Ma and Pa Kettle a/k/a The Further Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)
dir. Charles Lamont
written by Al Lewis, Herbert Margolis, Louis Morheim
w/ Marjorie Main, Percy Kilbride, Richard Long, Meg Randall, Esther Dale, Barry Kelley, Harry Antrim, Isabel O’Madigan, Ida Moore, Emory Parnell, Boyd Davis, O.Z. Whitehead, Ray Bennett, Alvin Hammer, Lester Allen, Chief Yowlachie, Rex Lease, Ted Stanhope, Harry Cheshire
Ma and Pa Kettle are two of the most famous hillbilly characters of all time, on par with Li’l Abner and his Dogpatch set or the Clampetts on The Beverly Hillbillies. The Kettles originated in Betty MacDonald’s million-selling memoir The Egg and I, adapted two years later into a six million dollar hit at the box office. Money pit meets culture clash in The Egg and I, centering on a suburban couple (Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray) who buy an egg farm in the country. Their neighbors are the nonconforming, freeloading, chaos-prone Kettle clan: Ma (Marjorie Main) and Pa (Percy Kilbride) and their 15 kids. Main earned a Supporting Oscar nomination and The Kettles earned their own movie, the first of nine, titled The Further Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle. It reverses the Egg and I plot, really. Local authorities, including busybody Birdie Hicks (Esther Dale of Curly Top and Easy Living), would love to see the Kettles’ ramshackle homestead condemned. The problem seems to solve itself when Pa wins a fully furnished “House of the Future” through a tobacco company slogan contest. The Kettles don’t adapt well to upward mobility, however; for Pa, especially, “it’s nothing but trouble from these modern gadgets.” Bridging the country-proud Kettle culture and the world of moviegoers are oldest Kettle son Tom (Richard Long), a college graduate who’s just returned home, and his would-be girlfriend (Meg Randall), a young reporter writing an article on the Kettles’ change in social status. It all builds to gunfire and dynamite and reunified Kettles who not only get to keep the house, they win a trip to New York City too—setting up for the next movie in the series Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950). The Kettles reigned at the box office for ten years, earning over 30 million dollars and lifting Universal Studios from its slump. If Generation X feels nostalgic about Ma and Pa Kettle movies, it’s because we were kids or teens in the 1970s-1980s when the movies were popular as Sunday afternoon fare on TV. Each movie is 75-80 minutes.
Mad Love (1935) dir. Karl Freund
written by PJ Wolfson, John L. Balderston
w/ Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive, Edward Brophy, Ted Healey, Sara Haden, Henry Kolker, Keye Luke, May Beatty
After achieving fame as the child-killer in M (1931), Lorre made his US debut as Dr. Gogol in this Hands of Orlac (1924) remake. Gogol despairs: “I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?” He is a bizarre and contradictory figure. Grotesque-looking, short and bald, he attends the Theater Of Horrors every night without fail. Yet he is also a world-famous surgeon who’s helped many deformed children. Drake enlists him to save the hands of her pianist husband, played by Colin Clive a/k/a Dr. Frankenstein, which were severed in a train wreck. Gogol, a Dr. Frankenstein of sorts himself, transplants the hands of an executed murderer (Edward Brophy). Yes the new hands take over! According to An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, Freund “piles on absurdities and macabre touches, pulling it off by means of a Grand Guignol style” and surpassing the Hands of Orlac original. Freund served as cinematographer for Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and, later, 149 episodes of I Love Lucy.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) dir. Leo McCarey
written by Viña Delmar
w/ Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Porter Hall, Barbara Read, Maurice Moscovitch, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombell
Released by Criterion, the DVD sleeve calls it “one of the great unsung Hollywood masterpieces, an enormously moving Depression-era depiction of the frustrations of family, aging, and the generation gap.” It’s about a couple who, after 50 years and five kids together, lose their house and are forced to separate. Victor Moore, a vaudeville comedian, plays the father staying with his bitter daughter Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) who clearly dislikes his new Jewish friend (Maurice Moskovitch). Beulah Bondi, known for playing Jimmy Stewart’s mother in several different films, is perfect as the wife separated from her doting husband. She’s staying with her son (Thomas Mitchell) and snooty daughter-in-law (Fay Bainter) who want to put her in a home. Bondi’s best scene, often referred to by critics, takes place on bridge night. She answers a phone call from her husband, at first annoying the well-to-do bridge players and then, as they overhear the conversation, saddening them and making them feel guilty. It’s a brilliantly nonverbal group response, captured by the camera in a most heartrending manner. The film culminates with the couple’s rendezvous in NYC—where everyone is nice to them—and then ends on the most heartbreaking note possible, all the more because of its restraint. When this movie was made, according to critic Gary Giddins, social security was being debated in the US much like healthcare is debated now. Viña Delmar also penned The Awful Truth that same year, earning herself an Oscar nomination and McCarey a Best Director win. McCarey, accepting his award, told the audience that the Academy had given it to him for the wrong movie. He considered Make Way for Tomorrow his best film.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
dir. William Keighley
written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
w/ Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Billie Burke, Grant Mitchell, Elisabeth Fraser, Reginald Gardiner, Ann Sheridan, Richard Travis, Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes, Russell Arms, George Barbier
An instantly recognizable character actor, born Edgar Montillion Woolley, his close friend Cole Porter nicknamed him “The Beard” and his Ivy League education, combined with lots of Broadway experience and a gay sensibility, shows through nearly every film role he played (far too few, alas). This is his quintessential role as stuck-up critic Sheridan Whiteside, which he originated in the Broadway hit by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. On a lecture tour with his secretary (Bette Davis), Sheridan’s very first line is: “I refuse to sit down to dinner with Midwestern barbarians! I think too highly of my digestive system.” His barbaric hosts are the respectable Stanleys, played by helium-voiced Burke and iron-faced Mitchell. Due to a rather slapstick injury, Sheridan is forced not only to dine with the Stanleys and their grown kids (Fraser, Arms) but to convalesce in their home for weeks. The hilarious Mary Wickes (Trouble with Angels, Sister Act, Postcards from the Edge) plays his nurse, whom he refers to as “Miss Stomach Pump.” Her retort: “If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed you, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross.” Whiteside, by the way, is based on famous Broadway critic Alexander Woolcott, known for his caustic wit and his intense friendships with women like Dorothy Parker. 112 minutes.
Maniac a/k/a Sex Maniac (1934) dir. Dwain Esper
written by Hildegarde Stadie
w/ Bill Woods, Horace Carpenter, Ted Edwards, Theo Ramsey, Jenny Dark, Marvel Andre, Celia McCann, J.P. Wade, Marion Blackton
Husband-wife team Esper and Stadie are the father and mother of exploitation cinema, anticipating the most beloved stinker-makers like Ed Wood. Between writing and directing the exploitation classics Narcotic in 1933, with its tagline “from Heaven to Hell with a hop-head,” and 1936’s Marihuana about the “weed with roots in Hell,” they made their anti-masterpiece Maniac, framed as an educational film equating “mental disease” with criminality. The plot centers on a vaudeville impersonator Don (Bill Woods) who kills and assumes the identity of Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter), a scientist experimenting with bringing the dead back to life. Don seals the doctor’s corpse behind a brick wall with, unbeknownst to Don, a black cat—an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe, of course. Tormenting guilt takes the form of a montage that incorporates hellish clips from the Swedish film Witchcraft Through the Ages (1920). Maniac as a whole feels like a montage, ever-lively in its disjointed spectacle. Eric Schaefer, in his tome on early exploitation films, says the often random moments of spectacle in Maniac “condition the surrounding scenes, making them seem more unusual, more highly charged, more spectacular. We can think of this as exploitation film’s corollary to the Kuleshov Effect.” Indeed, seemingly inserted scenes of lingerie-clad girls gabbing in a bedroom or a cat-farming neighbor named Goof are pulsing with weirdness. Ted Edwards plays the patient who goes crazy, a hilarious scene and the peak of his long career as a bit player in silent shorts. It ends on a basement catfight so sleazy I’m reminded of the kidnapped girls in the basement in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Highly recommended and fairly easy to find on DVD for under five dollars. 51 minutes.
The Merry Frinks (1934) dir. Alfred E. Green
written by Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola
w/ Aline MacMahon, Hugh Herbert, Guy Kibbee, Allen Jenkins, Helen Lowell, Joan Wheeler, Frankie Darro, Louise Beavers, Harry Beresford, Harold Huber, James Bush, James Burke, Dick Elliott
MacMahon and Kibbee, along with an ensemble of other forceful personalities, bring to life the edgy pandemonium of apartment life with too many Frinks—“The Royal Family of Nuts,” according to the trailer. MacMahon plays the mom who bears it all gracefully…until the day an inheritance allows her to escape. What the Frink will they do without her? Big lug Guy Kibbee (Captain January, Dames) is Uncle Newt, a vagabond who’s arrived with a steamer trunk and a big appetite. Scene-chomping Allen Jenkins (42nd Street) is antagonistic socialist Uncle Emmett who declares that after the Revolution “all the workers in the world will eat strawberries and cream” while they “do away with manners.” And Hugh Herbert (Gold Diggers of 1935, Dames) is unambitious Poppa Frink, an alcoholic journalist who’s lost one job after another. As a mean old grandma who puts the tank in cantankerous, Helen Lowell is strikingly distinct from her maid role in the Kibbee-MacMahon feature Big Hearted Herbert (also 1934). With a couple of bitter teens (Wheeler, Darro) in the mix. It feels like a bellowing and grimacing version of Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938). Co-written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, the latter known for the pre-code classic Female (1933).
Min and Bill (1930) dir. George W. Hill
written by Frances Marion, Marion Jackson
w/ Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Donald Dillaway, DeWitt Jennings, Russell Hopton, Frank McGlynn, Gretta Gould
62-year-old Dressler won a Best Actress Oscar playing a woman who sacrifices for her daughter, but Stella Dallas this is not. A self-proclaimed “old sea cow” who owns a dockside hotel, Min is the burliest, gruffest character that lesbian Dressler ever played. She’ll “drink anything from bug juice to rot gut.” Her best pal and drinking buddy is a ship’s captain named Bill, played by the corpulent actor Beery who has the biggest and sweetest smile—when he actually smiles. In a fight scene between the two, Min wrestles him to the floor, knocks over furniture, and then takes an axe to the closet where he’s hidden himself. It’s astounding. No wonder they were the biggest box office draw that year. The plot pivots on Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), whom Min unofficially adopted as a baby. Now a teen who’d rather work at the hotel than go to school, Nancy’s life with Min is threatened by interfering local authorities as well as the return of Nancy’s biological mom (viciously portrayed by Marjorie Rambeau). The final scene, particularly Dressler’s final moment, is surprisingly understated and so very satisfying. 66 minutes. Dressler and Beery would also co-star in Tugboat Annie and Dinner at Eight (both 1933).
Miss Annie Rooney (1942) dir. Edwin L. Marin
written by George Bruce
w/ Shirley Temple, Guy Kibbee, William Gargan, Dickie Moore, Peggy Ryan, Jonathan Hale, Gloria Holden, Mary Field, George Lloyd, June Lockhart
Temple and Kibbee, who co-starred in Captain January in 1936, reunite in this unfairly dismissed teen comedy that’s not yet on DVD and rare on VHS. Temple is Annie, a pretentious 16-year-old who’s fluent in two languages: Shakespearean poetry and modern slang. Her best friend is Myrtle, played with nerdy coolness by Peggy Ryan of The Merry Monahans (1944) and Men in Her Diary (1945). Marty (Dickie Moore) is Annie’s crush and her first kiss. With the encouragement of her dear ol’ Irish grandpa (a sweeter, less blustery Guy Kibbee), Annie attends Marty’s birthday party and teaches snobs to jitterbug. But then her widower dad (William Gargan) intrudes to pitch a milkweed rubber formula to Marty’s dad, an important manufacturer, thus ruining Annie’s intro into society. Despite her spirited performance, wartime audiences mostly rejected a wisecracking bookworm Shirley Temple of boy-kissing age. It’s too bad because she’s such a pro. Check her out in I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).
Miss Robin Hood (1952) dir. John Guillermin
written by Patrick Campbell, Val Valentine
w/ Margaret Rutherford, Richard Hearne, James Robertson Justice, Edward Lexy, Fanny Rowe, Michael Medwin, Eunice Grayson, Sidney James, Dora Bryan, Eric Berry
Dame Margaret Rutherford may have been a late bloomer, career-wise, but during and after WWII she was well on her way to becoming one of Britain’s national treasures. She received unanimous praise for her performance as Miss Prism in the classic film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), but her turn in the pulpish follow-up Miss Robin Hood garnered less admiration (unfair comparison?). I think it’s if not underrated then underappreciated. Lighter fare yet broadly proletariat, this fantasy caper centers on mild-mannered Mr. Wrigley (Richard Hearne), the writer of what we might now call a girl-power comic titled “Miss Robin Hood” that’s intensely popular with kids (especially his own daughters). His comic is being undermined, alas, by creeping corporatism at the magazine. In sweeps Miss Honey (Rutherford), forever followed by a flock of loyal doves, to enlist Wrigley in a safecracking scheme—the stolen cash needed to fund her orphanage. A lesson in socialism and not fucking with kids’ comics. At its best, Miss Robin Hood is not just quirky, it’s downright odd; it’s not just wacky, it’s subversive; it’s not just sentimental, it’s admirable. 76 minutes.
Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951) dir. Henry Koster
written by Ranald MacDougall
w/ Clifton Webb, Joanne Dru, Hugh Marlowe, Zero Mostel, Doro Merande, Billy Lynn, Harry Antrim, Norman Leavitt, J. Farrell MacDonald, Dorothy Neumann
The second sequel to Sitting Pretty (1948) is as rewarding as the first sequel, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), is not. His nanny years behind him, Mr. Belvedere is now a famous author touring the country with his agent (portly Zero Mostel of The Producers) to lecture on his philosophy: Believe you are young and you are young. To prove this, he infiltrates a church-run old age home so he can convince the depressed old folks of their youth and vitality. The unremitting edge Belvedere displays in Sitting Pretty is here sublimated, but it’s easy to believe his good will. The characters are all so distinct and likable, toeing the line between realism and sentimentality with such conviction that it seems good will is the only natural response. Most in focus are droll Mrs. Hammer (Doro Merande), my favorite character, and the easily hurt Mr. Beebe (Billy Lynn) who has the film’s funniest and most touching retort. Feeling betrayed when they find out Belvedere has faked his identity, Beebe says on behalf of them all: “You can’t fool us anymore, youuu babysitter!” For those with little patience for sentimentality or idealism, stick with Sitting Pretty. On DVD from ClassicMovieReel.com, originally taped off TV but the picture and sound quality are fine. For now it may be the only way to see this obscure treasure. 66 minutes.
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) dir. Frank Capra
written by Robert Riskin
w/ Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, Ruth Donnelly, Raymond Walburn, H.B. Warner, Walter Catlett, Irving Bacon, Margaret McWade, Margaret Seddon, Charles Lane, Mayo Methot, Bess Flowers
The word “pixilated” now makes us think computer imaging. But in 1936 it meant behaving in a peculiar or whimsical way. Quirky. The old lady who applies this word to the titular Mr. Deeds, indeed to the entire population of Mr. Deeds’ Vermont hometown, is a resident herself played by Margaret McWade. She and Margaret Seddon began as vaudeville stars called The Pixilated Sisters. The term is applicable, on an even broader scale, to many of my favorite characters and actors in comedies of the 1930-1950s. As for Mr. Deeds (Gary Cooper), who writes poetry and plays tuba, he inherits a NYC opera house and an accompanying fortune. Riskin’s adaptation of Clarence Kelland’s Opera Hat adds a love interest for Deeds (Jean Arthur) and—in true Capra fashion—makes him indifferent to his newfound wealth. Those opera snobs just don’t get it! 115 minutes.
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) dir. Norman Taurog
written by William Slavens McNutt, Jane Storm
w/ Pauline Lord, W.C. Fields, Zasu Pitts, Evelyn Venable, Kent Taylor, Charles Middleton, Donald Meek, Robert Butler, George Breakston
Based on Alice Hegan Rice’s popular novel from 1902. Mr. Wiggs (Donald Meek of You Can’t Take It With You) is off to the Klondike to find gold, leaving Mrs. Wiggs (Pauline Lord) in a mortgaged shack in Kentucky to raise the kids. The three girls have “geography names” like Australia and Europena. Of the two boys, one is terminally ill. Balancing out the melodrama is a subplot about Miss Hazy (Zasu Pitts), a “maiden lady” neighbor, and her marriage to hungry Mr. Stubbins (W.C. Fields). Pitts starred in Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed (1924) and he considered her the greatest of dramatic actresses. During the sound era, the warble in her voice lent itself to many obtuse yet droll supporting roles like Miss Hazy (Dames, The Plot Thickens, Ruggles of Red Gap). Fields, whose film career also dates back to the 1910s, helped to make this film more popular than it might’ve been. Pauline Lord, by the way, was a respected stage actor who starred in only two films. The Wiggses attend a nifty vaudeville show in the best part of the movie. Fairly hard to find. Avoid the very rough print on VHS from Good Times Video. 80 minutes.
Molly and Me (1945) dir. Lewis Seiler
written by Roger Burford, Leonard Praskins
w/ Gracie Fields, Reginald Gardiner, Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall, Natalie Schafer, Doris Lloyd, Lillian Bronson, Ethel Griffies, Dorothy Neumann, Ottola Nesmith
London 1937. The out of work vaudevillians at Mrs. Lamb’s Theatrical Boarding House make for an unusual sort of family, headed up by Molly (Gracie Fields) who lands a housekeeper job at the Graham mansion to make ends meet. With a little footing in the household and a stroke of good timing, she manages to replace the entire domestic staff with her vaudeville mates. Their unorthodox methods bewilder and then transform the divorced lord of the manor, (Monty Woolley of The Man Who Came to Dinner), bringing him closer to his feyer than fey grandson (Roddy McDowall). To see these two gay actors together is a treat and yet Gardiner (Virginia’s Husband, The Great Dictator) in his butler role is more dynamic. Gracie Fields, who made few films, was a prominent stage actor and Music Hall singer in England, declared an official Dame in 1979. A ditty she and Woolley sing together over tea in the final moment goes: “Always eat when you are hungry. Are drink when you are dry. Always sleep when you are sleepy. But don’t stop breathing or you’ll die.” Also look for Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) as a sexpot named Kitty. Based on a novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion who wrote it as a way to imagine what might happen if rough-and-tumble Marie Dressler (Min and Bill, Politics) had to take a job as housemaid. On DVD, 77 minutes.
The Monster Walks (1932) dir. Frank Strayer
written by Robert Ellis
w/ Mischa Auer, Rex Lease, Sheldon Lewis, Vera Reynolds, Willie Best, Martha Mattox
The VHS cover to The Monster Walks describes it as a “quintessential example of the Old Dark House film,” meaning James Whale’s The Old Dark House that it actually predates by seven months. Frank Strayer’s lowbrow obscurity (artifact?) mingles horror, mystery, and comedy, the latter mostly thanks to African-American performer Willie Best a/k/a Sleep’n’Eat (Ghost Breakers, Blondie). Look for Mischa Auer, also memorable in Movie Struck (1937, see just below), Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938, see further below), and Destry Rides Again (1939). There’s a killer ape too. Available on DVD from Alpha Video, The Monster Walks is approximately one hour, plus an eight-minute cartoon called “The Cuckoo Murder Case” featuring Flip the Frog. Strayer’s career included The Vampire Bat (1933) and a number of Blondie movies (1938-1942).
Movie Struck a/k/a Pick a Star (1937) dir. Edward Sedgwick
written by Richard Flournoy, Arthur V. Jones, Thomas J. Dugan
w/ Patsy Kelly, Jack Haley, Rosina Lawrence, Mischa Auer, Lyda Roberti, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charles Halton, Tom Dugan, Russell Hicks, Joyce Compton, James Burke, Mary Gordon, Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, Jack Norton, Wilma Cox
A pleasant little blast of a musical-comedy from Hal Roach Studios. Sedgwick, director of The Poor Rich (1934) and several Buster Keaton movies, manages to smoothly integrate Laurel and Hardy, Polish singer Lyda Roberti (who stars with Patsy Kelly in Nobody’s Baby), a massive Busby Berkeley inspired number, and a backstage plot. This backstage plot features solidly built Patsy Kelly and slim blonde Rosina Lawrence as sisters Nellie and Cecilia. Cecilia’s attempts to become a Hollywood actor-singer are aided by a big star named Rinaldo Lopez (a hilarious performance from Russian actor Mischa Auer) and a sweet nobody named Joe (Jack Haley a/k/a Oz’s Tin Man). Look for Jack Norton as Oscar the souse. The guide to character actors Who Is That? is dedicated to Norton, a quintessential bit player deemed “The Ultimate Drunk.” Look for Wilma Cox as Oscar’s wife. She and Patsy Kelly were domestic partners in real life throughout the late 1930s. On DVD from Nostalgia Family Video, it’s a zippy 69 minutes.
Murder Most Foul (1964) dir. George Pollock
written by David Pursall, Jack Seddon
w/ Margaret Rutherford, Stringer Davis, Ron Moody, Charles Tingwell, Megs Jenkins, Andrew Cruickshank, Dennis Price, Ralph Michael, James Bolam, Francesca Annis, Terry Scott, Annette Kerr, Windsor Davies, Stella Tanner
Agatha Christie, though gracious, didn’t really approve of MGM’s adaptations of her novels, nor of the great Dame Margaret Rutherford as Miss Jane Marple. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead gets the dramatic air let out of it to become Murder Most Foul, sure, but it is more than sufficiently re-inflated by Rutherford’s comic bluster. Despite her knitting in the jury box annoying the judge, jury duty compels Marple to investigate the crime in question deeper. Aided by her loyal pal Mr. Stringer (Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis), Marple infiltrates a repertory company and sets herself up as the next victim. She knows her cover’s blown, however, when she finds a note that reads: “The old bat may be on to us…” Most Foul is the third in Rutherford-Davis Marple series. The duo’s next movie is the last in the series, Murder Ahoy! (1964). The trailer declares: “When Miss Marple goes nautical, it’s Murder Ahoy! and another victim hits the deck.” It climaxes with Marple engaging in a sword fight—something Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple could never manage, nor want to! Agatha Christie was especially appalled by this last film that was not even based on one her own books. She said, “One of the silliest things you ever saw! It got very bad reviews, I’m delighted to say.” See below for combo-entry on the first two films in the series Murder, She Said and Murder at the Gallop.
Murder on a Honeymoon (1935) dir. Lloyd Corrigan
written by Robert Benchley, Seton I. Miller
w/ Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Lola Lane, George Meeker, Willie Best, Matt McHugh, Irving Bacon, Leo G. Carroll, DeWitt Jennings, Spencer Charters, Arthur Hoyt, Matt McHugh, Morgan Wallace, Brooks Benedict
The third and last of the Hildegarde Withers mysteries starring Edna May Oliver as the schoolmarm for whom “meddling is a pleasure.” It opens with a suspicious death on a seaplane en route to Catalina. Once again the hardboiled Inspector Piper (James Gleason) joins Hildegarde to investigate. He says of her rather ambiguously: “That ol’ battleaxe is the best friend I’ve got in the world.” Witness the battleaxe gagged and hogtied! Written by Algonquin wit Robert Benchley (see How to Sleep in Classic Era A-L) and Oscar-winner Seton I. Miller (‘G’ Men, Here Comes Mister Jordan). 74 minutes. The role of Hildegarde would next be played by Helen Broderick, then Zasu Pitts, and lastly Eve Arden.
Murder, She Said (1961) dir. George Pollock
written by David D. Osborn
w/ Margaret Rutherford, Stringer Davis, Arthur Kennedy, Muriel Pavlow, James Robertson Justice, Joan Hickson, Thorley Walters, Bud Tingwell, Conrad Phillips
Based very loosely on Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington. In the trailer, Marple on a train sees a woman being strangled on a passing train and turns to say directly to the camera, “Now you saw that, didn’t you? Do you think anyone will believe us?” Geoffrey Faithfull’s crisp b+w cinematography and Ron Goodwin’s frisky score, both iconic of the early 1960s, establish an inviting tone. Watch for Joan Hickson as Mrs. Kidder; twenty years later she’d be playing Miss Jane Marple herself. I love the fumbling, butch Marple we get from Rutherford partly due to her rapport with real-life husband Stringer Davis. In all four of MGM’s Marple comedies, he plays her gentle cohort named simply Mr. Stringer—a character not in the novels. About as sexually ambiguous as a couple gets, onscreen and in real life, Davis’s loyalty to Rutherford withstood her recurring stays in mental hospitals. Their next film in the series is Murder at the Gallop (1963), an equestrian-themed mystery with British greats Finlay Currie as a recluse with a cat phobia, Flora Robson as companion to a murdered lady, and Robert Morley as landlord of the Gallop Hotel. Gallop and She Said are arguably the best of the four comedies. Rutherford’s non-Marple films include Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The Runaway Bus (1954), Aunt Clara (1954), Mouse on the Moon (1963), The V.I.P.s (1963) for which she won an Oscar, and Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1965).
My Sister Eileen (1942) dir. Alexander Hall
written by Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov
w/ Rosalind Russell, Janet Blair, Brian Aherne, Elizabeth Patterson, George Tobias, Allyn Joslyn, Gordon Jones, Richard Quine, June Havoc, Donald MacBride, Frank Sully, Dudley Dickerson, Edward Gargan, Charles La Torre, Three Stooges
The original Field-Chodorov play is based on stories by Ruth McKenney (played here by Rosalind Russell) that were inspired by her sister Eileen (played here by Janet Blair). To further their respective writing and acting careers, they move from peaceful Ohio to chaotic Greenwich Village. A subway is being built right under their basement apartment, drunk passersby can peer into their window, and a literal conga line of screwball characters intrude upon them at all hours. But this is living! As Ruth tells a snotty magazine editor, “People used to go for all that chichi and fakey talk. But life’s a lot more real now.” On a real-life sad note, Eileen (married to author Nathaniel West) died in an auto accident in 1940. Her spirit lives on in this comedy, a musical version (1955), a TV musical version (1958), and a TV series (1960-61). Memorable supporting players include Patterson as grandma, hunky Jones as “The Wreck,” and the Stooges in a cameo. Russell was nominated for an Oscar.
