Comedy

Edna May Oliver vs. The Glass Ceiling

Edna May Oliver (left) tries to explain the obvious to James Gleason. Image: kdsjf eifj sdk

Edna May Oliver (left) explains the obvious to James Gleason. Image: Past Offences

Question: When was the last time you saw a movie in which…

  1. A female amateur sleuth did a better job of solving a mystery than a male detective?
  2. A middle-aged woman who LOOKS middle aged is the main character?
  3. A man becomes romantically interested in a middle-aged woman who is smarter than he?

Happily, the last time we saw a movie like this was the other night. Sadly, the movie was made in 1932.

The Penguin Pool Murder is a gem of a film that ought to be more well known. It has a witty script, clever camera angles, and a mystery that will keep you guessing until the last scene.

Edna May Oliver stars as Miss Hildegard Withers (emphasis on the Miss), a spinsterly schoolteacher who wears a sensible suit and comfortable shoes. She is prim, smart and ambitious, and her vocabulary includes such delightful phrases as “insofar as”.

Oliver happens to be at the city’s aquarium with her class on the day a murder is committed. While she is shepherding her students around the (gorgeous art deco) building, a body falls into the penguin pool. Enter James Gleason as the crusty detective who talks more like a gangster than a law enforcement officer.

As a potential suspect, Oliver is taken into the manager’s office for questioning by Gleason. Something stirs in her and she quickly gloms onto the opportunity of her scholastic lifetime: catching a murderer.

Gleason is impressed by Oliver’s ability to judge character. (“I’ve been teaching school long enough, Inspector, to know whether someone is telling the truth or not.”) He appreciates her help – indeed he relies on it – but his chauvinism sometimes interferes with his professionalism.

In one scene, Oliver shows him notes she’s compiled based on evidence they’ve gathered. Gleason is astounded at what she’s written.

Gleason: You oughtn’t to be a school teacher, Miss Withers. You ought to be a –

Oliver: Detective?

Gleason: (laughs) No, it takes a certain type to be a detective.

Oliver: (dryly) I’ve noticed that.

The chemistry between Oliver and Gleason is a lot of fun – and very appealing. Their banter has been described as that of “an old married couple” but, in our opinion, the dialogue is saucier, mostly because Gleason’s detective loves a woman with backbone.

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Edna May Oliver can get anyone to talk. Image: moviefanfare.com

Although Oliver’s character looks like an old-fashioned defender of The Establishment, she is not. For example, in one scene, Gleason tells Oliver he’s leaving to interview someone and that she should stay put. Oliver sits down for a moment, then forcefully stands up, wraps her fur stole around her neck – twice – and marches out the door.

The one scene that is most illustrative of Oliver’s character is when she barges into a men’s public restroom. She is following Gleason, who goes into the washroom and closes the door ahead of her. Oliver pauses slightly, as though she’s steeling herself, then storms through the door. Gleason, kneeling beside an unconscious man, doesn’t even blink when he sees Oliver enter.

This movie was based on the first of 18 Hildegard Withers novels, seven of which were published in the 1930s. Six movies were made from these novels; Oliver starred in the first three.

The Penguin Pool Murder has become one of our favourite films, and we think it could become one of yours. Set aside an hour to watch this film; you’ll be glad you did.

The Penguin Pool Murder: Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Robert Armstrong. Directed by George Archainbaud. Written by Willis Goldbeck. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932, B&W, 75 mins.

The Gold Digger’s Fashion Guide

Moon Over Miami Betty Grable

Betty Grable (centre) calls the front desk and orders a Millionaire. Image: Vintage Clothing Love

We are of the opinion that a person should marry for love. But, for those who insist on finding a millionaire and marrying for money, may we recommend some valuable fashion advice?

We ourselves had no idea what to wear when chasing millionaires until we saw the perfect Millionaire* Chasing Attire in the 1941 musical comedy Moon Over Miami.

(*A million dollars in 1941 is worth $16,528,297.87 today. In case you were wondering.)

About the plot: Betty Grable, her sister (Carole Landis), and their aunt (the scene-stealing Charlotte Greenwood) move to Miami, where “rich men are as plentiful as grapefruit and millionaires hang from every palm tree.” (Take note.)

Grable poses as a rich young socialite on vacation, while Landis poses as her personal assistant and Greenwood as the maid. Turns out Grable meets not one, but two! handsome millionaires (Don Ameche and Robert Cummings), and is faced with the awkward dilemma of which millionaire to marry.

