followed me around, too.  I could run a marathon without going anywhere. The setting here is a mansion on Fifth Avenue, which, in the seasonal absence of its owners, is occupied temporarily by hobo Victor Moore, who has sneaked inside for the past few years and knows the ropes of how to live well by being an undiscovered guest.

He meets newly homeless Don DeFore, who has been evicted from his rattrap boarding house that’s about to be torn down, and invites him to stay a while in the mansion until he gets back on his feet. Gale Storm sneaks into the mansion, too, but she is actually the daughter of the millionaire who owns it. Miss Storm is fresh-faced and sweet (but unfortunately, her singing here is dubbed).  She’s on the lam from her finishing school, just stopped back to pack some of her clothes—when the disapproving and ultra-moral Victor Moore catches her in the act.  He and DeFore decide to give the young reprobate another chance, since she pleads with them that she needed the nice clothes to apply for a job.  She doesn’t want them to know who she is, because her dad and the media are looking for her.  This is the start of the happy makeshift family.

Catch the sheet music “Oh, Susana!” where Gale applies for a job in a music store, which makes me think of her television series Oh, Susana! in the late 1950s.  We discussed David C. Tucker’s book on Gale Storm here and here in these previous posts.

Soon, they will be joined by a couple of DeFore’s old Army buddies and their wives and kids.  (Our hero Charles Lane has a brief role as a landlord who doesn’t allow children.) Alan Hale, Jr., is paired with Dorothea Kent.  Mr. Moore is a little nervous about inviting too many people in the house.  For one, he obviously does not want to risk discovery by the nightly patrol of police who check on the house, and also, he’s afraid his merry band does not respect the house as he does.  Moore is a pretentious hobo.  He dresses in the master’s clothes, smokes his cigars, and expects the people in “his” household to fall under his command.  They share the chores and the childrearing between them.

When Gale Storm’s father tracks her down, she persuades him to pose as a vagrant who needs a place to stay, and invites him into the house.  Charles Ruggles is the indignant, sputtering millionaire, who actually started life in poverty and worked his way up.  He is a self-made man, and his considerable pride in being so is shattered at every turn by the dismissive Victor Moore, who lords it over him and expects Mr. Ruggles to toe the line. 

Ruggles suffers the comic indignity for his daughter’s sake: she has fallen in love with Don DeFore but wants to know if he can love her for herself and not her father’s millions.  Gale Storm also invites her mother to join the “family” and introduces her as a likewise down-and-out soul.  Victor Moore puts her to work as the cook. 

Played by the lovely and ethereal Ann Harding, she and Charles Ruggles are divorced and have not seen each other in some years.  Her bemused expressions at seeing Charles set down time and again by Victor Moore are funny and darling, but we soon have tandem rocky love stories:  Gale Storm and Don DeFore who are just discovering each other, and the sadder-but-wiser reunion of Ann Harding and Ruggles.  It is touching that they must fall in love all over again.

Leon Belasco, who we discussed in this previous post, has a minor role as a musician in a restaurant. It's all about the character actors. Ask any old movie buff.

Ultimately, this is a tale about home and what makes a home.  Ruggles’ opulent mansion is empty half the year and when he’s in residence, it’s just him and probably a few servants.  His daughter lives at her finishing school, his ex-wife in a posh hotel in Florida.

DeFore and his pals are veterans looking for suitable housing, and they have a partnership in the works to bid on an Army camp the government is selling, hoping to renovate the barracks into two-room apartments for veterans like themselves without a place to live.  Little do they know that their rival bidder is property developer Charles Ruggles.

Victor Moore’s home is not necessarily anyplace he hangs his hat: he’s clearly choosy about his domicile and has expensive tastes.  Ruggles eventually reveals his true identity to the boys, but not to Mr. Moore.  His innocence is to be respected.

Christmas comes, and if the holiday is all about family, it is also all about home.  Home for the holidays.  The "family" decorates an enormous tree.  A few fun shots are of dialogue carried on between the branches, this and other whimsical touches by director Roy Del Ruth made this film quite charming.  Despite the Christmas scene, this classic film seems to have come late into the Christmas roster, possibly because it was not shown on TV for many years, but now, of course, is available on DVD and usually part of December programming on TCM.

