Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Crazy over Maisie

Yesterday, TCM ran a marathon of eight films from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Maisie series—a popular film series from 1939 to 1947 that starred glamour gal Ann Sothern as a bold-as-brass Brooklyn showgirl whose frequent forays into unemployment often put her in the center of wacky adventures as she toiled in odd jobs. There were ten Maisie films in all, the first coming in 1939 as an adaptation of Wilson Collison’s novel Dark Dame, which MGM had originally purchased as a property for their platinum blonde beauty Jean Harlow. Harlow’s untimely death in 1937 naturally necessitated a change in plans, and it was decided to star Sothern (newly acquired from RKO) in the role of burlesque performer Mary Anastasia O’Connor…better known by her stage name, Maisie Ravier.

It’s evident when watching the first film, Maisie, that MGM hadn’t given much thought to a film series because Sothern doesn’t even receive top billing (that honor goes to her leading man, Robert Young) and at the film’s conclusion, Sothern and Young make plans to tie the knot. Truth be told, Maisie isn’t really all that inspired; it’s a flat comedy that finds its title character stranded in Wyoming (a theater job falls through) and meeting up with Charles “Slim” Martin (Young), the manager of a dude ranch owned by wealthy Clifford Ames (Ian Hunter). Maisie manages to wangle a job at Rancho Clifford, and she and Slim get along like oil and water (Slim reveals that a former girlfriend ripped out his heart and stomped that sucker flat, which is why he treats all women like smallpox)—but gradually a romance develops to the point where she must come to the rescue of Slim when he’s accused of murdering Ames (who actually committed suicide when he learned of the dalliances of unfaithful wife Sybil, played by Ruth Hussey—there’s a prophetic name for you). Maisie was conceived and produced as a second feature—commonly referred to in the movie bidness at that time as a “B” film—but those familiar with MGM know that they rarely made B-films insomuch as they made A- films. (An MGM B-film, with its trademark gloss and superior production values, would be considered an A film practically everywhere else.)

The next year saw a sequel to Maisie in Congo Maisie (1940), and one can only guess that MGM assumed audiences had forgotten about the denouement of the previous film because our heroine is out-and-about again, this time missing a show date at a remote village a few miles up from an African seaport. She’s stowed away on a river barge (after escaping from her hotel, too broke to pay her rent) where she’s soon discovered by Michael “Doc” Shane (John Carroll)—who reluctantly ends up having Maisie tag along when he’s forced to abandon ship, and he helps her get to a nearby medical research “station.” Shane, once in the employ of a major rubber company (based, from the dialogue, in West Virginia—which made me chuckle slightly) and former manager of the station, tendered his resignation when he grew tired of kowtowing to the powers-that-be; his position has been taken over by Dr. John “Jock” McWade (Shepperd Strudwick), assisted by his wife Kay (Rita Johnson). McWade is researching a cure for sleeping sickness, and his duties so preoccupy him that Mrs. McWade is starting to check out the available local talent…in this case, Old Doc Shane. Maisie, thank Heaven, is there to set the McWade woman straight.

Sharper TDOY readers are probably saying right now: “Gosh all fishhooks, Iv—that sounds a lot like the plot to Red Dust (1932)”…and you would, of course, be right. Congo Maisie is basically a reworking of the John Ford-directed film (why else would Carroll—“the poor man’s Gable”—be in it?) and as long as you don’t compare the two movies (it also helps if you haven’t seen the original), Congo is actually a very entertaining B…er, A- film. Sothern seems to have gotten a firm handle on her character, and her buoyant performance really keeps things moving—she’s got a dandy of a scene in which she helps Carroll fight off a band of hostile natives by dressing up in one of her show costumes (a pretty smokin' hot number in itself) and performing magic tricks to convince them she’s a witch. Sothern and Carroll’s characters move in for a clinch at the film’s conclusion—but considering how the Sothern-Young romance worked out in film #1 it’s a safe bet he’s not going to be around for Maisie III ("...this time, it's personal...").

