Thursday, September 10, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #36 (“Joan is busting out all over” edition)

Over at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger…, the seminal photo blog masterminded by the likes of Tom Sutpen, Stephen Cooke and the usual suspects, there is a section on the blog’s side bar simply titled “The Goddess.” The photo that accompanies this caption can be conveniently found on your left, a nice little bit o’cheesecake featuring one of the cinema’s first-rate female actresses, Joan Blondell. I must confess growing up that my only knowledge of Blondell was her regular role in repeats of Here Come the Brides (1968-70) and a nice part as James Garner’s “Sugar Mama” in Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)…but as I expanded my film horizons I was able to catch La Joan in all those wonderful Warner Bros. features from the 1930s: The Public Enemy (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Three on a Match (1932), Footlight Parade (1933), etc.

Turner Classic Movies featured an a.m. tribute to Blondell on Tuesday, and while I’m not sure why (I like to think Tom and Stephen have a little pull over there at TCM) I decided to check the five movies out. (Three of the movies showcased feature the teaming of Joan and Melvyn Douglas, who made a total of four films together—the final one in 1964 with Advance to the Rear.)

Off the Record (1939) – Tough little mug Bobby Jordan (of Dead End Kids fame) is going to be hauled off to an orphanage after the death of his mother—but fortunately, his no-account brother Alan Baxter shows up in time to rescue Jordan from such a fate…and arranges for the little delinquent to work as a “spotter” (making certain that pinball machine-playing yutes don’t stick slugs in the apparatus) for notorious gangster Morgan “The Man Who Would Be Dick Tracy” Conway. Newspaper columnist Joan stumbles onto Bobby’s line of work and prints a column that has the entire town in an uproar; the authorities close down Conway’s set-up and Baxter is sent to prison on a five-year-rap.

Jordan is headed for a little vacation to the reformatory himself, but Joanie feels responsible and she talks her boyfriend reporter (Pat O’Brien) into marching down the aisle with her so she can adopt the little antisocial punk. O’Brien tries to get the kid a job on the paper, but it’s not until Jordan takes an interest in photography that things start looking up. Unfortunately, that pesky ol’ older brother needs help in crashing out of the jernt—which poses the query: will Bobby sacrifice all that he’s worked for just to prove that blood is thicker than water.

The nickname of the reporter played by Pat O’Brien in this B-movie quickie is “Breezy,” and that’s the perfect way to describe the proceedings; a lot of your enjoyment of this programmer will depend on your tolerance for Pat as he plays yet another in a series of obnoxious (though not without a little Irish charm) members of the fourth estate. It’s a little odd to see Jordan without Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (though he did acquit himself nicely in 1938’s A Slight Case of Murder) but he does a serviceable job (Leo’s brother David, Hal E. Chester and Cagney impersonator Frankie Burke play Jordan’s fellow reform school roomies, so it’s almost like Old Home Week) and Joan manages to make her mark despite not having much to do. All in all, Record is easy-to-take stuff—and only really bogs down in stickiness during the “domesticity” scenes.

Three Girls About Town (1941) – This was my favorite of the bunch; a genuinely wacky farce that casts Blondell and Binnie Barnes as a pair of convention hostesses at a large hotel (run by Robert Benchley, who’s sensational in the limited time he’s onscreen: “Dead people in the hotel—what will the morticians think?”) that has acquired an unsavory reputation in recent months and risks being shut down by both the authorities and the local bluenose brigade. So when a corpse (Walter Soderling) is discovered in one of the rooms—and said body is identified by Joan’s reporter boyfriend (John Howard) as the “mediator” presiding over an important union meeting between management and labor, Joan and Binnie (along with their younger sister Janet Blair—whose nymphomaniac character brings to mind the Bogart quip from The Big Sleep: “You oughta to wean her, she’s old enough”) are determined to get the body out of the hotel and into an alley…and Howard is equally resolute to get the news to his editor (Paul Harvey) to break the big story and get a hefty raise so that he can settle down with Blondell.

Girls is fast-paced and funny stuff; it’s most certainly one of Blondell’s best vehicles and I love how her character’s quick-thinking lands her in-and-out of sticky situations (one minute she’s passing herself off as an Irish cleaning woman; the distraught “wife” of the corpse the next). The list of supporting talent (both character greats and Columbia stock players) in this film is reason enough to sit through it: Eric Blore (as a soused guest searching for his pal “Charlie” on the various floors), Una O’Connor, Almira Sessions, Eddie Dunn, Tim Ryan, Bruce Bennett, Lloyd Bridges, Ken Christy, Chester Clute, Monte Collins (as one of the poker players), Dick Elliott, Bess Flowers, Charles Halton, Charles Lane, Eddie Laughton, Larry “Jolson Sings Again” Parks, and the incomparable Grady Sutton. I will warn you right now that the ending of this film has the potential to make a viewer cry out, “Oh, come on now…” but I enjoyed Girls so much I went with it and suspended my disbelief.

