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Monthly Archives: April 2011

Twilight on the Rio Grande (April 1, 1947)

Frank McDonald’s Twilight on the Rio Grande features Gene Autry and his co-stars being put through their B-movie paces south of the border.

Crime melodramas (we call them film noirs nowadays) were very popular Hollywood products in 1947, and Twilight on the Rio Grande incorporates several elements from them, such as the hero investigating the murder of his partner, lots of nighttime photography, a plot about jewel smuggling, and a beautiful knife-throwing señorita. (They showed up in noirs every now and then, didn’t they?)

Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry) and his ranch hands, Dusty Morgan (Bob Steele), Pokie (Sterling Holloway), and the singing trio The Cass County Boys, are all down in Mexico, singing in Spanglish and ogling the ladies. (If there was a deeper purpose to their visit, I missed it.)

The diminutive Bob Steele was a western actor whose star had faded by the mid-’40s, and he picks up a pretty easy paycheck in Twilight on the Rio Grande, since his character is murdered in the first reel, which I thought was a shame. I like Steele, and would have enjoyed seeing him and Autry solve the murder of Sterling Holloway’s character, Pokie, since the loose-limbed, rubber-faced Holloway is more annoying than a barrel of Jim Carreys.

The femme fatale of the film is the beautiful and hot-blooded Elena Del Rio (Adele Mara), who throws knives at Gene while he’s singing “I Tipped My Hat and Slowly Rode Away.” She throws one after the other into the wall behind him, in order to show him how angry she is. She has a steady hand, so she doesn’t hurt him. But then Gene shows her his steady hand when he finishes his song, throws her over his knee, and spanks the bejeezus out of her with the flat of a big knife blade.

Dusty is murdered with a knife in the back, and a smuggler Gene and his boys rope out on the prairie winds up with a knife in his back that could only have been thrown, not thrust at close range, so suspicions fall on Elena.

The title song is a good one, and was never released as a record by Autry, so if you’re a fan of his music, it’s a reason to see this picture. He sings two versions, a slow, mournful version at Dusty’s funeral, and a more upbeat version to close the picture.

If you’re not a fan of Autry’s music, there is really no reason to see this picture. It’s not terrible, but there are plenty of better B westerns out there.

Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (March 1947)

I suppose this had to happen.

After yesterday’s film, The Farmer’s Daughter, which was an inspirational and heartwarming story of a woman fighting to succeed in a man’s world, I got hit in the face with this wet noodle of a picture. Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is a not-so-heartwarming film about a woman slipping into the depths of loneliness, depression, and alcoholism.

Inspired by the tragic life of Bing Crosby’s first wife, singer Dixie Lee, Smash-Up begins with Angelica “Angie” Conway, née Evans (Susan Hayward), lying in a hospital bed, her face and head bandaged, murmuring, “I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink… I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink…”

The events that brought her to this place are told in flashback. Angie and her husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), both start out as struggling singers, but after he gets a job performing on the radio as “Ken Conway, the Singing Cowhand,” he grows to be a coast-to-coast sensation, and Angie’s career is derailed.

She turns to drinking to soothe her loneliness and frustration, staying home with their infant daughter while Ken is on the road with his friend and partner Steve Nelson (Eddie Albert), his manager Fred Elliott (Carleton Young), and Elliott’s beautiful secretary, Martha Gray (Marsha Hunt), which drives Angie into a spiral of jealousy and paranoia.

Angie may live in a large, beautiful home with servants (all provided with the money from Ken’s success), but none of it means anything when she’s all alone with her baby, who has a fever, and she’s singing “Hushabye Island” to her while a weighted toy swings back and forth on the dresser by the crib. Its shadow is taunting. It looks like a liquor bottle bobbing to and fro.

It would be easy to call Smash-Up a distaff version of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). The two films have many similarities, but Smash-Up is as much about a disintegrating marriage as it is about dipsomania.

There’s some nice subjective camerawork in Smash-Up, like the zoom in on Angie’s face when Ken walks out after finding her drunk at her vanity table following the baby’s illness, but it never gets as wildly baroque as the depictions of Ray Milland’s delirium tremens in The Lost Weekend.

The film also sidesteps several issues. For instance, after Ken leaves with their daughter and Angie says, “I’m going to get my baby back,” there is a montage of liquor splashing into glasses, Angie’s unsteady feet on the sidewalk, and neon club signs (including the appropriately named “Club Downbeat”) that ends with Angie passing out on a stoop. She wakes up in a strange room with her clothes and a man’s clothes thrown over a chair. The camera pans up and we see an unattractive middle-aged man in his undershirt working his razor over a strop. Before the audience can get any ideas, however, we see that there is also a woman in the apartment, who tells Angie that she and her husband put her to bed, effectively quashing any hint of booze-fueled promiscuity.