Gold Rush Maisie (1940) was released in the same year as the previous film, and is one of the real letdowns of the series. Ostensibly Maisie and the Grapes of Wrath, our showgirl heroine befriends a poor Arkansas family who’ve traveled to Arizona in search of gold and Maisie agrees to partner up with the family patriarch (John F. Hamilton), much to the consternation of local rancher Bill Anders (Lee Bowman), who sees the family (and hundreds like them) as a pack of fools (the ghost town was previously "mined out" eons ago). Gold Rush didn’t really work for me for a lot of reasons, chiefly because I didn’t find Bowman too convincing as a hardscrabble rancher (Bowman’s cinematic specialty was callow, self-absorbed playboys) and the movie’s reliance on a large “cute child actor” quotient (Virginia Weidler, Our Ganger Scotty Beckett). It is worth noting that at the end of this picture, Maisie does not end up engaged to anybody…perhaps a sign that MGM was committed to making more of these movies.

Maisie Frolic Number Four, Maisie Was a Lady (1941), is a superior entry in the long running series—and in some ways may be the best, thanks to a particularly engaging cast and better-than-usual plot. Maisie gets her walking papers from a carnival (she was working there as “the headless woman”) when an inebriated Lew Ayres (on loan from MGM’s Dr. Kildare series) reveals that she has a perfectly good head. Our heroine borrows Ayres’ car to head back to town, but she’s stopped by a motorcycle cop and arrested when she can’t prove that Ayres loaned her the car (he’s unable to recall the previous night’s series of events). The judge (Will Wright) who hears Maisie’s case has grown weary of Ayres’ constant alcoholic fog and orders him to find her work to pay for the two months’ wages she would have received were she still employed by the carnival. He decides to take on Maisie as a domestic and ferries her out to his family’s palatial estate, where she finds herself having to contend with his screwed-up sister (Maureen O’Sullivan), their absentee father (Paul Cavanaugh) and a gaggle of Sis’ hanger-on friends (two of which are played by Hillary Brooke and Hans Conried). O’Sullivan is engaged to a wanker (Edward Ashley) who’s only interested in her for her money; he then runs off and she tries to commit suicide with a bottle of poison. I know this story sounds extremely grim (and it is), but Maisie’s plain-talking common sense (she really rips Ayres and O’Sullivan’s old man new ones) and the performances really make this a winner. (Again—a B-film at MGM with O’Sullivan, Ayres and C. Aubrey Smith? The mind boggles.) I liked Ayres’ character here (he reminds me of the weak-willed brother he plays in Holiday) and Smith is first-rate as the family’s devoted for O'Sullivan, all she has to do is stand there and be as lovely as she always was. Ayres and Sothern’s characters hook up at the end…but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where that’s going.

Since TCM decided to leave Ringside Maisie (1941)—a boxing vehicle that stars Sothern, George Murphy, Robert Sterling (who would wed co-star Sothern two years later) and TDOY fave Virginia O’Brien—off its schedule, let’s soldier on to Maisie Gets Her Man (1942). Man is an unusual Maisie outing; Sothern shares star billing with Red Skelton (which is a great indicator of the comedian’s stock at MGM at that time; his Raleigh Cigarette radio program would frequently refer to him as “MGM’s star clown”), playing a staggeringly unfunny comic determined to make it in the biz. When his stage debut fizzles, he winds up working for businessman Lloyd Corrigan—but Corrigan is really a con man who hastily beats a retreat out of town and leaves Skelton holding the bag…naturally, Maisie must come to his rescue.