My Son, the Hero (1943) dir. Edgar Ulmer
written by Doris Malloy, Edgar Ulmer
w/ Roscoe Karns, Patsy Kelly, Maxie ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom, Joseph Allen, Luis Alberni, Al St. John, Nick Stewart, Joan Blair, Carol Hughes, Lois Colliers, Jeni Le Gon
Roscoe Karns played supporting roles in scores of films 1915-1948, known for his machine-gun delivery. Here he is “Big Time” Percy Morgan, an unsuccessful con man and boxing promoter. The punch-drunk fighter he represents, nicknamed Kid Slug, is played by Maxie Rosenbloom (Nothing Sacred, Each Dawn I Die), a former world champion boxer himself described in Quinlan’s as plug-ugly with gnarled features. He played many a likeable tough guy and eventually died of a boxing-related brain disease. Dear ol’ Patsy Kelly (Nobody’s Baby, Topper Returns, Rosemary’s Baby, Freaky Friday) is Big Time’s begrudgingly loyal ex-wife Gertie. Brazen as ever, she dresses as an Amazon for a costume party and fights a woman head over heels. Along with a few others, they all pull together to pretend to be Big Time’s rich family—so he can impress his long-lost son, a war hero (Joseph Allen). An underestimated joy from “poverty row,” now on DVD thanks to Alpha Video. 66 minutes.
The Nanny (1965) dir. Seth Holt
written by Jimmy Sangster
w/ Bette Davis, William Dix, Wendy Craig, Jill Bennett, Maurice Denham, James Villiers, Pamela Franklin, Jack Watling, Alfred Burke, Harry Fowler
1965 was a big year for the ‘psycho-biddy’ at Hammer Studios. Die! Die! My Darling was a mean swansong for Tallulah Bankhead as a mother unhinged by jealousy of her son’s fiancée. Bette Davis too plays an unhinged maternal figure, a nanny in charge of a contrary boy (William Dix) who’s just been released from a troubled children’s home. As the tagline asks, “Do you trust the nanny or do you trust the boy?” Craig (The Servant) and Bennett (Haunting of Julia) are top-notch as nervous mom and acid-tongued aunt. Pamela Franklin, well-known child star, plays neighbor-girl Bobbie. Dix’s performance lacks nuance but it’s fun to hate him and he looks great in b+w—with cinematography by Harry Waxman (Day the Earth Caught Fire, Wicker Man). Overall it’s more psychologically enthralling than the typical Hammer movie.
Night of the Hunter (1955) dir. Charles Laughton
written by James Agee
w/ Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Michael Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, James Gleason, Don Beddoe, Evelyn Varden, Corey Allen, Peter Graves, James Griffith
Charles Laughton, the legendary actor whose career spanned The Old Dark House (1932) and Hobson’s Choice (1954), directed only one film. A Southern Gothic fairy tale with noir lighting and dashes of sentimentality, it proved too quirky for critics and moviegoers alike. It’s since become recognized as one of the best movies of its decade, influencing the most influential of modern directors. Indeed it’s been preserved in the National Film Registry and earned the #2 spot on Cahiers du Cinéma’s 100 Most Beautiful Films list (watch for the haunting underwater shot!). Robert Mitchum plays serial killer Rev. Harry Powell, with love tattooed across one hand’s knuckles and hate across the other. He marries a widow (Shelley Winters), whom he thinks has $10,000 hidden somewhere on her property, and then pursues her two kids (Graves, Bruce) who flee with the money sewn into a doll. They take refuge with an old lady (Lillian Gish’s career spans Birth of a Nation and Whales of August) who sleeps with one eye open and a shotgun across her lap. The dialogue is rich, at times poetic and profound—as we’d expect from the Pulitzer-winning James Agee—though initial drafts were unworkable, big as telephone books, and then the troubled alcoholic writer died. Now, as a time-tested classic, whoever wrote what matters less; the film abides and endures.
No Time for Love (1943) dir. Mitchell Leisen
written by Warren Duff
w/ Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Ilka Chase, June Havoc, Richard Haydn, Alan Hale Jr., Marjorie Gateson, Rhys Williams
Though inaccurate to describe it as slapstick or farce, this romantic comedy is odd to be sure. And muddy! Claudette Colbert is Katherine, a respected news photographer assigned to shoot “sand hogs,” which is the term for construction workers building a tunnel under the Hudson River. Their leader is Jim, played by Fred MacMurray, whom Katherine describes as “life in the raw, with onions” and “the nearest thing to primordial man” she’s ever seen. Yes she means MacMurray of TV and Disney fame. Mitchell Leisen, a bisexual with a reputation for openly coming on to men, brought out butchness and sexuality in MacMurray like no other director—perhaps why MacMurray endured the come-ons. Both Hollywood historian William J. Mann and Leisen biographer David Chierichetti explain how Leisen’s film offers a back-and-forth comparison between men of Jim’s world (bluecollar, straight) and men of Katherine’s social circle (cocktail-clever, gay). Film censor Joseph Breen cautioned Leisen about the prissiness of Richard Haydn’s character—who peers over his glasses (“a dead giveaway,” quips Chierichetti) and accepts the tag “pantywaist” as if it were no insult—but Leisen somehow managed to get the film released as he saw fit. No Time for Love takes an adventurous turn toward the end, with all the sand hogs and Katherine caught in an underground flood. Colbert (“Uncle Claude” to her gay friends) lends her own brand of masculinity to the plot’s resolution, saving the day. A big hit upon release, it’s now as obscure as once ubiquitous director Leisen. Check out entries on his films in Classic Era (A-L): Hands Across the Table With Carole Lombard (1935) and Easy Living (1937) with Jean Arthur. According to William J. Mann: “Gay men in the audience might ogle the shirtless torsos of bodybuilders along with Colbert and Lombard, but so long as the focus of identification remained women, Leisen could, in a sense, pull the wool over Breen’s eyes and maintain the illusion that homosexual desire and identity did not exist. In this case, he was the most subversive of all gay directors.”
Nobody’s Baby (1937) dir. Gus Meins
written by Pat C. Flick, Harold Law
w/ Patsy Kelly, Lyda Roberti, Lynne Overman, Robert Armstrong, Rosina Lawrence, Don Alvarado, Tom Dugan, Ottola Nesmith, Florence Roberts, Bess Flowers
A successful series of short comedies teaming dark-haired, Brooklyn-butch Patsy Kelly with vivacious blonde Thelma ‘Hot Toddy’ Todd ended when Todd died in 1935. Kelly then teamed up with Lyda Roberti, a Polish blonde known for her fractured English and unique singing style. The two play nursing school roommates Kitty and Lena, a relationship that can easily be read as platonic pals or same-sex couple. A female version of Laurel & Hardy, perhaps? Much of their physical comedy in Nobody’s Baby is reminiscent of the male duo, with childish Roberti underfoot and Kelly in another fine mess, though be warned that most viewers will find this annoying instead of endearing. The duo are linked with a cop (Lynne Overman) and a reporter (Robert Armstrong) but the film never seems to take the romances seriously. Even on the verge of a double wedding ceremony, Lena weeps as Kitty spouts her final line, “Listen to me, I’ll talk ‘em out of it!” It’s 68 minutes, on DVD from Warner Brothers Archive Collection. Roberti, by the way, soon died of a heart attack—at age 31. Patsy Kelly hit the skids after that. Despite on-screen fun as the cook in Merrily We Live (1938) and the maid in Topper Returns (1941), her personal life spun out of control. By the mid-1940s, studios blackballed Kelly for her public intoxication and extreme ‘outness.’ Tallulah Bankhead eventually took in Kelly as her personal assistant. Kelly returned to the screen in the 1960s-1970s (Rosemary’s Baby, Freaky Friday).
Nothing Sacred (1937) dir. William A. Wellman
written by Ben Hecht*
w/ Carole Lombard, Fredric March, Charles Winninger, Walter Connolly, Hattie McDaniel, Margaret Hamilton, Olin Howlin, Sig Ruman, Maxie Rosenbloom, Billy Barty, Frank Fay
Everyone feels sorry for Vermont native Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard). She’s dying from radium poisoning.** Before her last trip—to the city—which garners headlines like “The Doomed Girl, Belle of New York”—she learns from her doctor that she’s been misdiagnosed. She’s fine. Both embarrassed about and greedy for all the attention she’s been receiving, Hazel keeps her good health a secret. I do enjoy Lombard most when she’s being deceitful. Never has watching people cry been so funny! But there’s a lot at stake for Wally, a journalist at a low-point in his career; will his article about this poor Radium Girl help lift his name? Lombard’s face is so alive, bridging the silent and “talkie” eras; she was at the height of her fame after My Man Godfrey’s success. The supporting cast is a quirky dream, including Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind’s maid), Margaret Hamilton (Oz’s Wicked Witch), and Olin Howlin (The Blob’s derelict). Also scene-stealing are “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom (pro boxer turned character actor) and above all Charles Winninger (Showboat, Destry Rides Again, State Fair) as the drunken doctor who misdiagnoses Hazel in the first place. Behind the scenes, according to Hollywood lore, costar March was hot for Lombard. She invited him into her dressing room where he was horrified to find she was wearing a strap-on dildo. She wasn’t called “The Profane Angel” for nothing. So no wonder their fight scenes in Nothing Sacred left her with real bruises. In early Technicolor. 77 minutes. *Ben Hecht’s script was so caustic that a team of uncredited writers took part in shaping it, including Dorothy Parker, Budd Schulberg, Moss Hart, and George S. Kaufman. **For more on radium poisoning in the 1930s, and “radium girls,” see the entry on Carole Langer’s Radium City in Documentary (M-Z).
Oklahoma Annie (1952) dir. R.G. Springsteen
written by Jack Townley, Charles E. Roberts
w/ Judy Canova, John Russell, Grant Withers, Roy Barcroft, Emmett ‘Pappy’ Lynn, Minerva Urecal, Frank Ferguson, Houseley Stevenson, Andrew Tombes, Almira Sessions, Allen Jenkins, Maxine Gates, Emory Parnell
A Republic picture in Trucolor featuring Queen of the Cowgirls, Judy Canova. This time around she’s the yodeling operator of a general store in the little town of Coffin Creek where her grandma once ruled as sheriff. Now it’s up to Canova and all her booby-trapping skills to take on local bad guys. I don’t usually go for westerns, even screwball ones, but Canova’s brash, big-mouthed heroics please me very much. As do the supporting cast, especially the two old coots Emmett Lynn, who was cast in at least ten similar roles in 1952 alone, and the equally busy Houseley Stevenson. Modern reviewers have said, in various ways, that this movie is “unwatchable by today’s standards.” But what if you don’t like today’s standards? It’s simple: Those who enjoy Ma & Pa Kettle should try Judy Canova! Check Netflix.
Party Wire (1935) dir. Erle C. Kenton
written by Ethel Hill, John Howard Lawson
w/ Jean Arthur, Victor Jory, Helen Lowell, Charley Grapewin, Maude Eburne, Clara Blandick, Robert Allen, Geneva Mitchell, Matt McHugh, Oscar Apfel
As the intro explains, a party wire is one telephone line shared by several houses or businesses in the same area. The economic advantage is undercut, however, by the fact that the various parties can listen in on each other’s conversations. If gossiping is addictive, then eavesdropping is too. One of the worst party wire abusers in her town is Mathilda Sherman, played by Clara Blandick (a/k/a Oz’s Auntie Em). Her partner in crime is Clara, a wickedly funny role for the great Maude Eburne (Ruggles of Red Gap, Lonely Wives). These two “female hornets,” and the rest of the perfectly populated cast, nearly chase an innocent bank teller (Jean Arthur) out of town when they misinterpret a phone call made by her applejack-swigging grandpappy (Charley Grapewin a/k/a Oz’s Uncle Henry whose film career began in 1900). The town’s prodigal son (Victor Jory) returns to shake things up and his rather patriarchal mother (Helen Lowell of The Merry Frinks and Big Hearted Herbert) delivers a climactic monologue. Jean Arthur is a delight as usual. A very satisfying comedy-drama from the director of Island of Lost Souls (1932).
Penguin Pool Murder (1932) dir. George Archainbaud
written by Willis Goldbeck
w/ Edna May Oliver, James Gleason, Robert Armstrong, Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy, Rochelle Hudson
Supporting actor définitive, Edna May Oliver is described by Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors as “one of Hollywood’s invaluable horse-faced character actresses” whose characters “possessed arched eyebrows, a purposeful stare and a disapproving sniff.” She is the very first and the very last person we see in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935), suggesting her kind of Grande Dame. In this 64-minute comedy, one of her few lead roles, she’s schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers. Bossy and spinsterish in a fur stole, Hildegarde is compared to Lydia Pinkham, maker of a then-common menopause tonic. Hildegarde loses her hatpin at the aquarium and it becomes Exhibit A in the case of a murdered broker—his body found in the penguin pool. Foisting her detective-like observations on Inspector Piper (James Gleason), Hildegarde takes charge of the case and her one-line jabs at Piper seem to please him more and more. Gleason is a familiar face in the era’s films, with his large bald head and thin mustache. He can be seen in The Higgins Family movies (1938-39), Home Sweet Homicide (1946), and Night of the Hunter (1955). He reunites with Oliver in Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), a trilogy recommended by Quinlan’s. Available on DVD from Satellite Media.