Like The Lost Weekend, Smash-Up ends a little too happily for its own good. But while The Lost Weekend ended with a promise to stop drinking that might be insincere, Smash-Up pulls out all the stops. The film ends not only with Ken and Angie promising to each other that they’ll try to patch things up, but with the revelation that Angie’s face (the result of a fire caused by a half-smoked cigarette and a bellyful of liquor) is going to be fine, and there won’t be any scarring.

Smash-Up isn’t a bad film, just a gloomy one. The melancholy refrain of the song “Life Can Be Beautiful” started to drive me crazy by the end of the picture, but it suits the proceedings. The actors all play their parts well, especially Hayward, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

The Farmer’s Daughter (March 25, 1947)

H.C. Potter’s The Farmer’s Daughter has a title that makes it sound as if it might be an extended dirty joke that also involves a traveling salesman, but it’s not. It’s a funny, romantic, and inspiring film about a young woman whose life takes a very different direction than the one she expected it to take when she left home for the big city.

Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) lives on a farm in “Redwing County” with her Swedish father and mother (Harry Shannon and Anna Q. Nilsson) and her three brothers, Peter (James Arness), Olaf (Lex Barker), and Sven (Keith Andes). She goes to Capital City (a thinly veiled Chicago) to pursue a nursing degree, but an unscrupulous “friend” of her family named Adolph (Rhys Williams) weasels all of her money out of her and she’s left penniless.

She takes a job as a maid in the palatial home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore), a grand dame and behind-the-scenes political figure whose son, Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), is a congressman. When asked about her qualifications, Katrin tells Ethel that at home, she makes six beds every morning, does the washing and ironing for her three brothers, herself, and mama and papa, cleans all seven rooms and does dishes, helps mama with the canning — preserves, meat, eggs, dill pickles, smoked ham, and bacon — waits on tables (40 hands at harvest time), and makes glögg at Christmas. And that’s just what she does indoors. Outdoors, she plows with a horse and tractor, hoes potatoes, shucks wheat, milks cows, beds horses, butchers pigs, kills and dresses chickens, and cuts wood for both mill and stove.

She’s hired.

She doesn’t mention that she also give back-cracking, limb-twisting, lung-emptying Swedish massages, which she does for Glenn while he’s recovering after falling through the ice while skating with her.

Katrin is also a whip-smart young woman who speaks her mind as easily as she breathes. During a party for political bigwigs at the Morley home, where Katrin is serving drinks, a congressman named Wilbur Johnson (Thurston Hall) says it’s too bad Katrin has only just moved to town, because a vote from a pretty girl like her would have made his victory complete. She responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, if I could have voted, I wouldn’t have voted for you.” He’s taken aback, but her Swedish-accented, lilting, matter-of-fact delivery leaves him speechless.

After the party, Glenn asks Katrin why she doesn’t like congressman Johnson, and she says it’s because he opposes a higher minimum wage. She agrees with Johnson that people should be responsible for themselves, but she believes in a living wage. When Glenn asks her what she means, she responds, “A living wage depends on whether you’re getting it or giving it.”

After Katrin stands up at a political rally and poses a series of hard questions to the Morleys’ candidate, Anders J. Finley (Art Baker), including a number of very specific questions about his record that show she’s done her homework, the opposition party asks her if she’d like to run against Finley for a seat in Congress.

Katrin’s no-nonsense, can-do, take-charge attitude takes her as far in politics as it did back on the farm, but her opposition to the Morleys’ candidate threatens the budding romance between her and Glenn. It also drives her back to her family farm in despair after a vicious smear campaign is launched against her.

As with most political movies, the film is careful not to offend anyone by getting too deeply into hot-button issues. It’s also not very nuanced. By the end of the film, Finley has gone from being a condescending chauvinist to a figure of pure evil who is in league with both gangsters and home-grown fascists.

But The Farmer’s Daughter still manages to be a very funny and occasionally sharp political satire. The script by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr is wonderful, and the actors all play their parts to perfection. Ethel Barrymore conveys much without even speaking, and Charles Bickford is especially good as the Morley’s crusty old butler, Joseph Clancy.

