Thursday, December 31, 2015

The State of the Blog

This is officially going to be the final post for 2015, which is why I’ve given it that impressive-sounding title.  I had planned to put a few more posts up in December per my usual promises…but that annoying little hindrance I call “real life” kind of thwarted me at every turn.  For starters, sister Kat stopped by in mid-December to help celebrate Los Parentes Yesteryear’s fifty-third anniversary (oh, sure—she sounds like a dutiful daughter…but all she really wanted was some cake from Publix) and then about a week later, sister Debbie was the guest of honor along with her husband Craige and my niece Rachel for a Christmas visit.  (We were quite insistent that no gifts be exchanged this year to thank both of them for the tremendous help they provided during the relocation to the present Rancho Yesteryear…but Debbie violated that little compact with $50 in Amazon gift cards for yours truly.  As you’ve probably predicted, they were quickly redeemed towards the purchase of Seasons 1 and 2 of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)

Right now, we are readying for Operation: Operation in January (okay, sorry I couldn’t come up with something cleverer) when Mom goes under the knife to relieve her back problems and in the meantime, I am in a race to record every episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive to DVD, thanks to the generosity of the DISH Network people, who are currently offering a “freeview” of the Starz and Encore channels from December 26 through January 2.  I downloaded each episode from Encore Westerns On Demand (we would love to welcome this fine station into our home, but we are too cheap to pay extra for it) and since they’ll only stay on my system for less than thirty days I have a lot of work ahead of me.  I have found that if I stick an episode of Wanted on the beginning of each disc I record I can follow it up with a ninety-minute-or-so movie and not feel as if I’m wasting any disk space.  (Yes, I am aware than “anal-retentive” has a hyphen.)  I sacrificed my ownership of the popular TV western starring Steve McQueen in the last eBay DVD Purge back in July of 2014, so when I saw an opportunity to get these shows for no money down I pounced like my nephew on discounted Star Wars merchandise.

Earlier in June of this year, I tried to get a new feature started here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear entitled “GetTV Theatre”—inspired by a promotional e-mail I received from GetTV’s own Cindy Ronzoni that provided me with links to upcoming classic films due to air on the digital subchannel.  I got as far as Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960) before I had to abandon the project (the move to Winterville interrupted my viewing, and then Mom’s situation kept me from previewing any more flicks)—but with Dish Network’s new acquisition of GetTV to their lineup (channel 373) there might be a possibility that paddles will be applied to the feature.  I was pretty stoked when I found GetTV on our system (I occasionally do a search to see if there’s anything I might be missing) and despite Dish’s perplexing reluctance to add similar stations like MeTV, Decades, Grit, Antenna TV, Cozi TV, Buzzr, etc. I’m hoping they’ll eventually come around.  (I kicked around the idea of investing in some OTA [off-the-air] equipment to make up for this entertainment deficit…but when I saw a promo on WSB-TV with Vicki Lawrence plugging MeTV’s acquisition of Mama’s Family I changed my mind.  (I’m starting to see the warning signs that MeTV is going the way that TVLand did when they started purging shows like Petticoat Junction and The Phil Silvers Show from the schedule.)

GetTV runs a number of classic boob tube oaters on Saturdays (The Tall Man, Laredo) so I’m looking forward to seeing those—plus they offer up the occasional variety hour (they’ve been running The Judy Garland Show for some time now), and a glance at January has revealed that they’ll soon be featuring The Jim Nabors Hour.  I’m not particularly wild about the commercial breaks on GetTV, but if they show a movie that’s been MIA on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ in a while, I’m willing to put up with a little advertising.

I also want to thank all the good folks who sent a Christmas card my way: my longtime pal and ex-wife Margo (“I vass Madam’s fifth hussband!”), Rodney, Martin, Peggy and B.J., Laura, Brandie and Doc Quatermass; Doc was most generous in sending me a little gift of the McFarland Gunsmoke reference book (hardcover, even!) that I have been sampling every free moment I get (when I’m not wrestling it away from me fadduh).  (Doc probably knows that my other copy continues to cool its heels in my father’s own private Gitmo, a.k.a. “the storage shed.”)  I apologize for the tardiness in getting out my cards this year, by the way—it’s kind of a long story, but certain financial forces kept me from purchasing them in a timely manner.