Pigskin Parade (1936) dir. David Butler
written by William M. Conselman, Harry Tugend, Jack Yellen
w/ Patsy Kelly, Jack Haley, Judy Garland, Stuart Erwin, Johnny Downs, Betty Grable, Arline Judge, Tony Martin, Dixie Dunbar, Fred Kohler Jr., Grady Sutton, Elisha Cook Jr., Pat Flaherty, Alan Ladd, Si Jenks
Patsy Kelly and Jack Haley play husband and wife coaches in this football musical. Yes a football musical. Stuart Erwin is the hillbilly they recruit and Judy Garland, in her feature-length debut, is his sister. Kelly is sarcastic and rowdy, as usual. She even breaks a quarterback’s leg showing him plays. And it’s sweet to see Haley without the Tin Man makeup—he just beams. 20th Century Fox was a new studio in 1936 and this musical was characteristic of what would become a Fox style. According to a DVD special feature, this involved a strong ensemble cast composed of the studio’s best supporting players: “And you get the sense of a whole family of people participating in the action. That becomes characteristic of the Fox musicals of the late ‘30s and the early ‘40s.” Garland’s finale, “It’s Love I’m After,” seems too mature for the context but who cares. What a showstopper! Indeed, the first take was ruined when the on-set audience cheered too loudly. All in all an uneven, hokey movie, but you really do feel that “family” chemistry with the cast.
Politics (1931) dir. Charles F. Reisner
written by Wells Root, Robert E. Hopkins, Zelda Sears, Malcolm S. Brown
w/ Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Roscoe Yates, Karen Morley, William Bakewell, John Miljan, Joan Marsh, Tom McGuire, Kane Richmond, Mary Alden, Robert Dudley, Ann Dvorak, Dorothy Granger
In Lysistrata, a Greek play from 411 BC, the title’s Big L rallies wives to withhold sex from their husbands in order to stop a war. In real life 1899, an imposing female minister named Carry A. Nation, leader of a Woman’s Temperance Union, took her legendary hatchet into the first of many saloons in order to stop the sale of liquor. On the silver screen in 1931, the highest paid actor in Hollywood, Marie Dressler, plays Hattie—a widowed mother and boarding house landlord who rallies the wives in her small town to withhold housework from their husbands in order to shut down local speakeasies. Hattie even goes so far as to run for mayor! Her campaign manager is a boarder named Ivy, played by Dressler’s frequent co-star Polly Moran. Her nemesis is Ivy’s husband Peter, an excellent role for stuttering comic Roscoe Ates (Freaks, The Champ). Hattie’s run for mayor is compromised by her daughter’s (Karen Morley) secret affair with a gangster (William Bakewell). A happy ending emphasizes female alliance in politics. The San Francisco Chronicle said of Dressler: “She acts with intelligence and with clear insight into comic propositions. She contorts her face until it looks like the wattles of a turkey gobbler in a rage. She is not afraid to look unattractive; that makes her the comedienne unusual.” 73 minutes, on DVD through WB’s Archive Collection.
The Poor Rich (1934) dir. Edward Sedgwick
written by Ebba Havez, Dale Van Every
w/ Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Andy Devine, Grant Mitchell, Thelma Todd, Leila Hyams, John Miljan, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Edward Brophy, Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, Henry Armetta
Horton was an out homosexual known for pansy roles or nervous types. Sexually ambiguous Oliver, always described as horse-faced, played many a droll, outspoken spinster. Down to their names they’re like two sides of the same Hollywood coin and it’s a real treat to see them co-starring together in this farce of downward mobility. They are Albert and Harriet Spottiswood, middle-aged cousins who’ve spent their inheritances and find themselves with nowhere to live but a decrepit manor house. Andy Devine (Double or Nothing, Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) plays an eager dope with a foghorn voice who becomes their cook. Leila Hyams (Freaks) and Grant Mitchell (The Man Who Came to Dinner) fall into positions as butler and maid. They all scramble to spiff up the place for Lord and Lady Fetherstone (O’Connor, Clive) and daughter Gwendolyn (Thelma Todd a/k/a ‘Hot Toddy’) whom Albert hopes to marry. It’s his and Harriet’s last chance to secure their social position, or so they think. On DVD but sadly rare. 76 minutes.
Promise Her Anything (1965) dir. by Arthur Hiller
written by William Peter Blatty
w/ Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, Robert Cummings, Lionel Stander, Hermione Gingold, Cathleen Nesbitt, Keenan Wynn, Donald Sutherland
Blatty wrote The Exorcist. This movie couldn’t be more different! Gaudy and goofy, it’s a Technicolor romp from the innocent, sex-crazed 1960s and could never get made now. Its innocent brand of sex-crazy is long extinct. Cute young Warren Beatty plays Harley, a z-grade director of ‘naughty’ mail-order movies. His producer Angelo (dear old Keenan Wynn) demands a new angle for his films. He says, “Today if a guy wants to see some broads in bikinis he don’t need no mail-order movie.” A single mother in Harley’s building (Leslie Caron) asks him to watch her toddler and…a star is born! Nudie meets cutie as babes coo over baby—and Harley’s producer thinks it’ll be an avant-garde hit. Caron remains unmindful, too busy figuring out how to snag her boss (Robert Cummings), a child doctor who doesn’t want kids. A lot of slapstick happens along the way but, of course, Caron ends up with Beatty in the happy ending. Supporting players include veteran actors Hermione Gingold as the landlady, Cathleen Nesbitt (Haunting of Julie, Family Plot) as the child doctor’s witty mom, and Lionel Stander (a/k/a Hart to Hart’s Max) as Harley’s window-peeping pal. Look for Donald Sutherland in an uncredited bit part. A catchy theme by Tom Jones and the dated use of freeze-frames make it clear right away the kind of fun you’re in for. I think it delivers what it promises. I taped it twenty years a go, a Morning Movie on TBS, and still watch it with affection. Now it is only available on VHS or try Amazon Prime.
Purlie Victorious a/k/a Gone Are the Days! (1963)
dir. Nicholas Webster
written by Ossie Davis
w/ Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Alan Alda, Beah Richards, Godfrey Cambridge, Sorrell Booke, Hilda Haynes, Charles Welch, Ralph Roberts
Ossie Davis wrote Purlie Victorious for the Broadway stage in 1961. His every word, spoken as Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson, is like music—music full of pride, anger, humor, and intelligence. He and Ruby Dee, married since 1948, here play young sweethearts returning to the South to stay with Purlie’s family. Sharing the funniest scene in this “satirical fable” are Godfrey Cambridge (Watermelon Man) as an Uncle Tom type and Sorrell Booke (Boss Hog on Dukes of Hazard) as the old landowner who represents a dying hierarchy. A young Alan Alda (MASH) plays the landowner’s effeminate son; his loyalties are to their housekeeper played by Beah Richards (Grandma Baby Suggs in Beloved) and childhood friend Purly, both of whom fill his head with “integrationary ideas.” Davis’s play and movie would be remade again as a Tony-winning musical called Purlie!
Rachel, Rachel (1964) dir. Paul Newman
written by Stewart Stern
w/ Joanne Woodward, James Olson, Estelle Parsons, Kate Harrington, Frank Corsaro, Donald Moffat, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Terry Kiser, Bernard Barrow, Nell Potts
Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God a/k/a Rachel, Rachel (1966) is a nervous, introspective novel about a nervous, introspective schoolteacher named Rachel. Stewart Stern (known for Rebel Without a Cause) adapted Laurence’s novel so that we hear Rachel in hushed voiceover, often doubting herself, or see her neurotic fantasies played out in abruptly inserted shots. An example of the latter is Rachel stuffing a lethal handful of pills into her mother’s mouth. Rachel (Joanne Woodward) and her mom, a manipulative widow (Kate Harrington), live together above a funeral parlor run by nice guy Hector (Frank Corsaro). After an absorbing subplot concerning Rachel’s fellow teacher, a ‘Jesus freak’ and closeted lesbian named Calla (the great Estelle Parsons), Rachel becomes involved in an awkward yet tender love affair with Nick (James Olson). He is also a teacher yet he bucks conventionality with a masculine arrogance she finds both inappropriate and bracing. The doomed affair gives way to morbid drama. “How can I be out of danger,” she asks him at one point, “if I’m not dead?” Newman, Woodward, Parsons and Stern were all nominated for Oscars, proving shortsighted all the major studios that rejected the script. As Rex Reed said, “It would take two nose-thumbing, tasteful, anti-Establishment rebels with strong convictions to make a film like Rachel, Rachel.”
Raw Deal (1948) dir. Anthony Mann
written by Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins
w/ Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr, John Ireland, Curt Conway, Chili Williams, Regis Toomey, Whit Bissell, Cliff Clark
Part of Kino’s Dark Side of Hollywood series, it’s called both a hardboiled classic and a crime melodrama. The latter is more accurate. Narrated by a whispering Claire Trevor, with a Theremin score and atmospheric b+w photography by John Alton, its opening feels more like a gothic ghost story. Dennis O’Keefe plays a convict named Joe whose loyal girlfriend Pat (Trevor) helps him escape. Marsha Hunt (soon to be blacklisted) plays Ann, teased as “Miss Law and Order,” who’s forced to go along for the ride. Pat, in voiceover, says of Ann: “She too is a dame in love with Joe. And she’s lost. I’ve been behind that eight ball too often myself.” Raymond Burr plays the sadistic mob boss out for revenge. He looms over the camera and sets one of his “girls” on fire. O’Keeffe went from dozens of uncredited appearances in the 1930s to a slew of supporting roles in the 1940s. Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) gave him a lead, and Raw Deal confirms his talent. 79 minutes.
written by Delmer Daves
w/ Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Allene Roberts, Judith Anderson, Julie London, Rory Calhoun, Ona Munson
The cast and the atmosphere are stronger than the plot in this obscure b+w psychodrama, mostly because it’s stretched a bit long at 110 minutes. Robinson and Anderson play “the mysterious Morgans,” a reclusive pair—one-legged brother Pete and spinster sister Ellen—who own a farm beyond the allegedly haunted Oxhead Woods. They’ve raised an orphan girl (Allene Roberts) as their own and, now a teen, she’s fallen in love with a hired hand (Lon McCallister) determined to find the legendary red house in the woods and the source of the baffling scream that mingles with the night wind. The closer they get, the more unhinged Pete becomes, leading to a breakdown that’s halfway between melodramatic and psychotic. It’s a performance only Robinson or maybe James Mason could get away with. Anderson, a grand dame lesbian in Hollywood, offers riveting presence and the film’s thesis statement: “Every living soul has his Oxhead Woods.” Julie London (who went on to fame as a breathy chanteuse) and Rory Calhoun (the old cowboy in the Avenging Angel movies) are incredibly sexy as pig-tailed vamp and backwoods stud. I’m especially fond of this movie because it was one my mom recalls seeing as a kid. Theremin score by Miklós Rózsa is a bit overblown. Alpha Video’s DVD is super cheap and has a good cover.
dir. Charles F. Reisner
written by Willard Mack, Beatrice Banyard, Robert E. Hopkins, Zelda Sears
w/ Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Anita Page, Lucien Littlefield, William Bakewell, Billy Naylor, Roscoe Ates, George Reed
Former vaudeville sensation Marie Dressler was a top box office draw, having just won an Oscar for her knockdown drag-out lead in Min and Bill (1930). Polly Moran, a major vaudeville star, was one of the few women who could match Dressler’s bosom, bellow, and bite. They co-starred in eight films, beginning with The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) and ending with Prosperity (1932). In this one they play sisters. Moran, the owner of a reducing salon, takes in clumsy Dressler and her wild kids when they’ve nowhere else to go. Lots of physical comedy involving things like a mud bath, a treadmill, and an electric belt. As the DVD cover claims of Dressler, “Enjoy the unmatched screen charisma that made this decidedly unglamorous actress Hollywood’s #1 star in the early 1930s.” 77 minutes. Next up for the two is even better: Politics (1931).
The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) dir. Edward Montagne
written by James Fritzell, Everett Greenbaum
w/ Don Knotts, Joan Freeman, Arthur O’Connel, Jeanette Nolan, Jesse White, Leslie Nielsen, Paul Hartman, Frank McGrath, Arthur O’Connell, Joan Shawlee, Guy Raymond, Nydia Westman, Robert F. Simon, Marjorie Bennett, Paul Bryar, Pamelyn Ferdin, Melissa Gilbert
As Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, Knotts fumbles headlong into misguided heroics, never owning up to his inadequacies. In his movies for Universal, though, he’s aware of his inadequacies but circumstances push him reluctantly into the hero role. He’s a tender ninny sharpshooter with bad aim in The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), a virgin playboy in The Love God? (1969), and a nitwit accountant in How to Frame a Figg (1971). As for this asexual spin on the space-age bachelor, the title says it all. Knotts plays Roy, a bug-eyed cross between Casper Milquetoast and Walter Mitty who still lives with his mother (Jeanette Nolan, known as Lady MacBeth in Welles’ MacBeth) and dad (Arthur O’Connel who gets surprising range out of his role). Employed by the Kiddieland theme park, Roy operates a rocket ride dressed in a space suit. By the end of the movie, despite his acrophobia, he stumbles headlong into orbit for NASA. This movie offers some poignancy along with all the slapstick. One of Knotts’s best.