The ideal Christmas is centered around home.  The holiday, ideally, solidifies a family, and then as suddenly as it came, it leaves.  The family leaves.  Both the home and the family can be temporary Christmas endeavors, attached to the holiday that attracts us every year like homing pigeons.  Charles Ruggles leaves us with a last line to infer that he fully expects Victor Moore to return next year, and he will be welcome.  We don't know if Ruggles means he will pretend to be a homeless man again for Moore's sake, once more suffering his largesse.  That is the biggest conundrum for us: we want our nostalgic family Christmases to never change and we try to replicate the rituals every year, but eventually, that becomes impossible.

Except in home movies and classic films, where the universe we loved is still there, unchanged, waiting for us. 


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Zoom talk on my novel BESIDE THE STILL WATERS

I'll be giving an online Zoom presentation for the Amherst (Massachusetts) Historical Society on the historical background for my novel, Beside the Still Waters, about the towns that were demolished to create the Quabbin Reservoir. The story is about community and the loss of community, and how our hometowns make up a big part of our family heritage and our personal identities. Photos and map images will accompany the talk, which will be part of the Society’s “History Bites Lunchtime Lecture Series”, this coming Friday, December 3, 2021 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Join the Zoom presentation through this link (or contact the Amherst Historical Society’s website):

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Fitzwilly - 1967

(1967) is both a heist movie and a Christmas movie, another example of whimsical blending of genres, but it also provides a last look at the grand era of the grand downtown department stores.  Gimbels in New York City is a supporting player in this movie.

As we mentioned in the previous two posts of this series on Christmas movies, Cover Up (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), that one also about "Christmastime in the city" -- building up to the release of my next book Christmas in Classic Films -- Christmas evokes nostalgia, it is dripping with it, in a way unlike other holidays or festivals in our lives. Nostalgia, rather than just being a by-product, is the driving engine of our modern secular yuletide. Classic films delivered what later generations would think of as nostalgia in an effortless and unselfconscious way, which is part of their charm.  Today’s faux-cozy attempts at Christmas movies seem strained and forced by comparison – with one notable exception, which we’ll get to in weeks to come.  That would be A Christmas Story (1981).

In between the classic films and the modern movies lies Fitzwilly, billed as a romantic comedy but is really a farce, which delivers no intentional sentiment. It is viewing this movie from the distance of the early 21st century that the sentimentality appears like magical snow. Gimbels is the “mark” for the robbers in this movie, but to us, the store is a lovely and now unreachable fairyland.

The robbers are a band of servants led by butler Dick Van Dyke, one of the most popular comedic actors of the 1960s, riding the crest after his landmark TV series, big musicals Mary Poppins (1964) and his next feature Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).  Here,  Mr. Van Dyke is not the usual likeable and quirky buffoon, but rather a more reserved, urbane, and aloof character.  He is Claude Fitzwilliam, butler and head of staff to the wealthy Miss Vickie played by Dame Edith Evans.  She gets to play the quirky eccentric here, and his job is to protect her from her best instincts.  Dame Edith likes to donate to many, many charities, but the problem is she’s really flat broke due to the squandering of the family fortune by her father.

So the butler Fitzwilliam, known affectionately by his employer as Fitzwilly, is her resourceful protector.  He followed his father into service, a family trade, but when his mother died when he was a child, Edith Evans raised him and the two are devoted to each other.

He runs the house with spit and polish precision, but his staff hero-worships him.  They are involved in the many complicated capers he orchestrates to get money to continue to keep the old lady in the style to which she, and they, are accustomed.  This involves an elaborate system of playacting, forgery, fraud, fencing of stolen goods (through his uncle in Philadelphia played by Cecil Kellaway), and most of the thievery done to upscale boutiques and department stores results in damage to the insurance companies.

Since we all hate insurance companies, nobody feels too badly about this.

There are some gems among the junior staff, including Anne Seymour as the lady’s maid whose funny remarks are delivered with deadpan seriousness.  Noam Pitlik is a footman eager for the next exciting adventure.  Helen Kleeb is on the kitchen staff, whom most readers may likely remember for her role in The Waltons television series as Miss Mamie Baldwin.  A young Sam Waterston plays the chauffeur.

