Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #32 (Slacking off on the blog edition)

Well, sister Debbie and company have came and went, and except for a few moments of family ugliness (you know the old adage—familiarity breeds contempt) a good time was had by all. Most of TCM’s output the past few days hasn’t been looked at, more like taped: I’m anxious to get a gander at both Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Mockery (1927) when time permits, but I did manage to revisit two old favorites:

Scaramouche (1952) – TCM’s Star of the Month is Stewart Granger, and while I can’t honestly consider myself a member of his corner (he kind of reminds me of a British Clark Gable…although I’ll readily confess that’s a little too harsh) he did appear in a number of films that I thought were first-rate: King Solomon's Mines (1950), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), North to Alaska (1960), The Secret Invasion (1964), etc. (all of which with the exception of Alaska will be shown on TCM this month) and starred on TV’s The Virginian in its final season (1970-71) when it was re-christened The Men From Shiloh. But this film, an action-packed swashbuckler based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini (and previously filmed as a silent picture in 1923, a DVD-R of which is available through the Warner Archive), is definitely my favorite and arguably his best. Granger is Andre Moreau, a happy-go-lucky bastard nobleman who cares very little about the political situation of the day (it’s just the French Revolution, that’s all) but begins to develop a social conscience when his best friend/surrogate brother Philippe de Valmorin (Richard Anderson) is killed by the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer) after de Maynes discovers Philippe is in actuality Marcus Brutus—author and distributor of a pamphlet that’s rousing the “rabble” into open revolt. Branded a traitor by the Marquis, Moreau hides out in a theatrical troupe and masquerades as the clownish comedian of the film’s title (which also allows him to romance his long-suffering girlfriend, played by a never-more-beautiful Eleanor Parker) while trying to keep an eye on the equally lovely Aline de Gavrillac de Bourbon (Janet Leigh).

Scaramouche is a favorite film of mine for several reasons: its source material is wonderfully written, with plot twists and turns that will definitely have you wondering what’s around the corner. Both Parker and Leigh are drop-dead-gorgeous in this, decked to the nines in breathtaking finery but at the same time playing independent, admirable females that are surely ahead of the story’s time period. I think director George Sidney was the right choice to direct Scaramouche; normally associated with splashy, colorful musicals (The Harvey Girls, Show Boat) Sidney treats the movie as if it were a musical (the scenes that feature the performing troupe seem only one step away from someone breaking out in song). But what I really enjoy about the movie is that Granger’s sword heroics are nowhere near evident at the beginning; the subplot has our hero attempting to learn how to handle a sword from the man (John Dehner) who taught de Maynes (I love how Dehner’s character is reluctant to take on Granger as a pupil until he learns that “Marcus Brutus” is Granger’s friend) and when that is finished, he moves on to the man (Richard Hale) who taught Dehner. When the climactic swordfight takes place (nearly ten minutes long, and rumored to be the longest in cinema history), we see Granger’s Moreau confidently take on Ferrer’s de Maynes, with a self-assurance missing from their earlier encounters. Absolutely brimming with entertaining moments from start to finish, Scaramouche is a must-see if by some odd chance you’ve avoided seeing it all these years—it includes cameos from the usual suspects: Elisabeth Risdon, John Litel (a doctor in this one), Henry Corden, Douglass Dumbrille, John Eldredge, and Frank Wilcox. Lewis Stone—the hardest working man at M-G-M—is not only in this film (as Anderson’s father) but appeared in the original playing Mel Ferrer’s role!

Angels in the Outfield (1951) – In his anecdotal history of old-time radio entitled The Great American Broadcast, Leonard Maltin remarks that actor Paul Douglas’ (who in this point in his career worked as a CBS Radio announcer) “bombastic personality never won him any popularity contests among his colleagues.” I’ve read similar anecdotes that Douglas remained the same once he made it in Hollywood—and if that is indeed the case, then Paul Douglas may be the best actor in movie history. He pretty much played the same character in every film—a down-to-earth, king-sized galoot who just needed his rough edges sandpapered down a bit—but he was lovable and easy to root for in practically all of his films, including Everybody Does It (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950), Fourteen Hours (1951), We're Not Married! (1952) and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956).

Douglas co-starred alongside Ray Milland in one of my favorite films about baseball, It Happens Every Spring (1949)—and made a cameo appearance in Milland’s Rhubarb (1951), about a bad-tempered feline who inherits a team (of course, Douglas’ better half, Jan Sterling, was in that one, too). But I think Angels in the Outfield is my favorite Douglas film about the Great American Pastime: he’s Aloysius X. “Guffy” McGovern, manager of the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates—who are about to pull themselves out of their slump and benefit from the prayers of a little girl (Donna Corcoran) if Guffy can clean up his act (he receives messages from an angel voiced by an uncredited James Whitmore). Guffy turns over a new leaf, and the Pirates begin their arduous climb out of the cellar—but when the little moppet claims to see “angels” playing beside the Pirates, the story is printed in the papers by household hints editor Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh), causing McGovern no end of grief.

This gentle fantasy-comedy doesn’t play as goopy as you would expect; Douglas’ rough-hewn “bark-is-worse-than-his-bite” character keeps it from getting too soppy…though it’s hard not to fight back a tear when he learns from Whitmore that veteran pitcher Saul Hellman (a marvelous, understated performance from Bruce Bennett, a.k.a. Herman Brix) will soon be playing on Whitmore’s team. (Douglas insists on leaving Bennett in the final game needed to clinch the pennant despite the pitcher’s exhaustion; when Bennett comes victoriously back to the dugout Douglas looks up and says quietly: “You’re gettin’ a good man.”) A top-notch supporting cast makes this sleeper shine, including Spring Byington (as a Sister Superior—which would make her a “December Bride of Christ,” I’m guessing), Keenan Wynn (as a boorish sports announcer), Lewis Stone (he’s everywhere!), Marvin Kaplan, Ellen Corby (also a nun), King Donovan, Barbara Billingsley (as a hat check gal), OTR vets Lawrence Dobkin (as a rabbi!) and Tudor Owen (as a priest) and a few surprise guests (I’ll keep most of these secret…but I’d love to know what was left of Ty Cobb’s appearance on the cutting room floor). Caution: This film was remade in 1994 by the Disney folk, and apart from featuring Ben Johnson (who’s always welcome in any film) was completely and totally unnecessary. Stick with the original; you’ll be glad you did.


Bill Crider said...

I saw all those baseball movies and SCARAMOUCHE in the theater when I was a little kid and loved them all.

Laura said...

I love SCARAMOUCHE -- that's a great point about the development of Andre's sword skills. Loved Dehner in this -- seeing him was so unexpected that for a split second I didn't recognize him. :)

Mel Ferrer talks in a brief DVD interview about how they did the fencing themselves and he learned how to do it as a dance, because he had done some dance work previously -- this ties in with your comment about it being almost a musical. Interestingly, Sidney also directed Gene Kelly's THREE MUSKETEERS, another "almost musical."

Have to catch up with RHUBARB and ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD! I checked IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN off my "baseball movie" checklist this spring, at least!

Best wishes,