About the wardrobe: Everything in this film is designed to accessorize the clothes, from the sets to the co-stars – Cummings and Ameche being the most prominent accessories in this film. The scrumptious wardrobe was designed by famed Hollywood costume designer, Travis Banton. (For samples of his work, click here.)

Before we begin our Wardrobe Analysis, we must remember one important principle: The millionaire must think he (or she) is catching you, not the other way around. (And let’s face it, Dear Reader, you are a catch.)

Now, let us examine Grable’s wardrobe savour-faire, which we can classify in three main categories.

1. Evening Wear

Grable (left) is Millionaire Hunting. Because Landis (seated) is wearing sleeves, she's obviously not. Image: dkjf jeu

Notice Landis (seated) is wearing sleeves, so she’s obviously not Millionaire Hunting. Image: Beauty Bombshells

As you might have guessed, millionaires attend only the best parties where everyone dresses in Very Expensive clothes. This means your party attire must be made by this season’s most sought-after designer. It cannot be last season’s frock purchased at a designer outlet or – heaven forbid – at any place bearing the word “depot”.

2. Everyday Wear

Notice Grable's green suit. It screams, "I'll look good in your money." Image: tumblr

Notice Grable’s emerald-green suit. It screams, “I look good in your money.” Image: tumblr

Despite all appearances, Millionaire Chasing is not a casual, happy-go-lucky activity, so just forget about polyester-blend attire. No stretchy jeans and no – [shudder] – yoga pants. You must be strict with yourself: this is Serious Business.

3. Cultural Wear

Grable alksdjf djs fImage: alskdjf sd

Notice Grable is ready to perform an impromptu number at a moment’s notice. Image: dvdbeaver.com

If you’re moving to another city/country to pursue your millionaire, you must accept the fact that, at some point, you will star in a floor show at a local nightclub. Here’s your chance to show your spouse-to-be that you elevate the local culture. Make sure your outfit pays homage to the locals, but is obviously something they could never afford.

Now you’re ready. Dress in your best outfit and go find that lucky Millionaire. Be sure to send us an invite to the wedding!

♦   ♦   ♦   ♦   ♦

Appendix: Wardrobe Checklist

1 Cowboy Waitress Outfit (a reminder of your humble roots)

1 Fur-Trimmed Coat-and-Dress Set

1 Gate-Crashing Party Dress

1 Driving-in-the-Country Suit

1 Sight-Seeing Outfit (suitable for submarine travel)

1 Swishy Gown (with sequinned appliqué)

1 Impromptu Cultural Dance Outfit

1 Trench Coat (for hasty getaways)

1 Breakfast Pantsuit

1 Butterfly-Themed LOOK-AT-ME Dress

1 Swimsuit (not for swimming)

Moon Over Miami: Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Robert Cummings. Directed by Walter Lang. Written by Vincent Lawrence & Brown Holmes. Twentieth Century-Fox, 1941, Technicolor, 91 mins.

Winston Churchill vs. Colonel Blimp

LIfe-long pals Image: kdjf eif

Roger Livesey (left) plays a bombastic yet lovable Colonel. Image: moviemail.com

When we (as in, yours truly) were young, we felt we were smarter than older generations because we could identify the celebrities du jour. We thought this somehow made us smarter, which is rather embarrassing to admit.

Now that we’re a bit older, we realize we don’t know as much as the generation before or after us, which is also rather embarrassing.

There’s a lot to be said about the experience and wisdom of older generations, but oftentimes the fresh perspective of younger generations is necessary.

This is one of the themes of the British WWII war dramedy The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film about a young British army soldier who duels with, then befriends, a German soldier. He remains the German’s lifelong friend despite the miles between them, a mutual love for the same woman, and a mild skirmish known as WWI.

The main character is a clever young man who serves his country his entire life with the ideals he was raised, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly out of step with the perplexing twentieth century.

So, who on earth was Colonel Blimp?

Blimp was a popular British cartoon that lampooned stuffy, démodé leaders in government and the military. Blimp often makes circular arguments and/or arrives at ridiculous conclusions, most of which are based on the assumption that the British Empire Is Never Wrong. Here is an example:

Colonel Blimp in his element. Image: akdsjf

Colonel Blimp waxing eloquent in his Turkish bath. Image: Air Force Amazons

The movie Colonel Blimp is named Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), and when we first meet him, he is just like the cartoon figure pictured above. He is an awkward, blustery old man, complete with giant walrus moustache.