Van Dyke’s right-hand man is the wonderfully poker-faced John McGiver, and he is the only one who seems to feel a sense of guilt over their happy misdeeds.  His conscience will nearly send them all to prison.

Into this mix comes Barbara Feldon in her first movie. She’s a spunky and brainy grad student hired to be Edith Evans’ temporary secretary.  Dame Edith has been working on writing a dictionary for people who can’t find the word in a dictionary they want to spell.  Quite a bit of her entries are accompanied by entertaining stories of her ne'er do well father, which Miss Feldon thinks is a hoot and she brings the manuscript to her professor father for his opinion.

At first sight, butler and new secretary detest each other.  She is forward and frank; he is reserved and dignified.  When Feldon begins to know him better and begins to like him, she thinks he is wasting his life as a butler.  He is college educated, he clearly has managerial qualities.  She looks down on his life in service, and he bristles at her snobbery.

He remains in his job not merely to look after the welfare of his beloved employer; he, and his staff, have come to really enjoy robbing stores.  It’s fun.

Their biggest caper is coming up on Christmas Eve.  Until the big night, Christmas is sprinkled throughout the movie in low-key but decorous images: a wreath on a door, a bit of evergreen garland on a mantle, some silver and gold touches on the wall decorations on the rich wood-paneled mansion of the Dame Edith, to the apartment of Barbara Feldon’s father, to the unobtrusive table-top tree in the servants’ hall.  Christmas is graceful and elegant, not screaming at us.  It is the guest at the door who waits patiently for us to make our way there and invite it in. Ironically, the servants prepping for the final Christmas Eve caper in the servants’ hall makes them appear almost like elves in Santa’s workshop.  They must make haste.  They’re robbing Gimbels at 5 o’clock. Good servants are always punctual.

Gimbels, in 20th-century pop culture, was famed for being the rival of Macy’s (they even beat Macy’s by having the first Thanksgiving parade in 1920 in Philadelphia), but most of that so-called rivalry was just publicity for both stores. It was established first in 1887 in Philadelphia and opened its flagship store in New York City in 1910 in Herald Square.  In the waning years after this movie was made, the store was bought up, as companies are, by conglomerates and sold off in chunks, finally meeting its demise in 1987.  Gimbels lasted 100 years.

My favorite part of this movie is the climactic heist scene.  I like heist movies, but really the main attraction here is just the store.  The wonderful, big, colorful, dignified store.  Though really geared toward middle-class customers, today it looks posh to us.

This is where the Christmas nostalgia inadvertently comes in.  Allow me to detour for just a brief moment to recount a recent mall trip.

This particular mall in my neck of the woods is quite large, with long concourses stretching across former farmland to create a glass and concrete indoor city of commerce.  It was established in the late 1970s, grew a bit through the decades, and is now quite fallen from its heyday.  It is probably no different from any other mall across the U.S., with the same chain stores.  It still has a Macy’s anchor store, which is the only spot where one can imagine what shopping was like back when, although a young clerk, when I found one, did not know what a cardigan sweater was, and when I described a sweater that buttoned down the front, she pointed me to a rack of flannel shirts, because they had buttons.  I thanked her anyway.

A young male clerk told me to “just look.” Or was that in Penney's? 

Still, I enjoy Macy’s for the ambiance and the escalator ride this time of year, and the knowledge that, unlike the unhappy Gimbels, it still exists in some form, both the flagship store in New York (which I have also visited and like a giddy child ridden many escalators) to its suburban spawn.

The rest of the mall has deteriorated into a mass of arcades, cell phone stores, nail salons, and shops which cater to the ripped-jeans wearing set.  The nadir of the afternoon was passing a new store: a tattoo parlor and body piercing clinic.

I joked to my sister afterward that I next expected a new shop to open up called “The Red Light District.”

But it was only half-joking. The shopping experience has become dismal.  Down in the similarly dismal food court, a teenaged girl at the next table gleefully yelled out obscenities in a merry chat with her friends seated with her and in a more intimate relationship with her phone.  She was not cussing to express anger; the f-words were only adjectives.

