30/05/2011

My Man Godfrey (1936)



The magnificently arch Jean Dixon and William Powell sprucing up a hangover cure with a "counter-irritant" for batty lady of the house Angelica Bullock (Alice Brady) in Gregory La Cava's hysterical My Man Godfrey for Universal. Powell had been brought in on loan from MGM for the part and, after reading Morrie Ryskind's script, insisted that he be joined by Carol Lombard. The actor knew Lombard was right for the material and was prepared to overlook the fact that they'd gotten divorced three years earlier for the good of the film. A great call as both prove to be pitch-perfect.

The Depression-set story is a simple one. When "Park Avenue brats" Angelica (Lombard) and Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) set out on a drunken society scavenger hunt they are asked to bring back a "forgotten man" to win top prize. They find just such a down-and-out at the city dump in the person of the mysterious Godfrey Park (Powell). He takes exception to the game's poor taste and to being patronised by Cornelia and promptly shoves her into an ash pile. Immediately endeared to this bewhiskered bum, the ditzier and younger Angelica apologises and Godfrey agrees to accompany her to the finishing line so that she can trump her snide sister. Angelica wins out and realises she's falling in love with Godfrey so spontaneously offers him a job as the family butler, an offer he's in no position to refuse. But who is this dapper, Harvard-educated fellow serving cocktails to the kooky, irresponsible, free-spending Bullock clan and what's he really up to?

The leads are impeccable, the script top notch, the direction inventive and the character performances out of this world. Mad matriarch Brady is lovely, Eugene Pallette as her put-upon husband is a scream and Mischa Auer's gorilla impression just has to be seen to be believed. The actor often played comic Russians in comedies of this period (see also Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You, 1938) but was rarely better than here as Brady's "protégé", a kept man who spends more time eating than composing. Englishman Alan Mowbray also makes an appearance as an old college friend of the suave Godfrey and plays it surprisingly straight, especially when you recall his barn-storming turn as boozy actor Granville Thorndyke in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). Also keep your eyes peeled for Jane Wyman, Franklin Pangborn and Grady Sutton in minor supporting roles but it's Powell and Lombard's comic romance that gives the film such heart. Thank goodness their separation proved amicable!

29/05/2011

You Can't Take It With You (1938)



This slightly preachy screwball comedy may not quite be up there with Frank Capra's best work but it still has plenty to recommend it. Rather in the spirit of George Cukor's Holiday, released the same year, Capra's adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play tells the story of class cross'd lovers Anthony Kirby Jr (Jimmy Stewart) and Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). He's the son of a stuffed shirt Wall Street munitions tycoon (Edward Arnold) who's hoping to buy up the neighbourhood where her madcap family reside in order to knock it down and build a timely factory. She's Jr's secretary and the object of his snooty mother's disdain. Things get worse for the pair when her free-spirited grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) refuses to sell up at any price and the Kirby's arrive a night early for dinner with the Sycamores, their prospective in-laws. The snobs find themselves in a world of ballerinas, xylophones, harmonicas, Russian dancing masters, ditzy novelists, ape masks, experimental firecrackers and amateur wrestling and begin to have grave doubts about their son's choice of bride.

Not quite as anarchic or zany as might have been intended at the time, You Can't Take It With You wades through Capra's usual themes of anti-capitalism, community and the pursuit of happiness in predictably syrupy fashion. The scene below in which Barrymore ticks off Arnold while the pair are locked up in the drunk tank is a pretty classic example of the sort of tub-thumping the director handled with much greater panache in other Stewart vehicles such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) or It's A Wonderful Life (1946). This sort of rhetoric from Barrymore's Grandpa Vanderhof would all be easier to swallow if the script addressed just how it is that this man has been able to survive in retirement for 30 years, supporting an entire extended family and assorted hangers-on in their various artistic endeavours, without any obvious source of income whatsoever. He can't have saved all that much just from dodging his income taxes. As British novelist Graham Greene wrote of the character in a contemporary review of the film for The Spectator, "Like the British Empire, he has retired from competition with a full purse." Greene was otherwise exasperated by the film and said, "The director emerges as a rather muddled and sentimental idealist who feels - vaguely - that something is wrong with the social system... it is useless to trying to analyse the idea behind Capra films: there is no idea that you'd notice only a sense of dissatisfaction, an urge to escape... one prefers Wall Street". Ouch!

I would argue that it's pretty disingenuous to pick holes in a film with this much native charm. Stewart and Arthur are as lovely a team here as they would be in Mr Smith and are a particular delight learning to dance the "Big Apple" with a gaggle of precocious street kids before causing havoc in a posh eatery with complaints about non-existent rats. Also of interest is their surprisingly prophetic conversation below in which Stewart's Tony Kirby appears to anticipate the discovery of solar power.



