Friday, September 4, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #34

Every now and then, Turner Classic Movies will run some movies on their morning schedule that feature titles unfamiliar to me but that either the synopsis or cast suggests it might be worthy of my attention—and on occasion, you can find some wheat amongst the chaff. Here are three films that I recorded and then watched last night, only because I wasn’t up for another go-round of The Magnificent Seven (1960). (Warning: these reviews contain spoilers.)

We Went to College (1936) – Two college chums—Walter Abel and Charles Butterworth—are enticed to attend their alma mater’s homecoming weekend, ostensibly because Abel (who owns a large brick company) wants to get the contract to supply the bricks for a new physics building underway, and he needs to schmooze professor Hugh Herbert and his wife Una Merkel to achieve results. (Butterworth’s job with the firm is never fully explained; he just appears to be Walt’s lackey.) Abel’s wife Edith Atwater encourages him to attend because he’s become a bit of an old stick-in-the-mud…but after Merkel starts flirting with Edith’s hubby she does a complete 180. Merkel is convinced that Abel is going to divorce Atwater and marry her instead, but in the end it was all a simple misunderstanding and College wraps up its sixty-eight minute running time with Hugh turning Una over on his knee and swatting her on the backside with a rolled-up magazine. (Oh, my sides are beginning to ache…)

I kind of had high hopes for College, mostly due to the cast: Butterworth, Herbert, Merkel, Walter Catlett, etc.; but as a rule, it’s a good idea to make sure great character actors have good material—or even material for that matter—to put a movie over. Of the participants, Butterworth fares best (that may be why he gets top-billing); Butterworth supplied first-rate support in films like Love Me Tonight (1932) and Penthouse (1933) but he’s probably better-known today as the inspiration for Daws Butler’s (who used Butterworth’s bewildered and befuddled tones for many of the kings he voiced in the Fractured Fairy Tales segments on Rocky and his Friends) Cap’n Crunch character. Charlie’s got some good material (glancing at Herbert’s bull fiddle he cracks: “I wonder how Ellery tucks that under his chin?”) and also the best scene in the picture when, filled with strong drink and enthusiasm, he gets out on the gridiron during the football game and grabs the ball to run downfield (lateraling to Abel) for a touchdown. This prompts the actor to make an amusing in-joke later on in the film; he tells Abel: “It was as fine a bit of broken field running as I’ve seen since you ran eighty-six yards against Tate.” (Tate is the name of the university where “water boy” Harold Lamb saves the day in Harold Lloyd’s silent classic The Freshman [1925].) The only other laugh-out-loud moment in College is when Abel and Merkel tumble out of a canoe and into an icy-cold lake; Abel asks a boatman: “What makes the water so cold this time of year?” and the man replies dryly: “Falling in.” Otherwise, your enjoyment of this movie will depend a lot on your tolerance for Herbert; the comedian with the fluttery gestures and cries of “Woo woo” was fortunate to make a name for himself by playing comic relief in most of Warner Bros.’ 1930s movie musicals (Footlight Parade, Colleen) but to me he’s an acquired taste (though he does do good work in vehicles like Hook, Line and Sinker, Million Dollar Legs, Diplomaniacs and Hellzapoppin'’). He does have a rather effective moment in the movie where he muses about whether or not he made the right choice in becoming a college professor; this leads to an impromptu singing of their college alma matter by Hugh, Charlie and Walter that comes off as pleasantly sentimental.

Sorority House (1939) – Anne Shirley plays Alice Fisher, a college freshman whose late arrival at stately Talbot College is met with a great deal of indifference (though she does make friends with fellow roommates Barbara Read and Pamela Blake [billed as Adele Pearce]) until she finds herself the object of medical student and bee-em-oh-see Bill Loomis’ (James Ellison) affections; Bill phones up a few of the sororities on campus and tells a teensy white fib that Shirley’s old man (country store grocer J.M. Kerrigan) owns a chain of stores, and the status-conscious alliances begin to inundate our heroine with offers to pledge their groups. Roommate Blake is the one who really wants to hook up with a sorority (the Gammas) but her meddlesome aunt (Elisabeth Risdon) sort of puts the kibosh on that. In the end, Shirley gets a Gamma bid but decides to opt out and remain a GDI with her roommates.