This brings us to the nostalgia of final scene at Gimbels in Fitzwilly, which was not intended to be nostalgic when it was filmed.  Director Delbert Mann would not have envisioned a world where future movie fans would watch his finale in fascination, not only for the heist, but for the, compared to today at least, opulence of the store’s d├ęcor, the floors and floors of merchandise, the proper protocol of service, and the customers who dressed for shopping the same way they might dress to visit a house of worship. Coats and ties, white gloves, not a pair of ripped jeans in sight.

The entire staff is enlisted like special ops, each to a task to create an elaborate diversion so that Dick Van Dyke can head up to the business office on the tenth floor and snatch the day’s profits.  Norman Fell is the guardian of the vault, a nervous man who admits he is not at all well. He’s the only one with whom we sympathize.

The diversion tactics are at first subtle, then build, until finally the entire store erupts in chaos.  The final ruse is to convince shoppers to flood the business office upstairs because there the store is giving away free color televisions with any purchase. This is news to the store staff.

Color television.  Nirvana.  You remember: the wonderful world of, “color, color, COLOR!”

The caper is successful until Mr. McGiver’s sense of shame takes over, but a happy ending is pulled out of the hat at the last minute.

The movie is cute and pleasant, but it is the finale at Gimbels that I could watch over and over again.  When I watch with family, there are invariably delighted remarks of “remember that?” and again and again, “remember that?” when we point to the store interior, the shoppers, the world that we remember that is no more.  If we are not reminiscing about Gimbels exactly, we are really recalling the big family-owned department stores we did know locally, run by local prominent families, and the store was never some gimmicky made-up name; it was the family name proudly emblazoned on the marquee, on the gift boxes, the hat boxes, the charge-a-plates.

Christmas was commercial back then, admittedly, just as much as it is today, but in a less tawdry way that it was hard to frown upon. Just shopping there made you feel classy.

Happy Thanksgiving to American readers. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow is Black Friday.


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Lemon Drop Kid - 1951 or "The Silver Bells Movie"

The Lemon Drop Kid
(1951) is primarily known for giving us the Christmas song “Silver Bells.”  It sometimes happens that songs from films become hits, but reportedly, the composers Jay Livingston and Ray Evans did not really expect the song to become a perennial favorite.  Somebody, perhaps with Damon Runyon smiling down on them from heaven, played a hunch and put the song during the opening credits, used it as a leitmotif in sentimental moments, and gave it the big production number that even today, in an enjoyable but otherwise unremarkable comedy, warms the heart and brings a great big smile.

The song’s first verse is sung by William Frawley, a New York City gangster dressed as a dubious street corner Santa Claus.  Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell take it from there (Bob also dressed as Santa), and they stroll the backlot city through gently falling snow, smoothly avoiding large automobiles as they cross streets with a throng of pedestrians.  It’s an idyllic New York City, and for a moment we believe, if not necessarily in Santa, then certainly in Damon Runyon’s world of comical and sentimental mobsters who are really nice underneath their bad English and bad habits.  Runyonesque is word for which most writers have to tip their Fedoras to Mr. Runyon; most of us do not get descriptive styles named for us.

The movie had also been filmed in 1934, and William Frawley has the distinction of being in both of them.  However, the 1934 version, which was actually co-written by Damon Runyon, bears little resemblance to the 1951 movie.  Both feature a racetrack tout stumbling over various schemes to come out on top, but the 1951 version is more upbeat.

Bob Hope flees a racetrack in sunny Florida to escape a mobster after him, and lands in his home turf of New York City, desperately looking for a way to raise cash to pay off the gangster by Christmas Eve, or he will be fitted for cement shoes.

His disgusted girlfriend, played by Marilyn Maxwell, does not have that kind of dough, but she helps him in a farce he has devised to save his bacon.  He gathers the forlorn elderly ladies of the neighborhood, led by homeless Jane Darwell as Nellie Thursday, and puts them in the mobster’s closed casino, calls it a home for elderly ladies, and gets a license to operate as a charity.  He gathers all the hoods and pickpockets and ne’er to wells in town and enlists them to stand on street corners as Santa and collect money, he says for the home – the boys owe a lot to the warmhearted Jane Darwell who’s always helping them out – but Bob really plans to turn the money over to the Florida gangster to save his own neck.  His rival in town, played by Lloyd Nolan, is his biggest obstacle to success.