A final aspect of the film worth keeping an eye out for is the screen debut of a key Capra stock player - Jimmy the raven. This is the same avian actor that appeared in the likes of It's A Wonderful Life and Arsenic & Old Lace (1944) and, allegedly, 600 other movies, if his trainer Curly Twiford is to be believed.

15/05/2011

The Palm Beach Story (1942)


Here's another finely scripted comedy from Preston Sturges' early Forties purple patch - a screwball caper about good wife Gerry Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) who decides to run away from her unsuccessful architect spouse Tom (Joel McCrea) to get a divorce so that she can marry a millionaire and then use his money to help her estranged other half fund the pioneering urban airport project he has so far failed to get off the ground. Tom, however, is understandably not too keen on this scheme as he happens to be in love with her in spite of their financial woes. He gives chase, following Gerry down from New York to Florida to find her in the arms of the richest man in America, the meek, generous but terminally serious John D. "Snoodles" Hackensacker III (crooner Rudy Vallee). Gerry is all set to carry out her gold-digging plot while Tom finds himself the object of Hackensacker's sister's affections, the serial wedder and maneater Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor). But will Gerry go through with her Indecent Proposal-esque scheme or will the quarrelling lovers find a way to live happily ever after after all?

"Sex always has something to do with it, dear", Colbert tells jealous husband McCrea early on in The Palm Beach Story, a surprisingly frank attitude for a film of this vintage to be striking and further proof of the ahead-of-his-time genius of Sturges. Indeed, an early draft of what was then titled Is Marriage Necessary? was nixed by the Hays Office because of its irreverent content. 17 years before Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot, Sturges was packing his heroine off to the Sunshine State on the trail of an ageing tycoon to manipulate into marriage in order to secure herself a comfortable future. Like Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kowalcyzk in that film, Gerry's behaviour is not treated as cruelly cynical but rather as an endearingly pragmatic and self-sacrificing solution to a problem from which everyone concerned benefits. Everyone, that is, except Tom, whose pursuit of his wife shades The Palm Beach Story with real pathos. His emasculated frustrations as a creative professional unable to realise his designs or provide for his wife are all too believable and the thought of his losing her for the sake of the rent is a genuinely devastating one.


Sexual politics aside, this is a consequence-free fantasy romp featuring some splendid comedy turns, my favourite being Robert Dudley's stone deaf Texas Wienie King, Gerry's unlikely fairy godmother who tells her that the secret to success in the sausage industry is having a secret source of cheap meat and warns her against the product that made his fortune: "Stay off 'em, you'll live longer". The meddlesome Ale and Quail Club are also a hoot, a collection of Sturges stock players who board a train south from Penn Station and proceed to get roaring drunk, shoot out the windows, serenade Colbert with a glee club rendition of 'Sweet Adeline' and send out a hunting posse roaming through the aisles complete with shotguns and beagles, all before their carriage is quietly disconnected and abandoned on the line so that the boys can sleep it off. The Palm Beach Story's twist ending is also as laugh-out-loud funny as it is unexpected and how about this as an example of Sturges' white hot poison pen: "Don't you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn't you ever hear of a campaign promise?"

McCrea is as reliable as ever in what might have been a fairly thankless straight part, Colbert is too gorgeous to be real and Mary Astor of The Maltese Falcon (1941) is delightful as the motor-mouth princess ("Nothing is permanent in this world except Roosevelt, dear") whose every step is dogged by her absurd but persistent foreign suitor Toto (Sig Arno). Vallee is also excellent as the shy playboy - adept at physical comedy in a scene with Colbert involving bunk berths and broken glasses - and otherwise charming and in control, delivering such lines as the following with panache: "That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous." His inevitable musical numbers feel too much like a contrivance, however, and intrude upon what is otherwise a whip smart story.

P.S. To those who criticise Preston Sturges' films for their treatment of black characters - both here and in Sullivan's Travels (1941), bug-eyed black stereotypes are subjected to indignities in transit for comic relief - I would point to the case of Fred Toones, who plays George the club car bartender in The Palm Beach Story. Any black actor happy to be credited as "Snowflake" must have known the realities of his profession and been prepared to compromise to get ahead. These scenes are unquestionably regrettable but shouldn't be judged by modern standards.

07/05/2011

Sullivan's Travels (1941)



"To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated."
- Preston Sturges, Dedication To Sullivan's Travels

The Coen Brothers took the title for their Depression-set Homeric picaresque O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) from this splendid Preston Sturges satire for Paramount about an idealistic Hollywood director who sets out to experience life in the raw so that he can make a "socially significant" film about poverty in America instead of his usual studio musicals and comedy showcases. Sick of churning out crowd-pleasing guff like Ants In Your Pants Of 1939, John L. Sullivan (former stuntman Joel McCrea) promises that his forthcoming opus O Brother, Where Art Thou? (apparently an adaptation of a serious novel by one "Sinclair Beckstein") will be "a commentary on modern conditions", full of "stark realism" and the "problems that confront the average man", "a true canvas of the suffering of humanity... With a little sex in it".