Loretta Young was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best actress at the 20th Academy Awards for her role in this film. (Rosalind Russell had been heavily favored for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra.) I can’t compare Young’s performance to any of the other women who were nominated, because I haven’t seen their films yet, but I think her win was well-deserved. Katrin Holstrom, with her blond hair tied up in coiled buns and her Swedish accent, could have easily been a caricature, but Young imbues her with so much liveliness and depth that I fell in love with her, and was rooting for her all the way.

The Farmer’s Daughter has a light touch, and is very funny, but it’s still an inspiring film. Remember that when it was made, women had only had the right to vote at the national level for slightly more than 25 years, and only 41 women had served in the United States Congress.

It might not be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, but it is the funniest, warmest, and most moving. Wait … maybe it is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

The Egg and I (March 21, 1947)

Chester Erskine’s The Egg and I begins with Claudette Colbert dressing down a comical, goggle-eyed Pullman porter. (Was there ever any other kind of Pullman porter in the movies?) The poor fellow drops an egg on the floor of the train car. When he says, “It’s just an egg,” Colbert flips her wig and exclaims, “Just an egg?!?” She asks him if he’s ever stopped to consider how much work it takes to bring an egg into this world. After the chastened porter scurries out, she addresses the camera directly and says, “And I’ll bet you think an egg is something you casually order for breakfast when you can’t think of anything else. Well, so did I once, but that was before the egg and I.”

And then, after the opening credits roll, we’re introduced to Betty MacDonald (played by Colbert), who goes along with her goofily happy, wild-eyed husband Bob’s plan to move out to the country and run a farm.

Bob MacDonald (Fred MacMurray) served in combat in Okinawa, and he’s so happy to be back home that he’s going to make good on his foxhole promise to himself to devote himself to growing things from the soil and raising livestock. Returning to the land. Getting back to basics. The whole nine yards.

Bob actually seems a bit crazy. If this wasn’t a light comedy, I’d say Bob was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder manifesting as mania. But since it’s a comedy, his zeal is played for laughs. He’s insensitive to everything going on around him. When Betty falls off the roof into a washbucket, he looks down and asks, “What are you doing down there?” He also buys a dog named Sport who’s already bitten everyone in town and can’t be too near livestock. (I hope he didn’t pay too much for him.)

The Egg and I was based on the 1945 best-seller by Betty MacDonald, the author of the popular series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children. The Egg and I detailed her real-life experiences as a young woman living on a small chicken farm in Washington State with her first husband, Robert Heskett, from 1927 to 1931. I haven’t read the book, but by all accounts it’s more witty and acerbic than the film adaptation, which suffers from an overabundance of broad comedy.

If you’re in the mood for a slapstick barnyard comedy, however, The Egg and I offers everything you’ll expect — goats eating hats, ramshackle structures, leaky roofs, beds with rusty springs, leaky buckets, rotten boards, Betty sawing off the limb of the tree she’s sitting on, Betty wrestling with a sow and ending up in the mud, and hillbilly stereotypes galore, such as Bob and Betty’s neighbors, “Ma” and “Pa” Kettle, whose front yard has a hand-painted sign that says “beware of the childrun.” When Betty discusses the oldest boy, Tom Kettle (Richard Long) with Ma, and says, “He ought to go to college,” Ma responds, “College?!? What fer?”

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride’s earthy performances as Ma and Pa Kettle were so popular in The Egg and I that they went on to star in nine more films as the characters, Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951), Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953), Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954), Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956), and The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957). Main was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Kettle in The Egg and I. (Unsurprisingly, she lost out to Celeste Holm, who co-starred in Gentlemen’s Agreement.)

While The Egg and I was a huge hit in 1947, I can’t say I really enjoyed it. It relied too much on slapstick humor, and Colbert and MacMurray were both much too old for the roles they were playing. I thought it was mostly dumb, and you couldn’t pay me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films that followed it.*

*This is actually a lie. If you’re interested in paying me to watch any of the Ma and Pa Kettle films, please contact me.

The Red House (March 16, 1947)

The Red House

The Red House (1947)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Sol Lesser Productions / United Artists

Is there really a red house in Delmer Daves’s The Red House? The movie is filmed in black and white, so I can’t tell you.

I’m not being cheeky, I’m making a point. The “red house” in The Red House is a haunting presence, unseen for most of the film. And when it is finally shown, it’s an eerie sight. It’s a structure in disrepair, covered in lichen, standing close to another abandoned house, both on the banks of a stream deep in the woods.

If The Red House had been filmed in color, this uncanny effect would have been destroyed. As it is, the red house — while shown — still stands more strongly as a disturbing manifestation of all the creepy goings-on in the film than as an actual thing.