We don’t really worry about Bob; he can take care of himself.  It’s hard to keep track of all his lies and tricks, but he manages to scrape by in the nick of time.  The dialogue is fast and witty.

I find myself craving lemon drops watching the movie, however, because Mr. Hope keeps  popping them, hence his moniker.

Another song in the movie is sung by Bob and Marilyn Maxwell as a lullaby to the old ladies, and its lyrics are quite clever and charming.  “It Doesn’t Cost a Dime to Dream,” is breezy, fun, and another great moment in the film.

But “Silver Bells” which has been recorded by pretty much everybody who can sing, has stood the test of time.  It is conjures a nostalgic image of window-shopping on a wintry street, of “the downtown” where we used to go for Christmas shopping, of “the city” when it was filled with friendly pedestrians, and the anticipation “soon it will be Christmas day” of the coming festivities.  Are they bells rung by street corner Santas?  Or church bells?  Or sleigh bells?  Or the little bells that used to ring over the door when you entered a shop?

The charm of the song is its simplicity, and it is perhaps the simple images in our memories of how we think about an old-fashioned Christmas that really makes the holiday for us.  An “old-fashioned Christmas” is what you make it; it can be images of Victorian England, or the 1930s and 1940s hometowns of our classic films, and these images sometimes we blend with memories of our own experiences in Christmases past: the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s…someday someone is going to be nostalgic about going to freestanding Walmart for Christmas, the way someone else today, right now even, is feeling nostalgic about going to a 1970s mall.  Silver Bells.  It’s Christmastime in the city.  Even if you’re nowhere near a crosswalk.

I wonder if anyone will ever write a lovely, nostalgic Christmas song about ordering presents from Amazon on your iPhone? 


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Cover Up - 1949

Cover Up (1949) is a quite enjoyable example of Christmas Noir—if we can play with calling it a subgenre.  It has some lighthearted aspects like Lady on a Train (1944), which we’ll discuss in weeks to come, and a grim mystery that toys with symbols of Christmas as its backdrop not unlike Lady in the Lake (1947), which we covered here in this previous post.

Though I’m usually content to experience each season in its turn and prefer not to rush the holidays—Thanksgiving does not deserve to be given the bum’s rush—this year I’m hoping to tackle a roster of yuletide-related movies as early as—now—to lead up to a new book for the new year: Christmas in Classic Films, which will be a collection of essays from this blog.  More on that in weeks to come.

Cover Up can also be likened to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) with its mysterious murderer casting a sinister shadow over a homey small town.  However, in Cover Up, the murderer is not an outsider like Uncle Charlie come to town; murder is already afoot when the dogged insurance investigator arrives on the train.  He is played by Dennis O’Keefe, and he meets a nice girl here, too, who like Teresa Wright, will grow chillingly aware of danger to her family.  She is Barbara Britton, lovely and understated, with a little more polish than “Young Charlie.”


Though the film has elements similar to all these movies, it is still its own unique creation.  It manages to be both an intriguing and unsettling mystery and a charming, even wistful, tribute to Christmas. 


It begins lightheartedly enough, with Dennis O’Keefe and Barbara Britton in a “meet-cute” aboard a train as they arrive at the same small town.  It is her town, and she arrives home to spend Christmas with her family. She carries the requisite armload of wrapped presents, which she repeatedly drops, and Mr. O’Keefe, who has already eyed her approvingly on the train, rushes to lend a hand.  They next board a bus from the train station to go downtown and the bus driver, a townie whom Britton knows, sets up the story for us by sharing with her the big news: one of the town’s most prominent citizens has committed suicide. The camera lingers only slightly on O’Keefe’s expression at the news, and we assume he knows something about it. 