I’m a little hesitant to make any New Year’s resolutions this year: more often than not, they involve me promising to put more content on the blog in the future, and I’ve broken that vow so many times in the past I’ve lost count.  Things might be a little quiet here in January until I get a better handle on the Mom Operation situation, but be sure to keep an eye on the Radio Spirits blog and ClassicFlix for my contributions should you start missing me.  Thanks to everybody for continuing to encourage my behavior, and I wish every member of the TDOY faithful a wondrous 2016.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

“Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread…”

Prior to 1993, anytime you wanted to watch the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on the small screen all you had to do was surf to any random cable channel.  Because IAWL was on a metric ton of stations, apparently due to its quasi-public domain status (someone forgot to cross an “i” and dot a “t” when the copyright came up for renewal in 1974).  When National Telefilm Associates (who acquired IAWL around 1955 from Paramount) changed its name to Republic Pictures in 1986, one of their first areas of exploration involved restoring the copyright to the film, based on the fact that they owned the rights to the source material (the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Stern).  Say what you want about Republic (there’s an irony in that they’ve since come back to the Paramount fold), but they recognized a cash cow when they saw one.  It’s a Wonderful Life has now become a Christmas Eve tradition on NBC (I believe the network airs it twice in December; I also saw it unspool on the USA Network one night during Sister Kat’s visit), but for those of us who’d rather not sit through the commercials it’s readily available on VHS, Blu-ray, etc.

I watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas.  I’m still watching, as a matter of fact, the original Artisan Home Entertainment disc I purchased in 2000—I know there have been newer versions released since that one, but I’ve never felt the need to upgrade.  I’m also an unabashed fan of the movie, and I predictably bawl like a baby all the way through its 129-minute running time.  I know a lot of people don’t care for it (I blame the endless PD showings for this in a way) and that the truly cynical take delight in giving it a good ribbing (Gary Kamiya did a nice job for a Salon piece in 2001, and my godfather Scott C. lacerated it at World O’Crap in 2006 with a Better Living Through Bad Movies-like treatment).  My love for IAWL is such that I can read pieces like Gary or Scott’s, laugh myself silly, and still stubbornly cling to my adoration for the feature film that its director, Frank Capra, declared his favorite among the many movies on which he held the reins (he also made watching IAWL with his family a Yuletide tradition).

I’ll never be considered a particularly religious or spiritual individual…but the message of IAWL has always been a powerful one for me.  The concept of one man functioning as “the glue” in his community is pretty hard to resist because—well, let’s be honest: there’s something in the human condition that compels us to want to make our mark on the world and do great things…and if we fall short of this goal, we entertain thoughts that it’s all been for naught and we’ve failed.  It’s a Wonderful Life proves John Donne knew what he was talking about when he wrote “No man is an island”; every task we perform, no matter how small or insignificant, impacts another person’s life in the most amazing way.  “Strange, isn't it?” marvels Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), the “angel” sent to Earth to keep frustrated businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) from throwing away “the greatest gift.”  “Each man's life touches so many other lives.  When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”