Here’s another flick that I thought would be worth a wade-through—but any time you have a film about sororities and the catfights are kept to a minimum it doesn’t bode well. It’s more of a class-consciousness piece (scripted by Dalton Trumbo from Mary Coyle Chase’s Chi House); Shirley is overwhelmed by the first-rate treatment being offered to her from the various groups and then becomes embarrassed when she learns that they think her father is Daddy Warbucks (Kerrigan even offers to sell his store to one of the “big chains” so that Shirley won’t lack for the initiation fee). I have to admit, I didn’t care much for Ellison as Shirley’s would-be paramour (I personally thought he was a jerk) but he seems to win Kerrigan’s approval at the end of the film, so that Kerrigan’s headache, I suppose. The funniest moment (and that’s unintentionally funny) in the flick is when Blake, despondent that she wasn’t asked to join Gamma, tries to kill herself (the other principals can hear her stirring a spoon in a glass in the bathroom) and Kerrigan rushes in to save her; he begins to slap her around and say “Shhh!” at the same time:

MERLE: But if you don’t belong to a sorority in college, you’re just not anybody

FISHER: Ohhh…well, I guess you can argue on both sides of that…now there was a young fella, not so long ago…he never had a chance to go through college…the way we figure college these days…never cared much about clubs…well, I guess he hadn’t time for ‘em…he had to work too hard…never had much money…and folks begin to figure out that he was a queer kind of duck anyhow…but in the long run, Abe Lincoln turned out pretty well…

MERLE: Oh, that’s silly…I could never be a person like that…

FISHER: Maybe you’re right…but you might become the mother of a person like that…

The preceding dialogue is so goofily stupid (and more than a little sexist) that I’m convinced I’m going to start incorporating Lincoln into all my arguments. (“Sure, I don’t have much memory on this old computer…but neither did ol’ Abe Lincoln, and he turned out pretty well.”) If you’re in the mood for star-gazing, House might be kind of fun (it’s only 64 minutes…though you could argue it seems longer); among the future names appearing in cameos: Chill Wills, Marge Champion, Robert Sterling and Veronica Lake.

A Man to Remember (1938) – Well, all good things come to those who wait; this was the 14-karat gem of yesterday’s movie-viewing. I had marked this on the TCM schedule to remind myself to record it…but then I couldn’t remember why I marked it (I even looked it up in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide and was amazed that it wasn’t listed).

A small-town physician (Edward Ellis) passes away, and during his impressive funeral procession many of the townsfolk comment both pro and con on what he did to deserve such a “fancy” send-off. While the service commences, three of the town’s most “respected” businessmen (John Wray, Granville Bates, Harlan Briggs) meet with an attorney (Charles Halton) to sort out the deceased medico’s financial affairs.

Attorney Halton opens a strong box containing bills and statements from the doctor’s past, and each piece of paper prompts a flashback as to its meaning. Dr. John Abbott was a man dedicated to his profession and though he encountered numerous potholes on his trip down life’s highway, he left this Earth a honored and respected man—particularly in a lengthy segment in which he takes the necessary steps to halt a polio outbreak at the risk of angering the town’s merchants who are depending on the revenue from the annual county fair.

After watching Remember, I “remembered” why I wanted to tape this movie—it’s a remake of an earlier film entitled One Man's Journey (1933), a film telecast on TCM a few months ago (and which I also recorded but have yet to look at). What I did not know was that the 1938 version was for many years a “lost” film; the only surviving print being a 35mm original nitrate print in English (but with Dutch credit and subtitles) that was preserved by the Netherlands Filmmuseum in 2000 and premiered on Turner Classic Movies in April of 2007.