We also discover, however, that Wynne-Candy is also a man who loves deeply and, when he was a young man, he fell in love with a woman he didn’t marry – and never got over it. (This woman is Deborah Kerr, who plays three women in the film.) Not only that, his fondness and admiration for his German friend (Anton Walbrook), is a remarkable show of loyalty. Despite our initial impressions, we find ourselves becoming enamoured with Wynne-Candy.

Colonel Blimp is considered one of the greatest British films ever made; it was written and directed by the brilliant filmmaking duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. One of the most remarkable scenes features a monologue by Anton Walbrook when his character applies for refugee status in England. The monologue starts at the 1:16 mark below. When Walbrook begins his speech, notice the camera never looks away, never blinks.

But when Colonel Blimp was released in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill tried to have it banned, even though it was a commercial success – and even though it contained Walbrook’s inspirational monologue. When the ban attempt failed, he managed to delay its international release until 1945.

Colonel Blimp, we presume? Image: lskdfj

Colonel Blimp’s personality bears no resemblance to Winston Churchill. None what-so-ever. Image: Cinemas Online

One can’t be too hard on Churchill for this position. It was WWII, after all, and British civilians were asked to make great sacrifices for the war. He certainly wanted to keep civilian morale high, and having a pompous, slightly ridiculous character lampooning the military was, in his mind, likely defeating the purpose.

(The British media, like any other media, loves a whiff of scandal, and they discussed Churchill’s displeasure with this film at length in 2012, when Colonel Blimp was re-released. You can see an example here.)

If you’ve not seen The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, please set aside an evening for it. It’s a gorgeous film, and is ranked 45 out of the top 100 British films of all time. More importantly, however, you’ll be glad to make Colonel Blimp’s acquaintance.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Anton Walbrook. Written & directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Rank Organisation, 1943, Technicolor, 163 mins.

This post is part of the BRITISH EMPIRE Blogathon hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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The Enchanting Soviet Cinderella

Zolushka (Cinderella) alskdjf asdjkf Image: media.4local.ru

Zolushka (Cinderella) dreams of dancing and eating ice cream. Image: media.4local.ru

Get this.

Did you know that Soviet filmmakers released a film in 1947 that rivals MGM’s The Wizard of Oz? Yup, when you compare music, sets and costumes, the Soviet film measures up to the MGM extravaganza in nearly every way.

Zolushka is a retelling of the classic Cinderella tale. A loving and sweet-tempered girl lives with her unkind stepmother and two stepsisters, who use guilt and intimidation to keep Zolushka in her place as a servant.

Zolushka truly is a marvel. She cleans the house, gathers heavy firewood and sews her sisters’ ball gowns – all in one evening.

On the night of the ball, Zolushka asks permission to go to the park to gaze at the party from a distance. (Is that not the saddest request you’ve ever heard?) The stepmother agrees but says a few chores must be completed first, such as pulling weeds, sorting beans and painting the house.

This film has a witty script, with some unexpected lines. For instance, a woodchopper says Zolushka’s Step-Aunt was eaten by an ogre, who subsequently died of poisoning. In another scene, the king talks up his princely son by exclaiming, “He can do speeches! And poems! And compliments!”

The script also contains hues of Marxism. For example, the king is friends with commoners, which suggests Soviet society does not contain societal classes. “Because our kingdom is a Fairytale Kingdom for a reason,” he says. (Cough – baloney! – cough.)

The Fairy Godmother, too, is a Soviet Propaganda Tutor. After she transforms Zolushka from girl-in-rags to girl-in-shiny-gown, she offers a little speech: “I can see clearly that, although dressed in a lavish ball gown, you’ll remain the sweet and hardworking girl you’ve always been. And please stay that way. It will bring you happiness.”

This film borrows heavily from folklore. As a result, it has lots of magic. Magic is crucial, but perhaps not so much to the film nor to the girl Zolushka.

The magic is essential for the audience.

The Soviet fairy godmother instructs Zolushka to work hard. Image: sldkfj asdj

Mother Russia – er, the Fairy Godmother showers magic on Zolushka. Image: Zolushka Online

Zolushka was released two years after World War II, and the horrors of that war would still be fresh in the minds of Soviet audiences. While WWII was grisly on all fronts, it could be argued that some of the most gruesome events took place on Soviet soil.

