Monday, December 7, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #47 (R.I.P. Arnold Laven edition)

I still have a project or two I’m working on, so it didn’t look as if I was going to be able to get anything up on the blog today…I had planned to squeeze a post out of taking yet another holiday quiz, this time courtesy of Greg Ferrara at Cinema Styles, but that one proved relatively easy to complete. However, I have been able to take a few moments out of the past several days to watch some movies of note…as always, beware of spoilers:

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) – This hardy Christmas chestnut was on Turner Classic Movies yesterday at 6:00am, but I transcribed it to watch at a more convenient time (namely during my dinner break, and I got so wrapped up in it I had to see it from pillar to post). Margaret “Gad, but I’m insufferably cute” O’Brien plays seven-year-old Selma Jacobsen, a young girl of Norwegian heritage growing up in a small Wisconsin hamlet, and the film (based on the 1940 best-seller by George Victor Martin) showcases vignettes of her life and relationship with her younger cousin Arnold (Jackie “Butch” Jenkins) and her parents, played by Edward G. Robinson and Agnes Moorehead. A second plot is interwoven into the narrative, that of the budding relationship between newspaper editor Nels Halverson (James Craig) and schoolteacher Viola Johnson (Frances “Nyoka” Gifford)—Halverson, fervently pro-rural, tries to woo Viola but she’s rather cool to country living…particularly when she sees how the community treats an emotionally disturbed woman (Dorothy Morris). It’s only when Selma commits a selfless act to aid a farmer who’s lost everything in a barn fire that Viola changes her mind and agrees to marry Nels—he’s been drafted but she will wait for his return by continuing to publish the newspaper in his absence.

Okay, I need to establish right off the bat (at the risk of alienating her fan club) that Margaret O’Brien gives me a rash. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me why I don’t care for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) (to which my usual response is: “Because Margaret O’Brien isn’t devoured by wolves”) I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams. That having been said, I do like her performance in Grapes but that’s only because my usual O’Brien enmity was shifted to her co-star Jenkins, a stomach-churning brat who reminds me of Tommy Rettig’s demented younger brother. (I started to puddle up toward the end when O’Brien makes the donation…and if you tell anybody about this I will hurt you.) No, the real reason I tuned into Grapes was, of course, seeing Eddie G. (an actor whom I will watch in anything—one of the major travesties in cinema is that this superlative performer was never…ever…nominated for an Oscar) and getting my gal Aggie was also a nice bonus. As for the supporting players, Craig is his usual coffee-table self—but benefits from being paired with Gifford, who’s positively lovely—and there’s also TDOY faves Morris Carnovsky, Sara Haden, Arthur Space, Elizabeth Russell (whom I wish had more screen time; she’s a major fave), Frances Pierlot and Johnny Berkes. Charles Middleton plays the disturbed girl’s father…and let’s be honest—if the man who played both Ming the Merciless and Pa Stark was your old man; wouldn’t you be a little bughouse, too?

The Talk of the Town (1942) – My favorite Jean Arthur film. That chirpy-voiced gal plays Nora Shelley, a woman who rents out her home to stuffy college professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) just about the time that her friend Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) busts out of the Big House, having been convicted on trumped-up charges of arson and murder. Nora allows Leopold to hide out at Lightcap’s new digs (he’s got a bum ankle) where the nonconformist malcontent (posing as “Joseph,” the gardener) quickly makes fast friends with the professor (at times you’re not entirely sure if this movie isn’t about a romantic relationship between Grant and Colman’s characters) and tries—with Nora’s help—to “thaw out” Lightcap and introduce him to a world beyond musty law books.