The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959) dir. Henry Levin
written by Walter Reisch
w/ Clifton Webb, Dorothy McGuire, Charles Coburn, Jill St. John, Ron Ely, Ray Stricklyn, David Nelson, Dorothy Stickney, Larry Gates, Richard Deacon, Ahna Capri, Harvey B. Dunn, Joan Freeman, Doro Merande, Howard Wendell
Set in turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania, in vivid DeLuxe color, this hard-to-find oddity begins with seventeen Pennypacker kids lining up across the bottom of the screen. Above them appears their remarkably fertile pa, Mr. Horace Pennypacker—played by Clifton Webb who still lived with his mother. Webb channeled his effeminacy into the “dangerous sissy” character Waldo Lydecker in the noir classic Laura (1944) and then into the urbanely cranky nanny Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty (1948), earning an Oscar and an Oscar nod respectively. Webb’s fascinating transformation into onscreen uber-dad found its stride with Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) as an efficiency expert who’d fathered twelve. A quirky spin on the then-modern household, it proves surprisingly conventional—at one point even mocking Planned Parenthood. The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, nearly a decade later, is like a progressive bigamist’s retort to Cheaper by the Dozen. Mr. Pennypacker, wealthy sausage producer and women’s rights advocate, insists: “I don’t follow established patterns. We’ve got to get this world off its big fat status quo!” What really sets Mr. P apart? He’s secretly been keeping two separate families, one in Philadelphia and one in Harrisburg, justifying his lifestyle with Darwinism instead of religion. The supporting cast includes Dorothy McGuire (Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Spiral Staircase, Dark at the Top of the Stairs) as the Mrs. in Harrisburg, Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Lady Eve, More the Merrier) as Grandpa, Dorothy Stickney (Little Minister, The Uninvited, Miss Tatlock’s Millions, I Never Sang for My Father) as Aunt Jane, and Doro Merande (Our Town, Snake Pit, Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell) as Mr. Pennypacker’s loyal secretary. Adapted from the play by Liam O’Brien who apparently based the title character on a real-life relative.
Road Show (1941) dir. Hal Roach
written by Arnold Belgard, Harry Langdon, Mickell Novak
w/ John Hubbard, Adolphe Menjou, Carole Landis, Patsy Kelly, Charles Butterworth, George E. Stone, Florence Bates, Willie Best, Shemp Howard, The Charioteers
In the first five minutes of this comedy, Drogo Gaines (John Hubbard) goes from the wedding chapel to the booby hatch. Though the asylum’s entrance sign reads “For The Rest Of Your Life,” he and his new ally Carleton Carroway (well-known Adolphe Menjou) soon escape, finding work with a traveling carnival managed by a woman known as Penguin Moore (Carole Landis of I Wake Up Screaming and Topper Returns who overdosed on Seconal in 1948 after a string of bad relationships). Patsy Kelly plays Jinx, dressed up as an Indian princess so she can peddle Stupendous Indian Muscle Relaxer to the rubes. She winds up pursued by a Native American stereotype (George E. Stone whose bio is worth a read). Also notable in Roadshow is the screentime given to African-American performers, a vocal group called The Charioteers and actor Willie Best (a/k/a Sleep’n’Eat) who, despite the shuffling and bug-eyes, have some of the film’s brightest moments. Songs by Hoagy Carmichael. The tagline is “Gay with Girls! Goofy with Gags!”
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
see combo-entry with Compulsion
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) dir. Leo McCarey
written by Walter DeLeon, Harlan Thompson, Arthur Macrae
w/ Charles Laughton, Charles Ruggles, Mary Boland, Zasu Pitts, Maude Eburne, Roland Young, James Burke, Jack Norton, Libby Taylor, Willie Fung
Oscar-nominated for Best Picture in 1936, this unpredictable comedy began in 1914 as Harry Leon Wilson’s best-selling novel. Gay actor E.E. Horton starred in the 1923 film adaptation as impassive British butler Ruggles, a role played in this 1935 version by another gay actor Charles Laughton. Though his name suits the title, Charles Ruggles plays a wealthy cowpoke named Egbert Floud who, vacationing in Europe with his status-obsessed wife Effie (Mary Boland), wins butler Ruggles from an English Duke (Roland Young) in a poker game. Ruggles’ impassive subservience is something Effie wants him to bring back to Red Gap, but rootin’ tootin’ Egbert wants him to leave it behind. Ruggles slowly adapts to these conflicting demands, opening The Anglo-American Grille with his new girlfriend (always likable Zasu Pitts) and her meat sauce. Maude Eburne, the bougie mother-in-law in Lonely Wives (1931), is a rowdy butch mama here. The overall theme is Capra-esque; watch for Laughton’s oddly stirring recital of the Gettysburg Address. From the great director Leo McCarey whose career spanned We Faw Down (1928) and Wrong Again (1929) with Laurel & Hardy, Duck Soup (1933) with the Marx Brothers, The Awful Truth (1937) with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, Good Sam (1948) with Gary Cooper, and his very best Make Way for Tomorrow (1937).
Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
dir. Bryan Forbes
written by Bryan Forbes
w/ Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, Judith Donner, Patrick Magee, Gerald Sim, Margaret Lacey, Godfrey James, Ronald Himes, Frank Singuineau, Michael Lees, Arnold Bell
Mark McShane’s crime novel from 1961 is a riveting tale of unlikely kidnappers Bill and Myra Savage. Bill is 39, retired, asthmatic, and henpecked. Myra is 44, a practicing psychic who doesn’t consider herself a fake even though she often has to fake it; if only she could gain a better class of sitters, she’s sure she could genuinely tap into her gift. The two enact “The Plan” to advance Myra’s career. Bill kidnaps a wealthy couple’s child, they keep her in a room made to look like a hospital room, and Myra approaches the girls’ parents with details that, once the girl is safely returned, should lock her into greater visibility as a psychic. It goes tragically wrong, of course. Forbes’s adaptation of the already cinematic novel is more expedient plot-wise yet nonviolent. Bill is Billy, older, not asthmatic, not so dominated. Myra is less calculating and more pathological, the latter suiting Actors Studio legend Kim Stanley perfectly. Her final séance is unforgettable, hitting a full range of emotional notes. She won Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review and was nominated for an Oscar. Richard Attenborough was a busy actor in British films throughout the 1950s but is most remembered for his roles as a serial killer in 10 Rillington Place (1971) and John Hammond in Jurassic Park (1993) as well as the films he directed (Ghandi, Cry Freedom). As for Bryan Forbes, he also directed the equally beautiful b+w films Whistle Down the Wind (1961) and The Whisperers (1967). I saw Séance first as a teen, renting it from the Kroger grocery store of all places, and it made an everlasting impression on me. It has since been remade into a Japanese horror film (2000) and even an opera (2009). 115 minutes.
Seventh Victim (1943) dir. Mark Robson
written by Charles O’Neal, Dewitt Bodeen
w/ Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Hugh Beaumont, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage, Lou Lubin, Elizabeth Russell, Ben Bard, Chef Milani, Marguerita Sylvia, Mary Newton, Ann Summers, Joan Barclay, Henry Hebert, Ottola Nesmith, Mary Newton
This unique and subtle tale of a Devil-worshippers’ society begins with teenaged Mary (Kim Hunter) at a boarding school being informed that her older sister Jaqueline (Jean Brooks) has gone missing. Jaqueline is Mary’s only relative and has not paid Mary’s school fees for six months. So the stakes are high as Mary leaves school to search for her sister. The mystery leads her to an apartment Jaqueline has rented, but she finds the place empty except for a noose hanging over a chair. A stunning moment, pure noir, and the film thereafter opens up into tense conspiracy with unseen forces in every shadow. The Illustrated History of the Horror Film considers it producer Val Lewton’s masterpiece, a “hauntingly oppressive work” that captures “the nocturnal menace of a large city, the terror underneath the everyday, the suggestion of a hidden evil.” Dewitt Bodeen deserves credit too for the fullness of the story and its thematic daring; he also wrote Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) and the oddly poetic Curse of the Cat People (1944, see Classic Era (A-L)). A face-off scene in Seventh Victim between Jacqueline and the Satanists is just riveting—with lesbo-romantic undertones too (a credible reading if one considers how Bodeen’s homosexuality influenced his other screenplays). Look for Hugh Beaumont over a decade prior to his turn as Leave It to Beaver patriarch. Also noteworthy: the psychiatrist Dr. Judd is played by George Sanders’ brother Tom Conway and the terminally ill neighbor is played Rosalind Russell’s sister Elizabeth Russell. 71 minutes.
She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) dir. Alexander Hall
written by Virginia Van Upp, John Jacoby, Sarett Tobias
w/ Rosalind Russell, Lee Bowman, Charles Winninger, Adele Jergens, Mary Treen, Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, Arthur Q. Bryan, Cora Witherspoon, Clarence Muse, Willie E. Best
Lee Bowman (Smash-Up) plays comic strip artist Michael Kent, creator of the Nixie. A flying leprechaun-like figure who represents the Freudian id, Nixie whistles encouragingly into the ears of people wanting to do something childish or impulsive. A psychiatrist named Dr. Susan Lane (Rosalind Russell), upon meeting Michael, refers to his cartoon brainchild as “the little fiend that goes around whistling people to destruction.” The impulse-control she considers necessary for civilization, which allowed her to achieve success in her profession, is abhorrent to Michael who says “Nixie is the life impulse in all of us. The releaser.” Though an admirable theme, the plot’s actual objective is to tame the shrew. One plot synopsis asks, “Will the Nixie get into her psyche?” Doesn’t that sound kind of horrific? Another poster insists, “She wouldn’t say YES… He wouldn’t take NO for an answer.” Written and produced by Van Upp, one of only three female exec-producers in Hollywood at the time. Watch for Our Gang’s Alfalfa as a delivery boy and Arthur Q. Bryan (voice of Elmer Fudd) in a train scene.
Sis Hopkins (1941) dir. Joseph Santley
written by Jack Townley, Milt Gross, Edward Eliscu
w/ Judy Canova, Jerry Colonna, Bob Crosby, Charles Butterworth, Susan Hayward, Katharine Alexander, Andrew Tombes, Elvia Allman, Charles Lane, Charles Coleman
Judy Canova (Oklahoma Annie, Lay That Rifle Down) got her big break on bandleader Rudy Vallee’s radio show in 1931. The hayseed persona she’d developed since childhood—on the vaudeville circuit with her siblings as Three Georgia Crackers—landed her a long-running radio show of her own and a movie series with Republic Pictures. In this one she plays the title character, a naive hick who comes to the city to live with well-to-do relatives. Only mustached Colonna, as Professor, matches Canova’s comically exaggerated features. Susan Hayward is cousin Carol, one of her earliest roles. Butler alert: Coleman played a butler in scores of movies from That’s My Daddy (1928) to Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town (1950). 99 minutes. Hard to find. Check out the Old Time Radio Network (otr.net) to download Canova’s radio episodes for free.
Sitting Pretty (1948) dir. Walter Lang
written by F. Hugh Herbert
w/ Clifton Webb, Maureen O’Hara, Charles Arnt, Robert Young, Richard Haydn, Grayce Hampton, Louise Allbritton, Ed Begley, Larry Olsen, John Russell, Betty Lynn, Willard Robertson, Randy Stuart, Minerva Urecal, J. Farrell MacDonald
Webb hit the Hollywood big time, after decades of Broadway success, with his Oscar-nominated roles as villainous Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and the resident babysitter Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty. Set in typical suburb Hummingbird Hill, the Kings (O’Hara, Young) employ Belvedere despite his being male. Just as the King kids adore him and mind him despite his claims to hate children. Neighborhood tongues wag about the unorthodox arrangement, fueled by Mrs. Appleton (Grayce Hampton) and her nosy queen of a son (Richard Haydn of Charley’s Aunt and No Time for Love). It’s fascinating to see such similarly prissy men juxtaposed in one movie (pictured below). The script suggests that bad sissy equals Appleton who’s a spoiled, petty gossip. Good sissy equals hardworking, yoga-practicing Belvedere who doesn’t gossip but secretly authors a novel about the hypocritical suburb, turning the community on its ear. Webb so convinced the public in this role that he received hundreds of letters from advice-seeking parents across the US. The above photos were taken on the set for Life Magazine. Amazon offers Sitting Pretty as an instant video, plus used copies on VHS, but it’s yet to officially find its way to DVD. Two sequels followed, also deserving re-mastering: Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and especially Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951).
Six of a Kind (1934) dir. Leo McCarey
written by Walter DeLeon, Harry Ruskin
Charlie Ruggles, Mary Boland, George Burns, Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, Alison Skipworthy, Grace Bradley, James Burke, Irving Bacon, Bradley Page, James Burke, Phil Dunham, Robert McKenzie, Pat O’Malley, George C. Pearce
This amiable 62-minute comedy from Paramount features Ruggles and Boland, a very popular team in the era. They achieved greatest success together in the Oscar-nominated Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); solo they are remembered, respectively, for roles in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Women (1939). Here they play a milquetoast-type called Pinky and his bossy wife Flora who are thoroughly authentic in their rapport, conveying much just by exchanging glances. They intend to take a leisurely road trip to California but their “gypsy interlude” is ruined by tagalongs Burns and Allen—another comedy pair, even more renowned—and their Great Dane. Plus: None of them know they’re transporting $50,000 in stolen cash. Rounding out the cast, making it six of a kind, is yet another comedy pair from the era, Tillie and Gus stars W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth as town sheriff and a hotel manager. Six of a Kind is a must-see for character actor fans and fans of Oscar-winning director Leo McCarey (Make Way for Tomorrow). The trailer promises “A six-cylinder comedy cast…that runs on laughing gas!”
Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)
dir. Richard Quine
written by Abe Burrows
w/ Judy Holliday, Paul Douglas, Fred Clark, John Williams, Hiram Sherman, Neva Patterson, Ralph Dumke, Ray Collins, Arthur O’Connell, George Burns
Solid Gold Cadillac, a play by George S. Kaufman and Howard Teichmann, has one flaw: its title. A song of the same title, released the same year as the play’s film adaptation, is about conspicuous consumption and sung humorously with serious sass by Pearl Bailey. But such a hyperbolic status symbol contradicts the people-over-profits theme embodied by our protagonist Laura Partridge. It doesn’t even suit humble Judy Holliday as the star playing Laura Partridge. In Richard Quine’s underdog’s fantasy of a lowly shareholder changing the system, Laura is the missing link between the corporate elite and the common people. A movie very relevant today—yet twice as unbelievable. It’s not believing in the plot that matters, however, as it’s all about believing in Laura, and by extension Judy Holliday, and that’s easy! As someone who represents the commoners in her films, it’s interesting to note that the FBI investigated Holliday for possible Communist connections. That she was not blacklisted is astonishing. Check her out in Adam’s Rib (1949), It Should Happen to You (1954), and Bells Are Ringing (1960): Classic Era (A-L).
So’s Your Aunt Emma! aka Meet the Mob (1942) dir. Jean Yarbrough
written by George Bricker, Edmond Kelso
w/ Zasu Pitts, Roger Pryor, Warren Hymer, Douglas Fowley, Bud McTaggart
In movies of the 1930s-40s, anyone could get mixed up with the mob. Even Zasu Pitts as “silly old maid” Aunt Emma. Emma abandons her spinster sisters to seek out the boxer son of an old beau. Mobsters mistake her for notorious Ma Barker, believing she carries a gun in her umbrella. Cross her and she’ll call you a “flibbertigibbet”! 62 minutes. A less than crisp print is available on DVD from Alpha Video. But it’s a must-see for Zasu Pitts fans, all two or three of us. A big star in silent comedies, Pitts proved her dramatic worth in Erich von Strohein’s epic Greed (1924). In the talkies era, she found her quivery voice limited her to comic supporting roles in delightful films like Dames (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), a series of RKO shorts paired with Patsy Kelly (early 1930s), Life with Father (1947), and Francis the Talking Mule (1949). Her last of over 200 film and TV roles was the switchboard operator in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Her book of candy recipes, Candy Hits, was published posthumously.
Spider Baby (1968) dir. Jack Hill
written by Jack Hill
w/ Lon Chaney Jr., Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Mary Mitchel, Karl Schanzer, Mantan Moreland
The full title of this honorable cult classic is Spider Baby or The Maddest Story Ever Told. In the tradition of James Whales’ The Old Dark House (1932), with traces of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), it’s about the Merrye children who, since orphaned, have been taken care of by their pathologically loyal chauffer Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). The now adolescent kids are regressing into cannibalistic psychopaths due to an inherited disease. Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) is the eldest daughter who hates everything; Virginia (Jill Banner) pretends to be a spider and eats bugs; and Ralphie (Sid Haig) is their bald, retarded big brother who wears a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Two relatives (Ohmart, Redeker) arrive to claim the estate and, after a dynamite climax, only one character survives. This b+w feature from exploitation director Hill is one of the all-time quirkiest. The DVD from Dark Sky Films offers two worthwhile special features. First is Spider Stravinsky, a short bio of AIP’s composer Ronald Stein. His Spider Baby theme, with vocals by Chaney, is pure gold (a fantastic remake, by the way, can be heard on Fantômas’s CD from 2001 titled The Director’s Cut). Second is The Hatching of Spider Baby in which filmmakers and cast reminisce about production and explain how the movie, never officially released, got vaulted, becoming all but lost until home video. Ultimately, according to Hill, Spider Baby is about unconditional love. He speculates that some viewers, especially young female ones from troubled homes, watch Spider Baby and “see a family in which no matter how naughty you are, you’re still loved unconditionally. And I guess that’s the charm of it.”
The Stork Club (1945) dir. Hal Walker
written by Buddy DeSylva, Jack Mcgowan
w/ Betty Hutton, Barry Fitzgerald, Don DeFore, Robert Benchley, Iris Adrian, Mary Young, Mikhail Rasumny, Andy Russell, Bill Goodwin, Mae Busch, Anthony Caruso, Cosmo Sardo
This is the kind of classic-era obscurity I tend to love most: light-fare, heavy on personality. Betty Hutton embodies personality—on par with, though far louder than, comic singer Virginia O’Brien (The Big Store, Panama Hattie). But many viewers may find Hutton off-putting. As one IMDb reviewer commented, “I cannot believe how mean-spirited so many of the comments are on this delightful piece of froth.” Hutton is irrepressible as a hatcheck girl and singer at the famous club, especially during her big numbers “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” and “I’m Just a Square in a Social Circle.” Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way) is dear as the old man she helps, assuming he’s a bum. He turns out to be a millionaire, of course! Iris Adrian is Hutton’s best pal, a busy supporting player whose career spanned A Stolen Harmony (1935) and a spate of Disney flicks like That Darn Cat (1962) and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980). Also watch for Robert Benchley as Tom; he’s remembered as an Algonquinite humorist (see entry on How To Sleep: Robert Benchley’s Miniatures). As for Betty Hutton, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” made for a #1 song in 1945. Perhaps her attention-getting vocal projection is rooted in a childhood so poor that she had to sing on the street for change. She lived a rags-to-riches story much harder won than Stork Club’s heroine but, sadly, in Hutton’s later years she filed for bankruptcy and spent time in a mental hospital.
Strait-Jacket (1964) dir. William Castle
written by Robert Bloch
w/ Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Rochelle Hudson, George Kennedy, Edith Atwater, Lee Majors, Howard St. John, John Anthony, Mitchell Cox, Howard Hoffman, Lee Majors
“Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband 40 whacks,” goes the children’s rhyme featured in Castle’s golden raspberry. “When she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend 41!” Ahhh, here we have yet another wonderful movie that opens with someone being released from a mental institution. Lucy comes home after 20 years to a daughter (Diane Baker a/k/a Senator Ruth Martin in Silence of the Lambs) who’s about to marry into money. Leif Erickson (the dad in Invaders from Mars) plays Lucy’s kindly older brother, a farmer, and Rochelle Hudson (the voice of Honey in nearly three dozen Bosko cartoons) plays his wife. Of Crawford’s later roles, Lucy Harbin is most beloved by fans—allowing her to play the gamut from teary-eyed mother to temptress, from insecure victim to axe-wielding murderess. Strait-Jacket hits the ground running with two decapitations and packs in three more decapitations before a climax that’ll make your head spin. Written by the author of Psycho. 93 minutes, b+w.
Summer and Smoke (1961)
dir. Peter Glenville
written by James Poe, Meade Roberts
w/ Geraldine Page, Laurence Harvey, Una Merkel, Rita Moreno, Malcolm Atterbury, John McIntire, Max Showalter, Earl Holliman, Thomas Gomez, Cheryl Anderson, Almira Sessions, Marjorie Bennett, Pamela Tiffin, Lee Patrick, Elektra Rozanska
One of my personal saints is Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams’ play Summer and Smoke, a frustrated spinster role owned by Geraldine Page, compelled into the stratosphere of drama. Her performance in the 1952 production at downtown New York’s Circle in the Square Theatre is considered legendary, and more: it inaugurated the whole Off-Broadway movement. James Poe and Meade Roberts (film versions of Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Orpheus Descending, respectively) are loyal in their adaptation, with Charles Lang’s Technicolor cinematography and an Elmer Bernstein score helping to transform the stage’s set-piece symbolism—angel statue, cockfight, anatomy chart—into full-blown southern gothic spectacle. Holding it all together is a raw nerve in ladies gloves whose name, Alma, means soul. Life as a preacher’s daughter, tending to an obstinately senile mother (wonderfully wicked Una Merkel of True Confession, The Parent Trap), has left Alma with an “irritated doppelganger.” Or so teases her lifelong crush Dr. Johnny, the local doctor’s son (played with stickily controlled chaos by Laurence Harvey). If she is soul, he is body, as are Alma’s female counterpoints: flamenco-dancing Rosa (Rita Moreno), whose father owns a casino, and fresh-faced Nellie (Pamela Tiffin) whom Johnny ends up marrying. Tennessee Williams claimed Alma his favorite of his characters because he identified with her troubled sexual awakening as a sort of coming out. Alma unwittingly quotes Oscar Wilde in one scene, very Williamsesque in how he haunted the peripheries of his plays with homosexuals. When Johnny attributes her quote “All of us are in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” to Wilde, Alma says, “Well regardless of who said it, it’s still true!” Page earned an Oscar nomination, as did Merkel and Bernstein. 118 minutes.
The Third Sex a/k/a Bewildered Youth (1958) dir. Veit Harlan
written by Felix Lützkendorf
w/ Christian Wolff, Guenther Theil, Paula Wessely, Paul Dahlke, Hans Nielsen, Friedrich Joloff, Ingrid Stenn, Marcel Andrée
In Germany, 1937, the malevolent Joseph Goebbels appointed Harlan to direct films like the anti-Semitic Jew Süss a/k/a Jud Süß (1940). Two decades later Harlan’s propaganda continues with this anti-homosexual ‘case study’ shot in a Berlin studio. The film is much more tolerant than I expected and its big message, that homosexuality can be cured, is very relevant to the kind of conversion therapies that emerged in the last two decades (satirized on South Park and in But I’m a Cheerleader). The two gay teens, Klaus and Manfred (Wolff, Theil), are both femme-ish and their devotion to each other feels natural, easy to root for. What the film marks as even more transgressive than their homosexuality is their obsession with abstract paintings, French experimental composers, and an art dealer named Boris (Friedrich Joloff). Mom (Paula Wessely) pushes a pretty girl (Ingrid Stenn) at her son and somehow gets charged with procuring the girl as one might a prostitute. The trial scene is mortifying for Mom but she doesn’t care because her son, planning to marry the girl, has been cured. The film makes gay life in Germany seem tantalizing, I must say. Boris throws a great all-male party, involving avant-garde electronic music and Greco-style wrestling. There’s also a gay club scene with a frumpy travestiekünstler (Andrée, Belle’s father in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) who quick-changes from female to male to female again. The film is supposedly based on court records of a famous case. 91 minutes, dubbed in English, and on DVD from Sinister Cinema. Film buffs also check out the documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008).
13 Ghosts (1960) dir. William Castle
written by Robb White
w/ Charles Herbert, Donald Woods, Rosemary DeCamp, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Margaret Hamilton, John van Dreelen
Castle (pictured) and White made a string of gimmick-driven classics like House on Haunted Hill (filmed in Emergo, 1958) and The Tingler (filmed in Percepto, 1959). 13 Ghosts is filmed in Illusion-O and the DVD from Columbia-Tristar includes a widescreen Illusion-O option and the required “ghost viewer” glasses. I prefer it without the glasses, which is how I watched it on TV as a kid and later on video. It’s a perfect ‘cheesy’ movie, due less to the ghost effects than the appealing characters. The Zorbas seem like the typical family of 1950s TV, especially in their delivery of lines. What’s subversive is how irresponsible the parents (Woods, DeCamp) are about money. The movie begins with them having all their furniture repossessed again. Also, the tightly sweatered daughter (Jo Morrow) is named Medea and the boy (Charles Herbert) is obsessed with ghost stories. Their rich uncle, who dies and leaves them his estate, was obsessed with ghosts too and developed special glasses to see them—and to capture them. These ghosts “go with the house,” says lawyer Ben (Martin Milner of Adam-12). As does a witchy housekeeper amusingly played by Hamilton (Oz’s Wicked Witch). The ghosts include a cleaver-wielding chef, a headless lion tamer and his lion, and dead Uncle Zorba himself.
Three Cornered Moon (1933) dir. Elliot Nugent
written by Ray Harris, S.K. Lauren
w/ Claudette Colbert, Mary Boland, Wallace Ford, Tom Brown, William Bakewell, Richard Arlen, Lyda Roberti, Hardie Albright, Sam Hardy, Joan Marsh, Clara Blandick, Sam Godfrey, Edward Gargan
We meet “the crazy Rimplegars” to an intro tune about sweeping the clouds away. The Great Depression, alas, is only growing darker. A major yet offhand investment in something called Three Cornered Moon fails, reducing haughtily coifed widow Rimplegar (Mary Boland of Ruggles of Red Gap and The Women) and her adult children to less than two bucks in the family bank account. Already depressed daughter Elizabeth, played by Colbert, wishes she was 18 again—when she was at her “zenith” as a “happy little dope.” Her three brothers (Ford, Brown, Bakewell) make for one-dimensional cacophony while Elizabeth quietly channels her cynicism, sometimes through a mocking southern accent: “Let’s all hold hands and jump in the river,” she moans. Factory work and the mansion’s empty refrigerator serve as a reality check for Elizabeth and she falls hard out of love with her novelist beau Ronald (Hardie Albright). In other screwball comedies about Depression-era families, like The Merry Frinks (1934), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and especially Young in Heart (1938), the message seems to be solidly pro-oddball. The message in Three Cornered Moon ends up being quite the opposite, casting the crazy aspect of “the crazy Rimplegars” to the curb. Elizabeth condemns Ronald with cold, jabbing sarcasm: “Artists! If a man’s an artist, he’s holy! Other men have to work if they want to eat. Other men have certain duties to the people they love. But an artist, no! Oh, no!” Considered one of the earliest screwball comedies, and a top film in 1933, but it’s probably best for diehard fans only. 77 minutes.