Zolushka’s stepmother, for instance, muses about her future once one of her daughters has married the prince: “It’s a shame this kingdom is too small for me,” she says. “I’ll have no room for my antics. But that’s fixable – I’ll fight my neighbours.” This thinly-veiled reference to Adolph Hitler and his imperialistic tendencies would certainly strike a chord with audiences. (Never mind that the Soviet government had these same tendencies; that’s a discussion for another day.)

Before the war, Soviet citizens would have already suffered from pogroms, forced collectivization of farms, mass starvation, political and military purges, the prison system (a.k.a. the Gulag), and constant surveillance by the NSA, oops, the KGB.

Soviet audiences needed beauty and magic because they were Zolushka – downtrodden souls kept in servitude, living in a dreary, thankless regime. The girl on the screen with the crystal shoes is the embodiment of the Soviet populace. “Happiness has vanished as a mirage,” sings the girl, “and sorrow is in front of me.”

Zolushka is probably one of the most haunting and beautifully-filmed versions of the Cinderella story, if not the most meaningful. Whether or not you have an interest in Soviet-era cinema, we highly recommend it.

Zolushka: Yanina Zhejmo, Aleksei Konsovsky, Erast Garin. Directed by Nadezhda Kosheverova and Mikhail Shapiro. Written by Yevgeni Shvarts. Lenfilm Studio, 1947, Colour, 79 mins.

This post is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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The Amazing Edward G. Robinson: Is He or Isn’t He?

Edward G. Robinson (centre) leads a dangerous double life. Image lksdjf klsadfj

Edward G. Robinson (centre) leads a dangerous double life. Image: fdp.pl

Sometimes movies pose tantalizing questions, such as: Is the main character off his rocker?

Hamlet is a famous example of a character with ambiguous mental health; so is another lesser-known figure, Dr.  Clitterhouse.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) is a black comedy about a successful medical doctor (Edward G. Robinson) who becomes fascinated by what he calls “the Criminal Mind”. He desires to write a book examining the physiological characteristics of criminal brains, and he’s convinced this research will help law enforcement agents battle crime.

The only way he can do this, he reasons, is to become a criminal himself so he can measure his physiological responses (e.g. blood pressure, pupil dilation, etc.) after committing a crime.

Fortunately for Robinson, he falls in with a gang headed by criminal power couple Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor. Their gang specializes in stealing and liquidating stolen goods.

Robinson couldn’t be happier in this new secret life as a gangster – er, we mean his new life as a “scientific researcher”. He continually monitors gang members’ vital signs before and after they stage robberies, and carefully records this data in a thick book for future analysis.

Unfortunately for Robinson, a disgruntled Bogart distrusts his motives, and refuses to participate in the testing. He also doesn’t like Trevor’s growing attraction to Robinson. (What? You didn’t think Edward G. Robinson was a ladies’ man? Get outta here! Dames fall for him all the time.)

A showdown between Bogart and Robinson is inevitable – and it coincides with Robinson’s realization that, in order to have perfect insight into the Criminal Mind, he needs to commit the ultimate crime: Murder.

Humprey Bogart (centre) suddenly feels ill after trying to Blackmail Edward G. Robinson (left). Image: aldfkj

Humphrey Bogart (centre) suddenly feels ill after a foiled blackmail attempt. Image & review: Pretty Clever Films

Robinson’s mental state is the central question in this film. Is he misguided in his pursuit of science? Is he fulfilling secret criminal fantasies? Or is he plain wacko?

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse was originally a short story by British playwright Barré Lyndon before it was adapted as a stage play that ran in both London and New York.

We (as in, yours truly) are very fussy when it comes to transferring plays to the screen. We find there is a tendency for scenes to drag and the dialogue to become onerous. But this is not the case with Dr. Clitterhouse.

Director Anatole Litvak and screenwriters John Wexley and John Huston have created a near-perfect screen adaptation. For instance, in one scene, there is a robbery at a fur coat manufacturer which is as tense as anything you’ve seen in a film noir. As this scene unfolds, you’ll find yourself holding your breath. Guaranteed.