Believe me, I know what you’re thinking.  George Bailey was a chump—even a rent collector (Charles Lane) for his nemesis Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) observes this to be so—a man who missed out on so many opportunities to spend his entire life being altruistic to the inhabitants of a small town.  I think that’s what I love so much about IAWL; George is the only bulwark against the tyranny represented by Potter, and despite the fantasy elements of the film the Potter situation is presented fairly realistically in that he’s responsible for the Bailey Building and Loan’s financial trouble (by keeping the money that Thomas Mitchell’s Uncle Billy so foolishly misplaced) and like so many outcomes in the annals of white collar crime, he appears to get away with it.  (Yes, I am aware of the Saturday Night Live skit where the citizens of Bedford Falls kick the stuffing out of Potter in the “lost footage” of IAWL.  I laughed at that, too.)  Lionel Barrymore wasn’t able to play Ebenezer Scrooge in the MGM version of A Christmas Carol (1938) due to his precarious health (he had made the part his own in several radio productions dramatizing Dickens’ classic) so his Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life gives him an opportunity to fulfill that acting dream (and Potter is worse than Scrooge—at least Ebenezer got redemption at the end).  The casting of the parts in IAWL is another of the movie’s assets; in addition to stars Stewart and Donna Reed you have a gathering of such first-rate character thesps as Barrymore, Mitchell, Travers, H.B. Warner, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen (the original Bert and Ernie!) and so many more.  (The old-time radio devotee in me loves seeing Lillian “Birdie” Randolph as Annie, and of course Sheldon Leonard as Nick the bartender—“Get me!  I’m givin’ out wings!”)

There are two moments in IAWL that are guaranteed to start the waterworks in me.  The first occurs during the honeymoon night of George and Mary Bailey, in which the couple take residence in an old dilapidated house because the money earmarked for their vacation has been doled out to Building and Loan customers to keep the joint running when there’s a run on the bank.  Earlier in their courtship, the couple threw rocks at the abandoned house (George explains that if you throw a rock and break glass, any wish you make will be granted) and when Mary lobs a stone and achieves the desired result, she’s coy about what she wished to George.  Honeymoon Night, as the couple go in for a clinch, Mary tells her husband: “Remember the night we broke the windows in this old house?  This is what I wished for…”  (I am not crying—I just have something in my eye, damn it!)

The other tearful moment in the movie takes place during George’s nightmarish vision of what life would have been like had he never been born.  Maybe it’s because I’ve always been close to my parents and family, but the sequence in which an uncomprehending George attempts to seek shelter in his mother’s boarding house and Ma Bailey (Bondi) stares back at him with those cold, cruel, uncaring eyes literally tears me up.  It’s much more effective to me than George’s later discovery that Mary has become an unattractive spinster (hey, she’s a librarian—at least she’s working steady); we’d like to think that no matter how much trouble we get ourselves into, our family will be there in our corner to help us weather out the storm.  Actress Bondi is so wonderful as Ma Bailey; she’d play Jimmy Stewart’s mom in three other films, including the Frank Capra-directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

This Christmas, in addition to IAWL, Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 original, of course), and A Christmas Carol (1951—a recent addition to the TDOY Christmas tradition, since I only received a DVD of it a few years ago), I sat down with The Bishop’s Wife (1947)—a movie I hadn’t watched in a number of years and was curious to see how well it held up.  It’s still an entertaining movie, but what struck me was how it would make a great (if a bit long) double feature with It’s a Wonderful Life.  The two movies share similar premises (as well as appearances from IAWL’s Karolyn “Zuzu” Grimes and Bobby Anderson, who played George Bailey as a yute): an angel is sent down to help out a mere mortal, only in the case of Wife it’s Cary Grant as the messenger who helps the ecclesiastical David Niven when Niven has difficulty drumming up funds for a big honkin’ cathedral.  As it turns out, it’s not the cathedral that’s the problem (that gets shunted off to the side before the closing credits roll in favor of wealthy dowager Gladys Cooper’s decision to donate generously to the poor and needy): the relationship in Niven’s marriage to Loretta Young has become quite strained, and Cary (as Dudley the Cherub) is only too happy to lend a hand.

