Adam’s Rib (1949) dir. George Cukor
written by Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin
w/ Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen, David Wayne, Hope Emerson, Polly Moran, Eve March, Clarence Kolb, Will Wright, Madge Blake, Anna Q. Nilsson, Emerson Treacy, Marvin Kaplan, David McMahon, ‘Snub’ Pollard, Tommy Noonan
George Cukor was known as a “women’s director” but really his strength was working directly and closely with actors, male or female, to develop their roles. His fascinating psychodrama A Bill of Divorcement introduced Katherine Hepburn in 1932. Richard Schickel—author of The Stars: The Personalities That Made The Movies—describes Hepburn onscreen as “seemingly cold but easily awakened to love, fun, displays of anger, contempt, and wicked humor. She is, in short, that genuine Hollywood rarity, a contradictory personality.” Adam’s Rib is the most venerated of her movies with peer, friend and longtime secret lover Spencer Tracy. It was written by one of Hollywood’s most venerated couples, Ruth Gordon (known for playing Maude in Harold & Maude) and Garson Kanin (author of Tracy & Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir)—their screenplay Oscar-nominated. The plot centers on husband-and-wife lawyers dueling out a high profile case and the tagline is “It’s the hilarious answer to who wears the pants.” A top-notch supporting cast includes Judy Holliday (It Should Happen to You, Bells Are Ringing) as the defendant, stretchy-faced Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch), vaudeville great Polly Moran (Reducing, Politics), and the formidably sized Hope Emerson (Caged). The American Film Institute named Adam’s Rib one of filmdom’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies, alongside Harold & Maude, Annie Hall, Moonstruck, and The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn and Tracy also teamed up for the sparkling, intelligent comedies Woman of the Year (1942), State of the Union (1948), Pat and Mike (1952), and Desk Set (1957).
The Adding Machine (1969) dir. Jerome Epstein
written by Jerome Epstein
w/ Milo O’Shea, Phyllis Diller, Billie Whitelaw, Raymond Huntley, Paddie O’Neil, Libby Morris, Hugh McDermott
Supporting roles in Barbarella and Romeo & Juliet (both 1968) led to Milo O’Shea’s starring role as pen-pushing schmuck Mr. Zero in this forgotten oddity. He murders his boss (Raymond Huntley) for replacing him with an adding machine. After one last evening with his stereotypically ball-busting wife (Phyllis Diller) and her hideous family, the police come to arrest him. Convicted and executed, he goes to a postmodern Heaven where reincarnation is the m.o. He learns that even in his early incarnations he bore the mark of the slave who’d never evolve into a great human being. Ugly, peculiar, depressing, and satiric, Epstein’s film has much to admire, the direction tight even when the story drags a bit. It’s based on a 1923 play by Broadway’s luminary Elmer Rice. O’Shea and Diller are the film’s highlight, very believable as a married couple. She never stops yapping while he just stares sadly, his catatonia concealing a racing fantasy life. Billie Whitelaw (an evil nanny in The Omen) plays his secretary who commits suicide and finds him in Heaven. The play was revived as a successful off-Broadway musical in 2008 but the movie remains hard to find. 90 minutes.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) dir. Frank Capra
written by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein
w/ Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Edward Everett Horton, Grant Mitchell, James Gleason, John Alexander, Jack Carson, John Ridgely, Edward McNamara
Hull and Adair play the Brewster spinsters, dotty-sweet serial killers who bury their elderly male victims in the basement of their Brooklyn home—roles they originated in Joseph Kesserling’s darkly comic Broadway hit. Their nephew Mortimer (Cary Grant) and his new wife (Priscilla Lane) stumble onto the truth. Before Mortimer can decide what to do, however, his fugitive brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns, a far more threatening embodiment of psychosis. The supporting cast is stocked with cream-of-the-crop character actors: Edward Everett Horton as a victim, Peter Lorre as a plastic surgeon, and John Alexander as the uncle who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. Capra’s loyal, single-set adaptation is as quirky as it is light, minus the social significance typical of earlier Capra films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938). Or so it seems. Jason Haslam’s “’A Secret Proclamation’: Queering the Gothic Parody of Arsenic and Old Lace” in Gothic Studies, however, writes that Arsenic and Old Lace “reproduce[s] notions of the ‘normal’ American family while at the same time revealing an anxiety behind the social construction of heteronormativity.” And so, he argues, it should be recognized as the final film in Capra’s classic period. “Consisting of a complex parody of traditional Hollywood horror films and of the Gothic in general, this comedy offers its viewer a critique of the conservative social commentary that exists on the surface of the horror genre.” 120 minutes.
Autumn Leaves (1956) dir. Robert Aldrich
written by Jean Rouverol, Hugo Butler, Lewis Meltzer, Robert Blees
w/ Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson, Ruth Donnelly, Vera Miles, Lorne Greene, Maxine Cooper, Marjorie Bennett, Selmer Jackson, Frank Gerstle, Bess Flowers
It might look trite, but don’t underestimate this dark oddity from the director of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Crawford “tests the limits of a hellish Fifties world of pain, anxiety, and frustration,” says Paul Roen in his movie guide High Camp. A 1956 review in the New York Times refers cuttingly yet not inaccurately to Crawford as “our lady of multiple miseries,” speculating that she’s “probably logged more hours of suffering than any actress in American films.” Packing three movies into one, Autumn Leaves first offers a melodramatic romance between a spinster typist named Millicent (Joan Crawford) and younger loner Burt (Cliff Robertson). After they’re married comes the tense Suspicion-like part when Millicent uncovers Burt’s compulsive lies and checkered past, including an ex-wife (Vera Miles) who left him for his own dad (hunky Lorne Greene). Then it all veers into full-blown psychodrama with Burt’s breakdown and—after crushing Millicent’s hand with a typewriter—his commitment to an asylum. A tight script, interesting cinematography by Oscar-winner Charles Lang, and electroshock therapy make this worth a look. Ruth Donnelly is memorable as the landlady. Title song by Nat ‘King’ Cole. 107 minutes.
Bells Are Ringing (1960) dir. Vincente Minnelli
written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green
w/ Judy Holliday, Dean Martin, Jean Stapleton, Fred Clark, Eddie Foy Jr., Frank Gorshin, Ralph Roberts, Valerie Allen, Gerry Mulligan, Hal Linden, Doria Avila
Holliday, a Saint Of The Quirky, began her career in the late 1930s as a backstage switchboard operator at Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater. Her first real gig was a nightclub act with writers/lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. She won an Oscar for her first lead, in Born Yesterday (1950), and starred in classics like Adam’s Rib (1949) and It Should Happen to You! (1954). Coming full circle at the peak of her talents, she seems thoroughly organic as the irrepressible Ella Peterson—an advice-offering operator for a telephone answering service called Susanserphone. Ella’s in love with a voice, Plaza-O-Double-Four-Double-Three, who turns out to be a handsome bachelor (Dean Martin). The song lyrics by Comden and Green are unconventionally conversational, full of comic wordplay and tailor-made for their old pal Holliday. Her voice flutters as if uncontrolled but it’s not. She’s known for her ability to turn the comic into the dramatic and back again with assured swiftness, bringing a vulnerable sort of depth to her lighthearted characters. The liner notes for the Broadway soundtrack to Bells Are Ringing begin: “There is a school of thought which holds that Judy Holliday could make even Lady Macbeth a lovable and ingratiating character.” In 1965, Holliday died of cancer at age 43. Above: Holliday is pictured with Jean Stapleton (All in the Family’s Edith) at the switchboard.
Big Hearted Herbert (1934) dir. William Keighley
written by Lillie Hayward, Ben Markson
w/ Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Patricia Ellis, Helen Lowell, Phillip Reed, Trent Durkin, Jay Ward, Robert Barrat, Marjorie Gateson, Nella Walker, Henry O’Neill, George Chandler
Herbert Kalness is a classic Guy Kibbee character, a patriarch who is part grump, part blowhard, and part cheapskate. So the title is sarcastic, made clear by the tagline “His heart’s as big as a pea.” Elizabeth, his wife (Aline MacMahon), is devoted yet readily subverts his power to get what she needs for her kids, especially a son whose dream is to go to college (Trent Darkin) and a daughter (Patricia Ellis) who’s been proposed to by a young man (Phillip Reed). But when Elizabeth hides Herbert’s prized brass cuspidor, she goes too far. The youngest son, a nasally mama’s boy, gets a kick out of it all, saying appreciatively, “When Pop goes haywire, he’s a panic!” Their cheeky, Irish housekeeper, played marvelously by Helen Lowell, also has an active role in the plot. Based on a play by Sophie Kerr and Anna Steese Richardson, it’s on DVD with another Kibbee-MacMahon feature The Merry Frinks (1934). Other features costarring the two are Babbit (1934), While the Patient Slept (1935), and Mary Jane’s Pa (1935).
Blondie (1938) dir. Frank Strayer
written by Richard Flournoy
w/ Arthur Lake, Penny Singleton, Larry Simms, Marjorie Kent, Gene Lockhart, Jonathan Hale, Jerome Cowan, Danny Mummert, Kathleen Lockhart, Ann Doran, Dorothy Moore, Fay Helm, Irving Bacon, Charles Lane, Gordon Oliver, Ian Wolf, Jospehine Whittell, Willie Best, Emory Parnell, Daisy
An underrated classic, Blondie is the first of 28 movies (all about 70 minutes) starring Lake and Singleton as iconic Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead. The opening, which is as American as Fibber McGee’s closet, shows Dagwood—always late for work—bumbling out of the house at warp speed and crashing into the mailman (Irving Bacon). Blondie spends her days looking after their mischievous toddler Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms), the character in the series who makes the wryest observations. The gender dynamics aren’t as simple as they seem, summed up in Blondie’s assertion: “Sometimes I think it’s harder raising a husband than a baby.” The rest of the cast is also wonderful, especially Hale (Strangers on a Train) as boss Mr. Dithers, Lockhart (Miracle on 34th Street) as a man obsessed with repairing a vacuum cleaner, and Best (Ghost Breakers) as a hotel porter. Based on Chic Young’s long-running comic that debuted in 1930. A fairly low quality DVD collection of the full series runs for about $30-$40. For a smaller taste, Echo Bridge has released ten movies in a collection that goes for $10 or so. If you like one you’ll like them all.
Blondie’s Blessed Event (1942)
dir. Frank R. Strayer
written by Constance Lee
w/ Penny Singleton, Arthur Lake, Larry Simms, Jonathan Hale, Hans Conried, Mary Wickes, Danny Mummert, Stanley Brown, Irving Bacon, Paul Harvey, Olin Howard, Tom Kennedy, Arthur O’Connell, Don Barclay, Daisy
In this eleventh entry in the Blondie series, a peculiar storyline hijacks the birth of Cookie Bumstead. I’m not talking about their dog Daisy’s litter of five. Nor Baby Dumpling (Larry Simms) out-growing his nickname—to be called Alexander from now on. No it’s Dagwood (Arthur Lake) bringing home playwright George, really a con and a mooch, who embeds himself in the Bumstead household for the first month of Cookie’s life. He even manipulates a foolishly aspiring actress to serve as their maid. Blondie (Penny Singleton, later the voice of Jane Jetson) confronts George in a dramatic scene, using words suited to the busting up of a romantic triangle. “Now leave,” she orders, “before you wreck everything my home stands for.” George the user is played vivaciously by Hans Conried whose long career peaked in 1953 with three roles: a victim of TV in Twonky, Dr. Terwilliker in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan. The instantly familiar Wickes is the maid. She endured for decades in mostly mouthy supporting roles (Now Voyager, Trouble with Angels, Sister Act, Postcards from the Edge). Constance Lee wrote several Blondies, including the next entry Blondie for Victory. 69 minutes.
