Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cary Meets a Dancing Caterpillar

Once Upon a Time (1944) is not one of Cary Grant's best known films.  A war-time film, with no mention of the conflict, it is a fairy tale designed to entertain and allow escape from the horrors of that war.  The film is based on a 30 minute radio play "My Client Curley," by Norman Corwin (which was based on a short story by Lucille Fletcher Herrmann).  It aired on the Columbia Workshop on March 7, 1940, with Fred Allen in the lead role (the radio play was redone in 1946, this time with Robert Montgomery in the lead).  It's hard to imagine Cary Grant in a role which Fred Allen initiated, but the studio originally wanted Humphrey Bogart, then Brian Donlevy for that part. Either would have resulted in a very different film.

The action opens on Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant), a Broadway producer, who after three flops is about to lose his theatre. He's literally down to his last nickel, so when he sees two young boys performing on the street, he tosses the coin to them.  The boy who is obviously in charge of the operation, Arthur "Pinky" Thompson (Ted Donaldson), insists Jerry gets his nickel's worth, and look into the shoebox, which his friend holds.  Pinky plays "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" on his harmonica, as Jerry peers into the box.  There, Jerry sees Curley, young Pinky's pet caterpillar.   And Curley is dancing in time to the music.  Jerry hatches a plan - he will sign Pinky on as a client, sell Curley to the highest bidder, and use the proceeds to save his theatre. 

Having Cary Grant play Jerry contributes to making this film sympathetic.  It's hard to dislike Grant, but Jerry is eminently unlikeable.  He's vain and greedy - yes, he is having a bad stretch, but he is quite willing to betray a child to save himself.  At one point, he even slaps Pinky, but Grant is an actor who is able to come back from that incident, and make us believe that Jerry is repentant.  It is hard to think of either Bogart or Donlevy being able to re-engage the audience after that particular incident.  Though both are magnificent actors, both had been on the wrong side of the law too often to engender that kind of sympathy. 

Another almost-ran in the film was Rita Hayworth, but she went on suspension rather than accept the role of Pinky's sister Jeannie.  It's not hard to see why.  Janet Blair does her best with Jeannie, but there is precious little to work with.  Regardless, Blair had a respectable career, starting as one of the Three Girls About Town (1941).  She was Rosalind Russell's choice for Eileen in My Sister Eileen (1942),  and even ventured into television as Henry Fonda's wife in The Smith Family.  She died in 2007 of pneumonia, at age 85.  

The film shines all its light on Grant and Donaldson; while we have wonderful actors in the cast, including James Gleason as Jerry's right-hand man, McGillicuddy (aka The Moke) and William Demarest as a reporter named Brandt (who dislikes Flynn intensely), they get almost nothing to do.  But young Ted Donaldson shines in his first role - he is sweet and engaging as Pinky, but never sloppy.  He (and Grant) make us believe in a dancing caterpillar we never actually see.  This TCM article discusses the long, friendly relationship between Grant and Donaldson, with Grant (and then wife Betsy Drake) even attending Donaldson's high school graduation.  Years later, Donaldson would pen a heartfelt letter (synopsized in Evenings with Cary Grant) to Grant, thanking him for his friendship.  Donaldson would continue in films until 1953, appearing in the Rusty series and as Peggy Ann Garner's younger brother in the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as well as voicing Bud on the radio version of Father Knows Best. But, like so many child actors, he found no demand for her services as a teen and young adult, so left acting to write.  This chapter in Growing Up on the Set will provide some insight into Donaldson's later life.

We'll end this week's discussion with a clip of Cary Grant trying to get an "angel", in the form of a banker who is about to foreclose on the Flynn Theatre. While not a great film Once Upon a Time is worth a look, just to see Cary Grant. We'll return after the holiday!


  1. I remember being very fond of this cute movie when I was young.

    1. It isn't Cary's best film, but it is sweet. I actually really like the ending.


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