Thursday, November 19, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #45 (De Havilland Sisters edition)

(Warning: spoilers contained herein)

Hard to Get (1938) – I had to program the DVD player to grab this one since TCM decided to show it at the same time most night auditors are eating dinner/lunch/whatever. It’s fairly standard stuff; Olivia De Havilland plays Margaret “Maggie” Richards, a pampered heiress who storms out of her family’s palatial manse in a huff (or maybe it was a minute and a huff), stops off at a gas station to refuel the valet’s automobile and finds herself with insufficient funds—prompting manager Bill Davis (Dick Powell) to seize her up as a deadbeat and ordering her to work off her debt by cleaning up the onsite bungalows (it doubles as an auto camp). The haughty Maggie, incensed at the treatment she received, decides to get revenge on Davis by dating him—passing herself off as the family maid instead of the spoiled little rich girl. (Yeah, I don’t quite get the “revenge” aspect of this film, either.) Aspiring architect Davis’ ambition is to build a chain of auto courts across the U.S., so Maggie sends him to see her blustery millionaire father (Charles Winninger)—who, in turn, fobs Davis off on his investment partner (Thurston Hall), who gives Bill “the treatment.” Bill eventually gets wise to Maggie’s ruse and tells both her and her old man off—but by this time, Dad and his partner have seen some merit to Davis’ auto camp plans and the two men vie against one another to buy his idea. And yes, after a series of misunderstandings Bill and Maggie tie the knot and (presumably) live happily ever after.

There’s nothing in Hard to Get that you haven’t already seen elsewhere but this movie benefits tremendously from first-rate casting and offbeat characterizations. As a rule, I prefer to watch Powell in movies where a black pool opens up at his feet and he dives in…but he demonstrates a nice sense of whimsy (something he put to good use on his Richard Diamond radio series) and a flair for comedy—his attempts to get in to see Hall are pretty funny (the first attempt, he’s shown to an “outer office,” which consists of a skinny ledge outside the building, a rope and a sign that informs him that the office exit is a choice of jumping or climbing down the rope), particularly when he disguises himself as a telegram messenger, window washer and charwoman. Livvy’s character is a bit hard to take at first (she was sort of typecast in her career at this point), but she gradually softens up and even gets an opportunity to clown a bit as “the maid” in a sequence where Powell’s character gets invited to dinner.

It’s the supporting cast that really shines, though—Winninger is hysterical as Livvy’s old man (“Flying buck timbers!”) who is constantly engaged in a game of one-upmanship with his valet, the marvelously deadpan Melville Cooper (towards the end of the film, when Winninger must take a traveling girder to the forty-fifth floor to talk with Powell about his auto camp idea, Cooper backs him to the hilt by remarking “I shall be watching you with great trepidation, sir”—little realizing that he, too, is going along). Penny “Blondie” Singleton is a genuine hoot as the real maid (“As the saying goes…”), who’s talked into impersonating De Havilland’s character and whose attempts at being refined and genteel are positively side-splitting (she muses about the folly about escaping the heat by vacationing by observing “You can perspire in one place as good as another”). (I especially enjoyed Powell’s assessment of Singleton’s character: “She should be parked on Edgar Bergen’s other knee.”)

Other standouts in the cast include Allen Jenkins as Powell’s sidekick and Grady Sutton as Winninger’s lackey, plus you’ll also spot familiar faces like Arthur Housman, Jimmy Conlin, Chester Clute, Irving Bacon and Granville Bates. Isabel Jeans and Bonita Granville are introduced at the beginning of the movie as Livvy’s overbearing mother and snooty sister—but for some reason they disappear during the course of the film and aren’t reintroduced until the climax…a major misstep on the part of the screenwriters, I think. With Powell in residence, I was surprised that he only sings two songs—one of which is a rendition of Sonny Boy (and for those of you put off by these things, he does “black up” like Al Jolson); but when the other is the Johnny Mercer-Harry Warren standard You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby I guess there’s not much point in shoehorning in any additional tunes (Powell also warbles Mercer-Warren’s There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation a cappella, too).