Blues Busters (1950) dir. William Beaudine
written by Charles Marion, Bert Lawrence
w/ Leo Gorcey & The Bowery Boys (Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, William Benedict, David Gorcey, Buddy Gorman), Bernard Gorcey, Adele Jergens, Gabriel Dell, Sam McDaniel, Bess Flowers
The Bowery Boys are a comedy team reaching back to the 1937 film Dead End. Over the years they were The Dead End Kids, The Little Tough Guys, and The East Side Kids. Blues Busters, both a halfway point for the Bowery Boys and a series highpoint, parodies the crooner craze of the 1940s. Post-tonsillitis, Sach (Huntz Hall) finds himself with a golden throat like he never had before. Mahoney (Leo Gorcey, a constant throughout the comedy team incarnations) transforms Louie’s Sweet Shop into a dinner club and Sach croons tunes like “Bluebirds Keep Singin’ in the Rain,” drawing a nightly crowd. Feeling the sting, a competing dinner club sabotages Louie’s success and dupes Sach into a contract. Though Hall had been performing on the radio since age 5, it’s not his singing voice we hear, an obvious factor that heightens the absurdity of his wacky expressions. Considered one of the Bowery Boys’ best. Watch for famous showgirl Adele Jergens (Ladies of the Chorus) as Lola. Next up in the series is Ghost Chasers (1951).
The Boy with Green Hair (1948) dir. Joseph Losey
written by Ben Barzman, Betsy Beaton, Alfred Lewis Levitt
w/ Dean Stockwell, Robert Ryan, Barbara Hale, Pat O’Brien, Regis Toomey, Samuel S. Hinds, David Clarke, Dwayne Hickman, Charles Arnt, Russ Tamblyn, William Smith
Peter Fry is a WWII orphan and a Cold War kid. He’s got the bomb on the brain so bad his hair turns radioactive green. Or else, as a hokey fantasy convinces him, his hair is the mark of a war orphan, a reminder for everyone who sees him that war is bad for children. Everyone else in town thinks his green hair is bad for them, considering him possibly contagious. Dean Stockwell gives a solid performance as Peter, in turn a wisecracking boy’s boy and an honorable little pre-punk pacifist. His career spans Home Sweet Homicide (1946), Compulsion (1959), Werewolf of Washington (1973) and Blue Velvet (1986). Gramp Fry is played by Pat O’Brien, one of Hollywood’s so-called Irish Mafia. Marking Losey’s directorial debut, Green Hair proved controversial for its antiwar stance. Indeed, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) jailed producer Adrian Scott for refusing to “name names.”
Caged (1950) dir. John Cromwell
written by Virginia Kellogg, Bernard C. Schoenfeld
w/ Eleanor Parker, Hope Emerson, Agnes Moorehead, Betty Garde, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby, Sheila Stevens-MacRae, Jan Sterling, Jane Darwell, Gertrude W. Hoffmann, Olive Deering, Gertrude Michael, Queenie Smith
The mother of women-in-prison movies. Caged offers all the tough dialogue, the lesbians good and bad, and the innocence lost that you might expect—but in combination with a tight script, accomplished ensemble work (Elanor Parker and Hope Emerson were Oscar-nominated), and film noir cinematography. John Cromwell also directed Ann Vickers (1934), a pre-Code melodrama about a highly successful reformer of women’s prisons, a role reincarnated here as the progressive warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead a/k/a Endora on Bewitched). Her nemesis is the corrupt prison matron Evelyn Harper, played by the towering 230-pound Hope Emerson (the circus strongwoman in Adam’s Rib). As Patricia White says in her book on lesbians in films, “Like The Killing of Sister George, or the lesbian classic Maedchen in Uniform with its conflict between stern headmistress and compassionate teacher, this feminist drama opposes two ‘dyke’ types in a struggle for control over the young heroine.” Parker plays the heroine—19-year-old new arrival Marie. Also pressuring Marie are two fellow inmates, mature lesbian kingpins named Kitty and Elvira (Garde, Patrick). Will Marie “change her type” for them? Sexually, criminally, or both? Remakes of Caged include the Charlie’s Angels episode “Caged Angels,” with cult icon Shirley Stoler as the predatory lesbian, and the very 1980s cult comedy Reform School Girls (1986) with Pat Ast and Wendy O. Williams.
Captain January (1936) dir. David Butler
written by Sam Hellman, Gladys Lehman, Harry Tugend
w/ Shirley Temple, Guy Kibbee, Slim Summerville, Buddy Ebsen, Sara Haden, Jane Darwell, June Lang, Jerry Tucker, Nella Walker
Kibbee (endearing star of several movies included here like Big-Hearted Herbert, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1933, The Merry Frinks) plays gruff yet tenderhearted Captain January, a lighthouse keeper raising an orphan named Star (Shirley Temple) the best he can. He’s helped by his friends Nazro (Slim Summerville, a busy supporting actor from the 1920s-40s) and lanky Paul (Buddy Ebsen of The Beverly Hillbillies). Star considers herself the lady of the house yet plans for a “seafaring life” like Cap’s, very impressed by sailors who can spit fifteen feet in a twenty-mile gale. A truant officer (Sara Haden) disapproves of Star’s situation, leading to a dramatic scene as Star is taken away yelling “Cap! Cap!” But of course there’s a happy ending. The numbers are cheerfully odd. Temple, Kibbee and Summerville perform a mock-libretto singing nothing but “La la la.” And “The Right Somebody To Love” is like a perverse music video featuring Kibbee as a baby and Temple as his nanny, wisely ending right as Temple powders a huge diaper. English author and critic Graham Greene described the movie as “sentimental, a little depraved, with an appeal interestingly decadent,” claiming that American men enjoyed ogling the mini-coquette’s “desirable” little body. This prompted 20th Century Fox to successfully sue Grahame. 77 minutes.
Chalk Garden (1964) dir. Ronald Neame
written by John Michael Hayes
w/ Hayley Mills, Deborah Kerr, Edith Evans, John Mills, Felix Aylmer, Elizabeth Sellars
Though a top star since Pollyanna (1960), Hayley Mills broke away from her Disney image to play darker, morally ambiguous characters. Whistle Down the Wind (1961), a haunting b+w classic based on her mother’s novel, offers a killer Jesus plot that Disney’d never touch. Chalk Garden, based on Enid Bagnold’s play and produced by Ross Hunter, is in vivid color and features Mills as a child of divorce. Living with her dowager grandmother (Edith Evans) and their loyal butler (real-life dad John Mills), Laurel is spoiled yet miserable. Daily she starts her very own backyard bonfire as a way to vent her id. Otherwise she reads True Crime books and exposes the trivial but embarrassing secrets of every governess hired for her, none of whom remain long. Enter Kerr as efficient Miss Madrigal, a woman with green thumbs and a past so explosive that snooping Laurel will feel the blast like she never did before. It’s a bit heavy in its symbolism but Ronald Neame (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) combines coming-of-age drama and long-shadowed mystery quite masterfully, building to a climactic dinner scene I could watch a hundred times. Edith Evans, legendary Dame, was Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress. 105 minutes.
Child Bride a/k/a Child Bride of the Ozarks (1938)
dir. Harry Revier
written by Harry Revier
w/ Shirley Mills, Bob Bollinger, Diana Durrell, Warner Richmond, Angelo Rossitto, Dorothy Carrol, George Humphreys, Frank Martin, George Morrell, Al Bannon
This early hicksploitation feature offers a very pervy little fantasy of the very thing it purports to condemn: the marriage of female minors to adult men in the nearly lawless Ozark Mountains. A schoolteacher (Diana Durrell) speaks out against the practice and so a clan of menfolk tie her to a large stone in the woods. Angelo Rossitto (the goblet-offering dwarf in Freaks and Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) here plays a hillbilly hero—though the DVD cover from Alpha Video suggests he’s the villain. At the budding age of 12, Shirley Mills plays Jennie who strips for a topless shot and skinny-dips with her dog, a scene that could get a director arrested today. All said and done, Child Bride is a more engaging movie than one might expect, with tensions inherent to its narrative as well as its conflicting intentions. According to Bold! Daring! Shocking True! A History of Exploitation Films by Eric Shaefer, “The social function of Child Bride was much the same as that of the exotics set in Africa or the South Seas. Like the ‘savages’ of the other films, Jennie and the ‘back yonder folk’ are closer to nature and have a sexuality unencumbered by the strictures of civilization.” For more modern examples of this, seek out hillbilly killer flicks like Deliverance (1972) or I Spit on Your Grave (1977).
A Christmas Memory (1966) dir. Frank Perry
written by Truman Capote, Eleanor Perry
w/ Geraldine Page, Donnie Melvin, Truman Capote
Mademoiselle first published this short memoir in 1956. Set during the Depression, it’s about the abiding friendship between seven-year-old Truman Capote, nicknamed Buddy, and his spinster cousin Sook. The Perrys, respected filmmaking team, adapted it for ABC’s Stage 67, striking a timeless chord reminiscent of the To Kill a Mockingbird adaptation (1962). This should not be surprising because Mockingbird author Harper Lee and Capote were childhood friends in the same Alabama town. But the cast here is limited almost exclusively to Sook (a definitive role for Gerladine Page who won an Emmy) and tap-dancing Buddy (Donnie Melvin proves an effectively neutral channel for Capote’s narration). Together they attend to their annual ritual of making fruitcakes to send to people they admire, like the Roosevelts. Sook is able and thoughtful yet childlike, a saintly embodiment of the noble poor who is not without her flashes of bitterness. Capote’s homage is a double-dose of sentimentality and yet helplessly unorthodox in its central relationship, a reason it endures. 51 minutes. The Perrys also made David and Lisa (1961), Ladybug Ladybug (1963), Diary of a Mad Houswife (1970) and reunited with Capote to make his companion piece A Thanksgiving Visitor (1967) also starring Page.
College Swing (1938)
dir. Raoul Walsh
written by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin
w/ Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, George Burns, Martha Raye, Edward Everett Horton, Betty Grable, Jackie Coogan, Ben Blue, Jerry Colonna, Florence George, Tully Marshall, Charles Trowbridge, The Slate Brothers
Legendary dimwit Gracie Allen inherits a college. She replaces the faculty with era comedians like rubber-faced Jerry Colonna who sings an unforgettable “Please” and hyperactive Ben Blue who literally climbs the wall. The rambunctious Martha Raye (Mel’s mom on Alice) sings “How’dja Like To Love Me?” with Bob Hobe, the film’s highpoint. One of the lines Hope sings to her goes, “I could let my hair down and you could let your cold cream shine.” The Slate Brothers are also memorable as waiters at The Hangout singing how they’re “tired of carrying plates around this joint.” And Horton, one of early Hollywood’s out gay actors whose character abhors women, ends up serenaded by Gracie Allen as she does a sincere roadside soft-shoe. The plot is merely a way to string together all the skits, gags, and numbers—with clever, conversational lyrics by Frank Loesser. Only the romantic numbers, with opera babe Florence George, tempted me to hit fast-forward. College Swing, a follow-up to Hope’s debut The Big Broadcast of 1938, cashed in on an enduring trend of college campus movies like Pigskin Parade (1936), Too Many Girls (1940), Blondie Goes to College (1942), and Mother Is a Freshman (1949).
