Monday, June 23, 2014

Bob Sings to the Kids

I'm afraid we are at week two of disappointing movies.  Meet Miss Bobby Socks (1944) stars Bob Crosby as Don Collins, a soldier just recently released from service (we are not told why. Given that the war is still raging, he must have been hurt in some way that prevented his return to the front.  He shows no evidence of wounds, however, nor does he inform us of any injuries).  While overseas, he's been receiving letters from a young woman, and he goes to visit her.  He believes his pen pal is Helen Tyler (Lynn Merrick), but is stunned to discover that it is, in fact, Lynn's 15 year-old sister Susie (Louise Erickson) who is the correspondent.  Susie, of course, immediately falls in crush with Don; Don is more interested in Helen.  Helen is not impressed with Don, who begins his conversation by insulting teachers.  Of course, Helen is a teacher.

The film is primarily an excuse to highlight some musical numbers; the plot merely a device to keep us engaged between numbers.  The problem is, the acting isn't great, and the musical numbers are odd.  Let's start with Bob Crosby.  He's no actor, and his claim to fame is that he is Bing's little brother.  Bob spent his career as a band leader - though he was chosen by the band (an offshoot of the Ben Pollack Orchestra) mainly because of the Crosby name.  His singing style is imitative of Bing, but without the elan that made the elder Mr. Crosby a household name. 

The film ends with two numbers that feel inserted, and are very bizarre. The first is by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five.  Jordan is an influential musician - whose musical stylings inspired James Brown, Chuck Berry and Little Richard.  Jordan, who often called "The Grandfather of Rock and Roll", has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Below is a clip from this film; we found the number rather off-putting, but perhaps our readers have a different opinion?

Also included was an Asian trio (the group also performed as a quartet) called the Kim Loo Sisters.  Three of the girls toured with USO in the European Theatre of Operations during WWII, so they would have been familiar to the GIs - the probable target audience for Meet Miss Bobby Socks.  As with the Louis Jordan number, it's obvious that the number was filmed outside of this film, and inserted into the action.

The sad thing is that the one good actor in this film - Lynn Merrick - is given very little screen time.  We spend much more time with Susie, who looks much more than 15, and is obnoxious.  Actress Louise Erickson made only three films (and one short). Then retired to be the wife of Ben Gazzara.  It would be nice if we could say this was a lose to film history. But if this film is any example, it wasn't.

There are several character people, including John Hamilton (R. N. Swanson), who are given no screen credit at all (despite having several scenes in the film.  Too bad, as he is a much better actor than the lead.

We close with the musical number featuring Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dorothy Marries a Doctor

Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950) is the story of Jane Morgan (Dorothy McGuire), a successful radio jingle writer, who catches a cold and goes to the doctor.  One look at Dr. William Wright (William Lundigan) and Jane is hooked.  In short order, she and Bill have become engaged, much to the disgust of her new mother-in-law (Jessie Royce Landis).  Mrs. Wright, it seems, wants Bill to marry a former coworker, Helen Porter (Joyce MacKenzie) who is currently in medical school.  Helen will understand the obligations of being a doctor's wife - something that Mrs. Wright feels that Jane will never comprehend.  Jane, of course, is madly in love, and she and Bill rush headlong to the altar.  And then they begin to discover the many problems inherent in marriage, especially when one partner has an all-consuming career.

Having just finished an online course with Dr. Jeanine Basinger on the history of marriage in the movies, it was interesting to come across another marriage film, for this surely is a film about marriage, albeit marriage to a doctor.  We have many of the issues of conflict - money, in-laws, children, jealousy - that were discussed in the class.  But here, the jealousy is not limited to that of one spouse to another person.  In this film, the jealousy extends to the the spouse's job, which constantly pulls him from the family unit.  This is also a film about "marrying in haste and repenting at leisure".  For, while Mrs. Wright's attempted sabotage of the marriage is wrong, her fear that the couple are rushing into a lifetime commitment is on target.  This pair have no knowledge of one another, and yet wed regardless.

Once married, Jane does have good reason to be frustrated.  Bill is an absolute bonehead.  He buys a house, sight unseen, only to discover that it is an empty shambles (when he expected a fully-furnished paradise).  He never told Jane they had to move, never talked to her about the house, and spent every last dime he had to buy it.  When Jane isn't feeling well, and goes to a colleague of Bill's for some tests, Bill forgets to tell her that she is pregnant.  How this man is able to run a medical practice is beyond us.
It's not just men who get this fuzzy end of this lollipop - the women get it in spades as well.  We have Mrs. Wright and her cadre of medical wives and widows, who are a bunch of gossiping fishwives and meddlers.  We have Dr. Helen Porter, who went to medical school to get, not her MD, but her Mrs.  And we have Jane, who is supposed to have a brain in her head, but rarely acts like it.  Women are shown as totally incompetent.  Though Jane is good at her job, the minute she marries, she becomes a housewife for a man that is never home.  A sign of the times, perhaps - it seems as though this film is part of the post-war backlash against working women.