The movie is also perfectly cast, with Bogart as the sneering, sarcastic hoodlum, and Trevor as the ambitious criminal businesswoman. And there is Robinson, a mercurial character who purposely allows us to read into his motives whatever we choose.

This is one of those rare films that lends itself to intense philosophical discussion. What is the role of science in our society? How far should scientists go verify controversial hypotheses?

If you’re keen to see Edward G. Robinson as a lunatic-but-maybe-not-a-lunatic, we recommend The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. This movie will keep you guessing until the end – and even then you may not be sure.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse: Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Hymphrey Bogart. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Written by John Wexley and John Huston. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1938, B&W, 87 mins.

A Mexican Revenge

Dolores del Rio plays Pat O'Brien like a two-bit Image: kdsjf dksljf

Dolores del Rio is dressed for revenge. Image: Dawn’s Dolores del Rio

They say revenge is a dish best served cold.

We (as in, yours truly) are not very skilled in the “getting even” department, which is why we’re paying close attention to a 1935 comedy about Mexican folks getting even with American folks.

In Caliente is a stylish 1930s musical comedy with dazzling choreography by Busby Berkeley. It stars the über-glam Dolores del Rio as a Mexican-born dancer who is unable to forgive a New York magazine editor for disparaging her talent in print.

Pat O’Brien plays said editor, a rapid-speaking, short-tempered man who believes yelling is better than talking. He is also the worst kind of critic because he writes reviews of performances without ever seeing them.

In his magazine, O’Brien wrote that del Rio was “a bag of bones” and “onion soup without the onions.” (Whoa! Watch that smart mouth of yours, O’Brien.)

So, if you were Dolores del Rio and you knew this cad was vacationing in your hometown the same time you were, would you be tempted to get even? Exactly.

Fortunately for del Rio, O’Brien becomes smitten with her as soon as he sees her, and who could blame him? She’s the Hollywood Gold Standard: thin, beautiful, well dressed. She’s the type who exercises in chiffon.

del Rio and her manager (Leo Carrillo) use O’Brien’s feelings to leverage their revenge. (“His name is engraved on my heart in letters of blood,” says a seething Carrillo.) These two careful plot their revenge until – uh oh! – del Rio discovers O’Brien is not quite the beast she thought he was and, despite everything, she may be falling for him.

Drat. Another Hollywood story where True Love derails revenge and no one wants to get even any more.

Or do they?

(actor) loves to do business with Americans. (Screencap by yours truly)

Leo Carrillo (left) loves doing business with Americans.

The most interesting revenge in this movie doesn’t involve del Rio at all. It involves the citizens of Caliente.

Caliente, as portrayed by the movie, is a resort town overrun with Americans who can’t spend money fast enough. These Americans are used to having a Certain Level of Service. For instance, they need people to carry luggage, drive taxis and mix cocktails. By default, these thankless tasks must fall to the residents of Caliente.

Not only that, the Americans have turned Caliente into the ideal American resort, with gentrified tennis courts and chaise lounges by the pool. The Americans don’t really want to be in Mexico, they just want to say they’ve been.

What’s a local resident to do?

Whenever possible, the film shows locals cheerfully hustling Americans at the card table or over-charging them to have their picture taken on a mule. A local band charges a small fee to play at your party, but it’ll cost you more if you want them to leave.

There is a wonderful scene (on the golf course!) where Carrillo hustles O’Brien’s assistant (Edward Everett Horton). Carrillo explains del Rio is a great artist but not a business woman and that she’ll need “a little something in advance.” Horton promptly writes a cheque.

See? These locals are only doing what the Americans want, and that is to ease money out of those alligator-skin wallets.

In Caliente is a frilly and beautifully-filmed movie with a talented cast and memorable music. However, you may find yourself rooting more for the residents of Caliente than the main characters.

In Caliente: Dolores del Rio, Pat O’Brien, Leo Carrillo. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Jerry Wald and Julius Epstein. Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., 1935, B&W, 84 mins.

This post is part of the HOLLYWOOD HISPANIC HERITAGE blogathon hosted by Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon a Screen. Be sure to read all the other contributions!

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Stealing the Scen(ery) from Buster Keaton

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Buster Keaton knits a fashionable sweater while riding through the Canadian Rockies. Image: shelleysdavies.com

Buster Keaton may have been one of the most coordinated people on earth.