Since I’ve yet to see the original Journey, I’m hesitant to state a preference for one version over the other—but Journey is going to have to really knock my socks off to top Remember; I thought Ellis was positively amazing in the titular role, and it was great to see him have the opportunity to play the lead since my previous experience of seeing him is in character roles like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), The Thin Man (1934—Ellis is actually the titular character, not William Powell) and Fury (1936). Lionel Barrymore plays Ellis’ part in the original and I have a hunch he’s going to chew scenery like nobody’s business.

There are echoes of both Henrik Ibsen (the polio subplot is reminiscent of An Enemy of the People) and Frank Capra (the later It's a Wonderful Life, in which “the richest man in town” is the one who has the most friends) in this film; the screenplay once again written by Trumbo and based on the story Failure by Katharine Havilland-Taylor. Much of its subject matter is remarkably mature for a film of its time period, and I love how Ellis makes Abbott a man to admire and root for without getting sloppy or sticky about it. The only quibble I have with Remember is that because of an unexplained prejudice I have against Lee Bowman (most of the movies I’ve seen him in he’s always playing a callow playboy) his portrayal of Abbott’s son isn’t as effective as I would have liked it to be—and furthermore, he starts macking around with adopted sister Anne Shirley after returning home from studying in Paris. (I know Shirley isn’t Ellis’ biological daughter in this movie—she was left on a doorstep as payment for the doctor’s delivery of her—but having her fall for Bowman in a romantic fashion is still a bit creepy.)

As always, there are some top-notch character actors in support here; Dickie “Pinocchio” Jones plays Bowman’s character at a younger age, and TDOY faves like Dick “Mayor Pike” Elliott, Byron Foulger and Grady Sutton are present and accounted for—Sutton works wonders in a tiny part as a store clerk who’s just completely flummoxed by the fact that Ellis wants to pay a grocery bill with a three-month-old piglet. If you haven’t seen this movie—and I’m sort of surprised TCM showed it the other day with little fanfare—you are in for a rare treat.


Laura said...

I've enjoyed your rundowns this week. I saw the end of SORORITY HOUSE when I recorded it, and it reminded me a lot of TAKE CARE OF MY LITTLE GIRL (1951). Hope it will be worth checking out to take a peek at Champion, Sterling, et al.

A MAN TO REMEMBER is one of those movies I've taped but not caught up with yet. You make it sound very interesting. I kind of like Lee Bowman despite that he so often was the shallow playboy type, because he was the leading man in Rita Hayworth's TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT (1945) which made a huge impression on me when I saw it on the big screen at an L.A. revival theater as a teen. (We went and saw it multiple times!)

You might like to know, if you don't already, that the revised version of Maltin's CLASSIC MOVIE GUIDE is going to be out at the end of March 2010. It should have many more listings -- so many things continue to be made available to us thanks to TCM and DVD -- and the cutoff date will change from 1960 to 1965, which I think is the perfect spot for it to stop, with the dawn of movie ratings. There are often early '60s movies I want to look up and belatedly realize I have to check the "other" Maltin guide (grin).

Best wishes,

MikeOKC said...

Ivan, I absolutely LOVE 'A Man To Remember' myself...great film. However, you MUST see 'One Man's Journey'...if you have that and haven't seen it yet, I'll have to personally make my way to the TDY archives, cue it up and place you in front of the tube with a bucket of popcorn. This is to say I liked 'One Man's Jouney' better than the '38 remake. But, honestly, only slightly. The small differences in the two make it enjoyable to watch them fairly close together, so don't wait too long!

Cullen Gallagher said...

I actually really liked We Went To College. A huge Butterworth fan, I'm always glad to see him in the lead. (Baby Face Harrington, which also had Una Merkel, was certainly better, tough.) I especially liked how, by the second half, no one was ever sober.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Laura: Thanks ever so for zeroing in on the publication date for the new edition of Classic Movies Guide. I had heard it would be released "in the spring" but you provided the info that will allow me to pre-order this must-have volume.

Mike: Truth be told, I had planned to watch One Man's Journey at the same time but I've misplaced the recording and it was too late to look for it. I'm going to try and catch it sometime tomorrow.

Cullen: Well, we at least agree on Butter's worth (groan). He can just walk into the room with that "What the hell is going on?" look and I'm in complete stitches.