What makes Man so offbeat is that although it was clearly planned as a comedy—it’s really not all that funny. This might be due to the fact that comedy is subjective (what makes me laugh isn’t necessarily what makes you laugh)…or the fact that comedy really wasn’t MGM’s forte—but even though I’ve sat through some dud Skelton films at the very least there was one moment in them where I laughed out loud. (His character, “Hap” Hixby, comes across as thoroughly obnoxious—something that Buster Keaton warned his old crony Edward Sedgwick about when working on Skelton’s best screen comedy, A Southern Yankee [1948].) Based on past experiences, I’m guessing that Skelton may be awful on purpose…and if that’s the case, he’s certainly a better actor than I thought. But there’s a great supporting cast of comedy veterans—Leo Gorcey, Allan Jenkins, Donald Meek, Walter Catlett, Fritz Feld, Ben Welden, Rags Ragland—on board…and they’re not funny, either. (Jenkins is a real disappointment, playing the manager of a rundown building with offices rented by deadbeats as more melancholy than merry.) Sothern does perform a sprightly little wartime musical number (Cookin’ With Gas) that lightens things up a tad—but this comes toward the movie’s end, where it’s too little too late.

Fortunately enough for Maisie, the series took an enormous upswing with Swing Shift Maisie (1943), an entertaining outing that finds our heroine abandoning her dog act and giving her all to the war effort by getting a job at a defense plant…even though the methods she devises to secure employment will come back to bite her in the ass as the movie skips along to its climax and conclusion. Maisie romances pilot Brian “Breezy” McLaughlin (I get the feeling that the caliber of Maisie’s boyfriends was proportional to the number of actors not in the service at the time; James Craig is clearly “the poor man’s John Carroll”), who in the course of the plot is inducted into the armed services…leaving behind fiancée Iris Reed (Jean Rogers), a conniving little hussy (she sort of stole Breezy away from Ms. Ravier) who accuses Maisie of “sabotage” at the airline plant to keep her from spilling the beans to Breezy about what a tramp his intended is. Rogers’ villainy is strictly cardboard, but it’s all fun in a WW2-propaganda-sort-of-way; this may be the only other film I’ve seen that features the Wiere Brothers (the musicians in Road to Rio that Crosby and Hope try to pass off as Americans—“You’re in the groove, Jackson!”)—and the supporting cast also showcases Connie Gilchrist, John Qualen, Kay Medford, Pierre Watkin…and if you look quickly enough: Kirk Alyn, Jim Davis, John Hodiak (the leading man in the next Maisie film) and Don Taylor.

Maisie Goes to Reno (1944) is probably half-a-notch below Swing Shift in the Maisie pantheon, but it’s still a serviceably entertaining vehicle for the always vivacious Sothern (who gets to do another fun musical number, Panhandle Pete, in this one) and one of the few Maisies that attempts a little continuity between the films in the series. As Reno opens, Maisie is still working in the defense plant (although admittedly if it’s the same one from the previous picture it seems to have shrunk a little) and the company doctor prescribes a two-week vacation for our heroine due to her irritability and a “winking” reflex she can’t seem to control (this running gag is prevalent through Reno; it reminds me of a similar joke in the Vera Vague short Doctor, Feel My Pulse). Maisie ends up making a deal with an old bandleader buddy (Chick Chandler) in which she’ll accept a gig singing in his band while they play out two weeks in Reno; she lucks into getting a ticket (is this trip really necessary?) but Army sergeant Bill Fullerton (Tom Drake) wants to buy it from her so he can stop his wife Gloria (Ava Gardner) from completing their divorce proceedings. Circumstances intervene to stop Fullerton from making the trip, so he convinces Maisie to act as his proxy in scotching the divorce—but she runs afoul of the woman’s secretary (Marta Linden) and business adviser (Paul Cavanaugh again), who are in cahoots to steal Ava’s fortune. If you’re wondering how John Hodiak (who was Martin Landau before Martin Landau) fits into the picture, he’s a blackjack dealer named “Flip” Hennahan who wants to help Maisie out…except he’s convinced she’s got a screw loose. Sothern and Hodiak get together at the end of Reno—but it’s interesting to note that this is the only Maisie film I’ve seen where Sothern’s character acknowledges that her romantic track record isn’t much to write home about; she mentions a previous beau—a pilot who was mesmerized by “the native sights…in Dallas"—a reference to the James Craig character in the previous Swing Shift Maisie.

