Archive for The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

The Man Who Mistook His Hat for a Cake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2021 by dcairns

THE PILGRIM, continued.

As noted, some cute business with Charlie helping Edna in the kitchen, especially the rolling pin on the top shelf that keeps falling on him. This is mildly amusing, but provokes an additional gasp when it imperils Edna. Charlie has thought himself clever by placing a milk bottle in front of the rolling pin to stop it trundling off, but then Edna reaches for the bottle…

Charlie is long past actually doing crude violence to his leading ladies for the sake of a laugh — gone are the days when Mabel Normand took a kick in the skirts. But he can still good-naturedly THREATEN to have some accident befall a lady, so long as disaster is averted.

Meanwhile, little Dinky Riesner has placed Sydney Chaplin’s hat over the similar-looking cake Edna has baked, and Charlie proceeds to decorate it with chocolate and cream and cherries. This is all probably too elaborate a scheme for Dinky to come up with, and he’s not even going to be present for the pay-off. Charlie gently kicks the lad from the room, and we can still see from the mite’s expression that this is a hilarious game and he’s not being hurt by it.

Syd gets quite stroppy when he can’t find his hat. Almost too aggressive for a comedy, especially when he’s been a milquetoast until now. A flash of the real man’s unpleasant side? Consternation as the cake/hat is sliced. It doesn’t behave correctly. A round of close-up reactions as the perfidy is discovered: like the denouement of a murder mystery.

The film’s best intertitle, perhaps, as Mrs. Syd asks “Where did you find it?” and a despondent Syd replies “They were eating it.”

The whole thing is incomprehensible to all concerned, though the solution and culprit, Dinky Dean Riesner, is right there, slapping his tiny palm on the creamy chapeau, then burying his face in it to slurp at the delicious coating.

Romance in three-quarter backlight by the garden gate. Enter this Eden’s snake-in-the-grass, Charles Reisner as Howard Huntington AKA ‘Nitro Nick’ AKA ‘Picking Pete.’ Knowing Charlie from his past life, he’s evidently keen to get a piece of whatever long con is going on. Mack Swain, still at tea with Purviance and her mother, makes an obvious mark and is relieved of his pocketbook. Charlie looks very uncomfortable — this impostor is like the dark version of himself, down to the derby. He steals the pocketbook from Reisner and returns it to Swain. Using his powers of filching for good. But we can sense that Nitro Nick’s intrusion is making clear the untenability of Charlie AKA ‘Lefty Lombard’ AKA ‘Slippery Elm’ as a tenant in this respectable home.

When Picking Pete resteals the money, he’s too much on guard for Charlie to resteal it back, so Charlie goes into a magic routine — a prestidigitator in a world of legerdemain — magicking the pocketbook from Swain (who doesn’t have it) to Reisner (who does, having re-filched it). All done in plain view, so Reisner can’t make a fuss.

But now a cash MacGuffin appears (and Cash MacGuffin would make a fine character name for a crime thriller) — Edna’s mortgage money. Which Reisner spots and immediately makes plans for, spinning a yarn about missing his train so he’s invited to stay the night.

In THE TRAMP, the threat came from outside the house, with Charlie as besieged defender. With the threat INSIDE, the scenario is closer to bedroom farce, only with money rather than furtive sex and the veneer of respectability as the motive force. In THE ADVENTURER, Charlie was outsider who didn’t belong and his enemy, the great Eric Campbell, was an insider who did. The cops were the main adversary, though. Here, Reisner is a scarier villain because he really comes from a dark criminal world that Edna and her mum are wholly innocent of. Only Charlie, who knows that world as a native, can defend them. I’m excited to see where this goes.

Really terrific long-take farce action on the top landing, with Charlie continually pretending to go into his room, catching Reisner leaving his, with none of the straight repetition Chaplin was so fond of — it’s all variations on the theme, not replays. Beautifully done, without a cut or a title.

Then a fight, with Reisner trying to get the swag from a drawer while Charlie, mounted on his back like the Old Man of the Sea, continually kicks the drawer shut. A beautiful gag I’ve never seen anywhere else, but which we get to see about a dozen times here since Chaplin has rightly decided that this one is worth repeating.

Knocking Charlie cold, Nitro Reisner heads to the local saloon to lose the mortgage money at roulette. This dance hall is the film’s first opportunity to inject actual Texan local colour.

Rumbled! The sheriff (Tom Murray, who plays the villainous Black Larsen in THE GOLD RUSH) has discovered that Parson Pim is really Lefty Lombard, and gives Edna the bad news. This is pretty good third act plotting — Charlie can retrieve the money and still get arrested,so things really do look bleak. We may know that it’s inevitable that some kind of at least reasonably happyish ending must be arranged, but it’s not easy to see how, which sets Chaplin up nicely to delivery the necessary surprises, whatever they may be.