Since the film has a cute beginning, it's a big disappointment when it falls apart. Dorothy McGuire is always an engaging actress, but her Jane is eventually just annoying. And William Lundigan is far worse as Bill. He brings vagueness to a new level, and makes you want to avoid ANY doctor, not just him.

Lundigan and McGuire are not only members of the cast being misused. Leif Erickson as psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Gordon is downright insulting to the medical profession in general and psychiatry in particular. We remember Erickson not only from his many supporting film roles, but also as the imposing patriarch in the TV western The High Chaparral. In this film, you are relieved when he is gone from the screen. It doesn't help that the scenes with him serve no useful purpose; they are stupid, and not the least bit amusing. 

June Havoc's Maggie Roberts is the only sympathetic woman in the bunch, Jane's sole friend (didn't Jane have friends BEFORE she married?).  Maggie has come to terms with being a doctor's wife, but she understands the problems that are facing Jane; she lives with them every day.  Havoc, of course, was better known as "Baby June" of Gypsy fame and the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee.  However, Havoc was a notable actress in her own right.  After leaving vaudeville, Havoc appeared on Broadway (Pal Joey and Mexican Hayride, as well as playing Miss Hannigan in Annie), in films (My Sister Eileen and Gentlemen's Agreement) and on television (General Hospital).  She was nominated for a Tony Award for the direction of Marathon '33, which she also wrote, and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.  She died at age 97, in 2010.

Also wasted is Gary Merrill whose major role is to find out that Jane is pregnant (and not even get to tell her about it).  Merrill would play a doctor again in The Girl in White.  He had much more to do in the later picture.

By the end of this film, you just want it to be over.  It was a good premise, but one that is badly overdone.  This New York Times review sums it up very nicely.  All in all, this is not a film to watch if you are a fan of Dorothy McGuire (which we are).  Try The Spiral Staircase or The Enchanted Cottage instead.

Friday, June 13, 2014

New Yorker Nancy

We've not had a lot of opportunities to view the films of Nancy Carroll, but when we've gotten the chance to see her, we are always surprised and delighted by this wonderful, virtually unknown actress.  We had previously encountered her in an early Cary Grant film, Hot Saturday.   This week, we viewed Child of Manhattan (1933), which stars Nancy as Madalaine McGonagle, a dance-hall girl who meets the hall's landlord, widower Paul Otto Vanderkill (John Boles) when he drops by the club to check out his property.  Paul is enchanted by this little native New Yorker (she's got a fairly thick Manhattan accent), and within a short time, he has asked her to become his mistress (he doesn't want his family to know about their relationship).  She agrees, and is immediately rejected by her mother and brother (both of whom were QUITE willing to accept Paul's beneficence when the relationship was not so open).  In short order, Madalaine discovers that she is pregnant, and Paul agrees to marry her.  But when the child dies shortly after birth, Madalaine is consumed with guilt. 

Nancy Carroll had a long career - she began as a stage actress, going over to films in 1927 (she did appear on Broadway in the 1930s, at the height of her popularity).  Among her notable film appearances was in Abie's Irish Rose, with Charles "Buddy" Rogers as her Abie.  Her last film role was in 1938.  She retired for awhile, but eventually transitioned to television for a few roles in the 1950s and early 60s.  She also returned to the stage, and died at age 60 while performing in a play.  She is adorable in this film - you like her Madalaine immediately, as Carroll has the ability to project innocence and goodness, even as she portrays a character who is NOT conforming to society's norms.
Another actor who is not as well known today as he should be is John Boles.   We've discussed him before in our commentary on Craig's Wife, and he is best remembered for his role opposite Barbara Stanwyck, as her husband Stephen in Stella Dallas.  Like Carroll, Boles started in silents, where he worked with actresses such as Gloria Swanson.  It's hard to imagine him not talking, though, his voice is so mellifluous.  His pre and post film career is also very interesting.  He worked as a spy during the WWI; by 1943, he left films and went to back to work as a stage actor (He was in the original Broadway cast of the musical One Touch of Venus with Mary Martin).  He also went into the oil business.  He and his wife were married for 52 years, until his death in 1969. Coincidentally, the Flick Chick just did a wonderful commentary on John Boles, which we recommend to you.  His portrayal of Paul gives a sympathetic and likeable character.  Even when he asks Madalaine to live with him out-of-wedlock, it's hard to dislike him, as he always seems to care deeply for her.

