Monday, March 23, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #24 (Barbara Bel Geddes edition)

I didn’t get much accomplished this weekend, and my television activity was kept to a minimum (I know, I was just as surprised as you), but Friday night rolled out a three-feature film festival featuring one of my favorite actresses, Barbara Bel Geddes.

The Long Night (1947) – I have a copy of this in the first Film Noir box set released by Kino (which also contains Behind Locked Doors, Hangmen Also Die!, Railroaded! and Sudden Fear) but I’ve never gotten around to opening it…and having watched it on TCM, I’m not in any immediate hurry to release it from its cellophane prison. Henry Fonda is a blue-collar shlub who croaks oleaginous magician Vincent Price and while waiting for the cops to come in after him, experiences many flashbacks of how he came to meet and fall in love with girl friend Bel Geddes (in her film debut) and how Price threatened to ruin their happiness. If this sounds slightly familiar, it’s because Night is a remake of Le Jour Se Lève, directed by Marcel Carné in 1939—only not nearly as good and cursed with a happy ending that simply doesn’t wash. Still, it’s not nearly as bad as people would have you believe; the performances are very good for the most part, with Price at his smarmiest (“Good heavens, do I have to apologize for superior imagination?”) and the always-welcome Ann Dvorak. There’s also brief bits by Elisha Cook, Jr. (as a blind newsboy!), Charles McGraw, Ellen Corby, Byron Foulger, Mary “Mrs. ‘udson” Gordon, Jack Overman, Ray Teal, Dick Wessel and the ubiquitous Will Wright—who for some reason or another seems to be in every black-and-white movie I’ve watched of late.

Fourteen Hours (1951) – Bel Geddes is only in this one for a smidge, as the ex-fiancée of Richard Basehart—a troubled young man who’s contemplating taking a header off the ledge of a swanky hotel as traffic cop Paul Douglas and others try to talk him out of it. Henry Hathaway directed this nice little nail-biter, with a standout cast that includes Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Robert Keith, Jeffrey Hunter, Howard Da Silva, Martin Gabel, Frank Faylen, Jeff Corey and Grace Kelly (in her film debut). But that’s not all, as they say in TV Land…because the film also contains brief cameos from individuals just starting to make a name for themselves in theater and film: Joyce Van Patten, Janice Rule, John Randolph, Harvey “Why me? Why me all the time?” Lembeck, Brian Keith, Richard Beymer, Ossie Davis, Brad Dexter and John Cassavetes. (You might have to sit through this one twice…the second to play “Spot the Star.”) The only flaw in Hours is—as so typical of Hollywood—the tacked-on happy ending; the real-life individual who inspired the plot actually jumped and died and the movie was to follow suit when the daughter of 20th Century-Fox vice president Spyros Skouras apparently checked out in similar fashion the day of the preview, necessitating the change. (It’s a shame that footage no longer exists.)

I Remember Mama (1948) – Okay, this movie is sloppy with sentiment and will make you weep more than It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—not that I know firsthand or anything…and besides, I had something in my eye—but it features one of Barbara’s best performances, completely convincing as both teenage girl and the young woman who narrates the film. Based on Kathryn Forbes’ novel Mama’s Bank Account (which was turned into a hit play by John Van Druten…and later became a long-running comedy-drama on CBS-TV from 1949-57), it’s a series of touching vignettes featuring the Hanson family, a clan of Norwegian immigrants who are held together by Martha “Mama” Hanson (Irene Dunne), the no-nonsense but kindly and loving matriarch. There are so many wonderful moments in director George Stevens’ classic that it’s impossible to describe them all, but my particular favorites are Mama’s attempts to be with daughter Dagmar after her ear operation even though she’s forbidden to visit her in hospital according to the rules and the resurrection of a “dead” cat. A simply marvelous cast is at work here: Oscar Homolka (as Uncle Chris, the head of the family), Philip Dorn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Barbara O’Neill, Florence Bates, Hope Landin, Edith Evanson—but the OTR fan in me loves the fact that Rudy Vallee (as the family’s doctor) and Edgar Bergen are in this film because it was Vallee that paved the way for ventriloquist Bergen’s success on radio. Bergen also gets to romance Ellen Corby (as Aunt Trina), who enjoys her finest hour onscreen here (“If Sigrid and Jenny laugh at me, I’ll yump in the bay!”); she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and the sentimentalist in me likes to think that the appearance of Bergen and Corby in The Waltons “pilot,” The Homecoming (1971) is a glimpse of how their marriage from Mama worked out.


Cullen Gallagher said...

I'm also a big Barbara Bel Geddes fan. I felt similarly about LONG NIGHT, and also really liked 14 HOURS. I haven't seen MAMA yet, but have it taped and waiting.

My favorite films with Barbara are Caught, Vertigo, and Blood on the Moon.

Kate Gabrielle said...

I also watched the Barbara Bel Geddes marathon the other night-- although I'm not a huge Vincent Price fan, I actually liked The long Night a lot. Happy endings don't actually bother me that much. Since I know the whole thing is a movie anyway, I don't expect it to be too realistic. That's a real shame about the story behind 14 hours... I kind of wish Robert Osborne had told us!