The plot thickens — a gang of bandits rob the saloon — pure deus ex machina, except that they’re not clearing up the plot problem, they’re intensifying and complicating it.

Chaplin deftly disguises himself to enter the saloon, reversing his dog collar — but I thought it was a real one, stolen from a real minister? It wouldn’t have regular wings at the back. Unless all dog collars do, so that the priests can pass among us incognito, which would be just like them, the sneaky bastards.

Impersonating a bandit, Charlie robs Nitro Nick, then flees, pursued by the real bandits. A pretty desperate bit of plot contrivance, I’ll admit.

Next morning, Charlie is able to return the loot to Edna, but is nailed by the law. His innocence of the current crime counts for nothing since he’s a fugitive from justice anyway. But the goodhearted Sheriff walks Charlie to the Mexican border and orders him to pick flowers — from the other side. It’s the same idea as the jailbreak in THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (and we know Sturges was a Chaplin fan) — will Charlie be sharper than Norville Barnes in realising he’s being allowed to escape?

Nope! Charlie is crafty but nothing in his experience of the law has enabled him to expect this. He comes running back with the flowers even as the Sheriff is riding off, and the stalwart lawman has to march him back to the border by his dog collar, delivering the most well-intentioned boot up the arse in the Chaplin oeuvre, propelling him to freedom. Charlie stands in a wide prairie longshot and looks at us in surprise.

But Chaplin’s not done with us. Just as Charlie is celebrating his new life in peaceful Mexico, a bunch of bandits emerge from the bushes, murdering each other. he flees back to the border, and then retreats from the camera, keeping on big, outward-pointing shoe on either side of the boundary line, ready to flee in whichever direction becomes advisable. It’s a precarious existence for a “citizen of the world.”

The Mystery of Morgan’s Creek

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 1, 2021 by dcairns

Here’s a strange one, A mystery introduced, investigated and solved in a single day (yesterday), but leaving a bigger mystery.

First, Dan Sallitt, filmmaker and friend, got in touch with a curious question. He was making up some film lists, and wanted to check the accuracy of THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK’S release date. The film was shot at the end of 1942, but release was held up a bit.

Dan wasn’t asking me as a Sturges scholar, but as a Scot: the IMDb gives the film’s first release date as December 1943, (Glasgow) (premiere). This seemed odd. Films don’t typically get even their UK premieres in Glasgow. Plus, the copyright date for the film in the US is January 1944. You wouldn’t expect Paramount to be screening the film before they copyrighted it.

Dan couldn’t learn much more without paying for the privilege, but he could see that the film was screening in Glasgow in December *1944*, a whole year later than the IMDb’s date, so maybe it was a simple typo that had gotten worked up into a whole alternative history?

I didn’t know the answer but thought I knew someone who could get it, ace researcher Diarmid Mogg. I fired him an email.

I got this back:

If you can tear your attention away from the discourse on the humourlessness of Scotsmen, you can see on the right mention of Betty Hutton premiering her new film in Glasgow. And the date is December 1943.

So it really happened. But why was Glasgow chosen? And why wasn’t the film’s copyright registered until a month after it began screening in the UK?

Diarmid was able to answer the odd point about the film still showing in 1944. It was still showing in *1951*, too, having proved so popular it simply didn’t stop running, here and there, all over the country.

So, for once, the Inaccurate Movie Database hasn’t lived down to its name, but we’re still left with a puzzle. Perhaps one of you has the answer?

Diddlebocking Around

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2020 by dcairns

“Have I ever seen THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK?” asked Fiona. I serve as her backup memory bank for these things, though she remembers the music and TV stuff.

“Only halfway,” I said. Because I recalled her being blown away by the first half and then abruptly tuning out, around the part Preston Sturges, the film’s writer-director, lost interest himself. (He laboured intensively over writing the first half, then finished in a day or two, according to his secretary.)

My friend and occasional co-writer Alex never finished it either, and when the subject is raised he gets traumatic flashbacks of Jimmy Conlin screaming “AAAARGH MISTER DIDDLEBOCK!” which to be fair there is quite a bit of. We can generally agree that it was a mistake to stage another skyscraper sequence, and to do it in a studio with unconvincing process shots.

It’s quite a weird sequence, filmed with some very nice crane movements to begin with, but with the outside world excluded, so we’re looking flat-on at a building frontage and there’s no sense whatever of being high up.

