Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #25

The Hucksters (1947) – Based on the best-selling novel by Frederic Wakeman (with a screenplay by Luther Davis, Edward Chodorov and George Wells), Hucksters tells the stirring story of radio advertising executive Vic Norman (Clark Gable), a man who accepts a job with a firm run by a human jellyfish named Kimberly (Adolphe Menjou), whose constant kowtowing to client Evan Llewellyn Evans (Sydney Greenstreet, in an unforgettable turn as a man based on the vile, crude president of the American Tobacco Company, George Washington Hill) is enough to turn Norman’s stomach…particularly when he’s forced to do the same. Vic also falls for war widow Kay Dorrance (Deborah Kerr), who’s attracted to him from the get-go (to the point of allowing herself to be a spokeswoman for Evans’ product) but soon after begins to question whether or not he’s making unsolicited advances toward her. (Gable? Oh, really now…) Norman finally sees what sort of man he’s become when he’s ordered by Evans to sign up a third-rate burlesque comic (Keenan Wynn) for a radio program, and finds himself blackmailing his old friend (and Wynn’s agent) Dave Lash (Edward Arnold) to seal the deal. Vic then finds the intestinal fortitude to tell off Evans and at the picture’s end, vows to Kay that he’ll find an advertising job that won’t compromise his integrity (good luck with that, by the way).

I’ve probably mentioned here on the blog in the past that I’m not particularly a huge fan of Clark Gable’s (I can certainly understand his appeal to some of the female population, but his acting skills were negligible at best) so it may come as a big surprise that this is one of the Gable vehicles I really like. Ironically, Gable himself was loathe to do the picture at first (he thought Wakeman’s book was “filthy and not entertainment’) but acquiesced when screenwriter Wells “laundered it up” (he suggested the Dorrance character be a widow, not a still-married woman as in the book and changed Norman’s persona into more of an idealist) a great deal. Despite the soap operatic elements (which is sort of funny, as the product touted in the film is “Beautee Soap”) Hucksters is still an entertaining satire on the radio industry; Greenstreet is incredible as the autocratic sponsor who creates an indelible image onscreen by hocking a loogie on a conference table. Most of the moments I enjoyed in Hucksters are the small ones—my favorite is when Ava Gardner (who plays a nightclub chanteuse named Jean Ogilvie) is listening to soft music on the radio in her apartment…and keeps having to change the station when that obnoxious “Beautee Soap” ad comes on.

The only element in Hucksters that doesn’t work for me is the Gable-Kerr romance; I think Kerr’s character is definitely slumming and, if you really want me to be honest, I think Gable’s chemistry with Ava is a lot more engaging. There are lots of great character actors in this one: Frank Albertson and Douglas Fowley play a pair of scribes assigned to create Wynn’s radio program; Jack Rice sells Gable a tie; Jimmy Conlin is a skeevy hotel manager with Billy “Whitey” Benedict his bellboy…and best of all, George “Joe McDoakes” O’Hanlon as Arnold’s protégé (Arnold doesn’t show up until the last third of the film, which is a shame because I’ve recently developed a new appreciation for him of late). (You’ll also see noir goddess Marie Windsor briefly on a train, but you really have to look quick.) And of course, what film about radio would be complete without the participation of radio actors? Sharp-eared listeners will be able to suss out the unmistakable tones of Lillian Randolph, Cathy Lewis, Joe Kearns and kid actor Henry Blair; John McIntire and John Hiestand are also on hand as announcers.

Callaway Went Thataway (1951) – In the four-year span between the release of Hucksters and this film, the nation has climbed aboard television’s bandwagon—making it the new home entertainment medium of choice. “Smoky” Callaway (Howard Keel) is a has-been B-Western star who’s enjoying renewed popularity via the showing of his old oaters on the glass furnace—a package put together by former ad copywriters Mike Frye (Fred MacMurray) and Debbie Patterson (Dorothy McGuire), who stand to clean up on the merchandising rights alone…except for one little hitch, explained by the title of the film. Callaway, who’s earned a reputation in Hollywood off-screen as a nasty, ill-tempered lush, has been MIA for a good many years, prompting Mike and Debbie to hire his former agent, Georgie Markham (beautifully executed by Jesse White, who could play a role like this in his sleep), to hunt him down. In the meantime, the most fortuitous of movie circumstances introduce the pair to “Stretch” Barnes (also Keel), a Colorado cowpoke who’s a dead ringer for Callaway—and who agrees to masquerade as the movie star (there’s a ranch he has his eye on), particularly after getting a warm reception from some sick children in a hospital. As the film progresses, Markham finds Callaway and brings him back for the eventual confrontation (one of the film’s highlights, in which Howard Keel goes up against…Howard Keel)—but in the meantime, “Stretch” demonstrates he’s brighter than he appears, having both won Debbie’s heart and arranging for “Callaway’s” salary to be diverted to a large charity whose purpose will be to help underprivileged rug rats.

At the end of Callaway, there’s an interesting disclaimer from the filmmakers whose shorter version can be interpreted as “For God’s sake, please don’t sue us.” Any resemblance to the title character and a certain TV cowboy named Hopalong Cassidy is purely intentional—but fortunately for M-G-M, the Cassidy people weren’t ticked off at all by the film…they actually found it endearing. My guess as to why would center on the satirical content of Callaway; it’s not quite as biting as Hucksters, and it’s all in good-natured fun. Keel is hilarious in both of his roles, MacMurray has one of his best comic turns (my favorite moment is when he tells Keel that cowboy acting involves two expressions—“hat on and hat off”) and even McGuire is a lot of fun (though comedy isn’t necessarily her forte). There are a few amusing star cameos in the film (my favorite, oddly enough, is the one involving Clark Gable) and unbilled appearances from the likes of future TV actors John Banner, Hugh Beaumont and Glenn Strange (Natalie “Lovey Howell” Schafer is also in this, but she receives billing in the opening titles). But what makes Callaway particularly endearing to me is that the man who would soon write the book on advertising mockery has a small part as MacMurray and McGuire’s flunky: the one and only Stan Freberg.

1 comment:

Classic Maiden said...

I remember the first time I watched THE HUCKSTERS I didn't really respond to it, but after several viewings I rather like it, and I agree with your assessment that "The only element in Hucksters that doesn’t work for me is the Gable-Kerr romance; I think Kerr’s character is definitely slumming and, if you really want me to be honest, I think Gable’s chemistry with Ava is a lot more engaging".Best wishes,