Monday, September 29, 2014

Jess DOESN'T Go to War

Our film for this week is a wartime B picture entitled Good Luck, Mr. Yates (1943),  It stars Jess Barker as the titular Oliver Yates, an instructor in a Carlyle Military Academyl who has been, much to his disgust, exempted from military service as an essential employee (why a grade school teacher would be exempt from the draft is beyond me).  Many of his students are hostile because he is not in the war, and Oliver is finally able to convince his boss that he must enlist.  Only problem is, he has a perforated eardrum and is listed as 4F.  Rather than return to the school, he gets a job at a shipbuilding facility, while he seeks treatment from German refugee Dr. Carl Hesser (Albert Basserman).  Dr. Hesser can cure him in a few weeks, and he'll be able to join the army.  Right...

To be upfront,  two of our viewers found the film amusing, two of us loathed it (and I was one of the loathers).  The film is all over the place, with no real focus, and much of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  With a panoply of European characters (our German doctor, the Greek landlord, the Russian dockyard workers), all there to remind us of what we are fighting for, it tries to demonstrate the wonderful melting pot that is the United States.  But all it succeeds in showing is that a mob is nasty no matter where you live.  

And then there is our local "Rosie the Riveter", Claire Trevor as Ruth Jones, daugher of Oliver's shipyard boss, "Jonesy" Jones (Edgar Buchanan playing the only really good man in this movie). How Ms. Trevor got mixed up in this turkey is beyond our ken.  She is such a good actress, and her success in Stagecoach is only a few years in the past.  Around this period, she was appearing in a number of film noir like Crossroads and Murder My Sweet, frequently not in a starring role.  Still, playing second fiddle to Jess Barker must have been a come down.
Jess Barker is banal as Oliver Yates, though one has to admit, he's not given a whole lot to work with.  He's an attractive enough man, reminiscent of Richard Denning.  But Barker had an abbreviated career, thanks to his own bad judgement.  He was married to Susan Hayward for 10 years, and when she asked for a divorce, Barker created quite the public row.  He insisted on a community property settlement (despite having signed a pre-nuptual agreement).  When he was refused money, he filed for full custody of the twin sons.  He lost that too.  Then, two years later, he was implicated in a paternity suit, and was ordered to pay support for his daughter (conceived, it turned out, while he was still married to Hayward).  He continued to act until 1977, but his reign as a potential leading man was long over.  

Another interesting aspect of this film is the marketing - it is (as you can see from the poster above), touted as a "thrilling tribute to our home-front heroines," with Claire Trevor getting top billing. Yet, there is very little about Ruth's war efforts.  For better or worse, this IS Yates story.

We have an appearance by Scotty Beckett as student Jimmy Dixon, and brief, uncredited appearances by Hugh Beaumont and John Hamilton.  What we DON'T have are two segments that were cut from the film.  Nan Wynn was supposed to sing as part of a lunchtime entertainment scene for the shipyard worker, but that was eliminated (here is a video of Ms. Wynn singing in Princess O'Rourke).  Also cut were the Three Stooges doing their "Niagara Falls" routine.  It seems the studio heads decided to save the routine and give it its own film: Gents Without Cents. Quite honestly, we considered THAT cut to be the one good thing about the film.

Next week, it back to the 1930s for a musical romance.  Hopefully, we'll have more positive things to say!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Evelyn Investigates

Dangerous Blondes (1943) is a wartime film that pretty much ignores the war.  Set in New York City, it stars Evelyn Keyes as Jane Craig and Allyn Joslyn as her husband, Barry, a mystery novel author.  Barry is a bit of a show-off, and has recently bested the police team on a radio quiz show, making him not the most popular of men.  So, when Jane's friend, Julie Taylor (Anita Louise) inadvertently gets Jane involved in a murder investigation, the interference of Barry does not win him any more friends with the local constabulary. 

The script has a lot of plot; with an 81 minute running time, the film goes by very fast.  We found ourselves rerunning certain segments (the joys of DVR) to clarify plot points.  Regardless, it's a fun film and not in the least boring.  It's based on a story by Kelley Roos called If the Shroud Fits.  Roos also wrote A Night to Remember (1942); we previously discussed the film version of that book.  In Dangerous Blondes, Keyes and Joslyn are playing the same characters that Young and Aherne portrayed in  A Night to Remember; again, the character's names from the book (Jeff and Haila Troy) have been changed.   The following year, Keyes and Allyn would again play married amateur detectives in Strange Affair, though NOT the Troys (or the Craigs).
What makes the movie especially enjoyable is the relationship of Jane and Barry.  Surely, this was an attempt to make another Thin Man type of film, and while Evelyn Keyes and Allyn Joslyn are no Myrna Loy and William Powell, they are very good (they are FAR more interesting characters than those in A Night to Remember).  Jane Craig is a smart woman who loves her husband, and Barry is obviously deeply in love with her.  Evelyn Keyes makes Jane attractive and not silly; her involvement in the murder investigation is mere coincidence.  She is not the ambulance-chasing wife who MUST get in on her husband's action.  And Allyn Joslyn is able to keep Barry personable even when he is being a bit of a twit.  He too is accidentally involved, though Barry relishes the attention far more than Jane.