Fiona was talking about how misjudged the routine was, and I reminded her that she had been laughing hysterically at Harold dangling from a lion’s leash. “Only because it was so stupid,” she said. But that’s the point. Sturges wanted to alternate high and low comedy in all his stuff, hence all those pratfalls. He even has Veronica Lake praise a John L. Sullivan picture for its stupidity. “Oh, it was stupid, but it was wonderful.”

Worth reading all the way through.

Jimmy Conlin actually wakes up screaming, himself the victim of a traumatic flashback, in the next scene. In this he is reprising Barbara Stanwyck’s shriek in THE LADY EVE. Sturges’s characters are not only put through hell, they suffer PTSD.

I’m curious to see the MAD WEDNESDAY, Howard Hughes’ alternate version, which is apparently longer and features not only Hughes interpolations such as a talking horse, but maybe Sturges deletions. You can spot moments in the shorter version which don’t quite make sense, with characters assumed to know things they haven’t been told, and it’s clear Sturges chopped bits out because he wasn’t altogether happy. The collaboration with Lloyd was MORE trouble-strewn than that with Hughes.

“I could make you a very attractive offer.”

“You couldn’t make me an attractive offer, not if you got down on your bended knee and threw in a set of dishes.”

The IMDb lists Al Bridge’s morose ringmaster as “Wild Bill Hicock,” but he’s actually referred to by Conlin as “Wild Bill Hitchcock,” which is funnier.

There’s often a cynical edge to Sturges’s happy endings. (Spoilers, unavoidably, follow.) Usually this comes as a result of the plot twists which precipitate them being utterly unbelievable, but having been “established” in surreptitious manner early one — THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK smuggles its get-out clause in via the title and the opening pre-credits/credits/post-credits non-linear McGinty cameo, THE PALM BEACH STORY likewise slips its comedy-of-errors sub-sub-sub-plot in while the titles are still rolling, and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO pulls off its jubilant fade-out by making its entire population fundamentally stupid (it worked in THE MUSIC MAN too, and may not be so much of a stretch.)

The later films are darker. It’s possible to read the ecstatic last scene of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS as delusional, and imagine that Linda Darnell is in fact cheating on Sexy Rexy, is, in fact, playing a proper Linda Darnell role. And there’s a slight oddness and offness to THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (OK, a lot of oddness & offness) — Betty Grable has been impersonating a seemingly dead schoolmarm. I was fully expecting the teacher to turn up alive and well, because (a) this would clear up a wholly inappropriate note of tragedy and (b) it would make things hot for Grable. But it never happens. The poor educator is really deceased.

TSOHD has an ending that’s REALLY cynical. The problem energizing our hero in the film’s last section is what to do with a circus he’s purchased in a drunken haze. He can’t afford to run it, but nobody wants to buy it, or even accept it as a gift. Harold gets the idea of a FREE circus for all the poor children in town. It’s a dream he’s always had. He can get a rich banker to run the show, because everybody hates bankers and this would be great positive publicity.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that the Ringling Bros. buy the circus to PREVENT a competitive free circus stealing their trade. Harold gives up his childhood dream with nary a backward glance, even though the bankers are all clamouring for a chance to prove they’re not all meanies. The Ringling Bros. offer more dough, so that’s that.

In the breathless frenzy of a typical Sturges conclusion there’s no time to linger on this sour note, of course. But it inescapably flavours one’s impression of the film as THE END (with or without a talking horse) superimposes itself. And may have contributed more than its share to the film’s underperformance and enduring lack of popularity. After all, Harold Lloyd has always been an icon of go-getting, energetic, ultimately masterful American will-to-success, always offered to the audience as an unironic winner in whatever dramatic situation he’s placed in, emerging on top of the heap and with the girl on his arm. Having already undermined the movie’s romance with bitter glee (Miss Otis is merely the latest in an endless stream of sisters), Sturges now makes his hero at least a bit of a money-grubbing louse. How did this escape Lloyd, Hughes, and the other supposed grown-ups? (I use the term… wrongly.) Did Lloyd have any inkling what he was doing to himself here?

THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK stars Harold Lamb aka Speedy; Trusty; Mayor Everett J. Noble; John D. Hackensacker III; Officer Kennedy; Hortense O’Dare; J. Pinkerton Snoopington; Cornelius Cobb; Miss Gulch; A. Pismo Clam; Prof. Summerlee; Man in Talking Pictures Demonstration; The Mister; Hives – the Butler; Slave Girl; ‘Sourpuss’; J.J. King; Colored Porter; Ape Man; Snug – the Joiner; and the Masterblaster.