His early film career is testament to his athleticism and physical sense of humour. The brilliant 1926 film, The General, for example, has you holding your breath as Keaton performs stunts on moving trains. Sometimes you can hardly watch because of the danger, but he’s so nimble and funny you can’t not watch.

One of Keaton’s last film roles was also performed on a moving train – or, more accurately, a railway speeder.

In the 1965 silent short, The Railrodder, Keaton is a Londoner who sees a newspaper ad promoting Canadian tourism, and immediately decides to travel to the Great White North. When he arrives on Canada’s Atlantic shore, he discovers two things: (1) it’s 3,900 miles to the Pacific Ocean; and (2) there’s an abandoned railway speeder which he uses to get across that 3900-mile stretch.

The Railrodder is a rather strange, but delightful homage to Keaton’s silent film prowess and to the importance of the railroad in Canadian history. Keaton, who turned 69(!) during filming, busies himself while riding the speeder across Canada. He cooks scrambled eggs, does a bit of “housework”, tries to hunt geese. All of these are done while the speeder is in motion.

There are quieter moments, too. In one scene, Keaton stops the speeder in the middle of the Prairies while he prissily sets out a formal tea service and sips, unhurriedly, from a china cup.

All of these activities are made possible by the presence of a mysterious orange box on the speeder. This box seems to house an entire props department including, but not limited to, a rifle, the aforementioned tea service, and a large buffalo-skin coat to wear whilst riding through the mountains.

The Railrodder is determined to show us how progressive Canada was in the mid 1960s. Scenes unfailingly include power lines, manufacturing plants, and bridges – lots of bridges. To someone who hasn’t been to Canada, it might look as though you couldn’t spit without hitting a bridge.

Despite these unsightly signs of progress, Canada looks beautiful and majestic and interesting. Which creates an unusual dilemma.

Keaton laksjdf sfdj. Image: alksdjf dkjs

The well-dressed Keaton surveys the Prairies. Image: Will Has a Blog

Keaton is billed as the star of the show, and rightfully so. He’s funny, engaging and utterly entertaining. (Click here for an outtake prank.) But he has to work to steal the scene from the main character: Canada.

In our opinion (not that we’re biased), some of the most impressive Canadian scenery is left out of the film. Yet, the varied landscapes – from ocean to prairie to mountain – make you appreciate how big this place is. (Canada is the second largest nation, area-wise, in the world.)

There’s absolutely no one else besides Buster Keaton you’d want riding a speeder across Canada. But when he’s in the Rockies, for instance, you hardly notice him. The mountains look so crisp and inviting it’s easy to get lost in the scenery.

The Railrodder was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and every Canadian Of A Certain Age has seen it at least once. We adore this film because it embraces two things we admire: Buster Keaton’s talent and our magnificent country.

The Railrodder: starring Buster Keaton. Directed by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton & John Spotton). Written by Gerald Potterton (and the uncredited Buster Keaton). The National Film Board of Canada, 1965, Colour, 25 mins.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by yours truly and the über-Canadian Speakeasy. Click HERE for a list of participants.

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Fly Fishing with William Powell

William Powell (right) is confident in his fake-fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema

William Powell (right) is confident in his fake fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema

Sometimes, knowing what you’re doing is overrated.

Who doesn’t love that adrenaline rush of panic and disbelief when you’re caught, unprepared, in a frantic situation beyond your control? That’s when you know you’re alive.

Many actors have beautifully demonstrated this type of unfortunate circumstance, and one of our favourites is William Powell in the 1936 screwball comedy Libeled Lady.

Libeled Lady is a very funny movie with this cast: Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. It has a smart script, gorgeous Cedric Gibbons‘ set designs and an enviable wardrobe by Dolly Tree. Here is a movie that cannot go wrong.

Briefly, the plot: Tracy plays the managing editor of a newspaper that prints a story accusing a socialite (Loy) of being a home wrecker. Loy, who is vacationing in Europe, threatens to sue the paper upon her return to the United States. Tracy, fearing the $5 million lawsuit will bankrupt his newspaper, plans a “sting” operation: He will ask his girlfriend (Harlow) to temporarily marry Powell (in name only), then arrange a compromising situation between Powell and Loy. This will make the Loy homewrecking story actually true, the lawsuit will be dropped, and everyone can just move along. Nothing to see here.