There's Always a Woman (1938) – This is the other gem shown on TCM Tuesday; another hysterical romp made by Columbia to cash in on the success of M-G-M’s Thin Man franchise. William “Bill” Reardon’s (Melvyn Douglas) detective agency is suffering from a contamination of no clients, and he’s ready to chuck the private venture and get his old job back working for the District Attorney (Thurston Hall). But Bill’s wife Sally (Blondell) is undeterred, and while she’s in the office she gets a visit from Lola Fraser (Mary Astor), who hires her to keep an eye on Anne Calhoun (Francis Drake), a woman who apparently has her eye on Lola’s husband Walter (Lester Matthews). Sally gets her cash-strapped hubby to take her to a swanky restaurant so that she can scope out Anne and the rest of the players (including Anne’s fiancé, Jerry Marlowe [Robert Paige]) in Ms. Fraser’s little drama; the next morning, a screaming headline informs the Reardons that Walter has been snuffed out, and that Marlowe is the prime suspect. Bill is assigned to investigate the murder…receiving both help and hindrance from the scatterbrained Sally.

Woman is a fun little divertissement that blends mystery and comedy expertly in the Thin Man tradition, and I particularly enjoyed the chemistry between the easily-exasperated Douglas and the free-spirited Blondell in their first onscreen teaming. The highlight of Woman is when Sally gets Bill to take her to the exclusive Skyline Club so that she can investigate on behalf of her client; she orders the most expensive items on the menu (her husband’s only got a twenty-dollar bill in his pocket), insists on being moved from table to table so that she can watch the Frazier-Marlowe party, and drags a reluctant Bill out on the dance floor to continue the watch. As a heated conversation develops between Frazier and Marlowe, Sally keeps bending her chair backward to listen to every word…and finally falls to the floor when she over tips her seat…

BILL: It’s all right, gentlemen…it’s just my wife

SALLY (angrily): Well, why don’t you pick me up, you big lummox?!!!

BILL: I picked you up oncenow look at me…

“I thought I married a gentleman,” Sally spits out at him, which prompts Bill to respond with a verbal shrug: “Well, live and learn…” Though the laugh quotient kind of peters out after the murder investigation gets under way, there are still some choice bits of business: Sally tries to “crack” a wall safe that turns out to be a radio, and finds herself being “sweated out” in an interrogation room by Bill’s partner Flanagan (Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan from To Be or Not to Be). As always, there are plenty of great supporting players thrown into the mix: Jerome Cowan (as a gambler who “cashes” a $50 check for Reardon at the restaurant), Pierre Watkin, Walter Kingsford, Bud Jamison, Billy “Whitey” Benedict (as a bellboy)…and Rita Hayworth, but you have to look/listen fast to catch her. It’s a shame that a film series never developed from this initial entry—Columbia had planned it that way, but Blondell opted out of appearing in the second and final film, There's That Woman Again (1939), which teams Douglas with Virginia Grey as Joan’s replacement (Dugan reprised his role as Flanagan as well). I haven’t seen Again, but if TCM schedules it in the near future, I’m willing to take a glance at it.

I didn’t enjoy the other two Blondell offerings as much as Girls and Woman, though it could be attributed to a case of “burn out” (I can take Douglas, but in relatively small doses). Of the two, I think The Amazing Mr. Williams (1939) comes off best—there’s a slight Woman-esque flavor to it, with Douglas as a detective whose girlfriend Blondell wants him to quit his profession, despite interference from Douglas’ boss (Clarence Kolb). Williams has a great sequence in which he’s been assigned to escort prisoner Edward Brophy to the state pen…but if he breaks his date with Blondell, she’ll never speak to him again—so he brings Brophy along as a blind date for Joanie’s best friend Ruth Donnelly. (Donnelly and Brophy’s turns on the dance floor are uproariously funny…and the faint Ruth executes upon learning Brophy’s true identity almost made me fall off the coach in hysterics.) After this highlight, though, the movie kind of bogs down a bit, and even though the supporting cast (Donald MacBride, Don Beddoe, Jonathan Hale) can’t bring it back to life. I’d recommend it only if you’re curious to see Douglas in drag.

Good Girls Go to Paris (1939) was originally titled Good Girls Go to Paris, Too but Columbia nixed it at the last minute for its suggestiveness (even though the line is still in the screenplay). (I have to admit, when I saw the title I asked myself: “So where do the bad girls go?”) Joanie’s a waitress hunting for a rich husband in this one, with Melvyn a British professor trying to discourage her because he’s fallen for her himself. Again, a first-rate cast of character actors—Walter Connolly, Alan Curtis, Joan Perry, Isabel Jeans, Clarence Kolb—has little to do but stand around and look like they’re interested in the proceedings, because the screenplay is a major disappointment. (TDOY fave Dave Willock has a larger-than-usual role as one of Douglas’ students if you’re interested.)


moift said...

I thought that was Mary Astor, not Monya Loi

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

That's because you're in complete control of your mental faculties, whilst I frequently suffer from what medical science calls a "brain fart." It is (and was supposed to be written as) Mary Astor--and it has also been duly noted and corrected. Thanks!