Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Movies I’ve recently stared at on TCM #8

Remember the Night (1940) – A friend of mine in Wisconsin once sent me this romantic comedy on VHS years ago and while I can’t remember if it was because it was scripted by Preston Sturges or features Sterling Holloway I do recall that I never got around to looking at it. Fortunately, TCM ran it Saturday night and as you might have guessed, I could kick myself for not having seen it sooner. Barbara Stanwyck is a shoplifter who’s arrested and put on trial for ripping off a bracelet from a jewelry store; Fred MacMurray is the District Attorney handling the case and, knowing the jury is caught up in the Christmas spirit and will no doubt acquit Babs, effectively stalls the proceedings so that they’ll have to resume after the holidays. Fred then feels guilty about his tactics and secretly arranges Babs’ bail…only to then learn she has no place to stay until the continuation of the trial. Well, since they’re both fellow Hoosiers he asks her along on his driving trip to visit his mother (Beulah Bondi) in Indiana…making a stop along the way to see her ma (Georgia Caine) as well.

Normally, I kind of run hot-and-cold where Stanwyck’s concerned; while she’s chalked up an incredible amount of appearances in favorite films of mine, I’d stop short of calling myself a disciple. But I truly enjoyed Night; it should be shown more around the holidays (fortunately, TCM reintroduced audiences to the movie in 2006 and is running it again twice this month—once on Christmas Eve and the other Christmas Day) because it’s a bit overshadowed by Babs’ other holiday-themed venture, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), and Connecticut pales in comparison. When Stanwyck is good, no one can compete against her; the way she deftly combines streetwise attitude with a touching vulnerability will definitely get the tear ducts working in full flash-flood mode (my favorite scene is when MacMurray’s aunt [Elizabeth Patterson] helps Stanwyck dress for a “barn dance”), Night is also noteworthy for refusing to take the easy-happily-ever-after way out—something you can usually expect from a Sturges film but I have to admit it was touch-and-go here for a sec. Included in the cast: Columbia players Fred “Snowflake” Toones (who produces a few winces as MacMurray’s stereotypical black valet) and Tom Kennedy—not to mention Willard Robertson, Charles Waldron, Paul Guilfoyle and Charles Arnt.

Johnny Eager (1942) – TCM kicked off a Van Heflin film fest this past Saturday with 3:10 to Yuma—which I skipped, since I’ve seen the movie quite a few times. (I only wish I had returned to the television set to catch Count Three and Pray [1955], which I saw the last half-hour of and it looked to me like a pretty fair Western.) Instead, I managed to stay awake for a film that was a first-time watch for me—Johnny Eager, a 1942 melodrama starring Robert Taylor as a former ex-gangster who’s on probation: he’s supposedly making a living driving a hack but is in actuality back to his old tricks in the underworld. Lana Turner is the young student who falls in love with Taylor and Heflin (in a role that nabbed him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) his conscience with a particularly heavy pull on the bottle.

Robert Taylor fans might want to skip this paragraph because while I can certainly see why he appealed to the bobbysoxer crowd I thought that his acting overall…well, let’s just drop the phrase “high heaven” into this and then walk away quickly. Not that Taylor couldn’t turn in competent work: he’s okay in films like Devil’s Doorway (1950), Rogue Cop (1954) and Party Girl (1958) but I thought his limited talents were better suited to the small screen, particularly in the TV series The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor (1959-62). But Taylor’s really not the draw here—it’s Heflin; Van was never much of a handsome guy but he was one hell of an actor and he turns in a rock-solid performance as Jeff Hartnett, a weak-willed alcoholic who tries to get Taylor’s gangster to do the right thing…and to which Taylor finally acquiesces in the end (there’s a distinct homoerotic quality to their relationship, for the amateur sociologists in the audience). Edward Arnold caught me off guard as the principled prosecutor who must reluctantly partner up with Taylor to save his daughter Turner from a murder rap (I’ve seen Arnold in so many films as the corrupt fat cat that it’s jarring to see him playing against type) and while Eager contains the usual M-G-M gloss it was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who certainly knew his way around a gritty piece of crime cinema (Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, They Won’t Forget). Eager’s cast also includes Robert Sterling, Patricia Dane, Glenda Farrell, Barry Nelson, Charles Dingle, the delightfully creepy Paul Stewart, Cy Kendall and Lou “Shorty the Barber” Lubin (who has a small part as one of Taylor’s gang).