Curse of the Cat People (1944) dirs. Gunther von Fritsch, Robert Wise
written by Dewitt Bodeen
w/ Ann Carter, Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Jane Randolph, Eve March, Julia Dean, Elizabeth Russell, Sir Lancelot, Erford Gage, Sarah Selby
The tagline promises “The beast woman stalks the night anew.” So no wonder theatergoers were disappointed in this sequel to Cat People (1942) produced by Val Lewton and written by Dewitt Bodeen. Because it’s not a sequel after all. The same producer and the same writer were saddled with the original title but they made a totally different film. Critics were more favorable, like James Agee who saw in it “the poetry and danger of childhood.” And the Illustrated History of the Horror Film admires Cat People yet considers Curse “in many ways an improvement… psychologically sound and sensitively written and portrayed… never los[ing] its poetic balance.” It’s not only highly original, tender and whimsical, it’s also queer at heart. William Mann’s book Behind the Screen describes homosexual Bodeen’s screenplay as: “A tale of a lonely, imaginative girl who lives in a world of her own dreams and wonder, teased by her classmates and despaired by her father—as close to himself as anything Bodeen ever wrote.” Her father’s first wife is the cat woman who died in the original; this is Bodeen’s obligatory nod. Quirky details layer themselves into a film I can’t believe got made at all in Hollywood. There’s a “Sleepy Hollow” motif, a mysterious old lady (Julia Dean) who rejects her daughter (Elizabeth Russell), Simon as a glamorous imaginary friend, and a Jamaican housekeeper named Edward (Sir Lancelot). Agee wrote of Edward: “One of the most unpretentiously sympathetic, intelligent, anti-traditional, and individual Negro characters I have ever seen on the screen.” Plus there’s lots of pro-child psychobabble. The film’s message stems from Louis Stevenson’s poem “The Unseen Playmate.” 70 minutes.
Dames (1934) dirs. Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley
written by Delmer Daves
w/ Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Zasu Pitts, Hugh Herbert, Phil Regan, Arthur Vinton, Leila Bennett, Berton Churchill
The always enjoyable Kibbee is at the heart of this Berkeley-fest, unofficially called Gold Diggers of 1934. A rich relative (Hugh Herbert) is going to give him a huge amount of money if he proves himself morally upstanding. But then he falls in with bad-boy Powell and his theater crowd! The Dubin-Warren numbers include “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the brilliant “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “Girl at the Ironing Board.” The latter, featuring Joan Blondell singing and dancing with men’s long underwear, is one of Berkeley’s only duds. Blondell (pictured on Kibbee’s lap) is otherwise top-notch as usual. The film’s highlight is the title number featuring—and I mean featuring—sweet-cheeked Keeler. At one point a screen full of Ruby Keeler heads dance around. Keeler also has the most memorable line in the movie: “I’m free, white, and 21. I love to dance and I’m gonna dance!”
The Dark at the Top of Stairs (1960) dir. Delbert Mann
written by Harriet Frank Jr., Irving Ravetch
w/ Robert Preston, Dorothy McGuire, Eve Arden, Angela Lansbury, Shirley Knight, Frank Overton, Robert Eyer, Lee Kinsolving
Homosexual writer William Inge, who was part of Christopher Isherwood’s circle, wrote the plays Come Back Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953, won Pulitzer), and Bus Stop (1955), all becoming respected Hollywood films. The adaptation of his Tony-winning Dark at the Top of the Stairs, however, has been forgotten. I found a decent DVD transfer—clearly taped off the Bravo channel—from ClassicReels.com. A cross between Life with Father (1947) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) that’s set in Oklahoma, it’s about a typically atypical American family: dad (Robert Preston) is seeking employment, mom (McGuire) suspects him of cheating with a beautician (Angela Landsbury), a flat-chested teen daughter (Shirley Knight) consoles her suicidal Jewish beau (Lee Kinsolving), and a bullied sissy son (Robert Eyer) obsesses over movie stars. The great early TV icon Eve Arden has a role as a domineering aunt who doesn’t enjoy sex with her husband (or with men, perhaps). The plot feels stretched at 124 minutes , and it can be thematically emphatic, but there’s good performances all around, with Knight Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She went on to too few good roles in movies like Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), The Group (1966), The Sender (1982) and, most notably, Endless Love (1981).
The Devil Commands a/k/a The Devil Said No (1941)
dir. Edward Dmytryk
written by Robert D. Andrews, Milton Gunzburg, William Sloane
w/ Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff, Richard Fiske, Ralph Penney, Dorothy Adams, Walter Baldwin, Kenneth MacDonald, Shirley Warde
Widower scientist Dr. Blair (Boris Karloff) teams up with devious spiritualist Mrs. Walters (Revere who’d be blacklisted during the McCarthy era) to experiment with brainwaves as a means of communicating with the dead. Fitting stolen corpses with space-age headgear, Blair positions them around a table in his lab for the ultimate sci-fi séance. His daughter (Amanda Duff), the movie’s narrator, tries to save him from his own grief-driven obsession and nearly ends up his victim. With great sets, strong performances, and a quirky spin on the supernatural, this lesser known Karloff feature is worth checking out and on DVD. Just don’t expect anything having to do with the devil. Based on a novel by William Sloane. 65 minutes. Note: The director Edward Dmytryk, Oscar-nominated for Crossfire (1947), became one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy era, serving prison time; he ended up testifying in 1951 and betraying over twenty Hollywood comrades.
Dinner at Eight (1933) dir. George Cukor
written by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz
w/ Billie Burke, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Madge Evans, May Robson, Grant Mitchell
Burke debuted in the 1916 comedy Peggy and later married Ziegfield himself, retiring to live the party life. Thankfully, the stock market crash forced her back into starring roles in movies like this one. Half an octave lower than Oz’s Glinda, Burke’s fluttery deadpan in Dinner at Eight turns any old sentence into an ironic little one-liner. She plays Millicent Jordan who’s hosting a high society party. Lionel Barrymore (Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can’t Take It with You) plays her shipping financier husband whose business is going under. “But everybody’s broke, darling,” she tells him. “Don’t let that worry you. We’ll economize!” Among the party guests are a gangster and his moll (Beery, Harlow) and a cash-poor stage star (Marie Dressler of Min and Bill) who rewards us with one of the funniest last lines of the era. John Barrymore provides the drama as a suicidal alcoholic. As for the dinner itself, the aspic is ruined but the gowns are by Adrian. 111 minutes.
Doll Face (1945) dir. Lewis Seiler
written by Harold Buchman
w/ Vivian Blaine, Dennis O’Keefe, Carmen Miranda, Perry Como, Martha Stewart, Reed Hadley, Stanley Prager, George E. Stone, Frank Orth, Charles Tannen
This “backstage musical” was distributed on the cheapest VHS by both Hollywood Classics and Viking Video and is now included on a Carmen Miranda DVD set. Don’t expect much Miranda, though her “Chico Chico” number is a high point. Bold contrasts in costume and set design make the most of the b+w, and Perry Como in his second movie appearance is quite handsome. Vivian Blaine (Guys & Dolls) is Doll Face, the “most important personality in the burlie-q.” Dennis O’Keefe (Raw Deal, The Dennis O’Keefe Show) is her manager; he believes that women are like carpets—both need beating. Yes be advised to expect some biased opinions about women and the Japanese. This film was released four months after Nagasaki and the jubilant number “Hubba Hubba” asks, “Hey whatever happened to the Japanese?” The answer, sang by O’Keefe, is: “A friend of mine in a B-29 dropped another load for luck. As he flew away he was heard to say a hubba-hubba-hubba yuk yuk!” In her later years, Vivian Blaine would play a key role in Charles Band’s stinker Parasite (1982).
Double or Nothing (1937) dir. Theodore Reed
written by Duke Atteberry, Erwin S. Gelsey,
w/ Bing Crosby, Martha Raye, Andy Devine, Mary Carlisle, William Frawley, Benny Baker, Samuel S. Hinds, William Henry, Fay Holden, Bert Hanlon, Gilbert Emery, Walter Kingsford, John Gallaudet
Typical of the Depression era, the story obsesses over getting money while insisting it’s not money that makes one happy. In accordance with a wealthy eccentric’s will, a large number of wallets, each containing a hundred dollar bill and a ‘return to’ card, are dropped all over town. The will rewards those who return both wallet and money with a chance at a million dollars. William Frawley (a/k/a I Love Lucy’s Fred Mertz) plays a con man going straight. Martha Raye, known as The Big Mouth, plays former stripper Liza Lou who can’t help but strip when she hears the song “It’s On, It’s Off”—no matter where she happens to be! Raye is loved by TV fans as Benita Bizarre on The Bugaloos (1970-72), Mel’s mother on the sitcom Alice (1979-84), and the Polident spokesperson. Another character actor I have great affection for is Andy Devine, who plays a bulky sweet hulk in plaid called Half-Pint. Known for his croaky voice, Devine was many a sidekick throughout his career. Lastly, Bing Crosby is aspiring crooner Lefty Boylan. He’s in love with Vickie (Mary Carlisle) who assures him that his nightclub plans will succeed. He answers, “My only fear is that success might completely ruin my character.” Then he proposes: “Vickie if it does, let’s disintegrate together, huh?” These are the good guys in this comedy-musical. Never lagging, the movie offers a Berkley-esque nightclub set and some jaw-dropping novelty acts. What a crazy ending!
Earthworn Tractors (1936) dir. Ray Enright
written by Richard Macaulay, Joe Traub, Hugh Cummings
w/ Joe E. Brown, Guy Kibbee, June Travis, Charles Wilson, Carol Hughes, Dick Foran, Gene Lockhart, Olin Howland
Joe. E. Brown has an amazing ‘elastic’ face. He just radiates vaudeville in this goofy comedy from his days at Warner Brothers. He plays a “natural born salesman” who declares to his girlfriend (Hughes): “The next time you hear from me I’ll be selling Earthworm Tractors!” Backed by Guy Kibbee (Dames, Scattergood Baines), though, it’s not as easy as he thinks. The ending is a hoot as oblivious Brown drives a tractor—nervous Kibbee in tow—across a dilapidated bridge. Brown’s career started with a circus tumbling act in 1902 and ended with his famous bit in the final scene of Some Like It Hot (1959). It’s fun to see a young Howland, the codger who’s first to get eaten by The Blob (1958). And Lockhart would come to preside over the court scene in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Earthworm Tractors is, of course, a play on the popular tractor brand Caterpillar. Currently available through Netflix and on YouTube. See also Wide Open Faces (1938) in Classic Era (M-Z).
Easy Living (1937) dir. Mitchell Leisen
written by Preston Sturges
w/ Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, Franklin Pangborn, Luis Alberni, Mary Nash, Esther Dale, William Demarest
Leisen, outrageous gay auteur, was known as a woman’s director but that did not mean he was kind and patient on the set. His demand for control led to fights with heavyweight Hollywood writers Billy Wilder and, during production of Easy Living, Preston Sturges. Despite or because of the friction, they made a stellar comedy. It all begins when a mink coat falls out of the sky. It lands on Jean Arthur (she rocks!) and changes her life. Look for ‘sissy’ actor Franklin Pangborn at the hat store, always uptight and fumbling. And the automat scene can’t be beat. If you like this, try Leisen’s Hands Across the Table (1935). Both movies center on a regular working girl faced with irregular affluence
written by Richard Brooks
w/ Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones
Movies like this Sinclair Lewis adaptation don’t come out of Hollywood very often. It’s an indictment of hypocrisy on one level, and, on another, it’s a study of hypocrisy’s all too human heart. Lancaster owns the film without dominating it or overshadowing his fellow actors. He is traveling salesman Gantry—slicker than slick yet sincere at heart. After a boxcar brawl and many miles walked, he stops into an African-American church and sings “I’m On My Way” with the congregation, seeming validated by their acceptance. He next joins a revival led by Sister Sharon (Jean Simmons), with whom he falls in love. He prospers as an unorthodox evangelist until a former acquaintance, a prostitute (Shirley Jones), threatens to expose him. The text that introduces the film warns against letting children watch, reminding audiences that not all evangelists are fakes. This sets us up to think Gantry a fake. He’s not. He’s both passionate and practical, which is what makes him such a beguiling character. Lancaster, Jones, and writer Brooks all won Oscars.