I don’t think there are enough words to describe how much I love this romantic/screwball comedy; Colman has a distinct flair for comedy (his character reminds me of the college professor he would later play on radio and television’s The Halls of Ivy—though “Toddy” Hall was a bit more loosened up) and Grant…well, let’s put it this way. He’s supposed to be a fugitive from justice, hiding out in the swamps and wilds of New England…hasn’t had a bath or shower, trying to avoid capture…and he still looks like…well, Cary Grant. But Arthur is the one who always gets my attention; she has this hysterically funny scene where she’s primping in front of a mirror and doing a Kate Hepburn imitation (which comes to a screeching halt when Colman catches her) and her reactions in trying to keep Ronnie from seeing Cary’s picture on the front of the newspaper are priceless. Town has a first-rate supporting cast, too; future TV icon Edgar Buchanan plays Grant’s defense attorney (and has one of my all-time favorite movie quips, referring to Grant’s Dilg: “He’s the only honest man I’ve come across in this town in twenty years…naturally, they want to hang him…”), and there’s also Rex Ingram (as Colman’s devoted manservant—there’s no better way to class up a film than providing a part for Rex, I’ve decided), Glenda “Torchy Blane” Farrell, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Dingle Emma Dunn, Tom “Captain Marvel” Tyler and Don Beddoe…and cameo contributions from William “Whitey” Benedict, Al Bridge, Lloyd Bridges (as a newspaper reporter), Eddie Laughton and Robert Walker.

The Rack (1956) – Adapted by Stewart Stern from the critically-acclaimed television play written by Rod Serling, The Rack relates the tale of Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr. (Paul Newman), a Korean War veteran who’s recently returned to the United States after spending two years in a POW camp. Naturally, this sort of situation would require a tremendous period of adjustment for any solider—but Hall’s case is unusual because charges have been brought before him by another officer (Lee Marvin) that Hall collaborated with the enemy while imprisoned. Prosecuting the case is Major Sam Moulton (played by beloved TDOY loser Wendell Corey) and Hall’s defense will be handled by Lt. Col. Frank Wasnick (Edmond O’Brien, a.k.a. “The Sweatiest Man in Noir”). Moulton is reluctant to take the case out of respect for the senior Hall (Walter Pidgeon), a retired colonel; but feels it’s his duty and during the trial elicits incriminating testimony from Hall, Jr. that presents the soldier in an unflattering light. It’s up to Wasnick to argue that the situation Hall found himself in is rife with an entirely new set of circumstances that the “old rules” simply cannot acknowledge.

At the risk of spoiling this for anyone who’s not seen it—any film that allows O’Brien (perspiration machine he may be) to lose a case to Wendell Corey already has a few strikes against it (though if you stop and think that this is the military deciding the outcome it makes a little bit more sense) but the weakest link in this film is surprisingly Newman, who at this point in his career hadn’t completely shaken off that “all-too-aware-I’m-Method-acting” affectation that had a tendency to ruin the effectiveness of his early film performances. (The Rack was Newman’s third feature film and he comes across as a tad callous and shallow—though you could argue that his character was written that way.) It’s up to the old pros (Corey, O’Brien, Pidgeon) to put this one across; Marvin is also good (though when was he not?) and he didn’t have to attend the Actors Studio to boot. It’s nice to see Anne Francis (as Newman’s sister-in-law) re-teamed with her Forbidden Planet pop (Pidgeon) here, and there are also notable contributions from Cloris Leachman, Stacia fave James Best, Robert Burton, Adam Williams (I’ve seen Williams in a lot of films but North by Northwest [1959] is the one I always remember him for), Trevor Bardette and Barry Atwater. There are also quick bits by Robert “Baretta” Blake, Dean “Disney films” Jones, Rod “The Birds” Taylor and Paul Newlan—who would co-star alongside Marvin as his commanding officer on M Squad. (Last week was, interestingly enough, “Paul Newlan Week” at Rancho Yesteryear—not only did I see him in this movie but I caught him in the Thriller episodes “The Cheaters” and “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.”)