We don’t know if Miss Britton has been away at college, or has just taken an extended trip.  Her family meets her at the bus stop with enthusiasm: Mother, Dad, and kid sister Ann E. Todd, a fresh-faced child actress in one of her last film roles.  We saw her in Roughly Speaking (1945) and My Reputation (1946) discussed in these previous posts.


Miss Britton introduces O’Keefe to them, and when he says he is staying at the hotel on business and will be in town only a short while, Dad invites him to come to their house in the evening to visit.  An extraordinarily friendly invitation to a stranger, but we are meant to see them as an all-American family with small-town virtues.


There is, however, a degree of small-town vice here as well.  The bus driver has intimated that the man who committed suicide was not well liked.  As the movie progresses, we learn that everybody hated his guts.  When Mr. O’Keefe checks in at the sheriff’s office – we learn then that he is an insurance investigator, not unlike my hero, Johnny Dollar—he has no suspicion that the death was anything more than a suicide, but his company has sent him here to fill out the proper paperwork on the insurance with the coroner’s report.  His first inkling, and ours, that there might be more to this death is the deliberately and glibly stonewalling attitude of the sheriff, played by William Bendix.  Bendix is great in the role, with a knife-edge of sinister smugness and wry humor. We discussed Bendix’s work here in The Blue Dahlia (1946).


Sheriff Bendix is coyly uncooperative about the details of the death and it takes O’Keefe’s stubborn cleverness to ferret out that the victim was shot with a Luger, which is obviously a pistol that not too many people in a small town would have.  It is also missing.  Though, as it happens, the sheriff pulls one out of his desk drawer.  When O’Keefe asks the smart aleck but not just hypothetical question to Bendix, “I don’t suppose you killed Phillips, did you?” he gets no direct answer and we wonder if perhaps the aloof sheriff is a murderer.


The hints and clues begin to unwind, accompanied by the trappings of Christmas.  Bendix is wrapping presents at his desk when O’Keefe’s routine filling out of forms turns into suspicious interrogation.  Bendix rarely meets O’Keefe’s eye, he just puffs on his pipe and his sausage fingers delicately and patiently seal wrapping paper around a small box.  Over by the window is a spindly table-top tree.  O’Keefe moves toward it, fingers a small present on the table under the tree absently, as if he is thinking of something else.  Bendix remarks, “Why don’t you forget about it?  Go on home, visit your folks for Christmas.”


O’Keefe replies, slipping from his confident tough guy mode, “Sounds great, Sheriff, only I don’t have any folks and my home is wherever I happen to hang my hat.”  There is a brief, rather pained look on his face.  He puts the present back under the tree, as if he is refusing a place at the table at Christmas, as if he doesn’t belong.  Then through the film noir blinds at the window he spies Barbara Britton come out of a shop across the street, and tells the sheriff he has a reason to stay.  The sheriff thinks he means the murder case, but we see that is only half of it.


He buys a compact at the jewelry store, has it wrapped, but is there also to question the jeweler, who found the body.  The jeweler and his wife are uncomfortable with the interrogation, and we see that everyone O’Keefe talks to is on edge but thoroughly pushing the party line that the death was a suicide. There appears to be a great conspiracy afoot.


O’Keefe’s next stop is the town undertaker—a dour fellow in typical comedy relief, who tells him that there were no powder burns on the body.  The suicide is looking more and more like murder.


O’Keefe takes up the invitation to stop at the house where Barbara Britton’s family lives, and surprisingly, the compact is a gift not for Britton, but for the younger sister, Ann E. Todd.  It’s a cheery home with a fireplace, Mother and Dad, played by Helen Spring and Art Baker, in easy chairs, and a comically more-dour-than-the-undertaker maid played by Doro Merande.  O’Keefe gives sleuthing the night off, he thinks, and takes the already smitten Miss Britton to the movies.


We learn gradually, as happens in small towns, that most people not only know each other, but are in some way connected.  Barbara’s good friend, played by Virginia Christine, is the niece of the dead man.  She was to inherit his wealth as his only relative.  She was away the night of the killing as that was the evening she eloped against his wishes.  Russell Arms plays her new husband, of whom the uncle disapproved.  Arms had minor roles in several films until he eventually found work in television and became familiar in living rooms across the country as one of the stars of Your Hit Parade.


