Sunday, February 15, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #22 (31 Days of Oscar edition)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – TCM rolled this one out last week as a “premiere” (someone at Turner must have cut a deal with 20th Century-Fox to start showing some of their product) and since it had been a while since I’d seen it (I’m not 100% on this, but it may have been on the once-proud American Movie Classics) I decided to revisit it…only to remember too late the reason why I never watched it again: it is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever sat through. I don’t say this as a bad thing, but Brooklyn will start the tear ducts in motion in a story about young Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) and how her family copes with poverty and her old man’s alcoholism in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. Dorothy McGuire is her hard-as-nails mother, and James Dunn plays her happy-go-lucky lush of a dad who never amounts to anything except as an ambassador of good will to the neighborhood and the undying adulation of Francie. Great cast in this film directed by Elia Kazan (his feature debut) and written by Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger and (uncredited) Anita Loos from Betty Smith’s novel; the always-welcome Joan Blondell plays McGuire’s carefree younger sister (though it seems at times she’s the older of the two…and I don’t just mean their real-life ages), and Lloyd Nolan shines as the neighborhood cop who’s carrying a torch for McGuire but has to work up the courage to say so. (James Gleason is in this one, too—I think there was a federal law mandating that he be in every film with an Irish tinge to the material.) Co-star Dunn nabbed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for what truly is his finest hour onscreen; he was popular back in the 1930s in many of Fox’s B-musicals (he appeared in several Shirley Temple vehicles, like Baby Take a Bow and Bright Eyes) but his career sort of came to a standstill after that…Brooklyn was sort of a comeback for the actor (like his character, Dunn had a problem with the bottle as well) but although he continued to work steady in films and television he never really regained his momentum. He’ll definitely make your peepers spring “Niagara Falls” in his scenes with Garner, though.

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) – I’ve seen the 1920 silent version with John Barrymore and the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy—I’ve even seen variants of the tale, like the interesting gender-bender Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971)—but Thursday night was the first time I’d ever sat down to watch the one that earned Fredric March the Best Actor Oscar (tying with Rick Brooks fave Wallace Beery that year, of course). I’m going to have to give the March film the edge here; even though Freddie’s transformation makes him look like a monkey the movie has other notable aspects: some of the cinematography and camerawork (by Karl Struss) is really first-rate, along with Rouben Mamoulian’s sensational direction. (Hyde has a number of truly offbeat scene transitions; my favorite is a shot of Miriam Davies’ leg swinging back and forth along a bed that resembles a pendulum—which is transposed over a conversation between March and Holmes Herbert.) The transformation scenes are also fascinating to watch; layers of makeup were applied to March’s face that would be obscured by a series of filters on the camera…and when the filters were removed, it would subtly show him going into his Hyde-and-seek act. As they used to say at Universal, a good cast is worth repeating: Miriam Hopkins (an actress I’m not normally enamored of, but she really displays some convincing vulnerability here), Rose Hobart, Halliwell Hobbes (channeling his inner C. Aubrey Smith), Edgar Norton and Tempe Pigott are all top-notch.

Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1938) – Two films that I positively enjoyed in my younger movie-watching days have, unfortunately, not held up as well as I had hoped; I think the reason for this is that they concentrate on the special effects (which were eye-popping at that time) for long stretches at a time…and subsequently slowing down the movies for long stretches at a time. (I’m not the kind of person who goes gaga over CGI, preferring the simpler special effects of yesteryear—but even Topper’s FX gets wearisome after a while.) The first stars Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as a happy-go-lucky wealthy couple who end up in ectoplasmic form after cracking up their ride in a car crash, and in order to reach the Pearly Gates they must perform a good deed: so they decide to help out their henpecked friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) assert himself in his lifeless marriage to Clara Topper (the always delightful Billie Burke). Some of Grant and Bennett’s scenes together are very enjoyable, capitalizing on Grant’s first-rate talents as a farceur; the sequel, Trip, must unfortunately do without Grant (though we’re reminded of his presence in a few flashbacks…which the producers generously thank him for in the opening credits) as Bennett returns to earth to help Topper again when his ship of marriage hits the rocks of divorce. Topper does have a great gallery of character faces in support—Alan Mowbray, Eugene Pallette, Arthur Lake (the first film I ever saw him in where his character’s name was NOT “Dagwood Bumstead”), Hedda Hopper, Virginia Sale and Theodore von Eltz—and as for Trip, Mowbray reprises his butler role and joins the company of Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Alexander D’Arcy, Spencer Charters and Irving Pichel. Whatever my opinion of the two movies is now, I thank the Movie Gods I didn’t have to watch these colorized.

The Awful Truth (1937) – Outstanding screwball comedy classic stars Grant and Irene Dunne as a married couple who plan to divorce when they realize they can’t trust one another…and then end up miserable as a result. Grant romances socialite Molly Lamont while Dunne makes plans to lasso Oklahoma oil man Ralph Bellamy (poor Ralph) and the methods the couple use to sabotage each other’s prospective mates are falling down funny indeed. This has always been one of my favorite Cary Grant comedies—even when he looks like a complete idiot (like falling off a chair at Dunne’s musical recital—I love her “musical laugh” reaction when this happens) he still maintains that Grant suaveness…but Dunne is no slouch, either; impersonating Cary’s ill-bred drunken sister at Lamont’s house where her parents are in attendance, practically stealing the film. Grant and Dunne worked together in three movies, and I think this one is the best—My Favorite Wife (1940) is an overrated comedy and the bittersweet Penny Serenade (1941) has fine performances but features an ending that throws the whole film out of whack. My favorite line in Truth is when the deadpan Cecil Cunningham (as Aunt Patsy) watches Grant chase gigolo Alexander D’Arcy out of Dunne’s apartment and cracks: “He forgot to touch second.” In addition to those previously named, Truth also allows Esther Dale, Joyce Compton, Robert Allen, Robert Warwick and Mary Forbes to display their talents…and yes, that’s Asta of The Thin Man fame as the cuddly-cute “Mr. Smith.”

1 comment:

Sam said...

I know that I have gone over your readers with my distaste for AMC when nothing they show is anywhere near a classic, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are good shows and the network should be lucky and wiping sweat that they got to run them. That being said, I'm glad TCM has the Fox Library, along with the Disney library as well. There are loads of good movies that need a place to run and more and more, TCM is that place.

I also commend TCM for running recent films in their 30 Days marathon later in the night. I think I actually caught Training Day late one night, which shows that maybe ten to twenty years down the line, a movie like that will be looked at as a classic.

One more thing...Good touch this time on Gildy and Birdie this month.