Three Is a Family (1944) dir. Edward Ludwig
written by Harry Chandler, Marjorie L. Pfaelzer
w/ Charlie Ruggles, Marjorie Reynolds, Fay Bainter, Helen Broderick, Arthur Lake, Hattie McDaniel, Jeff Donnell, Clarence Kolb, Elsa Janssen
Charles Ruggles, a beloved character actor with a six-decade career, is described in Quinlan’s as “a likable asset” in any film, “all huffle and snuffle and an amusingly offhand style.” He’s remembered as the Major in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the Aesop’s Fables narrator on Bullwinkle (1961). Here he plays Sam, a meek retiree whose career-oriented wife (Fay Bainter of Our Town and Make Way for Tomorrow) pays the bills. Their daughter, whose husband has been inducted into the army, moves in and Sam seems mostly content to baby-sit. A screwball slice of civilian life during WWII, akin to The More the Merrier (1943), this play-like comedy jams an extended family into a small apartment and then adds a few more babies for good measure. The cast includes notables like Arthur Lake (a/k/a Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie series) as son Archie, the great Helen Broderick (considered an early Eve Arden) as Aunt Irma, and Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind Oscar-winner) as a boisterous, indeed drunken, maid. Though the plot is a tad muddled, it never drags. From the stage play by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents to writer Nora Ephron). 75 minutes. On DVD as part of the Synergy Archive Series.
The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964) dir. Don Chaffey
written by Robert Westerby
w/ Karen Doctrice, Patrick McGoohan, Susan Hampshire, Matthew Garber, Laurence Naismith, Jean Anderson, Wilfred Brambell, Findlay Currie, Elspeth March
The DVD cover is cute, as is the theme song—exactly what we’d expect from Disney. Otherwise Westerby’s adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel is a surprisingly dark melodrama about animal ethics and a little girl’s grief over her cat. When toward the beginning Thomasina dies, Mary (Karen Doctrice of Mary Poppins) blames her father, a veterinarian, and declares him dead too. She and her friends (including Matthew Garber of Mary Poppins) have a funeral for the cat and then go about the small Scottish village spreading rumors that the vet is an animal killer. As a counterpoint to the vet’s emotionally removed approach to animal-care, a “witch” in the woods (Susan Hampshire of The Grand) stands as a more feminine ideal—nursing even wounded badgers back to health. Yes she nurses the presumed-dead Thomasina, as well. And she’s brave enough to take on a traveling circus manager who abuses his animals, a protest that unites her and Mary’s father. The final image of the film suggests a cat’s rightful place in the home.
Too Many Husbands (1940) dir. Wesley Ruggles
written by Claude Binyon
w/ Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Davenport, Dorothy Peterson, Melville Cooper, Edgar Buchanan, Tom Dugan, Sam McDaniel
The husband of a remarried widow returns, not dead after all. Jean Arthur is in top form playing an accidental bigamist who must choose between husbands (MacMurray, Douglas). As the two men vie for her, her expression melts from shock to pleasure. “This is awful,” she says, “but I love it!” What really works in this comedy, for me anyway, is how I liked equally the very different husbands. I preferred all three together as a unit, to be honest. This must be intentional because the movie ends on a delightful note of polyamorous indecision. Watch early on for an office scene between Jean Arthur and Dorothy Peterson as Douglas’s absurdly confessional secretary. Their overlapping dialogue syncopates like a bebop tune. Based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Directed by the younger brother of actor Charlie Ruggles (see Three is a Family above).
Topper (1937) dir. Norman Z. McLeod
written by Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, Eddie Moran
w/ Roland Young, Constance Bennett, Cary Grant, Billie Burke, Alan Mowbray, Eugene Pallette, Arthur Lake, Hedda Hopper, Virginia Sale, Ward Bond, J. Farrell MacDonald, Doodles Weaver, Si Jenks, Betty Blythe, Irving Bacon, Bess Flowers
Thanks to a car accident, the debonair Kerbies (Grant, Bennett) are new to being ghosts. They’re not sure what to do. Thinking perhaps a good deed will get them into Heaven, they hover around their chum Cosmo Topper—a henpecked bank president stuck in a rut—hoping to bequeath him their zeal for life. Though thoroughly identified with his Topper role, which earned him an Oscar nod, Roland Young’s career dates back to 1922 as Watson to John Barrymore’s Holmes. He’s also a chiseling dad in The Young in Heart (1938), Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story (1940), and the detective in And Then There Were None (1945). Billie Burke, aside from her Glinda the Good Witch role, is most associated with the bubble-brained Mrs. Clara Topper who flatly chirps some of the film’s best lines. Platinum blonde Constance Bennett outshines Cary Grant but he moved on to his biggest pictures yet. The cast minus Grant reunite for Topper Takes a Trip (1938) that recycles Topper footage as flashbacks. Topper’s cavorting with ghosts has landed him in divorce court where Mrs. Topper seems to mind only that her hubby talks to a female ghost. Look for Franklin Pangborn, effeminately flustered, as a hotel manager; legendary Hollywood extra Bess Flowers loses to Topper at the roulette table.
Topper Returns (1941) dir. Roy Del Ruth
written by Jonathan Latimer, Gordon Douglas
w/ Joan Blondell, Roland Young, Carole Landis, Billie Burke, Patsy Kelly, H.B. Warner, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, George Zucco, Donald MacBride
Joan Blondell replaces Constance Bennett as the ghost in this second Topper sequel. She enlists Topper’s help in finding her murderer. The droll Patsy Kelly (Pigskin Parade) and expressive Rochester (Jack Benny) are iconic as maid and driver. This is, however, Joan Blondell’s film. And you can always count on Joan Blondell, one of Hollywood’s hardest working supporting actors. Her film career began in the early 1930s alongside James Cagney and she lights up the screen in musicals and comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Smarty (1934). She takes on her share of revered dramas too (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Nightmare Alley, Cincinnati Kid, and John Cassavetes’ Opening Night). And she even has an honorable bit as the waitress in Grease (1978). She’s clearly having fun here in the farcical Topper Returns, alongside a tremendously appealing cast.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) dir. Elia Kazan
written by Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger
w/ Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason, P.S. Bully, Ted Donaldson, Mae Marsh, John Alexander, J. Farrell MacDonald, Lillian Bronson, Virginia Brissac, Erskine Sandford, Charles Halton, Nicholas Ray, Alec Craig
I Love Lucy had an episode titled “A Tree Grows in Havana.” A well-remembered Bugs Bunny cartoon is titled “A Hare Grows in Manhattan.” And Daria gave us the episode “A Tree Grows in Lawndale.” For decades, the title of Betty Smith’s novel has resonated with pop culture significance. Kazan’s adaptation is at times melodramatic yet the characters are so well realized by a genuinely talented cast, and their lives so at the mercy of poverty, that the melodrama thumps with doom. Dad (an Oscar-winning role for James Dunn) is a singing waiter who makes people feel good about themselves. His alcoholism, however, makes him too unstable to support his own family properly. And so Mom (Dorothy McGuire) tends to her responsibilities with heart-hardening pragmatism. The central character is Francie (Peggy Ann Garner, winner of a special Juvenile Actor Oscar) who, like her little brother (Ted Donaldson), has got being poor down pat—i.e., moral ambiguity as a way of life. Perhaps why she’s able to read books like The Anatomy of Melancholy. The loveable Joan Blondell plays Francie’s flirty aunt, one of her most memorable roles. 129 minutes.
The Trouble with Harry (1955) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
written by John Michael Hayes
w/ Shirley MacLaine, Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, John Forsythe, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers, Royal Dano, Parker Fennelly, Barry Macollum, Dwight Marfield, Philip Truex
Hitchcock’s “most experimental, subversive and uncompromisingly strange black comedy” failed miserably at the box office and was unavailable for decades, wrote Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw in advance of a major Hitchcock retrospective in London, 2012. “[But] now the moment has come to reclaim The Trouble with Harry as radical absurdist cinema……a film whose eerie dream procedure is pursued from the opening titles to the final credits.” Like a Technicolor postcard for rural Vermont in autumn, the film’s opening quickly stumbles upon a dead body—Harry. A retired captain hunting rabbit thinks his bullet is to blame for the man’s death. Captain Wiles starts to hide the body and is caught by Miss Gravely who, nudging the dead man’s shoulder with the toe of her shoe, ends up inviting the captain over for highbush blueberry muffins and coffee, maybe some elderberry wine. This underdog couple is played deliciously by Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) and Mildred Natwick (Barefoot in the Park, The Snoop Sisters) who are but two of seven characters to stumble over poor Harry; the most significant otherwise is a young mother played by Shirley MacLaine in her film debut. Supposedly Hitchcock, believing that a big star can actually hinder narrative flow, directed this film partly as an experiment to see how audiences would react to a “small star”-driven movie. It’d take decades before audiences reacted enthusiastically. Also try Family Plot (1976) for another Hitchcock film mixing darkness, quirks, and “small star” actors (see Comedy/Drama A-L).
True Confession (1937) dir. Wesley Ruggles
written by Claude Binyon
w/ Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, John Barrymore, Una Merkel, Hattie McDaniel, Porter Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Irving Bacon, Lynne Overman, Fritz Feld, Tom Dugan, Toby Wing, Richard Carle
Lombard’s character lived a hilarious lie in her previous comedy Nothing Sacred (1936) (see entry above). The single big lie turns into serial lying in True Confession—compulsive, caught-up, often wishful thinking kind of lying—down to the last act. True yet it’s easy to love Lombard’s character, Helen, aspiring novelist and wife to attorney Ken (Fred MacMurray) who is too honest for his own good. The film begins with her honorable intentions to find Ken a case, foiled by his refusal to take it because the client actually did steal a carload of hams. So Helen takes a secretary job behind Ken’s back; it turns out to be the kind that requires no shorthand or typing and Helen flees. When her lecherous almost-boss ends up murdered, Ken projects onto his wife both guilt (she shot him) and innocence (in self-defense). She plays along, even in court. MacMurray is more fun to watch as a heel to Lombard’s heel in the romantic comedy Hands Across the Table (1935) (see Classic Era (A-L)); as a foil to her in True Confession, how could he not get a bit lost amongst her glaring gusts of gusto? Una Merkel (see Summer and Smoke above) is Helen’s wisecracking but wise pal. Lynne Overman as the low-key bartender steals scenes from John Barrymore as the obvious drunk. The Binyon-Ruggles team also made the daring Too Many Husbands (1940).
Tugboat Annie (1933) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
written by Eve Greene, Zelda Sears, Norman Reilly Raine
w/ Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Robert Young, Maureen O’Sullivan, Tammany Young, Paul Hurst, Vince Barnett, Willie Fung, Robert Homans
Dressler won an Oscar playing Beery’s super-butch pal in Min and Bill, a major hit in 1930. The two repeated that box office success with Tugboat Annie, galvanizing their superstardom and landing Dressler a Time magazine cover (one of the first for a woman). A well-timed tribute since Dressler died of cancer a year later. It’s doubtful such an outsized and sexually ambiguous working-class couple would be embraced today, a fact that heightens their heroic anti-heroics. They play husband-and-wife operators of the tugboat Narcissus. Annie (stand back for Marie Dressler) describes herself as “an ol’ barge” and her clumsy drunkard of a husband Terry (Wallace Beery) as “a good for nothing sea-going cockroach.” The two are totally loyal to each other. They even kiss, sort of. A cautious peck on Annie’s cheek, as shown on the DVD cover. Their son (Robert Young), an ocean liner’s captain, disowns Terry after his drinking wrecks the tugboat. And so they are forced to haul garbage to get by. Terry gets a high-risk chance to prove himself to his son in a fairly harrowing climax. Look for Willie Fung as a cook; he played over 40 cooks, waiters or servants during his 22-year career. Also noteworthy is editor Blanche Sewell (Queen Christina, Wizard of Oz). 86 minutes.