The Grant-Young-Niven “triangle” in The Bishop’s Wife is probably the reason why I still enjoy seeing the movie despite some of its elements not holding up well; there’s something slightly subversive about an angel who looks like Cary Grant beating your time—most of us probably would have given up at that point.  (“You win, Lord…I’m going to look into this celibacy priest thing.”)  If the angel in Wife had been played by IAWL’s Henry Travers…we would have dismissed Wife in a heartbeat.  There are so many great character veterans in Bishop’s Wife, which is another reason why it’s such fun: Elsa Lanchester, Sara “Aunt Milly” Haden, James Gleason, and the indestructible Regis Toomey.  For me, Monty Woolley is the real reason you should watch Wife; they don’t come right out and say it but his Professor Wutheridge is an atheist (which makes sense, given his line of work) and his interactions with the out-of-this-world Dudley are among the movie’s highlights.  I particularly enjoy the scene where Cary and Loretta pay Monty a visit and he offers them the last bit of some sherry on hand; whenever Woolley isn’t looking, Grant uses his heavenly talents to refill his glass at every turn.  Finally, Monty looks at both the glass and the bottle and says matter-of-factly: “We don’t seem to be making much headway.”  (Never fails to break me up.)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

“My goodness…’just because’ ain’t no reason…”

Margaret Sidney—the nom de plume of author Harriett Mulford Stone Lothrop—wrote nearly thirty books between 1881 and 1916, and among her most popular works was a series of children’s stories that centered around a fictional family known as the Peppers.  Five Little Peppers and How They Grew introduced us to this clan; a poor but proud household whose fortunes are turned around when the youngest child, Phronsie (yes, that is the kid’s name—ayyyyyyyy—it’s short for “Sophronia”), is kidnapped by an organ grinder but rescued by young J.H. “Jasper” King, Jr., the son of wealthy bidnessman J. Horatio King, Sr.  The Kings get to know the Family Pepper and eventually become their benefactors when the family is invited to move in with them…because this sort of scenario happens all the time in real life.

The popularity of the Pepper books (there were a slew of sequels and follow-ups in the wake of How They Grew) attracted the attention of Columbia Pictures, who instituted a short film series in 1939 beginning with the appropriately titled Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.  The movie takes quite a few liberties with the source novel (anyone praying that Fonzie Phronsie really is kidnapped by an organ grinder is going to disappointed) and the movies that followed How They Grew also drew on plots concocted by studio scribes rather than anything Sidney dreamed up.

In the first movie, we meet little Potsie Phronsie (Dorothy Ann Seese) along with her siblings: the bland eldest son, Ben (Charles Peck); whiny Joey (Tommy Bond); equally whiny Davie (Jimmy Leake in the first one—Bobby Larson in the remaining three); and Edith Fellows as the eldest daughter, Polly.  The films were fashioned with Fellows in mind (Edith was a popular child star at the time…sort of Columbia’s Deanna Durbin) but it wasn’t too long before Seese started to threaten Fellows in the opening credits department (she’s second-billed beginning with the sophomore outing, 1940’s Five Little Peppers at Home) because she functioned as Columbia’s imitation Shirley Temple.

The Peppers are headed up by a family matriarch played by Dorothy Peterson (if she has a first name I didn’t catch it; she’s referred to only as “Mrs. Pepper” in the credits which gives you an idea of how integral she is to the series) whose husband died in a copper mine cave-in some time earlier.  He left a half-interest in the mine to daughter Polly; the other half is owned by the wealthy J.H. King (Clarence Kolb), whose grandson Jasper (Ronald Sinclair) befriends the children when Polly and Joey turn up at the King residence one day looking for a client who’s supposed to pay Polly for a dress she’s mended.  The money will be used to buy the fixin’s for a birthday cake for Mrs. P, and when the two children learn that the lady with the dress money is no longer at the King’s but somewhere else sixty miles away, Joey has this reaction:

I cannot even begin to explain how mortified I was to see this.  This is Tommy Freakin’ Bond crying his eyes out, ferchrissake—“Butch” from the Our Gang comedies.  If Butch ever needed $1.25 for cake ingredients, he’d just have “Woim” beat up a kid for his lunch money and problem solved.  I like Bond—not only for his work in Our Gang but in the shorts he appeared in with such funsters as Andy Clyde and Charley Chase—but his constant belly-aching in the Pepper series will get on your nerves after a fashion.  (Oh, here’s a neat drinking game you can play while watching these films: down a shot every time Tommy says “Gee whillikers…”  You’ll be Lillian Roth by the time the movie is over, I promise you.)