Against the advice of his cigar-puffing superiors (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall), publicity agents (William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn) and starchy butlers (Robert Grieg and Eric Blore), the wealthy Sullivan picks up his hobo bindle and hits the road, hopping freight trains and sleeping rough with the delectable Veronica Lake in tow, a failed actress he befriends over ham and eggs in a diner. The pair push each other into swimming pools and end up in jail before realising they could get used to one another if only Sullivan was able to ditch his gold-digging wife, whom he doesn't love and only married as a tax dodge on the recommendation of a crooked business manager. At the close, Sullivan's sentimental journey of self-discovery has taught him an important lesson about the human condition and the true value of comedy as a unifying source of strength and consolation in a hard and unforgiving world.

Sturges' film is an absolute joy from start to finish. This baby really has it all - dialogue so cynical and sharp it'll give you a papercut, a treasure trove of hysterical character performances, athletic physical pratfalls from the leads and a killer car chase involving a studio support truck and a 13 year-old boy racer. Sullivan's Travels is also an invaluable document of the sights and sounds of down-and-out 1940's America, the scene below in which a chain gang visits a black Baptist church to watch a Pluto cartoon being a particularly beautiful record of a lost time and place.

02/05/2011

Stagecoach (1939)



Here's a nice still of the cast of Stagecoach lining up in full costume for a United Artists publicity shot around the time of the film's release. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Andy Devine on the left look relaxed enough but some of their co-stars seem oddly reluctant to break character.

Stagecoach is of course most famous for finally making Wayne a star despite the fact that it was actually his 83rd screen outing, the actor having toiled away and honed his craft in bit-parts and B-movies since 1926. However, what is perhaps most interesting to modern audiences about this microcosmic fable, in which allegorical types battle Injuns and the "foul disease of social prejudice" during a perilous journey from Tonto, Arizona, to Lordsburg, New Mexico, is not so much its class-bound themes (though the Lady's League of Law and Order is memorably horrible). Rather, it is the all-too topical pronouncements of Berton Churchill's pompous and ultimately corrupt, hypocritical and cowardly banker, Henry Gatehouse. This crooked embezzler, only taking the Overland Stage in the first place in order to flee town with a $50,000 stash of stolen savings, insists that "What's good for the banks is good for the country!" and later foams forth a rant that is worth repeating in full:

"I don't know what the government is coming to. Instead of protecting businessmen, it pokes its nose into business! Why, they're even talking now about having bank examiners. As if we bankers don't know how to run our own banks! Why, at home I have a letter from a popinjay official saying they were going to inspect my books. I have a slogan that should be emblazoned on every newspaper in this country: America for the Americans! The government must not interfere with business! Reduce taxes! Our national debt is something shocking. Over one billion dollars a year! What this country needs is a businessman for president!"


One can't help feeling that there are as many Gatehouse's alive and well in America today as there were in 1880 or in the Depression-haunted thirties when this speech was written. This sort of detail makes Stagecoach feels like an oddly left-wing film for John Ford to have made: news of the Republican Convention even gets dropped entirely from the Lordsburg newspaper's front page in favour of a splash on the Ringo Kid's Main Street stand-off with Luke Plummer.

Scripted by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht from a 1937 Collier's story by Ernest Haycox, Stagecoach is packed with brilliant character performances throughout from the likes of genre stalwarts Wayne, Thomas Mitchell and Devine but special mention should really go to several others. Trevor is tremendously moving as Dallas, the film's tart-with-a-heart and the object of Ringo's affections, John Carradine does well in expanding upon an otherwise one-dimensional goateed Southern gambler part and Donald Meek is on hysterical form as the quivering whisky salesman Samuel Peacock/Hancock. Meek's double act with the perpetually sozzled Mitchell as philosopher and sometime medic Doc Josiah Boone is a joy, especially when the latter is tucking his friend carefully into his seat in order to silence objection as he sets about draining the man's entire sample case. Meek is also funny donning a deerstalker hat in terror as soon as the possibility of Apache scalpings is mentioned. The stunts are astonishingly impressive too and all the better for being real rather than CGI concoctions, most notably the river crossing and climactic chase across the plains under attack from Geronimo's braves.

As for the Winchester-wielding Wayne, well, as soon as Ford's camera zooms in on his youthful face you know you're looking at a legend in the making.