The Godless Girl (1929) – With the exception of The Sign of the Cross (1932), I’m not normally a fan of Cecil DeMille’s sound output but his silent films are another subject altogether. (I actually ponied up the hefty scratch to buy the deluxe version of The Ten Commandments [1956] just so I could own a copy of the 1923 original.) The Godless Girl was DeMille’s last silent, and it’s your typical sin-and-salvation melodrama: Lina Basquette and future B-western fixture Tom Keene are a pair of students constantly engaged in a furious debate between Atheism (Lina) and Christianity (Tom). When a young girl (Mary Jane Irving) falls off a staircase and dies during a melee between Atheist and Christian students, Basquette and Keene (along with a young Eddie Quillan—billed as “The Goat”) are convicted of manslaughter and thrown into a literal Hell of he-and-she reformatory schools. Basquette befriends Marie Prevost during her stretch in stir; Keene and Quillan find themselves up against sadistic guard Noah Beery (“The Brute”). No one is ever going to accuse DeMille of subtlety in his work but I thought Girl was great fun—with some lovely, tender moments and an incredible fiery climax at the film’s end. Serial baddie Richard Alexander plays one of Beery’s minions in this movie, and would later repeat the experience when he played “El Lobo” to Beery’s J.A. Marsden in the 1937 Republic serial Zorro Rides Again.

The Kid from Broken Gun (1952) – With this run-of-the-mill programmer, Columbia Pictures said “Adios!” to one of their most popular film series, The Durango Kid, in a movie that you would hope would go out on a high note…but no such luck. Stuntman/Three Stooges player Jock Mahoney (billed as Jack, which is also the name of his character) is on trial for the murder of Matt Fallon (Chris Alcaide) and since his lawyer (Angela Stevens) doesn’t seem to be much help (she’s secretly working for the villain, veteran serial baddie Tristram Coffin), Steve Reynolds (Charles Starrett) and the eternally useless Smiley Burnette set out to find the real culprit because they’re a-gonna hang Jack iffen they don’t. If you’ve watched this film and wondered why the plot is so convoluted, it’s because a goodly percentage of Broken Gun contains an equally hefty amount of sequences from an earlier Durango Kid opus, The Fighting Frontiersman (1946; I figured this out when I couldn’t understand why Starrett looked so young in the “flashbacks." I knew Columbia did this with their comedy shorts—but I didn’t know the practice extended to B-westerns.) The highpoint of Broken Gun (for me, anyway) is a brief comedy sequence in which Burnette is spitting out BB’s at people he detests in the courtroom—egging him on is an unbilled Snub Pollard, who participates in a “wiping-that-smile-off-your-face” routine with the Smilester. For fans only.


Doghouse Riley said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Ivan. I'm gonna go set the DVR.

I feel the same way about Stanwyck. One of my many film heresies is that her casting wrecks The Lady Eve, though she's perfect playing the same role in Ball of Fire, where all-edges-and-elbows isn't so jarring as it is on a cruise ship. God bless Sturges, but he sure did have a time of it casting female leads.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Eve is my least-favorite Sturges film, and for precisely the reason you've stated--Babs is better in Ball of Fire. But I'd parcel out some of the blame towards Henry Fonda; though he was aces in The Grapes of Wrath his other "yokel" roles (Eve, Tales of Manhattan, The Magnificent Dope) are positively embarrassing to sit through today.

Scott C. said...

When a young girl (Mary Jane Irving) falls off a staircase and dies during a melee between Atheist and Christian students

I suppose this is just further confirmation that I'm basically a bad person, but that's is the funniest thing I've read all day. Just something about those wacky collegiate fads of the 1920s that cracks me up...

Pam said...

Gee... I like the Lady Eve.

You have a new picture!