The setting of the film is indeterminate. It’s a region called Piny Ridge, where, the narrator informs us, “modern highways have penetrated the darkness.” The darkness remains in an area farther south called Oxhead Woods, where “obsolete trails wander vaguely,” but “only one leads to the Morgan Farm.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “Pete Morgan’s farm has the allure of a walled castle that everybody knows about, but that few have entered.” This all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, which I think is deliberate.

Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) is a mercurial farmer who lives a lonely life with his sister, Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson), and their adopted daughter, a pretty, demure 17-year-old named Meg (Allene Roberts). Fifteen years earlier, Meg’s parents both died in mysterious circumstances, and Pete and Ellen have raised her ever since.

Pete has a wooden leg, which makes farm work difficult, so he agrees to hire one of Meg’s high school classmates, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), to help him out. Pete offers to pay Nath 35 cents an hour for his help after school, but Nath talks him up to four bits.

Pete seems reluctant to hire Nath, and is only convinced to do so by his sister and adopted daughter. It’s clear from the outset why this is. He has an unnatural interest in Meg, and wants to keep her all to himself.

After his first day helping out Pete, Nath plans to take a shortcut home through Oxhead Woods, but Pete tries to convince him to take the long way around. When Nath refuses to heed his warnings, Pete resorts to scare tactics. “You won’t save yourself from the screams in the night that’ll lodge in your bones all your life!” Pete tells him.

Nath asks, “Screams from what?”

Pete responds, “From the red house!!!”

Nath tries, but he can’t do it. The power of suggestion in the dark, terrifying woods amidst the howling winds proves too much for him, and he runs back to the Morgan farm and sleeps in the barn. Were they real screams? Or was it just the wind?

Meg and Nath are attracted to each other, but he has a girlfriend named Tibby, who’s played by the 20-year-old singer and actress Julie London. London is quite possibly the sultriest high school student I’ve ever seen in a film from the ’40s.

Tibby’s not very loyal to Nath, and throws herself at the strapping young woodsman named Teller (Rory Calhoun) who patrols Pete Morgan’s woods with a rifle. Teller never got past the ninth grade, but he’s as big and as handsome as Li’l Abner.

Teller is also the instrument of Pete Morgan’s twisted will, and goes even so far as attempting to commit murder when Pete Morgan asks him to.

The Red House, which is based on the 1943 novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, is sometimes classified as a film noir, but it’s not a noir. It’s a mystery wrapped up inside of a dreamy, avant-garde horror film. It’s halfway between Jean Renoir’s ode to rural American life The Southerner (1945) and Frank Wisbar’s backwoods ghost story Strangler of the Swamp (1946).

Daves’s naturalistic take on the uncanny tale, coupled with a lush score by Miklós Rózsa that alternates between being wildly dramatic and quietly eerie, elevates the pedestrian script and easy-to-figure-out mystery. The Red House could have easily been a forgettable B movie, but it’s a memorable little chiller with heavy doses of perverse sexuality running beneath the surface. With a few changes in costuming and dialogue, it could just as easily have taken place 300 years earlier, which is part of its power and its appeal.

Shoot to Kill (March 15, 1947)

William Berke’s Shoot to Kill (also released under the title Police Reporter) isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is, but it still ain’t good.

Berke was a journeyman director, but he was a fine visual craftsman, as can be seen in the crime programmer Dick Tracy (1945) and B westerns like Sunset Pass (1946) and Code of the West (1947).

When he worked with talented actors, as he did in Cop Hater (1958), which he made toward the end of his career, he could produce a damned fine piece of entertainment.

When he worked with untalented actors, the results could be disastrous.

The plot of Shoot to Kill hinges on a contrivance, but that’s not the problem with the picture. The problem is that its male and female protagonists, Russell Wade and Luana Walters (billed in the credits as Susan Walters), are such phenomenally awful actors that every word out of their mouths is like a speed bump.

Just when the narrative is chugging along nicely, and the tension is rising, Wade and Walters sit down to discuss matters, and their frozen-molasses line delivery grinds everything back down to first gear.

The film begins at the end, with a car crash that kills district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and gangster “Dixie” Logan (Robert Kent, billed in the credits as Douglas Blackley). Also in the car, injured but alive, is Marian Langdon (Walters).

What unlikely chain of ridiculous events brought these three characters together? From her hospital bed, Marian Langdon spills the tale.