Born to Be Bad (1950) – The spotlight now shifts to Livvy’s equally famous sibling, Joan Fontaine, as Joanie plays Christabel Caine—a scheming manipulator and bitch-on-wheels that makes Eve Harrington look like a kindergartener. Christabel is invited to be the houseguest of Donna Foster (Joan Leslie), a woman who works for her publisher uncle John Caine (Harold Vermilyea), and has no sooner crossed the threshold when she sets her cap for Donna’s fiancé, wealthy Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott). Christabel is smart enough to have a Plan B in action—she’s also making time with aspiring novelist Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), a man who may have an endless reservoir of writing talent but is thick as a plank when it comes to judging women (though he does remark to Christabel: “I love you so much I wish I liked you”). Christabel achieves success in busting up Donna and Curtis’ impending nuptials, marrying the millionaire herself but discovering that money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness (although I’ve always maintained you can rent it)…so she hooks up with Nick upon his return (he’s been away plugging his book) but he refuses to dally any further unless she gives Curtis the air. The problem for our nasty little heroine is that she wants to eat her cake and have it, too—but that problem is alleviated when she tells Curtis the reason why she stole away from a lodge they were vacationing at was that she was looking after her seriously-ill aunt (Virginia Farmer)…then Uncle John arrives on cue to inform her that Auntie drew her rations at the same time she was supposed to be visiting. Curtis drops her like a bad habit—but surprisingly, Christabel lands on her feet like the cat she is…walking away with a backseat crammed with furs and presumably off to spread more mischief.

Often considered a film noir by its admirers, I think Born to Be Bad is a bit sudsy to qualify for noir status but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining; well-directed by Nicholas Ray, the film’s only blemish is that it’s a tad overheated at times (the movie itself is a goldmine for parody—I think Carol Burnett even did a takeoff on this at one time on her variety show) and a bit difficult to take too seriously. Fontaine is an unrepentant bitch and seems to be having the time of her life (though she appears to have been worked on by the same hairdresser who did Ann Sheridan’s coiffure in Woman on the Run [1950]), deftly managing not to make her machinations too obvious (or it could be that the males in this movie are just unbelievably dense). Leslie does an admirable job in what is essentially a thankless role (she even disappears from the story midway, having run off to Europe after splitting with Scott) and Scott, usually cast as a cad and/or bounder, acquits himself nicely in a rare good guy part.

I have to confess, though, that I initially watched Bad for Robert Ryan—who despite his good-guy status manages to be a little menacing (particularly in his first encounter with Fontaine’s character) and a bit on the narcissistic side (“If I play my cards right, she could win me”). But it’s Mel Ferrer who steals most of the proceedings as gay artist Gabriel “Gobby” Broome, who plays the role of Fontaine’s confidant and has this priceless exchange with a guest at a ball thrown by the Careys:

FEMALE GUEST: Do you think my husband would like a picture of me hanging above the fireplace?

GOBBY: I think your husband would like you hanging anywhere.

Ferrer also has a funny line in which he explains away his hangover with “I must have got hold of a bad ice cube.”

One of the interesting facets of Bad is that while Christabel doesn’t get away with all her scheming (the censors sort of saw to that) she does manage to walk away hale and hearty and ready to plot another day—contrast this with Bette Davis’ Stanley in In This Our Life (1942) who, when it’s discovered that she was the one responsible for the hit-and-run accident that killed a child and that she tried to pin in on one of her family’s servants, cracks up her car to avoid any further repercussions. Born to Be Bad had a long history at R-K-O—it was originally slated for production in 1946 (with Henry Fonda in the Ryan role) but was cancelled only to be resurrected two years later as Bed of Roses, with Barbara Bel Geddes playing Fontaine’s part. R-K-O head Howard Hughes didn’t care much for Bel Geddes’ interpretation and insisted that Fontaine be cast (Joanie was a more bankable presence) over the objections of producer Dore Schary. (Apparently this was one of the reasons Schary jumped ship and moved to M-G-M.)

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1 comment:

Laura said...

I loved BORN TO BE BAD -- at times the music was too much, really underlining the melodrama, but what fun!

The movie was really somewhat surprising for 1950 in multiple ways: Fontaine getting off easily at the end, Ferrer's character "type" being fairly obvious, and a couple of the scenes with Ryan and Fontaine were quite torrid.

I'm looking forward to catching up with HARD TO GET. Thanks for the preview!

Best wishes,