No comfort film list is complete without something from Ms. Hayley Mills. She is a delight - a wonderful actress with a list of excellent films to her credit. Adding just one to this list was a hard choice - in the running were Pollyanna (1960), which I discussed in a previous blogathon, Summer Magic (1963), and The Moon-Spinners (1964). But, I ultimately opted to select The Parent Trap (1961), because there are TWO Hayleys to make me glad.
Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers live on opposite sides of the U.S. Sharon is in Boston with her mother; Susan lives in California on her father's ranch. They accidentally meet at summer camp, loathe each other at first sight, only to discover that they are "separated at birth" twins - when their parents divorced, each took one daughter, planning to never meet again. It was also decided by the parents that they would not tell their children of her sibling's existence. Knowing it's the only way to get to know the other parent, the sisters decide to change places. But when Susan discovers that father Mitch (Brian Keith) is about to marry the gold-digging Vicki Robinson (Joanna Barnes), the girls hatch a plan to get mother Margaret (Maureen O'Hara) back with her ex.
This was Ms. Mills second film with Disney, and she shines in the dual role. She gives the two sisters distinct personalities. Even when dressed alike, you can tell them apart (amusingly, their parents can't). Sure, the story is a fantasy, but who cares? The early rivalry episodes are full of tween deviltry and the latter partnership includes deviousness of quite a different ilk - you'll cheer when the twins set their sites on the obviously bad Vicki. And when Ms. Mills sings "Let's Get Together," a dare you to not groove to the music.
We think of Edward G. Robinson (Martinius Jacobson) as a tough guy, but in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), he's the gentlest man you could ever meet. A loving husband to wife Bruna (Agnes Moorehead) and father to his daughter Selma (Margaret O'Brien), he works as a farmer in a small Wisconsin town.
In many respects, the film is a series of short stories, about Selma and her adventures (and arguments) with her younger cousin, Arnold (Jackie "Butch" Jenkins), about Martinius and his desire to build a new state-of-the-art barn, and about the budding romance between new teacher Viola Johnson (Frances Gifford) and newspaper editor Nels Halvorson (James Craig). The script hangs together beautifully, as the characters weave in and out of each others lives.
The beauty of the film hinges on the relationship between Ms. O'Brien and Mr. Robinson. There is a genuine tenderness between the two; adding Agnes Moorehead to the mix - an actress who, in my estimation, can do no wrong - only adds to the charm of the family connection. In one biography, Ms. O'Brien said she became very close to Mr. Robinson during filming (Margaret O'Brien: A Career Chronicle and Biography by Allen R. Ellenberger); this is certainly reflected on screen.
Yet the films avoids becoming schmaltzy. The town in which the Jacobson's live is not perfect. The town is poor; most of the young men are gone to the War; there is even a hint of child abuse. Ultimately, though, the film is about family and unity - the Jacobson's live in a community that comes together in crisis, even if it is only donating a calf to a cause.
When times are bad, you need to laugh, and nothing will make you laugh more than Ball of Fire (1941). Gary Cooper (Bertram Potts) plays an English professor at work with six colleagues on a new encyclopedia. Professor Potts is horrified to discover that his understanding of slang is archaic. How can he write the needed article for the encyclopedia without further research? So he ventures out of the their cloister to learn the language of the day. On his journey, he meets Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a night club entertainer who knows just a bit too much about gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). Joe's solution - stash Sugarpuss with Bertram and his colleagues until Joe can marry her and keep her from testifying against him.
The combination of Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is comic dynamite. She's forward and alluring; he's shy and retiring. But they spark on screen like nobody's business. With her as the aggressor, Ms. Stanwyck is at her comic best - she needs him to become enamored of her, but there is danger in the air. She's never met anyone as gentle and considerate as him, and she finds herself falling for him (much to the consternation of Joe Lilac!)
There are so many wonderful scenes - Sugarpuss teaching the assembled professors the conga; Sugarpuss demonstrating the new slang to Bertram (in the form of yum-yum); Bertram learning to box. I could go on, but you get the idea.
We discussed this film at more length several years ago. But like so many of the great Ms. Stanwyck's films, it is a movie that cries for rewatching (and will have you in stitches throughout.
Take two remarkable actors, add in some suspense, sprinkle it with comedy, write dialog that sparkles and you've got Charade (1963). It's easily one of the most re-watchable and entertaining mystery stories around - even when you KNOW the ending, you really don't care. You want to watch the film again to meet with the charming, intelligent, and witty Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) and the man of mystery Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). They are a combination to be imbibed regularly.
Regina is on vacation at a skiing resort in the French Alps with her best friend Sylvie Gaudel (Dominique Minot) when Sylvie's mischievous son Jean-Louis (Thomas Chelimsky) "introduces" her to Peter. He's intrigued, but she "already know an awful lot of people, so until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else." Regina returns to her home in Paris, determined to divorce her always-absent husband Charles, only to find her apartment stripped bare and a message from the police. Charles is dead - murdered and thrown from a speeding train. The appearance of three threatening men, who demand to know the whereabouts of money Charles stole from them, add to Reggie's distress. And then there is the question - just WHO is Peter Joshua?
Cary Grant didn't want to do the film - he thought he was too old to be romantically involved with Audrey Hepburn, so the script was altered - she pursues him, and the effect is magic. After all, what woman wouldn't want to woo Cary Grant? Combine their interplay with an engaging story and you have a film to watch over and over. You'll laugh, you'll gasp, but you will never be bored.
Sometimes, an inspirational film that brings tears to your eyes is just what you need when you feel blue. The true story of The Miracle Worker (1961) is one that does it for me. Based on the autobiography of Helen Keller (Patty Duke), a blind-deaf woman who lost both senses after a childhood illness, the movie introduces the uncontrollable child to Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), herself almost blind, but as determined to teach Helen to communicate as Helen is to have her own way.
As a child, I was addicted to biographies of famous women. I think I read every one I could find in our local library. The woman that fascinated me most was Helen Keller. Her autobiography, The Story of My Life, was awe-inspiring. So too does this film bring a feeling of warmth and love that few movies are able to do. The strength of these two individuals, along with the unquestioning love of Helen's mother, Kate (Inga Swenson) make this a film of great passion.
Don't get me wrong - this is a film with humor as well, but I defy anyone to get to the end without a tear in their eyes. With Oscar-winning performances by Ms. Bancroft and Ms. Duke (both recreating their Broadway roles), The Miracle Worker is a film to lift your spirits.
Honorable Mention: No list of my comfort films is complete without a mention of one of my primary sources of comfort since childhood. Sure, including To Trap a Spy (1964), is a bit of a cheat. It’s a filmed version of two Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes, but for me it's one of the places I go when I need to feel better.
It was love at first sight when I saw Robert Vaughn in an early episode of the show. My father took me to a double bill of this and another U.N.C.L.E spinoff movie The Spy with My Face (1965). To say I was in heaven is an understatement.
The show ended up forming the basis of my first close friendship - one that abides to this day. When times are tough, when I’m sad or anxious, it’s Napoleon Solo who can make everything just a little bit better. (And it doesn't hurt to have Illya Kuryakin as well!)
Don't forget to read some of the other blogs that are participating in the Classics for Comfort Blogathon. You're sure to find some other films that will brighten your days.