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Tag Archives: Dore Schary

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (June 4, 1948)

I don’t know about you, but comedies like H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House really stress me out.

When the subject of “things I could never laugh at” comes up, most people think of things like the death of a beloved family pet or ethnic cleansing, but while I don’t find either of those subjects fertile ground for comedy, one subject stands above all others as something I can never laugh at — chasing good money after bad.

I don’t know if Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the first comedy in which most of the “comedy” involves someone making terrible decision after terrible decision and throwing vast sums of money into a disastrous project, but it’s one of the best-known and most well-loved.

The first movie like this I saw was the 1986 Tom Hanks “comedy” The Money Pit, which even as a kid I found stressful and unfunny.

The second was the Joe McDoakes “comedy” short So You Want to Move (1950), in which every bad decision the main character makes and every accident he has is flashed on screen in dollar amounts. As the one-reeler continues, and he drops things and crashes into things, his financial responsibility grows and grows. As an argument for using professional movers, So You Want to Move is a persuasive infomercial, but as a comedy it’s totally devoid of laughs. At least for me.

At least Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is enjoyable in the early going, and stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who previously starred together in Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and who are both attractive, charming, and a lot of fun to watch.

Grant plays Jim Blandings, a college graduate who lives in Manhattan, works in advertising, and makes about $15,000 a year. We learn all this from the film’s omniscient narrator, who also calls Mr. Blandings a “modern-day cliff dweller,” since he lives in a high-rise apartment building with his beautiful wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two daughters, and their housekeeper Gussie (Louise Beavers).

Here’s a case where inflation doesn’t tell you everything, since $15,000 is roughly $145,000 in 2012 dollars, but I don’t think even that salary today would be nearly enough to support a wife who doesn’t work, two kids in private school, and a Manhattan apartment big enough to fit a family and a live-in servant.

Granted, the Blandings live in cramped quarters. Everything in their apartment is full to bursting and ready to explode like Fibber McGee’s hall closet, and as the narrator tells us, “just getting shaved in the morning entitles a man to the Purple Heart.” But that’s just Manhattan living, folks. Even for the relatively well-to-do.

One day Mr. Blandings is enticed by a brochure from a Connecticut real estate firm that encourages him to “trade city soot for sylvan charm.”

I can’t even talk about what happens next. It’s just too painful.

I will say this, however. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was funny enough to entertain even someone like me, and Mr. Blandings is presented as just enough of a screwball idiot to make his terrible decisions a little easier to laugh at. For instance, when his lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) asks what his engineer said about the foundation of the house he just purchased, Mr. Blandings responds, “Who needs engineers? This isn’t a train, you know.”

I Remember Mama (March 9, 1948)

During World War II, director George Stevens served as a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of combat photography. He filmed D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Paris, and the horrors of the concentration camps.

When he returned home to America he started a production company, Liberty Films, with William Wyler and Frank Capra. For his first film, Stevens chose to look back to the time and place of his own boyhood — early 20th-century California — rather than the uncertain post-war future.

I Remember Mama is the story of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco. It’s based on the 1944 play by John Van Druten, which was adapted from Kathryn Forbes’s book Mama’s Bank Account, which was published in 1943.

The film opened in limited release on March 9, 1948. At 11:55 AM on that day, director Michael Curtiz sent Stevens a telegram that read:

Dear George: Without exception I think “I Remember Mama” is the most perfect picture that Ive [sic] seen in years. Direction was magnificent and I think all of us can learn [a] great lesson from it. My deepest admiration goes to you and everyone who had any part in this production. Warmest regards. Mike Curtiz.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I Remember Mama is the most perfect film I’ve seen in years, it’s a wonderful movie that’s heart-warming without being saccharine and that’s beautifully acted and filmed, much of it on location in San Francisco.

Of course, Stevens had the benefit of wonderful source material. I’ve never seen the play by John Van Druten that the film is based on, but I read Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account in sixth grade, and so much about it has stayed with me. It’s warm, humorous, and there’s pure magic in its evocation of ordinary life.

Mama’s Bank Account is a fictionalized memoir written from the point of view of a young woman who aspires to be a writer. (Much of the book was inspired not by Forbes’s mother but by her Norwegian immigrant grandmother.)

Barbara Bel Geddes plays Katrin, the young writer who finds her subject when she decides to write about her mother, and she sometimes addresses the camera directly. Irene Dunne plays “Mama” (we never learn her real name, which is as it should be).

Like the book, the film is a series of vignettes. There is the tale of the family’s roomer, Mr. Hyde (Cedric Hardwicke), whom Mama’s sisters warn her might be putting something over on her when he’s always late with the rent, but Mama doesn’t mind so much, because Mr. Hyde reads to the family every night from the classics — A Tale of Two Cities, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Hamlet. Like most of the stories that comprise I Remember Mama, the tale of Mr. Hyde has a bittersweet end, but it’s more sweet than bitter, since his enthralling nightly storytelling sessions kept Katrin’s brother Nels (Steve Brown) off the street the night his friends were arrested for breaking into a shop, and were Katrin’s inspiration to become a writer.

My favorite vignette from both the book and the movie is about Katrin’s Uncle Chris (Oskar Homolka), with his loud voice and his fierce black mustache, who would come down from his ranch in the north and descend upon San Francisco in his automobile, charging up Market Street with ferocious speed, compensating, perhaps, for the limp he still carries from a childhood accident. When Katrin writes a story about her uncle Chris, her teacher scolds her and tells her it’s not nice to write that kind of story about a family member.

I Remember Mama occasionally gets a little schmaltzy, like when Mama impersonates a scrubwoman to get into the children’s ward of a hospital to see her youngest child, Dagmar (June Hedin), and then sings a lullaby that puts all the little girls in the ward to sleep. But for the most part Stevens avoids easy sentiment. Dunne’s performance as Mama is really wonderful, and her line delivery is great. When Katrin asks her mother, “Wouldn’t you like to be rich?,” Mama responds, “I would like to be rich the way I would like to be ten feet high. Is good for some things, is bad for others.”

I Remember Mama was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, but it didn’t win any — Best Actress (Irene Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Oskar Homolka), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Bel Geddes), Best Supporting Actress (Ellen Corby), and Best Cinematography, Black and White (Nicholas Musuraca).

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 Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.

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