As part of his scheme to seduce Loy, Powell decides to go through her father (Walter Connolly), a rich industrialist and an avid trout fisherman. Powell devours fly fishing books, and even arranges for a fly-fishing tutor to visit him at his hotel where he’s staging a fake honeymoon with the agitated Harlow.

(Digression: It’s a treat to see the Powell-and-Harlow scenes, since they were a real-life couple. Powell’s character is polite and courteous towards Harlow, while she becomes increasingly irritated with distracted boyfriend Tracy and starts falling for Powell.)

After he travels to London, Powell immediately finds Loy and Connolly on the ship leaving for America. Powell starts in with the fishing yarns, but Loy is suspicious.

Connolly (to Powell): “So, you’ve fished Gluckman’s Point. Well, you’re an angler all right.”

Loy: “I should say Mr. Chandler’s quite an angler.”

Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: Pinterest

Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: pinterest.com

 

We know the movie is building towards an epic Man-Versus-Trout battle and we are not disappointed. Once they are landed in the U.S., Connolly invites Powell to on a fishing trip with Loy and himself. Powell arrives, decked out in shiny new fishing gear and a copy of The Anglers’ Hand-Book for Beginners tucked in his creel (basket). While Connolly and Loy are expertly casting their lines – and catching fish – Powell ends up in the drink, only to discover his precious Hand-Book cheerfully floating downstream.

This is precisely one of the things that we, the audience, have paid for. The William Powell of the 1930s is a study in scrupulous grooming; he practically gleams with studio polish. As much as we adore him, we want to see him floundering down a stream in a wet, floppy hat, desperately clinging to a fishing rod as though it were useful. It makes the urbane Powell less of a movie star and more like one of us – and we love him all the more for it.

Libeled Lady is a movie that isn’t as popular as it deserves to be. The entire movie is a delight, but the scenes of Powell’s attempts at fly fishing are pure movie magic.

Libeled Lady: starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. Written by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, George Oppenheimer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1936, B&W, 98 mins.

The Infatuation Drug

Note: This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Today’s movie connects to Speakeasy’s My Darling Clementine via producer/writer Samuel G. Engel.

Pat Boone (left) counsels Dick Sargent on the ways of l'amour. Image: ebay

Pat Boone (left) counsels Dick Sargent on How to Romance Women. Image: eBay

Maybe young Pat Boone didn’t realize how brave he was.

In the 1957 musical comedy Bernardine, the young singer plays a slick-talking but misguided lothario who dispenses advice like he’s dispensing medicine.

“Misguided” could be too soft a word. In one scene, Boone’s character refers to a friend’s girlfriend by saying, “It belongs to Wilson.” In another scene, he sings about “technique” and how women love it when men are deceitful and neglectful.

Pretty offensive stuff – and would be to women in the 1950s – except for one thing: Boone plays the character with such over-the-top sliminess that you become fascinated by his outrageously stupid worldview.

Bernardine, based on the play by Mary Chase, stars Boone and Dick Sargent as high school seniors who are three weeks away from graduating. But Sargent’s grades are so poor, he may not graduate if he doesn’t pass his final exams. Added to this turmoil is Sargent’s inability to romance girls, despite Boone’s prescriptions.

Sargent and Boone have fantasized about the ultimate dream woman whom they’ve named Bernardine Mudd (of all things). Things get complicated when Sargent meets the beautiful Terry Moore, with whom he becomes instantly smitten. Here’s his real-life Bernardine!

However, final exams loom large, and Sargent is forced to put his romantic life on hold. He must remain sequestered in his house for two weeks to cram. He panics: What if Moore meets someone else in the meantime?!!!!!

During his “captivity”, Sargent is jittery, unfocused, irritable – much like someone going through withdrawal. Love/infatuation is a drug, they say, and Sargent’s character is a first-rate addict.

Terry Moore has her pick of men. Image: ebay

Terry Moore is the object of Dick Sargent’s obsessive affections. Image: eBay

Bernardine is a deceptively clever film. Here we have Boone, a smooth talker who employs a $50-dollar vocabulary and good-naturedly teases his chums. But while Boone winks at his friends, the movie winks at us. Can you believe these morons? the filmmakers seem to say.

Yet this movie is not so light-hearted as it first appears. Janet Gaynor, who plays Sargent’s mother, has a rather preachy lecture about parenting, but offers some thoughtful insights. The ending, too, is surprisingly philosophical, and it’s here Boone and Sargent prove they can really act.