But I digress.  Jasper tells his granddad about his new friends, and the wily old bastid puts two and two together to conclude that this is the family he needs to schmooze to get the other half of the mine.  He showers them with presents—springs for a new stove to replace their old one—and for his efforts, winds up trapped with the rugrats when the house is quarantined for measles.

Ha!  You have to share a bed with the kids!  That’ll learn ya, you miserable capitalist swine!  King spends so much time with the Pepper brood that his crustiness begins to dissipate and he develops a genuine fondness for the kids.  (There’s a laugh-out-loud scene earlier in the movie where he’s invited to bake bread with the family and he’s a bit crestfallen to learn that the bill of fare consists solely of beans…which his doctor has told him he cannot have.  Davie: “Oh, that’s all right, Mr. King—we won’t tell your doctor.”)  Though his intention was to screw over the family and snap up the mine at a rock-bottom price, he’s changed his tune (no doubt influenced by an episode where Polly is afflicted with temporary blindness) despite some initial concern from Polly, who overhears King discussing the mine deal with a man named Townsend (Paul Everton), a competitor.  King offers to give Polly more than what Townsend is offering but she tells him all she wants is to be partners.  King agrees.

With Five Little Peppers at Home, the child actors are introduced during the opening credits by having them emerge from gi-normous pepper shakers.  Awwwww...
Five Little Peppers at Home seamlessly picks up where the previous film left off—but there’s a darker tone to the sequel, as the copper mine owned by King and Polly doesn’t appear to be the financial windfall they had counted on…on account of no one can locate any copper.  King has sunk so much money into this boondoggle that the bank has no choice but to foreclose on his own home…and so Home sees the wealthy bidnessman moving back in with his adopted family into their old residence at “Gusty Corners” when the stress of going belly-up bankrupt causes him to fall ill.  (In the books, Mrs. Pepper is made King’s housekeeper—and I chuckled at how this was excised from the movie series, ostensibly because it’s kind of bad form when you have to move back into your maid’s domicile.)  This relocation has some disturbing overtones; in How They Grew, King has a manservant who answers to “Martin” who’s played by Leonard Carey but essayed by Rex Evans for the remainder of the franchise.  Martin asks King if he can accompany his employer to his new digs even though King can’t afford to pay him.  (Again, because things like happen in real life all the time.)

Does this little prat get on your wick after a while?  Correctamundo!

Martin explains to J.H. that he, too, has grown fond of the children—apparently to the point where it’s eventually decided that he’ll sleep with Joey and Davie once they’ve moved back to Gusty Corners.  Now…I could probably understand this situation if it were a temporary one (or even if they were all related)…but this guy is still sleeping with the kids by the fourth movie, Five Little Peppers in Trouble (1940)—and the only reason why he’s not sharing a bed in Out West with the Peppers (1940; the third entry) is because the Pepper clan is on a trip in the wilds of Oregon.  (Regarding Trouble, I’d be a little worried about the trouble Martin’s going to be in when the authorities get wind of the G.C. sleeping arrangements.)  The narrative in Home goes further south when it’s revealed that before Martin became a “gentleman’s gentleman” (and dues-paying member of NAMBLA), he was an amateur geologist.  He becomes convinced that there is a vein of copper in that mine, and he takes the six kids on a “picnic” to try and locate what all the engineers and experts King has been paying for months cannot.