The Eyes of Texas (1948) dir. William Witney
written by Sloan Nibley
w/ Roy Rogers, Andy Devine, Nana Bryant, Lynne Roberts, Roy Barcroft, Danny Morton, Francis Ford, Pascale Perry, Stanley Blystone, Bob Nolan
Nana Bryant (Tom Sawyer, Hangmen Also Die, Harvey) is ferocious as crooked attorney Hattie E. Waters. A seemingly upright older lady around town, she’s scheming the property out from under a home for war-orphaned boys. Her secret weapon is a pack of dogs trained to kill. Uniting to save the day are singing cowboy Roy Rogers (on Trigger of course), his pal Dr. Cookie Bullfincher played by lovable lug Andy Devine (The Poor Rich, Double or Nothing), and a sensible nurse (Lynne Roberts). I might not have watched this sagebrush saga if not for Paul Roen’s movie guide High Camp. Recommending it as “amazingly decadent” and “a vivid manifestation of postwar malaise,” Roen comments: “We know things must be getting pretty noir when grandma’s pet pooch is the Hound of the Baskervilles.” The movie’s other singing cowboy is Bob Nolan, a writer of scores of cowboy songs. On DVD, 66 minutes.
written by Budd Schulberg
w/ Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Rod Brasfield, Charles Irving, Marshall Neilan, Lois Nettleton, Burl Ives, Bennett Cerf
Two years before Elmer Gantry (1960) cast a spotlight on evangelism, and two decades before Network (1976) exposed TV sensationalism, Elia Kazan joined up with controversial novelist Budd Schulberg to make this prophetic study of media power. It’s even more relevant now than ever yet remains underappreciated. Perhaps Kazan’s tarnished reputation is to blame. A special feature on the DVD, though, addresses how the distressing experience of “naming names” during the HUAC hearings pushed Kazan toward a more effective use of moral ambiguity in his films. It’s certainly true here. Another reason for the film’s obscurity may be that it’s now difficult for potential viewers to imagine Andy Griffith—TV’s sheriff Andy Taylor—as corrupt enough to live up to the movie’s tagline: “POWER! He loved it! He took it raw in big gulpfuls…he liked the taste, the way it mixed with the bourbon and the sin in his blood!” Griffith plays a singing hobo turned folk hero named Lonesome Rhodes, compared to Will Rogers in his ability to persuade the masses. What Rhodes learns as a radio personality in Arkansas, he applies to TV and national politics. Griffith is brilliant at putting on the good ol’ boy charm for Lonesome’s fans while flashing a dark streak for us. The woman who discovers Rhodes, in jail on a drunk and disorderly charge, is quite his opposite: a “cold fish respectable girl” played beautifully by Patricia Neal (The Fountainhead). There’s not just one but two climactic scenes, each a doozy. 126 minutes, b+w.
14 Hours (1951) dir. Henry Hathaway
written by John Paxton
w/ Richard Basehart, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Agnes Moorehead, Debra Paget, Robert Keith, Howard Da Silva, Jeffrey Hunter, Martin Gabel, Grace Kelly, Frank Faylen, Jeff Corey, James Millican, Willard Waterman, Ossie Davis, Harvey Lembeck, Joyce Van Patten, Brad Dexter, Richard Beymer, Janice Rule, Leif Erickson, John Randolph
Originally titled The Man on the Ledge, this is a far starker drama about suicide than one might expect of 1951, combining with an equally unexpected narrative structure that could be described as a day in the life of New York City. Agnes Moorehead, of Bewitched and Citizen Kane fame, plays the suicidal man’s neurotic mother to whom he’s always been, shall we say, too close. Barbara Bel Geddes (I Remember Mama, Dallas) plays the girlfriend he feels unable to love as she deserves to be loved. And Paul Douglas (Solid Gold Cadillac) plays a regular Joe cop who becomes ensnared in the high-stakes efforts to talk the suicidal man out of jumping. Richard Baseheart offers a tremendous performance as Robert, making the most of his physically limited role on the 15th story ledge for a tense 14 hours. The film breaks from tension to canvas an array of subplots in the crowd gathered below. Pretty masterfully accomplished.
Freaks a/k/a Forbidden Love (1932) dir. Tod Browning
written by Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon
w/ Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Rosco Ates, Schlitzie, Johnny Eck, Angelo Rossitto, Koo Koo, Martha Morris, Josephine Joseph, Olga Roderick
The ultimate cult movie, perhaps even the original cult movie. It stars ‘actual freaks’ like conjoined twins The Hilton Sisters (Chained for Life), one of whom marries classic stutterer Rosco Ates. The central character is little person Harry Earles, a star in earlier Browning films. His relationship with the saint-like Frieda (played by sister Daisy Earles) is threatened by aerialist Cleo (Olga Baclanova) on whom the freaks get revenge in the finale. Also notable are fresh-faced Johnny Eck, referred to as a Half-Boy and King of the Freaks, and microcephalic Schlitzie playing a female character. Little person Rossitto acted alongside John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue (1927), saved the day in Child Bride (1938), and played the Master part of Master-Blaster in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Here he offers the communal goblet to Cleo in the famous wedding banquet scene. The film’s monstrous climax is amazing yet it undermines the film’s overall attempt to represent the freaks as ordinary or childlike. 62 minutes.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) dir. Alan Rifkin
written by James Fritzell, Everett Greenbaum, Andy Griffith
w/ Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmon, Dick Sargent, Skip Homier, Lurene Tuttle, James Millhollin, Hal Smith, Ellen Corby, Sandra Gould, Edward McKinley, Eddie Quillan, Philip Ober, Jesslyn Fax, Nydia Westman, George Chandler, Robert Cornthwaite, James Millhollin, Hope Summers, Dick Wilson
A screwy “haunted comedy” in Technicolor from Universal Pictures that many people now middle-aged saw on TV as kids. It starts with Don Knotts, in Barney Fife-mode but as a typesetter-wannabe-reporter, mistaking a passed-out drunk for a corpse. That drunk is Hal Smith who also plays Otis the drunk on The Andy Griffith Show. And so begins what feels like one big party for supporting actors: Sargent and Gould from Bewitched, Tuttle the senior nurse from Julia, Corby a/k/a Grandma Walton, as well as Jim Boles, Charles Lane, and Reta Shaw. Knotts is remembered as the quintessential supporting player due to his roles on Andy Griffith, and later Three’s Company, but he was a full-fledged movie star. His first movie is The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1963) (see below); his next and possibly best is The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) (see Classic Era M-Z). Look for Universal’s DVD collection called the “Reluctant Hero Pack.” The Don Knotts comedy forumla spins the underdog archetype as reluctant hero, making for slapstick that both undermines and confirms traditional masculinity.
The Ghost Breakers (1940) dir. George Marshall
written by Walter DeLeon
w/ Bob Hope, Willie Best, Paulette Goddard, Paul Lukas, Paul Fix, Lloyd Corrigan, Anthony Quinn, Tom Dugan, James Flavin, Dolores Moran, Virginia Brissac
Bob Hope plays a radio star named Lawrence Lawrence Lawrence. “My parents had no imagination,” he says when introducing himself. Fleeing a ruthless racketeer, he and his manservant Alex (Willie Best) accompany an heiress (Paulette Goddard) to a haunted castle in Cuba. Walter DeLeon wrote the original version of this nifty comedy in 1922 and his newly added dialogue swings along, delivered frivolously but loaded with clever jabs. Willie Best (Blondie, Road Show) is best of all as Alex. Unlike the majority of Best’s 100+ roles, Alex gets more lines and his intelligence is important to the plot. Lawrence may make a crack about painting Alex white in a blackout but, still, Lawrence’s character would be lost without him. Hope and Best are the comedy team here, eclipsing Paulette Goddard though she shines. Look for Best in The Nitwits (1935), Vivacious Lady (1938), Road Show (1941), the Scattergood Baines movies (1941-1942), and the classic black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943).
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)
dir. Don Weis
written by Louis M. Heyward, Elwood Ullman
w/ Boris Karloff, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley, Patsy Kelly, Basil Rathbone, Aron Kincaid, Nancy Sinatra, Quinn O’ Hara, Jessie White, Susan Hart, Benny Rubin, Bobbi Shaw, Harvey Lembeck, Alberta Nelson, Francis X. Bushman
Boris Karloff of classic horror fame (Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Devil Commands) took what roles he could get in the 1960s. Two high points are narrator in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) and his enthralling dramatic turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut Targets (1968). Then there’s this Pathécolor comedy that casts him as Hiram Stokeley, recently deceased, who’s heirs Chuck (Disney star Tommy Kirk) and Lili (The Mothers-in-Law) might lose the estate to a henchmen-wielding lawyer (Basil Rathbone, known for playing villains in the 1930s). Whatever else happens, the mansion pool is transformed into a beach party featuring Nancy Sinatra, the same year as her massive hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” There’s also the titular ghost, of course, and an escaped gorilla. Hiram watches the story unfold on a crystal ball. Patsy Kelly, a Hal Roach comedy star in the 1930s (and Tallulah Bankhead’s housekeeper/lover, according to lore), plays a medium named Myrtle Forbush (!). Quirky yes but the comedy relies too much on stereotypes, especially a Native American called Chicken Feather and a dopey gang of bikers. Best watched with friends and summer cocktails.
Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)
dir. Gordon Douglas
written by Robert E. Kent
w/ Harold Peary, Billie Burke, Richard Legrand, Freddie Mercer, Nancy Gates, Lillian Randolph, Hobart Cavanaugh, Margaret Landry, Claire Carlton, Fred Essler, Herbert Evans, Leonard Kinskey, Walter Tetley, Ann Doran, Michael Road, Robert Bice, Barbara Hale, Dorothy Malone, Teddy Infuhr, Jack Norton
NOTE: First read the entry below on The Great Gildersleeve (1942), the debut in the Gildersleeve series; also see Look Who’s Laughing (1942) for Gildersleeve in a supporting role among other famous radio stars.
Corpulent funnyman Harold Peary created Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve for the radio show Fibber McGee & Molly (1935) and debuted the character onscreen in Abbot & Costello’s Comin’ Round the Mountain (1940) and then in the Fibber McGee & Molly vehicle Look Who’s Laughing (1942). “Gildy” had his own movie series beginning with The Great Gildersleeve (1942). The third, and second best, of these hour-long movies is Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), taking Gildersleeve to a druggist convention in New York City with local druggist Mr. Peavey (Richard Legrand). Gay is a running gag in this one as the two end up in the hotel’s bridal suite, take a conspicuous turn together on the dance floor, and pretend to be a husband and wife with Peavey in full drag spilling some hilariously flat lines out the side of his mouth. “Some women have dishpan hands,” he says in a near-Droopy voice: “I have dishpan face.” Peavey is just one of several women for Gildersleeve to manage. There’s also a sexpot man-scammer (Claire Carlton) and a rich widow (brilliant dimwit Billie Burke—of Wizard of Oz, Dinner at Eight, Topper, and Zenobia—whose voice is quirky enough to rival Gildersleeve’s). Showing up from back home is his real fiancée (Ann Doran) to heighten Gildy’s fluster. The young nephew Leroy is a fun character, an observant teen with rolling eyes played sharply by Freddie Mercer. He’d played alongside Roddy McDowall in On the Sunny Side (1942) and later performed for Turnabout Theater (see Turnabout in Documentary M-Z). Watch for Jack Norton as the drunk on the window ledge; he always played drunks and this is a classic scene.