We have the usual married-couple banter, but it is affectionate and never over-the-top.  We discover that Jane isn't really the best of cooks (though she is dealing with the difficulties in getting food - our only reference to World War II is Jane's brief comment on the amount of food one can buy with one's points).  And we see Barry helping out around the house, which we all found to be a breath of fresh air.  Imagine, a man doing housework and not being laughed at! 
We found the costuming to be attractive;  we were especially impressed, though, with the set design.  Jane and Barry's apartment is so totally appropriate for their finances.  It is the kind of apartment one would expect young marrieds to inhabit in 1943.  It's not fancy, but it is clean and nicely furnished.  It compliments the marriage that we are being shown. 

The always funny William Demarest plays a cop - Detective Gatling.  It's established from almost the first scene that he is not very smart (he doesn't know who invented the first machine gun).  Demarest, however, serves as a good antagonist for Allyn Joslyn. He doesn't get a lot to do, but it is always a pleasure to see him.
Before we go, a quick nod to Minerva Urecal, who plays Jane and Barry's landlady in several scenes.  You probably don't know the name, but you will know the face when you see her.  With 276 film credits in film and TV (according to IMDB), she was always tiny parts, and often uncredited. She provides the first hint of trouble, and then she is pretty much gone.  Ms. Urecal worked until her death of a heart attack at the age of 71 in 1966.

Next week, we'll return with another World War II vintage film.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kay's Men

Vacations are over, and the Movie Night Group has reassembled for another Kay Francis movie.  This time, we chose another film version of a novel: Little Men (1940), loosely based on the Louisa May Alcott book, which followed the life of Jo March Bhaer (Kay Francis) after the events of Little Women.  And I do mean loosely.  The novel was a somewhat episodic look at six months in the lives of the staff and students of the Plumfield School, which is run by Jo and her husband (Charles Esmond).  The school has both male and female students, some of whom are relatives (Jo's sons, and sister Meg's daughter), as well as other boarding children.  And that is pretty much where any similarity to the novel ends.  Because this film (unlike the 1934 version which was much closer to the book) really is about the lives of Major Burdle (George Bancroft) - a medicine show salesman and con artist, his adopted son Dan (Jimmy Lydon), and Burdle's colleague - petty thief Willie the Fox (Jack Oakie).

While Kay Francis' Jo is really a great effort on her part, she's about the only one in the film that is attractive.  Professor Bhaer is a complete moron.  The film wants us to believe he is an innocent, but  he is, in fact, a complete doofus.  Imagine giving your life savings to a complete stranger because you like his face!  And this, when Professor Bhaer is already in debt because he is unable to approach the parents of the boarding students to collect the monies owed to him and his wife.  Because of Bhaer's stupidity, his home and his school are endangered (in the book, Jo and Bhaer own Plumfield outright - it was left to Jo by Aunt March).  Charles Esmond tries to make Bhaer appealing, but he doesn't have a whole lot to work with. Bhaer is beyond naive, and it is very difficult to get past his disregard for the safety of his family and students.
I suspect none of us would claim to be fans of Jack Oakie, but he is truly out-of-place in this story.  His "comic relief" is not really funny, and his inclusion in the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  Without giving away the ending, his position as a deus-ex-machina is really silly. Our other lead, played by George Bancroft, is a con man and thief.  The only appealing aspect of his character is his love for his adopted son.  What Bancroft brings to the role is an obvious affection for the young man, and a desire that Dan have a better life than what Major Burdle can provide for him.

We are so used to seeing Kay Francis in prestige pictures that this RKO film seems like a very low budget film.  Francis, who was highly paid in the 1930s, was beginning to feel Warner Brothers disinterest in her, as the groomed younger (and lower paid) actresses like Bette Davis to replace her.  This TCM article goes into more detail about the persecution Francis faced: the studio even loaded her scripts with "r" words, so her lisp was emphasized. Despite that, her Jo is a good, strong character.  It's obvious though, that she is not the star - as you can see by the ad below, even a cow gets the same billing as Ms. Francis.

We'll be back next week with a 1940s mystery film.