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 (
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
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
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  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 …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,