Glen or Glenda (1953) dir. Edward D. Wood Jr.
written by Edward D. Wood Jr.
w/ Edward D. Wood Jr. (as Daniel Davis), Dolores Fuller, Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell, Conrad Brooks
Much has been written about Ed Wood’s lowest-budget exploitation movies like Jail Bait (1954), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), fumbling yet earnest works of trash that only much later found an audience with cult cinema fans. At 65 minutes, Glen or Glenda is Wood’s first and most personal film, indeed a self-starring message film calling for tolerance for transvestites. When Wood made the film, it had been two years since headlines—and a mostly disdainful public—seized on Christine Jorgenson, the first-ever person to undergo sex assignment surgery. Ed Wood was not transsexual but transvestite, a distinction made by Glen or Glenda: a transvestite feels pleasure wearing women’s clothes but is otherwise sexually “normal.” Nevertheless a fantastical transformation does occur, and an angora sweater becomes a symbol of acceptance. Ed Wood had a special fondness for angora sweaters (hence the documentary title Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora; see Documentary A-L). Sounding like “Dracula on downers,” The Official Razzie Movie Guide lauds narrator Bela Lugosi’s role “explaining the cockeyed stock footage, weird sexual fantasy sequences, and stolid psychological lectures that run throughout the film.” A must-see for Quirky Cinema fans. Follow it up with Plan 9 that was often named worst movie ever made just as Wood was deemed worst director of all time. Note: If you like Ed Wood films, see Maniac (1934) by husband-wife team Dwain Esper and Hildegarde Stadie, father and mother of exploitation cinema (Classic Era M-Z).
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) dirs. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
written by Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour
w/ Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Warren William, Ginger Rogers, Billy Barty, Charles Lane, Etta Moten
This quintessential Berkeley musical starts off with Ginger Rogers, fully costumed in coins, singing “We’re in the Money.” She even sings one verse in Pig Latin! The show’s producer, played by nasally Ned Sparks, aspires to create a musical about the Depression: “Wailing, marching,” he intones, “jobs, jobs….” And the final number truly delivers. Joan Blondell, on a city street dressed as a prostitute, lights a bum’s cigarette and sings the Al Dubin-Harry Warren masterpiece “Remember My Forgotten Man.” It’s a searing tribute to the down-and-out, in particular the veteran: “You put a rifle in his hand…look at him today.” The uncredited vocalist during the long middle-part of the number is contralto Etta Moten, the first African-American to perform at the White House. Other numbers include “The Shadow Waltz” with neon violins and the risqué “Pettin’ in the Park” with little person Billy Barty as a perverse baby. All three of these numbers exhibit the Berkeley formula of starting with a realistic set on a portion of the stage (e.g. train, park, city street), then expanding the set into a full-stage spectacle, and, lastly, utilizing close-ups and editing to create a wholly cinematic experience. 97 minutes.
The Great Gildersleeve (1942) dir. Gordon Douglas
written by Jack Townley, Julien Josephson
w/ Harold Peary, Jane Darwell, Mary Field, Charles Arnt, Freddie Mercer, Nancy Gates, Thurston Hall, Lillian Randolph, Mary Field, George Carleton, George Chandler, Fern Emmett, Anne O’Neal, Syd Saylor
A chubby klutz with a big ego and bad ideas, Gildersleeve needs his nephew (Freddie Mercer) and niece (Nancy Gates) more than they need him. When their custody arrangement becomes threatened, the orphans launch a campaign to improve their Uncle Mort’s low status in the town of Summerfield. This involves a marching band, an incognito governor with the flu, and Gildersleeve breaking the world record for running backwards. Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, a regular on the long-running radio show Fibber McGee and Molly, is great indeed in this hour-long family comedy from RKO—the first ever spin-off. Peary’s trademark laugh, according to GreatGildersleeve.com, descends “from an embarrassed high to a knowing low.” The familiar cast will please character actor fans. Plump, respectable Aunt Emma is played by Jane Darwell a/k/a Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Bird Woman in Mary Poppins (1964). Lillian Randolph plays Gildersleeve’s unflustered housekeeper Birdie who says of her boss: “He got a mind of his own. He never do what nobody else do.” She’s the voice of Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom & Jerry cartoons. Thurston Hall, usually known for his bluster, is the sniffling governor. Mary Field is the spinster—or “female mantrap” as Gildy calls her. Chandler, who plays the telegraph messenger, and Saylor, the carpenter, accumulated over 400 roles each in their long careers. The second Gildy entry is Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943) involving jury duty and bad guys with the bulk of the cast returning. See above for the third entry Gildersleeve on Broadway (also 1943). Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), the fourth, last, and least satisfying entry, centers too much on a mad scientist and a loose ape to which he’s subjected “dematerialization” experiments.
Hands Across the Table (1935) dir. Mitchell Leisen
written by Norman Krasna, Vincent Lawrence, Herbert Fields, Viña Delmar
w/ Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Marie Prevost, Joseph R. Tozer, William Demarest, Albert Conti, Marcelle Corday, Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones, Bess Flowers
A romantic comedy titled It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, swept the Oscars in 1934. A number of similar comedies emerged in the following year and, according to a New York Times review, Hands Across the Table proved the most successful: “Mitchell Leisen has directed the comedy virtually to perfection…so shrewdly managed that what would ordinarily seem commonplace becomes warm and satisfying.” It’s a gritty zing-and-zag affair with Lombard and MacMurray as two “heels” cohabiting in New York City. Each is broke and each has baited a rich person for marriage. So falling for each other is not in their plans. Lombard’s character Regi works as a manicurist, adding a clever twist to the title (which also alludes to the hit Parish-Delettre song played during the opening credits). Regi is not impressed by friend Nona’s (Marie Prevost) optimism. “What did you do,” Regi jabs, “find a horseshoe in the subway?” Ted, MacMurray’s character, is a spontaneous, irreverent cutie whose family was one of many to lose their money in the financial crash that started the Great Depression. Hands Across the Table is the first (and my favorite) of four Lombard-MacMurray features. Next up is The Princess Comes Across (1937).
Hangover Square (1945) dir. John Brahm
written by Barré Lyndon
w/ Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders, Faye Marlowe, Alan Napier, Glen Langan
What a compelling thriller, both on screen and behind the scenes. Cregar plays a brilliant but tormented composer named George Bone who turns into a psycho-killer when he hears discordant noises. There are two unforgettable scenes involving fire: a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire and the climactic fire during which Bone plays his masterpiece. John Brahm and Barré Lyndon worked together on The Lodger (1944), also starring Cregar and Sanders as killer and sleuth. The producer, Darryl Zanuck, changed Hangover Square’s setting from modern London (as it is in Patrick Hamilton’s novel) to the early 1900s to take advantage of The Lodger’s success. This did not please Cregar, nor did Bernard Hermann’s score replacing Cregar’s own compositions. Cregar was a charming and large man whose weight shamed him more than his homosexuality. He had a heart attack after a stomach-stapling operation and died before Hangover Square’s release. Vincent Price gave the eulogy at Cregar’s funeral and then went on to have the career at 20th Century Fox that Cregar might have had. Cregar’s last film is dazzling, thankfully, with all his angst translated into a visceral poignancy. 77 minutes.
Harvey (1950) dir. Henry Koster
written by Mary Chase, Oscar Brodney
w/ James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Charles Drake, Jesse White, Cecil Kellaway, Wallace Ford, Peggy Dow, Nana Bryant, William H. Lynn
Stewart is dearer than ever as the Capra-esque nonconformist Elwood P. Dowd who’d make a strong candidate for Saint Of The Quirky. Elwood’s closest friend is a 6’3” rabbit named Harvey that only he can see. Stewart, who claims Elwood his personal favorite of all his roles, plays it more low-key than kooky. Reasonable, well-mannered, personable, and not a snob in his search for a drink, Elwood is so likeable that even when his sister (Josephine Hull) attempts to have him committed to a sanatorium, he manages to walk right out with a smile on his face. Cecil Kellaway has a memorable role too, as Dr. Chumley. The biggest joy is watching the various characters respond—and sometimes adapt—to Elwood and Harvey. Elwood says, “If Harvey’s said to me once I bet he’s said it probably a million times, he’s said, ‘Mr Dowd, I would do anything for you.’” A friend indeed. Stewart and Hull (who won a Supporting Oscar) both starred in Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-winning play prior to Koster’s film. Try watching Harvey first in a double-feature with Donnie Darko (2001).
The Haunting (1963) dir. Robert Wise
written by Nelson Gidding
w/ Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Fay Compton, Rosalie Crutchley, Lois Maxwell, Valentine Dyall, Diane Clare, Ronald Adam
Salon.com referred to Shirley Jackson as “that patron saint of oddballs.” She died at 48 from cigarettes, chocolate, and other lifelong neuroses. She was never a very public person. Her 1965 obituary in the New York Times declared: “Because Miss Jackson wrote so frequently about ghosts and witches and magic, it was said that she used a broomstick for a pen. But the fact was that she used a typewriter—and then only after she had completed her household chores.” Her modern classic The Haunting of Hill House has its own housekeeper, of course, though she won’t stay around after dark. Not even for Dr. Markway, an expert on the paranormal, and his three official witnesses—one of which is our spinster antihero Eleanor, a character whose introspection is deeper than any cut. Robert Wise’s 112-minute adaptation, a classic in its own right, stars five-time Tony winner Julie Harris as Eleanor, Claire Bloom as the lesbian-chic psychic, Richard Johnson as the rational Markway, and fresh-faced Russ Tamblyn as the cynical nonbeliever. Masterfully blurring the cold line between psychological and parapsychological, with gorgeous b+w cinematography by Davis Boulton, Wise’s film has endured the years partly because the characters never actually see a ghost. Instead, they hear its hellish banging and feel its icy breath. Stephen King considers Jackson’s novel one of the most important supernatural novels of the 20th century. Martin Scorsese considers Wise’s film the scariest horror film of all time. I’ve always felt that both versions emphasized Eleanor’s need to belong; the irony is that she belongs to a haunted house. When Harris starred on Knots Landing in the early 1980s, a special all-female episode recreated Jackson’s plot. Related films include the deservedly reviled remake by action director Jan de Bont (1999) as well as worthwhile variations like The Stone Tape (1972), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and The Haunting of Julia (1977). For more on the latter two, see Horror A-L.
Here Comes Cookie (1935) dir. Norman Z. McLeod
written by Don Hartman
w/ Gracie Allen, George Burns, George Barbier, Betty Furness, Andrew Tombes, Rafael Storm, James Burke, Irving Bacon, Milla Davenport, Harry Holman, Guinn ’Big Boy’ Williams, Jack Duffy, Arthur Housman, William Irving, George C. Pearce, Syd Saylor, Larry Steers
A wealthy father (George Barbier) hatches a plan to “seem broke” so he can prove the fiancé (Rafael Storm) of his daughter Phyllis (Betty Furness) is a gold-digger. To set his plan in motion, he secretly signs all his money over to his other daughter Gracie (Gracie Allen). Gracie, however, is never one to correctly interpret an objective. She cuts ragged tears into her evening gowns to look poor and gives away the car to a stranger. She also boards and feeds a dozen unemployed vaudeville acts for free, remodeling the mansion into a theater for them, called Gracie Allen’s Flop. Nonetheless, her plan to squander the family into the poorhouse ends up turning a profit. The trick drummer’s act is killer. And Gracie’s Latin number provides a…peculiar finale. George Burns plays her father’s assistant and Tombes is the butler, both pawns in Gracie’s screwy game. When Burns claims he’s lost his mind, Gracie asks where did he have it last? The couple would go on to have their own TV show throughout the 1950s. Also: Watch for former silent screen player Arthur Housman as a drunk; he played the drunk or “souse” dozens of times throughout his later career in talkies.