When radio’s Lux Radio Theatre broadcast an adaptation of Maisie Was a Lady over CBS November 24, 1941 (with Ann Sothern, Lew Ayres and Maureen O’Sullivan reprising their original film roles), the groundwork was laid to bring Maisie to radio on a regular basis—and that also got started on the Tiffany network beginning July 5, 1945 as a half-hour situation comedy sponsored by Eversharp. In the CBS version, Maisie served as secretary to an unsuccessful attorney—sadly, the series lasted only two years and as of this writing, no episodes are known to exist. Maisie fared a bit better as a radio property two years later in a syndicated series (which hewed more to the plots of the original MGM films, with Maisie an out-of-work Jane-of-all-trades) produced as part of MGM’s commitment to getting into the radio business. (The Adventures of Maisie series, after its initial run on WMGM radio, was syndicated to local stations—but it was also heard over Mutual for a brief period in 1952.) The 1949-53 Maisie series was fortunate to feature many distinguished personalities from “Radio Row” in its casts; OTR veterans like Hans Conried, Sheldon Leonard, Lurene Tuttle, Bea Benaderet and Frank Nelson, among various others.

With Maisie having established a beachhead on network radio, the movie series continued on with 1946’s Up Goes Maisie. It is probably at this point that the Maisie series began to reach its nadir, with Sothern’s character becoming a private secretary (hey—that’s got a familiar ring) to inventor George Murphy (and keep in mind, it’s a real stretch to see Murphy as anything but a second-rate vaudeville hoofer—the next thing you’ll be telling me is that he’ll run for the U.S. Senate), whose revolutionary helicopter has attracted the attention of crumbum Stephen McNally (billed here as Horace) and the father-daughter team of Paul Harvey (not the newscaster) and the beautiful-but-evil Hillary Brooke. There’s really not much to recommend in Up Goes Maisie, though there’s a funny scene where Sothern gets potted at a koffee klatsch luncheon thrown by Brooke for Maisie’s engagement (Barbara Billingsley is the gal pal who scolds Brooke for getting Sothern juiced) and an interesting bit where Maisie, trying to manipulate the controls of Murphy’s invention, has a brief conversation with a cleaning woman in a skyscraper office…said woman is played by Connie Gilchrist, who was Maisie’s landlady in Swing Shift Maisie (it would have been clever to link the two characters together…but I guess the MGM writing staff wasn’t up to the task). Up Goes Maisie boasts your usual professional grouping of character greats in support of the leads: Ray Collins, Jeff York, Murray Alper, John Eldridge…and in uncredited bits, Jim Davis and Glenn Strange.

Undercover Maisie (1947) was the final film of the Maisie series—and since it, too, was left off the TCM lineup yesterday (and because I’ve not seen it) I will refrain from commenting on it. As to why the venerable classic movies cable channel deemed it worthy of a festival I know not—I thought it might be in conjunction with Sothern’s birthday but that’s January 22nd (and will feature Sothern favorites like Walking on Air, Super Sleuth, Panama Hattie and Cry 'Havoc'). Since I’d never seen any of the Maisie films it was a real treat to watch TCM yesterday; overall I think it was a pretty good film series, with the bright, vivacious Sothern always a treat for the eyes. I was particularly amused by the fact that the MGM studio seemed to go out of its way to never present the Maisie character in a negative light; the divine Miss R (for Ravier) rarely imbibed in her films (save for Up Goes Maisie and Maisie Gets Her Man, for comic effect…and I think she takes a snort in Congo Maisie)…preferring libations of the root beer/lemonade variety instead. (I can see her now, kicking back some Minute Maid with Andy Hardy and his family.) A fine B-movie series that gets an A- from me.


Bill Crider said...

I saw a couple of these last year (SWING SHIFT was one) and enjoyed them quite a bit. Maybe not knee-slappers, but certainly cheerful smile inducers.

Pam said...

I've been waiting for the time to read this since you posted it. And worth the wait. A very enjoyable entry.

Matt ( said...

Cool post, Ivan! I shoulda linked to this in my mishmash yesterday ...