Monday, August 18, 2008

Region 2 Cinema: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945)

Fabric designer Harry Melville Quincey (George Sanders), scion of an aristocratic New England family whose fortunes went south with the stock market crash of 1929, is introduced to sophisticated socialite Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) at the textile mill where he works…and falls madly in love with her, asking for her hand in marriage. This news thrills his chatterbox sister Hester (Moyna MacGill), but his other sibling—the domineering and possessive Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald)—is jealously determined to forestall any potential wedding marches in Harry’s future. When Harry refuses to leave town with Deborah (the couple, frustrated by Lettie’s reluctance to move to other quarters, has decided to travel to New York, with a side stop to their friendly neighborhood Justice of the Peace along the way) after hearing that Lettie has taken ill, Deborah calls it quits, realizing he’ll never break free. On hearing the news that Deborah married Harry’s rival (Craig Reynolds), Lettie suddenly finds herself “cured” and Harry learns he’s been played for a sucker the whole time. He decides to do away with the perfidious Lettie by slipping the same poison she used to put down the family dog in her cocoa…but as a famous cartoon squirrel once observed, “That trick never works.”
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), adapted from Thomas Job’s successful stage melodrama, was the second of two collaborations between producer Joan Harrison and German émigré director Robert Siodmak (though their first film, 1944’s Phantom Lady, gives Harrison an associate producer credit) at Universal Pictures. The talented Siodmak has always been one of my favorite directors, known for his noir output (Lady, The Killers, Cry of the City, Criss Cross) but also flexible enough to tackle assignments in horror (Son of Dracula), adventure (The Crimson Pirate) and full-blown Technicolor WTF wackiness (Cobra Woman). Harrison, a longtime associate of Alfred Hitchcock (who would have been an even better choice to direct Harry than Siodmak), resigned from Universal as a result of the picture’s positively lame ending (which was necessary, unfortunately, to satisfy the Hays Office—Universal had to choose between five contenders) and went to RKO to oversee other noirs like Nocturne (1946) and They Won’t Believe Me (1947). (Harrison would later continue her association with the Master of Suspense as executive producer of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.)

It is the unfortunate The Woman in the Window-like ending of Harry that keeps this film from being a great movie rather than a mildly diverting one. But there are other factors at work here. Actor Sanders—who receives kudos for making a game attempt at escaping his usual caddishness by playing a henpecked sort—can’t quite completely hide his inner essobee in the picture’s early scenes; though I consider myself a huge fan, I always have difficulty in buying into the rare occasions where he plays a decent sort save for his sarcastic sidekick role in Foreign Correspondent (1940). Leading ingénue Raines is also pretty underwhelming; she had the capability to rise to the occasion (particularly as the female lead in Phantom Lady) but more often than not seemed to just be content in her blandness. So it’s pretty much up to Fitzgerald to steal the whole show, and she doesn’t disappoint: her blasé “landed gentry” persona is really just a mask to cover up her invidious, conniving nature. You never really learn why Lettie has such incestuous feelings for brother Harry (and thank the Gods of Cinema that’s one plot point the Hays people couldn’t edit out—just think of the relationship between Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak in Scarface) but she takes hold of Harry like a tigress does her cub. Moyna MacGill (mother of Angela Lansbury) as sister Hester matches Fitzgerald’s first-rate performance, and other familiar character faces—Sara Allgood, Samuel S. Hinds, Harry von Zell (as the comic relief druggist), Ethel Griffies, Will Wright and Barbara “Doris Ziffel” Pepper—step up to the plate as well.

I first watched Harry nearly ten years ago on Encore’s Mystery Channel, and though it was released on videocassette (by Republic Pictures Home Video) at about the same time, I can’t recall the last time I saw it on any cable channel’s schedule since. I purchased my Region 2 DVD copy from DaaVeeDee, a nifty website that specializes in hard-to-find classic film rarities. (DaaVeeDee also peddles its wares on eBay, but I think the prices on the site are a dollar or two cheaper.) The disc itself was released by Suevia Films, and I need to warn you off the bat that the quality of this release is iffy at best—it’s jerky and jumps around in quite a few spots, plus it has some all-too-noticeable scratches and breaks in the print used. I tried my best to keep from revealing the ending of this film (well, it says so at the end: “In order that your friends may enjoy this picture, please do not disclose the ending.”) but here’s a hint: stop your player at the 1:18 mark in order to refrain from shouting “Oh, come on!” when Harry calls it a wrap. To a fan like me, lesser Siodmak is much, much better than a lot of what’s out there—so if you can raise the scratch, it’s worth the investment.

9 comments:

Harry Heuser said...

“Oh, come on!” is putting it mildly. There are some critics who defend the ending of Woman in the Window as self-reflexive; but Uncle Harry does not justify such intellectual rescue attempts. For something closer to the stage play, there is that radio version produced by Studio One.

Thanks for this review says Harry from Region 2.

Linda said...

Let's hear it for Region 2!

John Gray jgsheffield@hotmail.com said...

good blog matey

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Thanks for encouraging my behavior, John!

Stacia said...

Hooray for Region 2! The only problem I have with it is that I can't gank screencaps off my other-region DVDs.

Thad said...

I can play all regions now, and am anxious to pick up what I missed. I splurged and got the UK Laurel & Hardy set, and I've been a pig in shit.

Bonnie said...

OK, this is an ancient topic, but I wanted to ask- WTH is the ending? Did he dream it? I'm only 14, so I don't pick up on things

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

OK, this is an ancient topic, but I wanted to ask- WTH is the ending? Did he dream it? I'm only 14, so I don't pick up on things

Bonnie...you got it! (But don't tell anybody...) :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Bonnie for asking the question. I'd searched the internet for the answer. Don't feel foolish for asking, Im 47 and I just didn't get it. Nice to here that 14 year olds like watching the classic stuff though. Good on you.