Sunday, November 22, 2009

Buried Treasures: Come to the Stable (1949)/Mister 880 (1950)

I had originally planned to title this post “Movies I’ve stared at recently that were not on TCM” but I decided that might be pushing it a bit. But that part is true; I watched these two 20th Century-Fox sleepers online, courtesy of As always, there may be a spoiler or two…so don’t say you weren’t warned.

Come to the Stable (1949) – Sisters Margaret (Loretta Young) and Scholastica (Celeste Holm) have just arrived in the small New England town of Bethlehem (from their order in France), where they meet up with a painter (Elsa Lanchester) of religious scenes who has partly inspired them to undertake an ambitious project to build a children’s hospital. The two nuns (I know, it only sounds like I’m telling a joke) find the perfect piece of land for the construction of the facility and charm a gangster (Thomas Gomez) into donating the land by agreeing to install a stained-glass window in memory of his son (killed during the war). They’re hustled into buying a building from a slick real estate agent (Walter Baldwin), which necessitates their raising a fast $5,000 in three months—and the industrious Brides of Christ manage to acquire the hefty down payment by selling jams, jellies, eggs, vegetables and other tchotchkes with the help of their priest (Henri Letondal) and fellow sisters from France. But a nearby neighbor—songwriter Robert Masen (Hugh Marlowe)—threatens to put the kibosh on the whole plan because he’s not all that wild about having a hospital facing his front yard (he’s sort of a NIMFY). Masen has a change of heart just before the closing credits roll, however, and the sisters achieve their dream in a happy ending that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.

Since confession is good for the soul, I’ll come clean and admit that I went into seeing Stable with low expectations—my only real interest was seeing Celeste Holm, one of my very favorite actresses. Suffice it to say, Celeste is as charming as ever—impressively mastering a French accent and stealing most of the scenes she’s in…and that’s no easy task, particularly when she’s sharing the screen with Lanchester. (Holm’s character even plays several rousing sets of tennis in a last-ditch attempt to raise the rest of the hospital money toward the film’s end.) I was very pleased that Stable doesn’t get too sloppy with the sentiment, either; director Henry Koster (who also held the reins on Christmas perennial The Bishop's Wife [1947]) has just the right touch with this sort of whimsy, and the screenplay (by Sally Benson and Oscar Millard, from Claire Boothe Luce’s story) is positively delightful. I can see why Stable often turns up on television at Christmastime (even though it doesn’t take place during Christmas); its plot is not entirely dissimilar to that of The Bells of St. Mary's (1945).

The cast of Stable really puts this picture over: in addition to Holm, Lanchester, Gomez, Basil Ruysdael, Regis Toomey (as a monsignor!) and Mike Mazurki, there are a few familiar character faces (Louis Jean Heydt, Marion Martin, Edwin Max, Wally Brown)—even Young is pretty good…and she’s usually not one of my favorites. (Young and Holm received Best Actress nominations for their roles, with Lanchester nabbing a Best Supporting Actress nom.) My favorite performer in this film, however, is Dooley “Sam” Wilson, who plays Marlowe’s chief-cook-and-bottle-washer—he has a priceless line when Marlowe, who’s been out on the West Coast and out of the loop, asks about the identity of a nun who retrieves a goose from his front yard: “I don’t know, Boss—all them nuns look alike to me.” I’d heartily recommend Stable as both a holiday and family film experience—it’s a shame that a proposed sequel entitled A Spark in the Night (which would have reunited Young and Holm as their characters working in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the bombing) never got off the ground.

Mister 880 (1950) – “Skipper” Miller (Edmund Gwenn), a friendly old codger with a passion for antiques, is also an amateur counterfeiter—but because he only prints (on a press he’s nicknamed “Henry”) what money he needs, his small-potatoes operation has managed to elude Secret Service investigations for nearly a decade (his case is numbered 880—and because of his resourcefulness in avoiding capture, the Treasury boys refer to him as “Mister 880” as a term of respect). The head of the Secret Service branch in NYC (Hugh Sanders) thinks the case needs a fresh perspective, so he brings in hard-nosed agent Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) from Los Angeles and assigns him to the task of finally nailing their prey. Buchanan—whose path will cross several times with that of the Skipper’s—suspects that the counterfeiter may be U.N. interpreter Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire) when two of the phony bills are traced to her; little realizing that the guilty party is working right under his nose (Ann and the Skipper are good friends). Buchanan finally gets his man—but rather than risk losing Ann’s affections (the two become quite chummy during the course of the film) and moved by Miller’s naïveté, he recommends to the judge (Minor Watson) presiding over Miller’s trial that the court be lenient…and the Skipper ends up drawing a year and one day (he’ll be eligible for parole in four months) and a nominal fine of one dollar—the same denomination that the Skipper has been passing during his counterfeit career.

Mister 880 was based on the real-life story of an elderly junkman who printed up the occasional “boodle of queer” to make ends meet, and the role was originally was to be played by character great Walter Huston…but the actor passed away just as filming began. Not to take anything away from Huston, but I think Gwenn was a much better choice—his character, a well-meaning sort who’s not greedy but simply wants to live a smidge more comfortably than he can afford, is so charmingly eccentric it’s almost like he’s channeling his Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Lancaster turns in his usual dependable performance—flashing that patented 100,000 watt smile—but I was really impressed by McGuire’s acting in this one; she exhibits a sort of playfulness that I don’t think I’ve seen in any of her other roles. Of course, as a huge fan of Millard Mitchell—who plays Burt’s sidekick—I simply believe he can do no wrong; there’s a really outstanding scene where he and Lancaster are “baiting the hook” to capture suspect McGuire, with him as a “masher” trying to cuddle up to Dottie and Burt playing the part of her “protector” (this wordless scene is played out in front of a bookstore window).

Others in the cast include Howard St. John, Larry Keating and James Millican—and memorable uncredited assists from Edwin Max (again!), Minerva Urecal, Frank Wilcox and OTR vet Herb Vigran as the Coney Island barker trying to guess McGuire’s weight (he later shows up at Secret Service headquarters as a witness when some of the counterfeit money is discovered…and fingers Lancaster as the culprit!) Mister 880 is perfect lighthearted fare for the whole family, and even contains some subtle satire (the government is unable to bring “Skipper” to justice—even though he’s so inept a counterfeiter he can’t spell “Washington" correctly!) directed at the adults in the audience.

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panavia999 said...

Amazing how those nuns managed to raise enough money with simple grocery items - and before eBay!
"Mr. 880" is a fun movie - but I do think Walter Huston would have been just as good as Gwenn.

Terry Teachout said...

Millard Mitchell--YES!

Kliph Nesteroff said...

Wish I could see these. Oh, well.