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Tag Archives: Myrna Loy

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.”

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (Sept. 1, 1947)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best original screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards in 1948, beating out the scripts for more “serious” fare like Body and Soul, A Double Life, Monsieur Verdoux, and Sciuscià (Shoeshine).

But just because its win was surprising doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to win. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a very funny film. It’s a latter-day screwball comedy about a handsome artist who is forced — by court order, no less — to date a teenage girl.

Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay treats those jumpin’ and jivin’ post-war kids with affection rather than bemusement or contempt, and he has a keen understanding of the ways teenagers try to act like adults, and how they unwittingly fail.

The dialogue might not be a completely accurate evocation of the way real bobby-soxers and their jalopy-driving boyfriends actually talked (did any kid before this movie came out actually say that they felt “sklonklish”?), but the characterizations all feel right.

Former child star Shirley Temple — all grown up (sort of) — plays the bobby-soxer of the title, a 17-year-old high school student named Susan who lives with her older sister. Her older sister just happens to be a judge, and when the film begins, the Honorable Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) is presiding over a case involving a kerfuffle at a nightclub between a couple of brassy gals over the affections of charming artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant).

Margaret and Susan’s parents are dead, so Margaret is as much of a mother to Susan as she is a big sister. After the initial courtroom scene, the stage is set for the sparks of disapproval to fly as soon as Margaret learns that the object of her little sister’s affection is the same Lothario she saw in court.

Most of the humor in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer comes from the fact that Richard has absolutely no desire to be with Susan, but is ordered by the court, under the recommendation of a psychologist, to take her out on dates so his mature-man forbidden fruit will sooner wither and die, and she’ll go back to her sweet, somewhat dumb high school boyfriend, Jerry (Johnny Sands).

Susan is mature for her age, but she’s still a 17-year-old. Watching Cary Grant suffer through taking her to Sunset High School basketball games and dates at the ice cream shop are some of the funniest bits I’ve seen in a long time.

Cary Grant — no stranger to screwball comedies — has an arch, deadpan comic style that’s perfectly suited to the material. Temple is really great in this movie, too. Like Deanna Durbin, she was an impossibly cute child star who blossomed into an engaging adult performer without missing a beat. And Myrna Loy is wonderful to watch, as always. It doesn’t matter that she was old enough to be Temple’s mother when she made this movie. She barely looks a decade older, and she matches Cary Grant beat for beat in all their scenes together.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a great comedy that stands the test of time.

Song of the Thin Man (Aug. 28, 1947)

Edward Buzzell’s Song of the Thin Man was a bittersweet viewing experience for me. I’ve been a huge fan of the Thin Man series since the first film, The Thin Man (1934), so it was a little sad to know that Song of the Thin Man would be the last new film I’d see with William Powell and Myrna Loy as everyone’s favorite dipsomaniacal mystery-solving married couple, Nick and Nora Charles.

While some films in the Thin Man series are better than others, all of them are funny, well-made mysteries featuring two of the most appealing actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

As always, their little dog Asta is around for yuks, along with a brand new adorable little son, played by Dean Stockwell. (Yes, kids, Dean Stockwell was adorable once.)

But not to worry. Having a young son doesn’t stop Nick and Nora from continuing to booze it up and skulk around at night with flashlights, looking for clues.

The mystery they’re trying to solve this time around is the murder of a jazz band leader named Tommy Drake (Phillip Reed), who is shot aboard the S.S. Fortune, a gambling ship run by a man named Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling).

True to its title, Song of the Thin Man is all about music. Specifically jazz music, and the wacky nightclub performers who jam till dawn, like Drake’s former bandleader Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor) and his famous clarinet. Hollis is a talented musician, but he’s all whacked out from carrying a torch for the hot little cookie Fran Ledue Page (Gloria Grahame), a singer.

Keenan Wynn is also on hand as musician Clarence “Clinker” Krause, and he proves that his incredibly annoying character in The Hucksters (1947) wasn’t a case of lightning striking once.

The mystery in Song of the Thin Man isn’t that clever or involving. But as always with the Thin Man movies, the mystery and its solution is less important than all the fun Nick and Nora have carousing their way through it.

Powell and Loy were 41 years old and 28 years old, respectively, when the series began, so by the time they made Song of the Thin Man together they were starting to get on in years, but Loy looks just as beautiful as she did in 1934, and I don’t think anyone ever went to see the Thin Man movies for Powell’s looks.

All good things must come to an end, but I wish there could have been just a few more Thin Man movies with Powell and Loy.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

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