Here We Go Again (1942) dir. Allan Dwan
written by Paul Gerard Smith, Joe Bigelow
w/ Fibber McGee and Molly (a/k/a Jim and Marian Jordan), Edgar Bergen, Harold Peary, Ginny Simms, Bill Thompson, Gale Gordon, Isabel Randolph, George Chandler, Iron Eyes Cody
A follow-up to Allan Dwan’s Look Who’s Laughing (1941). This time the Fibber and Molly McGee (Jim Jordan, Marian Jordan) are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a stay at Lake Arcadia’s Silver Tip Lodge, which secretly they cannot afford. Other weekend guests include the McGees’ blowhard neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary of The Great Gildersleeve), the wimpy Wallace Wimple (Bill Thompson a/k/a the voice of Droopy), and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (father of Candice Bergen) with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Look for familiar face Gale Gordon (Mr. Mooney on The Lucy Show) as Otis Cadwalader. And beware of them Native American stereotypes. Iron Eyes Cody, for instance, was actually Italian. He racked up nearly 200 appearances on big and small screens (his last were in Ernest Goes to Camp and The A-Team). Though his playing the ‘Injun’ may have started as a gimmick, it lasted his whole life: he married a Native American woman, had two children with her, and fought for Native American causes. Here We Go Again, like Look Who’s Talking, is currently very rare, even on VHS. The DVD transfer from Satellite Media is quite clean, though. 77 minutes.
Hobson’s Choice (1954) dir. David Lean
written by David Lean, Norman Spencer, Wynyard Browne
w/ Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda de Banzie, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales, Richard Wattis, Derek Blomfield, Helen Haye, Gibb McLaughlin, Dorothy Gordon, Madge Brindley, John Laurie
Hobson’s choice, as a saying, means little choice indeed: Take it leave it. And this constitutes a tensely comic comeuppance for the character Hobson in the play-turned-movie Hobson’s Choice. Adapted and directed by David Lean and tightly shot in b+w by Jack Hildyard, the film stars larger than life Charles Laughton—whose wide, expressive face dominates even the long shots—as bullying shoemaker Henry Horatio Hobson. Hobson’s drinking has not yet affected his Manchester shop’s good reputation, yet his absolute control over it has become an illusion; it is really his three daughters and a hired bootmaker who keep things running. Brenda de Banzie’s career never quite took off, peaking with her commanding performance as the commanding elder “spinster” sister Maggie Hobson. With bullying techniques inherited from her father, and her own good practical intentions, Maggie initiates a long-game coup by motivating the bootmaker (John Mills, father of Hayley Mills) to start out on his own. Look for Prunella Scales of Fawlty Towers fame as the sister named Vicky. Charles Laughton, Oscar winner for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, actually hated playing a drunk even though he did it so well.
Home Sweet Homicide (1942) dir. Lloyd Bacon
written by F. Hugh Herbert
w/ Peggy Ann Garner, Randolph Scott, Lynn Bari, Connie Marshall, Dean Stockwell, James Gleason, Anabel Shaw, Barbara Whiting, Marietta Canty, Olin Howland
F. Hugh Herbert wrote or co-wrote several witty comedies about unconventional domestic situations, like Smarty (1934), Sitting Pretty (1948) and Let’s Make It Legal (1951). This one is about a widowed mystery writer (Lynn Bari) and her three kids whom she “weaned on trashy crime novels.” Headed up by the eldest Dinah (Peggy Ann Garner), their household clacks along much like mom’s typing. The middle sister April (Connie Marshall) is a brazen manipulator and little brother Archie (Dean Stockwell) is the matriarchy’s “poor little henpecked manchild.” He exclaims “Phenobarbital!” in lieu of cuss words. All three siblings are played with precocious pizzazz, nailing many a smart line as they apply what they’ve learned from Mom’s novels to a murder in the neighborhood. Their lives become endangered after they locate a key piece of evidence, which they refer to as “the gimmick.” Also on the case is seasoned cop-player James Gleason, who adds his usual Brooklyn edge, and western star Randolph Scott who has no edge at all. Maid Alert: The neighbor’s maid is played by actor Marietta Canty, a maid in Father of the Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). As for Home Sweet Homicide, it is based on a novel by Craig Rice—a woman author deemed “the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction” in the 1940s. Pictured above on the cover of Time. As an author and parent, Rice had a far less ideal relationship with her own kids.
How To Sleep: Robert Benchley’s Miniatures (1935-1944) and Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin (1928-1942)
dirs. Nick Grinde et al.
written by Robert Benchley, Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, et al.
w/ Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Donald Ogden Stewart
A member of the Algonquin set, writer Robert Benchley originated the quip “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to get out of these wet things and into a dry martini”—indeed he spouts this to Ginger Rogers in Billy Wilder’s debut film The Major and the Minor (1942). Benchley made 30 humorous shorts for MGM, called Miniatures, starting with the Oscar-winning “How To Sleep” in 1935. In this 11-minute parody of an actual sleep study done by a mattress company, Benchley plays both the narrator and the sleeper. We learn about sleeping positions like the supine curl, the kitten coil, and the ventrolateral sprawl. It played in theaters prior to the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera and its success prompted “How to Train a Dog” and “How to Behave.” Of the subsequent spoof deluge, the most interesting are “The Courtship of the Newt,” “That Inferior Feeling,” and “Why Daddy?” All 30 are available on a high quality three-disc set from the Warner Brothers Archive. Check YouTube or Netflix first to see if you like these early examples of the mockumentary. Total running time 267 minutes. Also look for the collection of 9 uncut one-reelers from Paramount titled Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin (1928-1942), most starring Benchley himself. I especially like “The Sex Life of the Polyp” and “Nothing But Nerves.” Some skits seeming to reinforce gender stereotypes in their narration end up undermining them in the comic scenarios that play out (e.g. “The Trouble with Husbands”). One called “Mr. W’s Little Game” stars Alexander Woollcott and a couple of others feature Donald Ogden Stewart. Most of them are in the mockumentary vein of “How to Sleep.” Total running time 136 minutes.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) dir. Robert Aldrich
written by Henry Farrell, Lukas Heller
w/ Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway, Victor Buono, Mary Astor, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy, Wesley Addy, William Campbell, Ellen Corby, Helen Kleeb
Davis was known for her feud with Joan Crawford. De Havilland was known for her feud with sister Joan Fontaine. So it makes sense that the two got along so well while making this film, Aldrich’s b+w follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) (see Classic Era M-Z). A long, tense scene toward the end, between de Havilland and Davis, constitutes an ultimate psycho-biddy showdown. Agnes Moorehead’s cranky housekeeper role makes for three biddies, really, earning her fourth Supporting Oscar nomination. Yes she over-cranks the crone yet how appropriate, as noted by critic Patricia White in her book Uninvited, “for one of the great supporting actresses to play a classic supporting role, the loyal servant, in a spectacularly unsupportive manner—to indulge in upstaging and scenery-chewing that puts Davis herself in the shade.” And what’s more in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte: Bruce Dern gets decapitated. Joseph Cotten is a smarmy local doctor. Victor Buono, who matched Davis so wickedly in Baby Jane, plays Charlotte’s father Big Sam Hollis. Cecil Kellaway lends a refined accent to all the deep-fried drawl. Corby and Kleeb (both of The Waltons) play town gossips. Hush is a nail-biting and knee-slapping gothic thriller, so loaded with extreme personalities it’s schizo. Eternally re-watchable. 133 minutes. Note: It and the Joan Crawford classic Strait-Jacket (also 1964) were the first big movies to introduce gore into the mainstream.
I’ll Be Seeing You a/k/a Double Furlough a/k/a With All My Heart(1944)
dir. William Dieterie
written by Marion Parsonnet
w/ Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Spring Byington, Tom Tully, William Dieterle, Chill Wills, Dare Harris, Kenny Bowers
Rogers is a convict on furlough, visiting her aunt’s family over the holidays. Cotten is a “neuro-psychiatric soldier” on furlough from a mental hospital. They fall in love, not knowing about each other. The movie plays out in a pensive, sad way, too subtle to qualify as melodrama. A dog attack scene and Cotten’s breakdown veer the movie toward psychodrama—but not too much. All the performances are smart. Spring Byington of You Can’t Wake It with You (1938) plays the observant aunt and Tom Tully the friendly uncle. Shirley Temple, as Rogers’ cousin, shows exceptional timing in her delivery. When asked how she knows so much about soldiers’ medals, she answers, “Oh a girl gets to know medals like she does boogie-woogie.” Edith Head put Temple in a sweater and started a big trend. Though this movie is often promoted as a Christmas movie, it’s not. It’s a movie about the possibility of love between troubled souls. Rogers and Cotten are at their best. 85 minutes.
I Love You Again (1940) dir. W.S. Van Dyke II
written by Charles Lederer, George Oppenheimer, Harry Kurnitz
w/ William Powell, Myrna Loy, Frank McHugh, Edmund Lowe, Nella Walker, Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, Jason Robards, Sr., Bess Flowers
Director of The Thin Man (1934) reunites Powell and Loy for a lively twist on the amnesia plot. Powell plays a fuddy-duddy cheapskate who gets hit on the head and recovers his long-lost memory: He’s really an urbane con artist who favors spending sprees! This proves good timing as his wife (Loy) is seeking a divorce so she can wed a more exciting man (Edmund Lowe). Since Powell can’t reveal his criminal past, he must try to win her back in a more devious way. That she detests him for the first half of the movie makes for sparkling sparring. Nella Walker is Loy’s mom; she often played a snooty matron. Our Gang’s Carl Switzer appears in his first post-Alfalfa role. Ultimately, though, this movie would not be the same without sidekick player Frank McHugh (Father Timothy O’Dowd in Going My Way) as straight man to Powell’s horn-blowing insanity.
I Married a Witch (1942) dir. René Clair
written by Robert Pirosh, Mark Connelly
w/ Veronica Lake, Frederic March, Cecil Kellaway, Robert Benchley, Susan Hayward, Elizabeth Patterson, Marie Blake, Mary Field, Emma Dunn, Billy Bletcher, Robert Homans, James Millican, Ann Carter, Bess Flowers
Two decades before Darren married Samantha on TV’s Bewitched, Wallace Wooley (March) married a long-exiled Salem witch named Jennifer (Lake) in this classic from Paramount. It’s supernatural slapstick akin to Topper (1937); in fact, it’s based on an unfinished novel by Topper’s author Thorne Smith. From the mischief to the special effects, everything’s cute without being cutesy. Veronica Lake, an era icon with her ‘peekaboo’ hairstyle, was not liked by her former costar Joel McRea, who refused to star with her again, or Frederic March who considered her a talentless sexpot. Still, smoke is so very fitting for her noncorporeal form. Cecil Kellaway’s performance as Jennifer’s witch-dad breathes some real comedy into I Married a Witch. Other greats are Elizabeth Patterson, Billy Bletcher, Mary Field, and comedian Robert Benchley (see How To Sleep above). Bess Flowers is the Maid of Honor. She was queen of the uncredited extras who appeared, however briefly, in over 800 movies. Somehow throughout this 77-minute farce, Susan Hayward is barely noticeable.