Twisted Nerve (1968) dir. Roy Boulting
written by Leo Marks, Roy Boulting
w/ Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Billie Whitelaw, Phyllis Calvert, Frank Finlay, Barry Foster, Salmaan Peer, Thorley Walters, Christian Roberts
“In view of the controversy aroused, the producers wish to reemphasize what is already stated in the film: that there is no established scientific connection between mongolism and psychotic or criminal behavior.” This provocative announcement, before the opening credits, made me expect a mongoloid killer, causing some confusion in the first half an hour as I realized the killer was actually the brother to a mongoloid. Martin (Hywel Bennett) was born physically normal and so his wealthy parents spoiled him. His beauty, however, conceals the abnormal chromosomes of a sociopath: “A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry, predestinates the sinner or the saint.” Martin meets pretty blonde Susan (Hayley Mills) and, playing a helpless simpleton like his brother, he manipulates his way into her mother’s (Billie Whitelaw) boarding house. Bennett and Mills are captivating, and the rest of the cast too. Whitelaw, the nanny in The Omen (1976), won a BAFTA Award for Supporting Actress. Also notable is Foster of Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) as a drunken boarder. The score by Bernard Hermann is classic. Note: Mills was 22 when she made this dark thriller, a far cry from Pollyanna, and she further shocked the world by marrying 53-year-old Boulting who’d directed her and Bennett in The Family Way (1966).
The Twonky (1953) dir. Arch Oboler
written by Arch Oboler
w/ Hans Conried, Janet Warren, Bill Lynn, Ed Max, Evelyn Beresford, Bob Jellison
Hans Conried (a/k/a Disney’s Captain Hook) stars as Professor West, a philosopher, in this loony movie about the dangers of TV. His wife (Janet Warren) buys their first set to keep him company while she’s away visiting a sister. It’s actually a robot accomplishing no end of household tasks with its laser beam. It’s also capable of mind control. West’s pal, an ever-losing football coach who likes to drink (Bill Lynn of Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell), identifies the “animated fusebox” as a Twonky from the future when all families have a Twonky but don’t know Twonkies are spies for The State. Movies about TV date back to the mid-1930s with titles like Murdered By Television (1935) and Trapped By Television (1936) but The Twonky is far more entertaining, certainly richer in quirks. Its tagline cautions: “Out of your own tomorrow. Out of time and space. A fearsome power!” Available presently on YouTube. From the director of Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3D picture.
Vivacious Lady (1938) dir. George Stevens
written by P.J. Wolfson, Ernest Pagano
w/ Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, Beulah Bondi, Charles Coburn, James Ellison, Grady Sutton, Franklin Pangborn, Frances Mercer, Phyllis Kennedy, Willie Best, Alec Craig, Bobby Barber, Maude Eburne, Hattie McDaniel
A winner from the director of Alice Adams (1935), Woman of the Year (1942), and A Place in the Sun (1951). Ginger Rogers plays Francey, a working-class nightclub singer in love with a botany professor named Peter (James Stewart). His father, the college president (Charles Coburn), is pressuring him to marry socialite Helen (Frances Mercer) and much of the plot revolves around Francey and Peter overcoming class boundaries. The ultimate mother figure, Beulah Bondi (It’s a Wonderful Life, Our Town, Make Way for Tomorrow), plays Peter’s mother. Matriarch roles dominated her film career but Bondi herself never married. She and Francey join forces in a very funny train scene, assisted by an African-American porter played by Willie Best who was averaging about 13 film appearances a year in the late 1930s. Other familiar faces include Grady Sutton and Frankling Pangborn, both known for ‘pansy’ or milktoast characters, and perennial cranky old broad Maude Eburne in an uncredited role. Maid Alert: Watch for Hattie McDaniel who went on to win a Best Supporting Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. The cast exemplifies what Quirky Cinema loves about the classic Hollywood era and many of the actors mentioned above are included in the companion photoblog Quirky Actors.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) dir. Ronnie Aldrich
written by Lukas Heller
w/ Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman, Anna Lee, Marjorie Bennett
Fame made child star Baby Jane Hudson a monster. Her star fell as sister Blanche’s ascended. Now Blanche (Crawford) is an old woman in a wheelchair fondly remembering her success while her abusive caretaker Jane (Davis) stews in booze and obscurity. The maid (Maidie Norman of The Well, Halloween III) threatens to expose Jane as an abuser and is quickly dispatched. Then Edwin (Victor Buono in his film debut) stumbles into Jane’s parlor seeking employment. With his heft, height, and obsequiously bold nature, his presence matches Davis’s impressively; indeed, both were nominated for Oscars. Based on Henry Farrell’s novel, it’s one of the most over-the-top classics of all time and a camp culture cornerstone. Willliam Castle saw it 17 times, inspiring him to make Strait-Jacket (1964)—Crawford’s most insane role. These films set the stage for ‘psycho-biddy’ movies to come like The Nanny (1965), Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).
Whistle Down the Wind (1961) dir. Bryan Forbes
written by Willis Hall, Keith Waterhouse
w/ Hayley Mills, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Bernard Lee, Norman Bird, Ray Holder, Elsie Wagstaff
Hayley Mills is known for Disney fare like Pollyanna (1960) and That Darn Cat! (1965) yet in turn she starred in darkly nuanced films like Tiger Bay (1959), The Chalk Garden (1964), and this brilliant adaptation of a young adult novel written by her mother Mary Hayley Bell. It’s about three Lancashire farm kids, Kathy the eldest (Mills), middle sister Nan (Diane Holgate), and baby brother Charles (Alan Barnes), who tromp about in their Wellington boots suspicious of every adult they know. We first see the kids observing a man throw a burlap sack full of kittens into a creek. They rescue the kittens and hide them in a barn where they find a sick man (Alan Bates) hiding himself, bearded and slipping in and out of consciousness. In both novel and film, they take the stranger’s blasphemous expletive “Jesus Christ!” as his actual identity—the Son of God returned. Knowing what happened to Jesus the first time around, they decide to keep him secret from the adults, bringing him bread and wine. Scores of other kids sniff out their secret, however, making for an unforgettable climax as the police close in on the man who’s actually a fugitive. The adaptation makes the adults less sympathetic while the kids are more so: shrewd little Charles (what a performance!) doesn’t smoke in the film like in the novel; none of the kids go by their novel names Brat, Swallow, and Poor Baby; and instead of saving kittens in the novel, they have a dog they call Bette Davis. The adaptation feels right, however, the first of four gorgeous b+w classics by Bryan Forbes, the others being The L-shaped Room (1962), Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and The Whisperers (1967). I don’t know if we should be glad that Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the film into a musical in 1996.
The Whistler (1944) dir. William Castle
written by Eric Taylor
w/ Richard Dix, Gloria Stuart, J. Carrol Naish, Alan Dinehart, Joan Woodbury, Byron Foulger, Trevor Bardette, Robert Homans, Robert E. Keane, Cy Kendall, George Lloyd, Otto Forrest
“I am The Whistler,” says the narrator (Forrest) in one of Castle’s very first movies. “I know many things because I walk at night. I know many secrets hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.” One man in particular, Earl Conrad (Richard Dix), is suicidal after his wife’s drowning. He can’t do the job himself so he hires a hit man (J. Carrol Naish) who reads books like Studies in Necrophobia. Then Earl receives word that his wife is not dead after all! Earl’s loyal secretary is played by Gloria Stuart whose career spans James Whale movies (Old Dark House, Invisible Man) and the Titanic remake (she’s Old Rose). George Lloyd has a memorable bit part as Bill Tomley; he was in an average of 14 movies a year for 15 years, mostly uncredited roles. This was the first of several Whistler movies for Dix who always plays a different character. Based on a popular radio show, each movie is about an hour long. They are at present unavailable on DVD and very hard to find on VHS. The suicide-by-hitman plot originated in Jules Verne’s novel Tribulations of a Chinaman in China (1879) and was utilized in Warren Beatty’s movie Bulworth (1998).
Wide Open Faces (1938) dir. Kurt Neumann
written by Richard Flournoy
w/ Joe. E. Brown, Jane Wyman, Alison Skipworth, Sidney Toler, Lucien Littlefield, Alan Baxter, Barbara Pepper
A popular comic actor at Warner, Brown in 1937 made the mistake of signing with ill-fated David L. Loew Productions. This is perhaps the best of the six films he made there. Brown plays Wilbur Meeks, a dexterous soda jerk who refers to himself as “the maitre d’squirt.” He unwittingly helps police nab a bank robber and then stumbles into the hotel business with Betty (Jane Wyman of Falcon Crest fame) and her Auntie (the great Alison Skipworth). Though the ‘hidden money’ plot is familiar, its details and twists are distinctive. And Wilbur is a more multidimensional character for Brown, perhaps because Betty and Auntie are counting on him. He’s not going for laughs when he says of the bad guys, “I’d crack their heads together and keep crackin’ until they told the truth!” 67 minutes, on a double-bill DVD with Brown’s college comedy The Gladiator (1938).
You Can’t Take It With You (1938) dir. Frank Capra
written by Robert Riskin
w/ Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, HB Warner, Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, Halliwell Hobbes, Dub Taylor, Mary Forbes, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Lillian Yarbo, Charles Lane, Harry Davenport, Ian Wolfe, Ward Bond, Bess Flowers
This Capra classic is based on a Pulitzer-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. It won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. And it’s a quirkfest! We’re first introduced to tycoon AP Kirby (Edward Arnold). All that stands in the way of his plans to build a munitions factory is the purchase of one property whose owner, Grandpa Vanderhof, is not tempted by profits. The legendary Barrymore’s most beloved role, Grandpa is the grandpa of all quirky characters on the silver screen. The very first thing we see him do is to entice a bookkeeper named Poppins (Donald Meek) away from a 20-year career punching numbers, taking him—just as he’d done a former ice delivery man (Samuel S. Hinds)—into the Vanderhof home where creative ouput takes priority over salary. A review in PopMatters explains the theme in Marxist terms: “Alienated labor pays individuals to punch numbers that mean nothing to those doing the work. Non-alienated labor is so rewarding that individuals often engage in it without pay. Alienated labor destroys community, non-alienated labor creates it.” So the Vanderhof family is a perfect fantasy of functional nonconformity. Grandpa’s daughter Penny, played by dear Spring Byington (TV’s December Bride and in real-life Marjorie Main’s domestic partner), is a playwright. Her husband (Halliwell Hobbes) makes fireworks. Their daughter Essie (Ann Miller) is a dancer engaged to Ed (Dub Taylor), a printer who also plays vibraphone. And their other daughter is Alice (Jean Arthur) who’s engaged to—of all people—AP Kirby’s privilege-rejecting son Tony (Jimmy Stewart). Grandpa’s taught them all not to live in fear, as society prefers. Its commentary is just as relevant and inspiring today. 126 minutes.
The Young in Heart (1938) dir. Richard Wallace
written by Charles Bennett
w/ Janet Gaynor, Roland Young, Billie Burke, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Paulette Goddard, Minnie Dupree, Henry Stephenson, Richard Carlson, Lucille Watson
“Here comes the Carletons,” we’re told in the film’s intro: “A merry little streamlined family exuding charm and a touch of larceny with every fortune-hunting smile.” The poster refers to them as “charming to meet, expensive to know” and the trailer, included on the DVD, calls them “modern chiseling pirates.” Carleton is not even their real family name but the name of a Colonel character that dad, a one-time actor like his wife, never stopped playing. Young and Burke are perfectly frisky, very different from the couple they’re known for in the Topper movies (1937-41). Their full-grown kids, who affectionately refer to them as Sihab and Marmy, are levelheaded George-Anne (Janet Gaynor) and playboy Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Conning their way around Europe, they’ve lived the cruise and resort life for years—increasingly on the run from police. Backed into a corner, they exploit the generosity of rich old lady named Miss Fortune (New York stage legend Minnie Dupree), moving into her lonely mansion and actually getting jobs to appear respectable enough to be named her heirs. The dear old gal’s sincerity proves infectious, however, and the Carletons must resist wanting to do good. Also watch for the “car of tomorrow” named The Flying Wombat!
Zenobia (1939) dir. Gordon Douglas
written by Corey Ford
w/ Oliver Hardy, Harry Langdon, Billie Burke, Alice Brady, James Ellison, Jean Parker, Olin Howland, June Lang, Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Philip Hurlic
Here’s your chance to see Oliver Hardy in a role other than Stan Laurel’s hardy pal. He plays Dr. Tibbet who considers it patriotic not to charge the poor. He even extends his services to a traveling circus with a sick female elephant named Zenobia who falls in love with him. Then we get a frank yet dismaying dialogue between Dr. T and an African-American child named Zeke (Philip Hurlic) about racial inequality. Admirable, yes, but undermined by a gala affair during which Dr. T’s daughter (Jean Parker) sings “In the Evening by the Moonlight” with its opening line “You can hear those darkies hummin’.” At this point a runaway Zenobia shows up to claim her man, chasing Dr. T through the streets of the town. Zenobia’s trainer (played by silent comedy legend Harry Langdon) sues and the trial is a hoot since Zenobia won’t leave Dr. T’s side. Billie Burke (a/k/a Mrs. Topper and Glinda the Good Witch) brings her trademark flutter to the proceedings. One of her typical lines is “There’s nothing like company when you’re wanting someone for company.” The race theme returns when Zeke warms the hearts of white folks by reciting the preamble to the US Constitution, which takes a long time (!). Hattie McDaniel, the first black Oscar winner, is more assertive than ever in her ‘mammy’ role, constantly emasculating the ‘sambo’ character played by meek yet self-martyring Stepin Fetchit, the first black superstar millionaire. Olin Howland, who discovered the blob in the original Blob (1958), has a memorable role as Attorney Culpepper. A sweet, screwy one-off from Hal Roach Studios that’s doomed to be forgotten. VHS only. 73 minutes. Update: Zenobia now available on DVD and even Blu-ray.