Disturbing, Just...disturbing.
The picnic goes sour when Martin and five of the kids are trapped in a cave-in at the mine (Ben is the lucky one…and of course, that doofus has to go back for help—honestly, I can’t catch a break in any of these movies) but on the bright side, he does inadvertently discover the vein of copper, and everything comes out in the wash.  “Grandpa” King even vows he’s going to lay waste to the current Pepper domicile and have a new house built, big enough to accommodate everyone.  (Hopefully this will eliminate the Martin-Joey-Davie sleepovers.)  Though by Pepper Misadventure #3…

The Burger King is further up the street...and the Weenie King lives in that apartment vacated by Gerry and Tom Jeffers before they went to Palm Beach.
…the farthest he’s got is a new mailbox.  Actually, Out West with the Peppers begins with the family on their way back from a trip to Paris.  Nothing unusual about this, of course…but you’ll soon see why things are a little askew when I discuss the final chapter of the movie Peppers.  The return home is necessitated because Mrs. Pepper has taken ill during the voyage and once examined by a doctor, it’s determined she needs a change in climate.  So Polly writes a letter to Aunt Alice (Helen Brown) in Oregon, asking if the family might stay with her and her husband Jim (Victor Kilian) so that Mrs. P can quickly be on the mend.  The Peppers’ visit will be complicated by the fact that Jim is a real douchenozzle; he indulges in strong drink from time to time, and at one point in Out West he even smacks Alice around.

There are a number of noticeable changes in the series with Out West with the Peppers.  First off, Clarence Kolb is out and Pierre Watkin (he of the “hearty handclasps” in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick) is in as Mr. King.  Second—and I don’t know if this is some sort of Our Gang influence or what—but the Pepper children have really upped their bratitude in this one: it’s almost like they were raised by wolves.  (Unfortunately, they were not eaten by same.)  First, Davie and Joey decide to walk on top of the ship rails as they head back to the good ol’ U.S.A…

Gosh, kids...don't fall.  That would break my heart.

…then, while waiting for the train at the station, little Moxie Phronsie lets a bunch of chickens loose that just happen to be caged for the purpose of allowing her to let them loose.  (The family even climbs aboard the Oregon Express before all the pullets have been rounded up, letting some other schmuck deal with the problem…)

…Ben draws the unlucky straw in the “Who-will-sleep-with-Joey-and-Davie?” sweepstakes, and an unruly pillow fight erupts…

…and the pizza de resistance, Davie and Joey create a molasses mess at the local general store. 

Now…if the storekeeper (Walter Soderling) was one of those disagreeably dyspeptic types that so commonly populated films of that era, I’d get a chuckle out of the molasses spill because nothing generates more mirth than an authority figure getting his comeuppance.  But he doesn’t do anything to provoke the kids’ shenanigans, and there’s no explanation for why the Pepper children suddenly decided to get in touch with their hellion side.  Same goes for “Uncle Jim”—I’m not excusing his drinking or wife beating, but I can certainly sympathize with his surly attitude around the kids, considering they’re about as well-behaved as the freshman class at St. Trinian’s.  (They let a skunk loose in his bedroom at one point, if that helps any.)

The climax of Out West involves another idyllic picnic scene that is quickly greeted by storm clouds when the kids are trapped on a makeshift raft built for them by gregarious Swede Olé (Emory Parnell—whom I did not recognize the first time I watched this) and are headed for a treacherous log plume.  I’ll save you the trouble: they’re rescued, and their surprising champion is Jim, who is helpless to watch his heart melt in the presence of little Maisie Phronsie and her demonic siblings.

The final feature in the Peppers series was Five Little Peppers in Trouble, and the plot of this movie in inspired by a subplot in the second film, where Jasper’s Aunt Martha (Laura Treadwell) makes noises about removing her nephew from the “squalor” that is Gusty Corners.  Martha is up to her tricks again (though she’s played in Trouble by Kathleen Howard, another Fieldsian regular), threatening to get custody of Jasp through a court order because the senior and junior King are still living in the Pepper house (the new place is still under construction).  J.H. (Watkin again) has a diabolical scheme: he’ll enroll Jasper in a private school where Martha can’t find him.  For reasons unexplained, the Pepper children have to go, too…though I know the real reason why they have to go—otherwise, we’d have no movie.