I Remember Mama (1948) dir. George Stevens
written by DeWitt Bodeen
w/ Irene Dunne, Barbara Bel Geddes, Oskar Homolka, Philip Dorn, Ellen Corby, Hope Landin, Edith Evanson, Cedric Hardwicke, Edgar Bergen, Rudy Vallee, Florence Bates, Barbara O’Neil, Peggy McIntyre, Tommy Ivo
Irene Dunne has been called the greatest actress to never receive an Academy Award. Among her early films are the Edna Ferber adaptations Cimarron (1931) and Showboat (1936). She shocked the censors in Ann Vickers (1933). And her romantic comedies with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife) were hugely successful. “But first and foremost, I remember Mama.” Having migrated with her extended family from Norway to San Francisco in the very early 1900s, money is a relentless concern—hence the original title of Kathryn Forbes’ autobiographical novel Mama’s Bank Account (published in 1943). Dad (Philip Dorn) and the kids trust her judgment, as do her easily ruffled aunts (Landin, Corby a/k/a Grandma Walton, and Evanson) and her uncle (Oskar Homolka). The obstreperous family patriarch, Uncle Chris, insists that everyone accepts not only his drinking but the woman (Barbara O’Neil) he lives with out of wedlock. Mama’s eldest, an aspiring writer (Barbara Bel Geddes a/k/a Miss Ellie on Dallas), narrates this expansive adaptation that never flags throughout its two-plus hours. DeWitt won a Writers Guild of America Award while Dunne, Corby, Homolka, Bel Geddes and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca were all nominated for Oscars. Mama, produced by Harriet Parsons (lesbian daughter of conservative gossip queen Louella Parsons), went on to success as a TV series—on the air for nearly a decade.
I Wake Up Screaming (1941) dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
written by Dwight Taylor
w/ Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Laird Cregar, Carole Landis, Alan Mowbray, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles Lane, May Beatty, Frank Orth, Bess Flowers
After great success on the stage as Oscar Wilde, Cregar’s film career took off with this role as bull-like police inspector Ed Cornell who’s eager to pin the murder of a waitress (Carole Landis) on her sports promoter boyfriend (Victor Mature). Grable is the waitress’s sister, shocked when she asks, “Why should I go on slinging hash when I can sling other things?” The film is noir aesthetically but the plot feels more like a mystery or romantic thriller. Hulking/lurking Laird Cregar brings such psychological gravitas to his villainy. Elisha Cook Jr. (Maltese Falcon, Salem’s Lot) also adds to the overall sense of instability as a crazy-eyed desk clerk. The only drawback is the score’s conspicuous use of “Over the Rainbow” (!) as a motif. Screaming was remade as Vicki in 1953, directed by Harry Horner and starring Jeanne Crain. 82 minutes. For more on enigmatic Cregar see Hangover Square (1945) above and The Lodger (1944) below.
Imitation of Life a/k/a Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1934)
dir. John M. Stahl
written by William J. Hurlbut
w/ Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Warren William, Rochelle Hudson, Ned Sparks, Fredi Washington, Juanita Quigley, Henry Armetta, Baby Jane, Alan Hale, Wyndham Standing, Jane Withers, Hazel Washington, Franklin Pangborn
Louise Beavers played mammy-type maids from the silent era into the TV era. Her role here as Delilah is considered a breakthrough because never before had a black female character been developed as much as the white lead—in this case penniless widow Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert). Delilah’s pancake recipe and Bea’s thrifty grift earn them not just one restaurant but a chain, providing more than enough for them and their children. As Delilah’s girl Peola (Fredi Washington) grows older, she realizes she is light-skinned enough to pass as white, causing Delilah much grief. Gay culture and film critics tend to revere the Lana-centric remake from 1959, directed by Douglas Sirk and produced by Ross Hunter. The latter’s motto for filmmaking was: “No kitchen sinks. No violence. No pores. No messages.” So no wonder there’s no pancakes! All the quirks, and the cross-race female alliance theme, are glossed away. In terms of film history and black actors, it is only Beavers’ role as Delilah that can match the significance of Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-win for Gone with the Wind five years later.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1963) dir. Arthur Lubin
written by Jamison Brewer, John C. Rose
w/ Don Knotts, Carole Cook, Andrew Duggan, Jack Weston, Larry Keating, Charles Meredith, Cordy Clark, Elizabeth MacRae, Paul Frees, Charles Morton, George DeNormand, Sayre Dearing, Leon Alton
The first of several big-screen hits for Don Knotts—a/k/a Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show—was made at Warner Brothers and set during WWII. Knotts plays a henpecked bookkeeper, Mr. Limpet, who sings “I Wish I Was a Fish” and then “reserve evolves” into an animated version of himself as a fish wearing glasses. He helps the Navy locate Nazi submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. “The face that launched a thousand torpedoes,” goes the tagline. Carole Cook, the blonde grandmother from Sixteen Candles (1984), plays Mrs. Limpet. The plot’s dive into goofy espionage loses my interest a bit but the underwater animation remains charming. It premiered in Knotts’s West Virginia hometown. The next Knotts feature, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) (see above), is perhaps the best of all his movies, certainly the most beloved.
It! a/k/a The Living Statue (1966) dir. Herbert J. Leder
written by Herbert J. Leder
w/ Roddy McDowall, Jill Haworth, Paul Maxwell, Aubrey Richards, Ernest Clark, Oliver Johnston, Noel Trevarthen, Ian McCulloch, Dorothy Frere, Tom Chatto, Allen Sellers
Herbert J. Leder wrote Fiend Without a Face (1958) and directed The Frozen Dead (1966). Davis Boulton filmed the stylish b+w classic The Haunting (1961). Scott Macgregor served as art director for latter-day Hammer productions. It! is the sum of these influences plus Roddy McDowall, Hollywood’s beloved gay icon who never came out as homosexual. He stars as emasculated curator’s assistant Arthur Pimm. Like Psycho’s Norman Bates, Pimm lives with his domineering if very decomposed mother. He dolls her up with blonde beehive and jewelry “borrowed” from the museum. Enter the towering Golem, an indestructible statue from Prague that comes under Pimm’s control. No matter what Pimm does, alas, he’s not man enough, not even with It! Despite a silly premise, this cinematic oddity is strikingly visual—in Eastmancolor with dramatic angles—and as Michael Weldon notes in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, “McDowall always plays crazy people with a lot of conviction.” It! will prove too slow for most modern horror viewers, moving along stiffly like the Golem itself. For those who appreciate its charm as a psychodrama, however, forgive the plotholes and enjoy the nuclear finale. Made in England.
It Grows on Trees (1952) dir. Arthur Lubin
written by Leonard Praskins, Barney Slater
w/ Irene Dunne, Dean Jagger, Joan Evans, Richard Crenna, Edith Meiser, Les Tremayne, Forrest Lewis, Malcolm Lee Beggs, Frank Ferguson, Bob Sweeney, Malcolm Lee Beggs, Dee Pollock
In I Remember Mama (1948), Dunne heads up a poor immigrant family with penny-pinching pragmatism. In Life with Father (1947), she’s a privileged housewife who ritualistically mismanages her weekly allowance. Now here in her last film she’s Polly Baxter, a money-worried mom thrilled to find $5 bills scurrying like leaves about the backyard. She soon figures out the cash is leaves—the windfall from two recently planted trees. Countering the screwball fantasy of sudden wealth is worried Mr. Baxter (Dean Jagger) and, sooner than later, the IRS, the press, and an autumnal fate. I like this film from the director of Francis the Talking Mule (1950). The great Irene Dunne did not. She drifted out of her successful acting career just as she drifted into it, dedicating the remainder of her life to philanthropy.
It Should Happen to You (1954) dir. George Cukor
written by Garson Kanin
w/ Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Peter Lawford, Michael O’Shea, Connie Gilchrist, Whit Bissell, Constance Bennett, Ilka Chase, Wendy Barrie, Melville Cooper, Vaughn Taylor, Jack Kruschen, Cora Witherspoon, Heywood Hale Broun, Margaret McWade
Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) made her way to NYC to make a name for herself. Disillusioned after losing a modeling gig for being just a few pounds too heavy, she rents a billboard on Columbus Circle to make a name for herself indeed: her name in letters ten-feet tall. She says, “I’m the same as I was before but in a different way.” Two glitches in her DIY fame are a soap manufacturer (Peter Lawford) who makes her the company’s top model and her docu-making beau (Jack Lemmon in his debut role) who disdains her obsession with wanting to be “above the crowd.” Kanin’s script values “being part of the crowd” over being a famous star, brave for a Hollywood film. It’s a compromised theme, alas, as I think most viewers today will be like me: Loving Gladys for her DIY approach to visibility and resenting her nagging beau’s idealism. Holliday and Lemmon star together again in Phfft! (1954).
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) dir. Robert Aldrich
written by A.I. Bezzerides
w/ Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers, Maxine Cooper, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Jack Lambert, Jack Elam, Percy Helton, Marjorie Bennett
A Mike Hammer movie from the director of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), it may appeal to those who don’t usually like gumshoe film noir. Condemned by the Legion of Decency, it became a cause célèbre in Cahiers du Cinéma and a drive-in favorite to boot. It starts with Hammer (Ralph Meeker) picking up a hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) who is running down the highway in bare feet. Her pursuers catch up with them and only Hammer survives. His investigation uncovers—literally—a Cold War version of Pandora’s box. Village Voice called Hammer “the sleaziest private investigator in American movies” and described the film’s mode as hypermasculine: “Fear of a nuclear holocaust fuses with fear of a femme fatale.”
Ladies in Retirement (1941) dir. Charles Vidor
written by Reginald Denham, Garrett Fort
w/ Ida Lupino, Elsa Lanchester, Edith Barrett, Isobel Elsom, Louis Hayward, Evelyn Keyes, Emma Dunn, Clyde Cook, Queenie Leonard
This obscure gem is based on the Broadway play by Reginald Denham and Edward Percy. The play itself was based on a true story about a spinster housekeeper who does what’s required to protect her childlike sisters. Ida Lupino, who considered herself the poor man’s Bette Davis, is formidable as dark-browed Ellen, companionable housekeeper to Miss Fiske (Isobel Elsom) in a remote moorland manor. Ellen’s sisters come to visit—and don’t leave. Nowhere else will have them. Louisa seems as innocent as the white bird decorating her hat, played by Edith Barrett (I Walked with a Zombie, Molly and Me). While the hoarding Emily is brattish and cruel, her opinions like well-aimed darts, played by Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein, Willard). They prove to be as id-driven as Ellen is repressed and Miss Fiske wants them out of her house. Ellen’s nephew (Louis Hayward) drops in to complicate matters, too smart for his own good. The plot is cloistered and centrifugal, the setting gothic, and the aesthetic noir. Beautifully filmed by George Barnes (Oscar-winner for Hitchcock’s Rebecca). The New York Times praised the film, especially Ida Lupino: “Give Ida Lupino the largest measure of credit, for her role is the clue to the suspense. Perhaps she is too slight to portray the stolid threat that lay in Flora Robson’s original [Broadway] performance, but she is none the less the thin ribbon of intensity that makes the film hair-raising.” From the director of several Rita Hayworth films (including Gilda) and eventually remade as The Mad Room (1969).
Ladies of the Jury (1932) dir. Lowell Sherman
written by Marion Dix, Salisbury Field
w/ Edna May Oliver, Rosco Ates, Ken Murray, Kitty Kelly, Jill Esmond, Kate Price, Cora Witherspoon, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Robert McWade, Helene Millard, Tom Herbert, George Humbert
The great Edna May Oliver plays sleuth Hildegarde Withers in three mysteries 1932-35. This is not one of them but it might as well be. The horse-faced comic plays Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane, a dowager jurist out to prove the innocence of the defendant (Jill Esmond) charged with murder. Mrs. LBC, who dismisses the judge’s phallic gavel as his “little thingy,” is like a steel-trap in a fox fur. The extroverted cigar-smoking juror named Spencer is played by Ken Murray who produced the all-bird movie Bill and Coo (1947). Kate Price, whose film career goes back to 1910, is the hefty Irish cook. The stutterer is Rosco Ates who stuttered in Freaks (1932) and is described in Quinlan’s as “bug-eyed, sawn-off, jug-eared, scrawny-necked.” Cora Witherspoon (She Wouldn’t Say Yes, Libeled Lady) plays the imperious lady wearing a tie. So the cast is reason enough to seek out this very obscure, hour-long comedy from RKO. It’s the kind of movie AMC used to play early in the morning. 63 minutes.