Dixie Logan was sent to prison by perjured testimony solicited by D.A. Dale, who’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Marian goes to work for the D.A., and is privy to all kinds of nefarious activity. For instance, Dale is in cahoots with gangster Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), so when some of Miller’s heavies discover that the kindly old man cleaning up in Dale’s office after hours is really a police plant, they throw him down an elevator shaft. (Murdering someone by throwing them out of a window is called “defenestration.” What’s the word for murdering someone by throwing them down an elevator shaft? If there’s not a word for it, there should be.)

Dale romances Marian while she feeds information to reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Wade) on the side. She eventually gives in to Dale’s proposals of marriage, and they get hitched in a midnight ceremony, and survive a 12:10 AM attempt on their lives.

All in a day’s work.

This quickie wedding leads to the contrivance I mentioned earlier. When Dale expects to get down to nuptial business, Walters gives him the cold shoulder, and informs him that she knows the only reason he married her is so she can’t testify against him now that she knows all his dirty little secrets. A wife can’t testify against her husband, after all. (I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure this law — which existed in plenty of states — meant that a wife couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband in court. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her.)

Shoot to Kill has enough plot for a movie twice as long, but it’s an acceptable way to kill an hour if you can overlook wooden acting and ridiculous twists.

It Happened in Brooklyn (March 13, 1947)

It Happened in Brooklyn
It Happened in Brooklyn (1947)
Directed by Richard Whorf
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I used to be bummed out that I grew up after the era of listening booths in record stores.

After seeing Richard Whorf’s It Happened in Brooklyn, I’ve realized that as far as regrets go, that’s small potatoes. If this film is to be believed, there was once a music store in Bay Ridge where you could pick out any piece of sheet music and hand it to Frank Sinatra, the in-house “song demonstrator,” and listen to Ol’ Blue Eyes tickle the ivories while he performed it for you. Sure, you had to contend with a teeming crowd of sighing bobby-soxers, but that’s a small price to pay.

When It Happened in Brooklyn begins, Private Danny Miller (Sinatra) has been in the service for four years. World War II is drawing to a close, and he can’t wait to get home to his one true love, Brooklyn.

Danny loves Brooklyn so much that he carries a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge in his wallet. When a pretty Army nurse (Gloria Grahame) from Brooklyn refuses to believe that Danny is really from Brooklyn because he’s so restrained and cool, he pulls out the picture of the bridge and says, “Sure, that’s my pinup girl. Ain’t she a beauty?”

When Danny returns home, a traffic cop asks him why he’s so happy to be in Brooklyn when he could be across the river in New York. Danny looks incredulous and exclaims, “New York? That’s a place to look at Brooklyn from!”

Faced with the post-war housing shortage, Danny moves in with Nick Lombardi (Jimmy Durante), the janitor at New Utrecht High School, Danny’s alma mater. Nick is a kindly old geezer who idolizes the fictional teacher Mr. Chips, and doesn’t understand why all the kids in the school make fun of him.

Danny also befriends a pretty music teacher named Anne Fielding (Kathryn Grayson) and, in a remarkable example of art imitating life, teaches a British drip named Jamie Shellgrove (Peter Lawford) how to be cool.

For an MGM musical, It Happened in Brooklyn is fairly restrained. Unlike Sinatra’s previous film, the Technicolor extravaganza Anchors Aweigh (1945), which also co-starred Grayson, It Happened in Brooklyn is filmed in black and white, clocks in at under two hours, and doesn’t feature any huge production numbers.

Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante

Despite this, It Happened in Brooklyn is still a blast, especially if you’re a Sinatra fan. It’s packed with great songs by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, including “The Brooklyn Bridge,” “Whose Baby Are You?,” “It’s the Same Old Dream,” “The Song’s Gotta Come From the Heart,” and the classic “Time After Time.” I especially enjoyed Sinatra and Durante’s humorous performance of “I Believe” with a teenaged actor named Bobby Long, who does a great tap number. Does anyone know anything about Long? Why didn’t he ever appear in another movie? Did he have an abrasive personality? Horrible skin? Did he sleep with a producer’s wife after wooing her with his sensuous tap-dancing?

Along with all the great pop numbers, there’s a little “class” squeezed in, too. The classically trained Grayson gets to belt out a couple of operatic numbers — one from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and one from Delibes’s Lakmé — and her student Leo Kardos (Billy Roy) performs a piano concert in hopes of getting a scholarship. (Kardos’s playing was actually done by André Previn, who had just joined the music department of MGM at the age of 17.)

It Happened in Brooklyn is clichéd and occasionally silly, and it doesn’t offer the over-the-top razzle-dazzle of Anchors Aweigh, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

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