Archive for Jean Arthur

Wild West Warren William

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2020 by dcairns

Warren William made two westerns, both times playing the bad guy. He specialised in suavity and fatuity — two qualities seldom found in close conjunction — and was able to apply these traits to a “sweet dude” of the old west just as readily as to a dazzling cosmopolitan. Have any of you seen WILD BILL HICKOK RIDES (1942) with Constance Bennett (!) and Bruce Cabot? Is it any good, at all?

We did sit down en famille and watch ARIZONA (1940), which comes from that period immediately following the success of STAGECOACH when studios rushed to produce westerns for grown-ups. WW plays sweet dude Jefferson Carteret, a preposterously enjoyable name for a smooth western baddie. He gets to push Porter Hall around for most of the movie, which is close to the dynamic they “enjoy” in SATAN MET A LADY, too.

This one is a little unusual since Jean Arthur is the hero, with a young William Holden very much in support. When the final duel occurs, the camera stays with Arthur, the store, picking out the things she’ll need IF her newly married man survives. This approach works nicely, as an Ophulsian approach to duelling, as a way of keeping the focus where it belongs, and as an encapsulation of the film’s big theme — the West got colonized because a bunch of white folks went there and trusted that civilisation would eventually catch them up. Buy supplies for the ranch is an act of faith and a way to will Holden’s character to survive.

(Guillermo del Toro got very excited about this scene on Twitter recently.)

It’s an ambitious film — what I call an epic — stampedes, gunfights, wagon chases — everything but a saloon brawl and a dive off a high cliff. Some actual history like the Civil War gets incorporated into its sweeping tale. There are characters who look to the future when Arizona will be “a great state” or whatever. Edgar Buchanan plays his first drunken judge.

A barely recognizable Holden meets the origin of the great yak fur shortage of 1940.

It’s not excellent — they’ve created an epic backdrop — they seem to have built early Tucson from scratch — everyone is filthy except Warren — it’s a bit too episodic and bits of Arthur’s Calamity Jean act defeat her — William Holden is a little too enthusiastic at this stage — when he became more subdued he became COOL — the more concentrated, less self-consciously important STAGECOACH is MUCH better at chewing what it bites off. But of course, STAGECOACH is John Ford with Dudley Nichols & Ben Hecht adapting a short story, and this is Charles Ruggles’ brother Wesley with his pal Claude “boy meets girl” Binyon adapting a sprawling novel.

 

How Old Cary Grant?

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2018 by dcairns

The journalist accidentally sent the above query by telegram, not to Cary’s publicist, but to the star himself.

Cary famously replied, OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

Here’s the first entry in our blogathon on late movies, final films: Judy Dean tackles the swan song of Bristol’s finest movie star, Archibald Leach himself. As films about the Tokyo Olympics go (we are nothing if not topical) this may not have the cinematic values of Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD, but it has Cary Grant, damnit.

“Heavy romance on the screen should be played by young people, not middle-aged actors”  (Cary Grant, 1952)

In WALK, DON’T RUN (1966, dir. Charles Walters) a successful English businessman, happily married with grown up children, finds himself in Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics. Arriving ahead of schedule he’s told his hotel room won’t be available for 48 hours and ends up renting a room in the flat of a young single woman. He meets a member of the US Olympic team who’s also looking for accommodation, invites him to share his room and then sets about engineering a romance between his two flatmates.  

It’s a remake of 1943’s THE MORE THE MERRIER (dir. George Stevens) which was set in an overcrowded wartime Washington. WALK DON’T RUN follows its plot very closely, even reproducing some of the sight gags (a drop-down ironing board, trousers propelled out of the window by their braces).

In the original, however, the businessman is played by Charles Coburn and in the remake by Cary Grant, two actors seldom mistaken for each other.

THE MORE THE MERRIER is a sweet, engaging screwball comedy with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a charming and sexy, if somewhat mature, couple and for whom Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, in the same roles, are no match.

What pleasure there is in WALK, DON’T RUN, and there isn’t much, lies in the way Cary Grant subverts the central premise of the film, which is that he is now too old to get the girl and can only act as matchmaker.  The script hammers this home this with a distressing lack of subtlety. In the closing scene, satisfied that the young couple, now married, are about to consummate their relationship, he smiles cheerily and is driven off to fly home to his wife and their silver wedding celebrations. He is passing the baton of love, sex and romance to the next generation. Or not.

Nobody watches THE MORE THE MERRIER wondering if Jean Arthur might fall for Charles Coburn rather than Joel McCrea but in WALK, DON’T RUN, there’s no denying that it’s just possible Samantha Eggar will opt for a man of 60, especially if that man is Cary Grant.  

What the script tries to persuade us to believe is at odds with the evidence of our own eyes. Whether scaling the outside of the apartment building (echoes of TO CATCH A THIEF), showing off his naked body, whistling the theme tunes from CHARADE and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (more reminders of past glories), Grant is on fine form, as dazzlingly handsome, vain and athletic as ever and more than capable of injecting a little life into the leaden dialogue.

But, despite his best efforts, it’s a silly film and with two weak and baffling subplots, some horribly stereotypical jokes about the Japanese and unnecessary coyness about racewalking as an Olympic sport, it must be asked why he decided to do it.

The key seems to lie in his ongoing pursuit of the Oscar that had eluded him for so many years. After being nominated twice for Best Actor, first in 1942 for PENNY SERENADE and then again in 1945 for NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and after losing on both occasions, he boycotted the ceremony for many years until persuaded by Ingrid Bergman in 1957 to collect the award for her role in ANASTASIA on her behalf.  Grant believed, and the argument carries some weight, that the members of the Academy had never forgiven him for his break with the studio contract system. Nevertheless, he’d been hopeful of success with his penultimate film, FATHER GOOSE, in which he’d played a dishevelled, misanthropic drunk and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn’t even nominated. It seems doubtful that, had he won, WALK DON’T RUN would have been made, but he was aware that Charles Coburn had walked away with Best Supporting Actor for the original and no doubt thought the remake might offer a chance to do the same.

As it was, he had to wait until 1970 when, under the presidency of Gregory Peck, an old friend who had set about liberalising the Academy and had campaigned vigorously on Grant’s behalf, he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues”.

One last point.  WALK, DON’T RUN could be read as a gay film and the audience just as easily forgiven for predicting that the two male leads will ride off into the sunset together, given that they not only happily share a very small bedroom but engage in dialogue like this:

“Tokyo’s filled with baths.  They’re all quite nice. Ever try one?  Probably one around here somewhere. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll join you.”

The ensuing scene only gives weight to the theory ~

as does this shot, in which Cary Grant recognises his roommate through binoculars with a shout of “Oh, that’s him!”

JUDY DEAN

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”