Trouble is basically the old “poor-kids-mistreated-by-rich-snobs” plot trotted out for sixty-three minutes; the Pepper kids are as welcome at the exclusive Landsdowne Private School as smallpox, and despite overtures from one or two decent kids (Antonia Oland plays a student who befriends Fellows’ Polly) the children have a perfectly miserable time while they’re there.  The “danger” climax, interestingly enough, does not put the Peppers in peril; a trio of revolting female students drain the swimming pool shortly before the other girls sneak out for a midnight dip and two of the students wind up injured, with Polly framed for the deed.  Told that she and her siblings will have to leave, Polly gives a passionate speech about how awful it was for them so they’re glad to go and stick it up your ass while you’re at it.  (The actress who plays sympathetic teacher Miss Roland is the same one who played the kids’ Aunt Alice in the previous picture, which allowed me to yell “Nepotism!” at the screen.)

The kid on the left is Freddie Mercer, a talented boy singer remembered here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as the film version of "Leeeeeroy" in The Great Gildersleeve movies...

...and the girl at the piano is Our Gang alumnus Shirley Jean Rickert,  When you know that Rickert became a striptease dancer in her adult years, her character's name of "Kiki" is pretty risible here.
Trouble wraps up with “Grandpa” King announcing that at the hearing to decide whether or not Jasper can continue living with him and the Pepper Family, the judge suggested he take his grandson to Paris…which is how Out West begins, with the family’s return.  I found this kind of curious, only because it would have made more sense to release Trouble before Out West for continuity’s sake (Jasper and Grandpa are only in the first eleven minutes of Out West anyway).  (I thought it might have been possible that Trouble was filmed before Out West and just mistakenly released afterward…but the info at doesn’t bear that out—particularly since the original title of Out West was Five Little Peppers Abroad.)

I know that my intense distaste for child actors will jaundice my appreciation for the “Five Little Peppers” series…so let me tick off the bright spots.  I like Edith Fellows, one of those kiddie thesps who managed not to be too cloying and she also sings well (she warbles Brahms’ Lullaby to little Swayze Phronsie in the first Peppers movie, and does a nice rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz in Trouble)…and I think the subtly suggested romance between her and Ronald Sinclair’s Jasper is kind of sweet.  (Sinclair was kind of the poor man’s Freddie Bartholomew…he later had a nice turn in one of my favorite Errol Flynn films, Desperate Journey [1942].)  Since the Pepper films were Columbia efforts, you get to see some of their players in small roles: Bruce Bennett (as a chauffeur in the first two films), Dorothy Comingore, Jack Rice, Ann Doran, Ernie Adams, Eddie Laughton, and Don Beddoe (plus the ubiquitous Bess Flowers), to name a few.  Director Charles Barton, who would later go on to oversee many of Abbott & Costello’s best pictures, held the reins on all four Pepper vehicles and demonstrated competency throughout despite the nausea and clear risk of diabetes.  If the movies make the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ again, those of you who are suckers for family-oriented films will certainly enjoy them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

From the DVR: Lured (1947)

It’s a familiar story in classic movies: a talented girl, practiced in the terpsichorean arts, is determined to make it big as part of a show…but the production folds unexpectedly, leaving our would-be star stranded and badly in need of work to keep body and soul together.  This is the case for Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball), who has been forced to take a job as a taxi dancer to make ends meet once she’s been left high and dry in the city of London.

One night, a representative for producer Robert Fleming (George Sanders) invites Sandra to audition for a new show that Fleming is producing with partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).  Sandra tries to coax her pal Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) into auditioning as well, but Lucy is determined to quit show business in order to travel with a mysterious individual she’s met through a newspaper personal column.  Not a particular smart move on Lucy’s part; she vanishes from the scene and during a chance meeting with Scotland Yard’s Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), Sandra and Temple piece together enough suspicion to suggest that Lucy is a victim of a serial killer known only to the gendarmes as “The Poet Killer.”