Lay Your Rifle Down (1955) dir. Charles Lamont
written by Barry Shipman
w/ Judy Canova, Robert Lowery, Jil Jarmyn, Jacqueline deWit, Richard Deacon, Robert Burton, James Bell, Leon Tyler, Tweeny Canova
Bumpkins proved popular throughout the mid-20th century. Ma & Pa Kettle movies (1947-55), for example. Also the lesser-known radio star Judy “Queen of Corn” Canova who starred in a series of Republic Pictures ending with Carolina Cannonball and LYRD (both 1955) when she was 42. She plays her good ol’ hayseed self in all her films but the situation changes. Here she’s working in her snotty aunt’s (Jacqueline deWit) hotel, about to be schemed out of the one thing of value she’s got: a few acres of rural property. Canova’s physical comedy is great and she sings three short numbers, the best one about “the continental correspondence charm school” from which she’s earning a degree. With an interesting face and voice that only a b-movie would feature, Canova plays the bumpkin with dignity, evolving from naïve victim into varmint-bagging hero. 71 minutes, available on DVD and through Netflix. Canova’s final film role would be in Paul Bartel’s Cannonball (1976).
Let’s Make It Legal (1951) dir. Richard Sale
written by I.A.L. Diamond, F. Hugh Herbert
w/ Claudette Colbert, Macdonald Carey, Zachary Scott, Barbara Bates, Robert Wagner, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Cady, Kathleen Freeman, Kathleen Freeman, Frank Sully,
The DVD cover suggests this is a Marilyn Monroe movie. It’s not really. But don’t let your disappointment eclipse the surprising delight that is Carey and Colbert. They play Mirian and Hugh Halsworth, a long-married couple on the verge of divorce. Indeed, the divorce becomes official at the stroke of midnight. Miriam rings in her new freedom by dating a rich ex-beau Victor (Zachary Scott). Hugh schemes his way back into Miriam’s life at every turn, using his daughter and son-in-law (Barbara Bates, Robert Wagner) or his roses in the front yard as an excuse for stopping by. It takes more than just stopping by, though, to win Miriam back from Victor. The trailer claims they “Knock the eternal triangle slightly out of shape.” It is an unorthodox romantic-comedy, still modern in its way. F. Hugh Herbert and I.A.L. Diamond wrote, respectively, Sitting Pretty (1948) and Fortune Cookie (1966). Monroe, by the way, plays a cheesecake model.
Life with Father (1947) dir. Michael Curtiz
written by Donald Ogden Stewart
w/ William Powell, Irene Dunne, Jimmy Lydon, Martin Milner, Zasu Pitts, Elizabeth Taylor, Edmund Gwenn, Monte Blue, Mary Field, Elizabeth Risdon, Queenie Leonard, Clara Blandick, Arlene Dahl
Based on Clarence Day Jr.’s still engaging memoir series and its long-running Broadway adaptation, Life with Father is a comedy classic in what could be called the ‘typically quirky American family’ subgenre (e.g. Meet Me in St. Louis). The setting is the late 1900s in NYC and the upper-middle-class Days, all gingers in Technicolor, are perpetually on the verge of meltdown despite Father’s booming command. Quite a stretch from Powell’s cool Thin Man persona, easily riled Father bends to no force except the tears of his devoted wife played by Irene Dunne. Jimmy Lydon, then known for his Henry Aldrich comedies (1941-1944), is Clarence Jr. who needs a new suit. He needs a new suit because wearing Father’s hand-me-down trousers makes him feel unable to behave in any way his father would not. A 15-year-old Elizabeth Taylor is his first big crush, a character invented for the movie. Zasu Pitts is restrained as cousin Cora. The most surprising conflict is over Father’s having never been baptized. Conservative in all ways but religion, Father never kneels in church and proclaims, “If there’s one thing the church should leave alone, it’s a man’s soul!” He delivers the film’s last line with hilariously curt ferocity, wrapping up a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination—his third. 118 minutes. Check out Irene Dunne as a very different mother in I Remember Mama (1948). Note: Author of the memoirs, Clarence Day Jr., became disabled with arthritis, spending thirty years mostly bedridden, with breakfast in the late afternoon and dinner at midnight, a lifestyle contrary to his Father’s yet not undisciplined, allowing for three successful books: God and My Father (1932), Life with Father (1935), and Life with Mother (1937).
The Lodger (1944) dir. John Brahm
written by Barre Lyndon
w/ Laird Cregar, Helena Pickard, Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Cedric Hardwicke, Sara Allgood, Aubrey Matthew, Queenie Leonard, Doris Lloyd, David Clyde, Billy Bevan, Ruth Clifford, Stuart Holmes, Olaf Hytten
Lyndon’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s silent classic (1927), itself an adaptation of the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, is even more of a classic. Though he changed the killer’s identity to Jack the Ripper, he followed Hitchcock’s lead by casting a homosexual actor to play the killer. And Cregar is gripping, a tour de force fresh from Holy Matrimony (1943). In William J. Mann’s Behind the Screen, he is described as a “dangerous sissy”: “Cregar’s villains are both dangerous and effeminate…he imbued his characters with a sly, menacing sexuality.” The Ripper kills women because he believes they brought about his brother’s downfall. When he speaks of his brother, Cregar brings something to the role other actors would not have dared. His next film, Hangover Square (1945) would be his last. Thankfully, Brahm’s The Lodger is timeless—especially on DVD. London never looked eerier thanks to Lucien Ballard’s fog-capitalizing cinematography. George Sanders (All About Eve) and Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley) also offer memorable performances. Another Lodger was made in 2009 featuring Alfred Molina.
Lonely Wives (1931) dir. Russell Mack
written by Walter DeLeon
w/ Edward Everett Horton, Maude Eburne, Esther Ralston, Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller, Spencer Charters
At the time of a short-lived ‘pansy craze’ in the early 1930s, if not a direct part of this club scene trend, E.E. Horton was well-known as an onscreen sissy, on par with Franklin Pangborn. A nervous, verbose type, Horton was not the kind to get the girl or even show interest in her. Lonely Wives is an exception—kind of. Here he plays two roles. First we meet Dickie, a famous lawyer who is known to chronically cheat on his wife. Next comes along Zero, an impersonator who plays Dickie in a vaudeville act. Confusion ensues, of course. What’s interesting about this movie, touted as pre-Code and risqué, is how Horton spends much of his onscreen time evading sex with women. His humor sparkles most with Maude Eburne (Ruggles of Red Gap, Party Wire, Vivacious Lady) as his doting, scheming mother-in-law. The Gay Divorcee (1934) would further Horton’s career, a character named Egbert ‘Pinky’ Fitzgerald. Some viewers might recognize him as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales (1959-60).
Look Who’s Laughing (1941) dir. Allan Dwan
written by James V. Kern
w/ Fibber McGee and Molly (aka Jim and Marian Jordan), Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd), Harold Peary, Lee Bonnell, Lucille Ball, Dorothy Lovett, Isabel Randolph, Charles Halton, Irving Bacon, George Chandler, Bill Thompson, Arthur Q. Bryan, Sterling Holloway, Charles Lane
This is a great intro to old radio stars. If already a fan, and there are new fans thanks to free internet archives, then you can see the characters in action for a change. The most loved radio comedy was certainly Fibber McGee and Molly, which aired from 1935-1959. Anyone in the country with a disorderly, over-packed closet would’ve likely been compared to Fibber McGee who started an avalanche every time he opened his hall closet. The McGees live in Wistful Vista and Fibber’s blustery nemesis is Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary). When Edgar Bergen (Candice’s dad) and his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy crash land in this little town, the McGees get them involved in an airplane factory scheme—it is wartime after all. Edgar falls for a sexy young Lucille Ball and Charlie gets drunk. Also watch for (or better yet listen for) Arthur Q. Bryan (the voice of Elmer Fudd) and Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh). From RKO and easier to find on VHS than on DVD. Try Satellite Media online. 79 minutes. The sequel, just as hard to find, is Here We Go Again (1942) (see above).
written by William Ludwig, Charles Lederer, David Hertz
w/ William Powell, Myrna Loy, Florence Bates, Jack Carson, Sidney Blackmer, Sig Ruman, George Meeker, Sara Haden, Donald MacBride, Elisha Cook Jr.
Between Thin Man movies, the beloved William Powell-Myrna Loy team made I Love You Again and Love Crazy, champagne screwballs with an extra twist of slapstick. Love Crazy‘s plot zigzags through three acts, each zanier than the last. Act One is a “backwards anniversary” for the Irelands (Powell, Loy) that’s spoiled by an interfering mother (memorable character actor Florence Bates of Rebecca, I Remember Mama, On the Town). It’s my favorite part of the film, a clash of personalities. Act Two involves the Irelands’ potential divorce and Mr. Ireland’s sanity trial. As for Act Three, Mr. Ireland is committed to and escapes from a mental institution run by Sig Ruman (Stalag 17’s Sgt. Schulz). Mr. Ireland ends up chased, scalded, nearly drowned and, at last—incognito in drag (pictured above)—he loses a boob. All the high-gear farce slightly undermines the sparkle we expect from Powell and Loy, though it’s hard to resist the ride. The VHS box cover shows Powell and Loy cutting a wedding cake with hatchets. Jack Conway directed classics like The Unholy Three (1930), Red-Headed Woman (1932), and Libeled Lady (1936).
The Love God? (1969) dir. Nat Hiken
written by Nat Hiken
w/ Don Knotts, Edmond O’Brien, Anne Francis, Maureen Arthur, James Gregory, Maggie Peterson, Jim Boles, Jacques Aubuchon, Jesslyn Fax, Marjorie Bennett, Jim Boles, Ruth McDevitt, Roy Stuart, Herb Voland, James Westerfield, Bob Hastings, Willis Bouchey, Herbie Faye, Johnny Seven, Darlene Love, B.S. Pully
Free speech joins free love in the only Don Knotts feature with a PG rating. He starts out as sexless hero Abner Peacock, a champion bird-caller and the editor of a soon-to-be defunct birdwatcher’s magazine. A mob-connected publisher (Edmond O’Brien) cons Abner into publishing Nude & Naughty and suddenly Abner finds himself embroiled in an obscenity trial, becoming a reluctant playboy figurehead in the counterculture crusade for sexual freedom and first amendment rights. Not wanting to hurt the cause, profiting from the nudie mag’s huge sales, and falling in love with its new big-name editor (Anne Francis), Abner decides to play along. He wears many hipster outfits (e.g. velvet green cape with leopard-print trim) and has a heart-shaped bed with a scoreboard in place of a headboard. But if it gets out that he’s actually a 40-year-old virgin, then the magazine will surely sink. “So many women…Not enough man” goes the tagline. Vibrantly played by veteran supporting actor Marjorie Bennett (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Charley Varrick, The North Avenue Irregulars), Abner’s secretary Edna is transformed by the office’s move to New York City into a sort of Mimi Bobeck—if you ever saw that Drew Carey show. B.S. Pully (Big Jule in Guys & Dolls) plays a memorable mobster named Ice-Pick Charlie. James Gregory, of Barney Miller fame, gets the most out of unsavory lawyer character. Every minute of this comedy is plucky quirk and Technicolor spectacle.