It looks like Russell, who has a bit of a temper and a chip on his shoulder, could have killed Uncle, and Virginia certainly looks uncomfortable, as if she is covering for him.


Barbara Britton drives O’Keefe around on his errands—like scouting out the murder scene at Uncle’s house, and when O’Keefe mentions his quest for a Luger, she innocently and happily blurts out that her father would lend him his Luger.


Daddy’s got a Luger pistol?


O’Keefe, who has come to like the family, and love Barbara, is anguished that it might be her father whom he is tracking, and slowly, her eyes on the road as she is driving, we see cold realization on her face that she just implicated her father in a murder.


They are being tailed everywhere by the sheriff, who seems to emerge from the shadows and remains, if only by his teasing attempts to thwart O’Keefe and send him down the wrong paths, to be the main suspect.


Christmas enters again in a climactic scene as the town prepares to light an enormous tree in the town square, an annual event.  The town’s beloved doctor does the honors every year, and the family bustles off, amongst gently falling snowflakes to take part.  O’Keefe tags along, part of him succumbing to the nostalgic joy of celebrating Christmas with others in a town he confesses he has grown to like, a frank nod to the fact that Christmas is as lonely for some people as it is happy for others.  But something else plays on his mind: all around him are suspects and he grows uncomfortable that the idyllic community has dirty secrets and nefarious doings.


They wait for Doc to arrive, and the bustle and hum of the crowd grows louder in anticipation, but at the last moment, word arrives that the old Doc, who has retired and moved to another town, has passed away this evening.


Dad gives the announcement at the tinny microphone, and there is shock and sadness.  But Doc would have wanted them to continue with the tradition, so the tree is lighted and Christmas goes on, whether or not anyone feels like it.  We all know that even the Grinch could not stop Christmas from coming.


At home, Barbara finds Dad’s Luger pistol and hides it in her purse.  When ferrying O’Keefe on another errand, he asks for a match (he chain smokes throughout the movie), and is comfortable enough in their relationship to reach for her purse, which she grabs defensively, saying she has no matches in there.  He knows she is hiding something—oh, great, another suspect.  She will eventually plead with him to drop the case, but Dad, who refuses to be protected, is stoic and prefers to let things play out.  He is a lucky man to have not only his daughter try to cover for him, but is maid as well.  Doro Merande burns his easily identifiable old beaver coat, an eerie holocaust in the snow, when it seems to be implicated in the murder, at least according to a phony trap O’Keefe planted in the local paper to smoke out the murderer.


Small clues are dropped for us here and there so that, unlike in many other mystery films and books we are not meant to know what the investigator is thinking or doing behind the scenes, it is enjoyable to be able to view the case playing out while we look over Dennis O’Keefe’s shoulder, knowing as much as he does. 


There taut moments, and warmhearted ones.  Christmas not only appears as a backdrop like the street corner Santa Claus in some scenes, or as a prop, like William Bendix’s “business” with wrapping presents, but is ultimately the reason for the “cover up,” which actually is larger than O’Keefe has anticipated.  The conspirators knew the murderer would be revealed, they just wanted to delay it until after the holiday, as O’Keefe incredulously discovers, “so that a town could have a Merry Christmas.”


It sounds corny, but when O’Keefe and Barbara Britton walk off, with the sheriff and Dad looking after them, and “O, Come All Ye Faithful” swelling up before the end credits, it seems like an actually satisfying ending.  It’s delightful to note that Dennis O’Keefe, with a childhood training in vaudeville and writing skits, co-wrote the screenplay.  Less happily, we might also recall that, like his character in this movie, he really was a chain smoker and died too young at 60 years old of lung cancer.


The biggest mystery in the story is actually why the family’s living room Christmas tree is fully decorated when O’Keefe first visits the home, and then on a later visit is in the process of being decorated.  Perhaps the person in charge of continuity had a little too much eggnog.


For more on Cover Up, have a look here at these posts by your friends and mine, Paddy Nolan Hall aka the Caftan Woman, and Laura at Laura’s MiscellaneousMusings, and Vienna at Vienna’s Classic Hollywood.


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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.





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