There are some other performers in the film who deserve mention.  First is Jane Darwell as Madalaine's mother.  With her Irish accent, Mrs. McGonagle at first seems caring (though her willingness for Madalaine to accept a $1,000 gift from Paul is a bit suspect). Ultimately, though, Mrs. McGonagle disowns her daughter for openly consorting with Paul. But what we remember about her is that Mrs. McGonagle and son Buddy are interested only in the money that Madalaine provides to the house, not in protecting her.  By going under Paul's protection, Madalaine leaves the house, and her income leaves with her.   

If you blink, you will miss Betty Grable appearing as Madalaine's sister, Lucy. It's certainly not her first movie role, but it will be awhile before Grable becomes the superstar she would become.  Buck Jones, however, as Panama Kelley, was a well-known western star of the silent era.  At this point, he was attempting to recreate his career, and would go on to some success as a western star in the talkies.  His Panama is a noble man, who deeply loves Madalaine and only wants the best for her.  Sure, he's a bit common, but he is decent.  Jones manages to make him engaging with very little screen time.  Jones would die in 1942 after being burned in a horrific fire at the Coconut Grove hotel.  Stories vary, but one says that his death was the result of his repeated efforts to rescue people trapped in the hotel. Is it true? We'll probably never know, but one would like for him to have this epitaph.

Interestingly, the 1932 Broadway play on which this film is based was written by the always wonderful Preston Sturges.  Neil Hamilton was originally cast as Paul, but two weeks into filming, Boles replaced him.  The reason for the switch is not evident.  

Both Carroll and Boles are costumed exquisitely by Robert Kalloch in this delightful little film. We recommend it highly!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

George's Wives

The silence on our end was occasioned by a number of activities involving your humble scribe - one of which was her recent marriage.  Now that we are back to our normal routine, we begin with a 1936 film.  Snowed Under stars George Brent as playwright Alan Tanner, Genevieve Tobin as his first ex-wife Alice Merrit, and Glenda Farrell as SECOND ex-wife Daisy Lowell, all trapped in the mountains after a snowstorm.

Alan Tanner is a successful playwright, however his latest play is proving to be a difficult nut to crack - he can't seem to get the third act written.  He's retreated to a mountain cabin to write.  His publisher is not convinced that Alan can complete the play, so he asks ex-wife Alice to go up and visit Alan, and possibly help him with the writing.  She arrives to find Alan under siege from his would-be next wife (Patricia Ellis as Pat Quinn), Daisy, Sheriff Orlando Rowe (Frank McHugh), and Daisy's lawyer McBride (John Eldredge) - the latter two enlisted by Daisy to collect back alimony.  Thus, a quiet weekend devolves into a loud, frantic mess.

Quite frankly, this is a fairly stupid film.  Sure, it's a farce, with lots of running around and slamming doors and yelling.  While you want it to be a film version of the famous play Noises Off, what you get instead is a not-very-witty hodgepodge of romance and mayhem.

There are so many good actors here, you would think they could pull something out of their hat to rescue this mess, but they can't.  George Brent is given very little character to work with.  Mostly, he is passive, with his various women throwing things at him. Genevieve Tobin has a little more to work with, and as a result is more enjoyable.  But when  you get to such usually fantastic actors as Frank McHugh and Glenda Farrell, one throws up one's hands in frustration.  McHugh is downright annoying as Orlando, and Farrell is WAY too  over-the-top as Daisy.  You can't wait for the scenes with them to be over.  It's rather hard to understand why Alan married Daisy (just as it is equally hard to understand his attraction to Pat).  While both are attractive in their own way, they are equally hard on the nerves - a quality that is already visible in Pat.  And Daisy's crudeness is clearly not of recent vintage.

Both Ellis and Tobin retired shortly after the release of Snowed Under - Tobin to marry William Keighley; Ellis to wed a Kansas City businessman.  Both women had over 40 films credits when they left the industry, but neither had been able to rise to leading lady status.  This TCM article provides some history for the film, as well as some information on the critical reception.

We end with a trailer which will give you a quick overview of the film.  Next time, we turn back to the Pre-code era for a Nancy Carroll film.