In many ways, producer Samuel G. Engel has created a cliché 1950s teen film, with a handsome pop star singing about love and teenagers clad in wide skirts and sweater vests. But its strong characters and witty script give it a timeless feel, along with the obvious infatuation/pharmaceutical symbolism.

Producer Engel was no dummy. Besides producing and screenwriting, he was President of the Producer’s Guild of America (1955-1958), and lobbied to include short films in the Academy Awards. Before he came to Hollywood, he was a successful businessman who owned a chain of retail outlets in Manhattan.

These retail outlets were drugstores.

Samuel Engel was a pharmacologist by trade, who earned his degree at the Albany College of Pharmacy.

Now, we ask you: Who better to show us that infatuation is a drug? Engel has shrewdly done so with the little-known musical Bernardine.

Bernardine: Pat Boone, Terry Moore, Janet Gaynor. Directed by Henry Levin. Written by Theodore Reeves. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1957, Colour (by DeLuxe), 95 mins.

This post is part of the Build-Your-Own Blogathon hosted by the über chic Classic Film & TV Café. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.

BYOB

John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety

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Charles Winninger won’t talk politics today, gentlemen. *Wink!*  Image: Alt Screen

Guess which of John Ford‘s films was his favourite. Come on, take a wild guess.

The Sun Shines Bright is not a typical John Ford movie. There isn’t a single A-list actor, nor does it appear to have an expensive budget. Despite this (or because of it?) the director labeled it as his favourite.

The Sun Shines Bright is about a small southern town at the turn of the twentieth century. It is based on three short stories written by American humourist Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944).

The town’s circuit judge, played by Charles Winninger, is facing re-election. Winninger’s character is a down-to-earth man who refers to his drink as “corn squeezin’s”, and scurries about helping his fellow townspeople. However, he is always in election mode and often mockingly protests, “No politics today, gentlemen.” It’s a rather disingenuous campaign strategy when you think about it.

While the campaigning is afoot, an African American teenager (Elzie Emanuel) is arrested for raping a white girl. Winninger works to calm the town’s anger, especially when a lynch mob marches toward the jail where Emanuel is held.

In the midst of all this, a young woman who was adopted as a child (Arleen Whelan) tries to find the truth about her birth family.

There is a lot to admire about The Sun Shines Bright. It’s beautifully filmed, like all of Ford’s movies, with each shot artfully framed. It doesn’t easily slide easily into one genre, so it is more reflective of actual life. It is a drama and a comedy and a philosophical history.

It’s the kind of movie that should make us think Ford-as-storyteller is a fine humanitarian.

But it doesn’t.

It can’t, because we are watching John Ford’s Theatre of Faux Piety. This is where words do not match actions, and the discrepancy between the two is so jarring we can hardly concentrate on the plot.

skdfj alksfj d Image: blu-ray.com

Stepin Fetchit as Winninger’s “assistant” (read: Servant). Image: blu-ray.com

The themes of this film are hypocrisy and redemption, as illustrated by these scenarios:

  • a young woman is ostracized by her fellow townsfolk because she was born out of wedlock.
  • when a sick woman with a dubious reputation arrives in town, she shunned by “decent” folk and is forced to take refuge at a brothel.
  • when a white girl is assaulted, police immediately arrest an African American teenager without proof.

These are thought-provoking themes that should be explored in film. Yet it’s strange that in a movie preaching Equality For All, the director presents African Americans as weak, one-dimensional characters who are completely dependent upon white townsfolk. Subtext: everyone deserves to be equal but them.

These characters have neither original thought nor ambition nor bravery. Really? People who survived slavery – and all that went with it – are now simpering fools?

It’s Faux Piety. Because Ford presents African Americans as ludicrous caricatures, the movie becomes hollow. When Emanuel is found innocent of rape charges, the film celebrates Winninger the Hero instead of examining the actions that imprisoned an innocent teenager to begin with.

We are left wondering: Redemption for some, but not all?

The Sun Shines Bright could have been one of the great films of Ford’s career. Instead, it leaves us feeling like a great premise has been squandered.

The Sun Shines Bright: starring Charles Winninger, Arleen Whelan, John Russell. Directed by John Ford. Written by Laurence Stallings. Republic Pictures Corp., 1953, B&W, 100 mins.

This post is part of the JOHN FORD BLOGATHON hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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