Sandra is pressed into service to act as bait for the killer—answering various personal ads in an attempt to locate the poet murderer, which brings her into contact with suspects like Charles van Druten (Boris Karloff), a demented dress designer.  As her investigation continues, the finger of suspicion slowly starts to point toward Fleming, with whom Sandra is falling in love.  Qué lástima!

I recorded Lured, a 1947 melodrama directed by future cult director Douglas Sirk and written by Leo Rosten (from a story by Jacques Companéez, Simon Gantillon, and Ernest Neuville), the day The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ scheduled a day of films featuring Thrilling Days of Yesteryear idol Boris Karloff.  I’d never seen the film, and because I had heard a few positive things about the movie I decided to take a peek.  To be frank…other than functioning as a red herring (is Karloff’s character the “Poet Killer”?) Boris isn’t too particularly well-served in this vehicle—which is why I’ve always been curious as to why his presence is as played up as it is (he’s prominently featured on the cover of the DVD release from Kino Lorber).

I didn’t dislike Lured—watching it won’t be a waste of time—but I have to agree with one online reviewer who described the film as “a delicious plum pudding of a cult movie.”  It’s nice if you’re partial to plum pudding…but for those viewers who’d like a little meat to go with their melodrama (after all—how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?) it’s going to come up a bit short.  For a modest-budgeted independent film (released by United Artists), Lured boasts a sumptuous sheen…and I admire some of director Sirk’s exquisite touches (the faux Victorian look of cobblestone streets and gaslights), particularly the inventive opening credits sequence.  Lured’s raison d'être seems to be to showcase Lucy’s character as a clotheshorse…which I wondered about constantly throughout the film—how does a taxi dancer afford a wardrobe like that?  (Perhaps the tips at the dance hall are better than I thought…)  The clothes in the film come courtesy of designer Elois Jenssen, who was also in charge of the redheaded comedienne’s wardrobe on I Love Lucy until she was unceremoniously pushed out in favor of R-K-O veteran Edward Stevenson, a longtime Ball crony.

The other aspect of Lured that bothered me is that the Sandra Carpenter character is inducted as a member of Scotland Yard’s police force rather quickly; her only qualification appears to be the ability to keenly observe her surroundings (she’s asked by Temple for a description of his office despite not having spent much time in it).  I don’t discount that scrupulous scrutiny is an integral part of police work but I just had trouble buying how easy it was for Sandra to join The Thin Blue Line.  (“You previously worked in a dance hall, eh?  Congratulations—you’ve got the job!  Have a revolver!”) 

I know, I know—it’s nitpicking; Lured is mostly about style than substance.  The strong cast in the film is Lured’s major asset; it’s one of Ball’s best cinematic showcases, and you know I’m up for anything featuring George Sanders (who receives billing over his co-star).  (Sanders, in speaking to one of his girlfriends in the picture, even admits that he’s “an unmitigated cad.”  True dat.)  The list of old pros also includes Coburn, Hardwicke, Karloff, Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray, and Alan Napier…but for me, the real joy was having George Zucco on hand as Lucy’s “handler.”  Zucco put the “sin” in “sinister” throughout his film career, so it was a treat to see him in a lighter vein; there’s a running gag throughout Lured in which he asks Lucy for the answer to a crossword puzzle entry…and while claiming she doesn’t know, she inadvertently gives him the solution through a perfectly chance remark.  The duo’s interactions are among the highlights of a movie that midway during its U.S. release became Personal Column because the bluenoses thought Lured sounded too much like “lurid.”

At one time, motion pictures like Lured were known as “women’s pictures” but their dark, melodramatic content has apparently influenced today’s critics to classify them as film noir.  If Lured is noir, it’s a fat-free one; I prefer to watch Lucy in 1946’s The Dark Corner (which might very well be my favorite of her feature films) where she plays a secretary determined to help her private investigator employer (Mark Stevens) beat a murder rap.  (A smart secretary would let her boss fry for criminal blandness…but who am I to judge?)  Be that as it may, Lured is an enjoyable time-passer despite its weaknesses, so I don’t hesitate to give it the TDOY seal of approval.