The Rack was directed by Arnold Laven, a journeyman whose other contributions to the silver screen include the interesting noir Down Three Dark Streets (1954), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)—a good flick produced by Albert Zugsmith that I mentioned to Mark Evanier when he asserted that Zugsmith did nothing but trash like High School Confidential! (1958) and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) (Evanier’s since dialed that back a bit, acknowledging that Zugsmith’s only noteworthy credit is Touch of Evil [1958]…but how can you dismiss Slaughter, a film whose cast includes Richard Egan, Jan Sterling, Dan Duryea, Julie Adams, Walter Matthau, Charles McGraw, Sam Levene, Mickey Shaughnessy and Harry Bellaver, ferchrissake?) and the Burt Reynolds western Sam Whiskey (1969). Laven also had a distinguished resume in television, helming episodes of The Rifleman, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The Big Valley, Mannix and The A-Team, to name just a few. (Many of the shows Laven directed were from series associated with Laven’s company, Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions.)

The reason why I’m mentioning Laven is that I discovered that he passed away at the age of 87 in September of this year, and I was completely unaware of this news until I came across the obituary in The Guardian, which I stumbled onto when fact-checking something at the IMDb. R.I.P, Arnold. You will be sorely missed.

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Flickhead said...

Laven also directed the remarkable Without Warning! (1952). Shot mostly on the streets of San Francisco, it stars your man Adam Williams as a killer/gardener (predicting his role in North by Northwest), Edward Binns as the detective on his trail (Binns was the detective investigating Cary Grant's drunk driving stint in North by Northwest), and, briefly, Robert ('Inspector Henderson') Shayne as a police psychologist. Shayne was also in North by Northwest, at the Plaza Hotel luncheon before Cary was kidnapped.

Vince said...

The Noir City Sentinel ran an exhaustive interview with Arnold Laven shortly before his death.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Ray: Thanks for mentioning Without Warning! -- I left it off my list only because I hadn't seen it, but now it sounds like one I have to track down.

Vince: Muchas gracias for the reading material. I'm going to devour this along with my dinner.

Wings said...

I LOVE Our Vines Have Tender Grapes! Such a great, homey flick.

I think everyone in it is great in their roles. And heck, the little boy plays an annoying little cousin/friend pretty dang well!

Great movie.

Tom said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I love Talk of the Town. Still need to see "Tender Grapes".

hobbyfan said...

Ah, yes, Arthur Gardner, Jules LEVY, and Arnold Laven. Quite a troika at Four Star. I was watching Rifleman on RTV over the weekend, and they ran an ep where Laven WASN'T credited alongside his partners. Must've been a first season ep, I thought (w/guest star Richard Anderson). Yes, he did direct quite a few eps of Rifleman, IIRC from my younger days.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Jules LEVY

Must have slipped by the SpellCheck...the correction has been made.

Pam said...

I'm with you on Talk of the Town. A true gem. As to whether it's my favorite Arthur turn... I'm torn between Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier.

Stacia said...

I only skimmed this post to avoid spoilers (I just recorded "The Rack" and haven't sat down to watch it yet) but I notice you call Wendell Corey the TDOY loser. Ha! Is he the official blog loser or just one of many mentioned on these pages? I call him 'Wendell *hic!* Corey' myself, so I think he's the perfect loser mascot.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

There have probably been other notable losers listed on this blog, but for some odd reason Corey just sticks out in my mind. He loses Janet Leigh to Bob Mitchum in Holiday Affair, he prosecutes guilty-as-hell Babs Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordan in the hopes she'll run away with him only to give her up to greaseball Richard Rober...he can't even evact revenge on Joe Cotten for killing his wife in The Killer is Loose.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that I don't like Corey--I do. It's just that he's so ineffectual that after a while I just tabbed him with the "loser" epithet...though I have to confess, I like "Wendell *hic!* Corey" much, much better.

Stacia said...

I love him in "The File on Thelma Jordon" because he is SO SCREWED from the first moment he sees Babs. He's also pretty fun in "Harriet Craig". Tonight I watched "The Rack" and was so pleased to see he only slurred his lines once or twice! Go Wendell!