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Tag Archives: Billy House

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.

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The Stranger (May 25, 1946)

The Stranger isn’t most people’s favorite Orson Welles film, and a lot of people even consider it his worst. (Welles did.) It’s the third film he directed, and as far as Oscar bait goes, it certainly pales in comparison with Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), but I think a lot of the criticism heaped upon it is unfair. The Stranger is a crackerjack thriller with tension and suspense to spare. I was drawn in by the first scene, and was completely involved throughout the film’s 95-minute running time.

Despite its sometimes hackneyed script and implausible situations, The Stranger shows a master in complete control of his craft. The first 15 minutes of the film are some of the most perfect cinematic storytelling I’ve ever seen. Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), an investigator for the Allied Commission for the Punishment of War Criminals, sets free a Nazi war criminal named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) and has him tailed, believing that he will lead them to the secret architect of the Holocaust, Franz Kindler (Welles). Kindler is living in the idyllic little town of Harper, Connecticut, under the name “Charles Rankin” and is a professor at a boy’s school.

Meinike’s journey to find Kindler is an object lesson in how to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of tension. The shots are visually arresting, the editing is rapid without ever being confusing, and the pacing is fast. As openings go, it’s not quite the bravura performance Welles would later put on with his single crane shot that opens Touch of Evil (1958), but it’s just as good in its own way. The disconnect only appears during the first lengthy stretch of dialogue. Once Meinike tracks down Prof. Rankin, the clumsy exposition that Welles grumbles through — which explains who his character is, whom he is marrying, and who his father-in-law will be — sticks out like a sore thumb.

Meinike will prove to be just the beginning of Rankin’s troubles. The noose tightens around his neck as soon as Wilson arrives in town, posing as a dealer in antiques. Robinson plays his role well, in an understated fashion that contrasts nicely with Welles’s bug-eyed histrionics. After a few extreme close-ups of Rankin’s sweaty face as he tells lies to convince his new wife, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), that he is an innocent hounded by nefarious forces, there is no doubt about the depths of his villainy.

Not that there every really was any doubt, since Rankin behaves in such a despicable fashion throughout the picture. It’s not just his dinnertime conversation — in which he explicates the warlike soul of the German people and denies that Karl Marx was a German because he was a Jew — it’s his willingness to engage in wet work, killing a troublesome character without a second thought and later beating his new wife’s dog when it attempts to dig up the corpse.

In his review of The Stranger in the July 11, 1946, edition of the NY Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that Welles’s performance “gave no illusion of the sort of depraved and heartless creatures that the Nazi mass-murderers were. He is just Mr. Welles, a young actor, doing a boyishly bad acting job in a role which is highly incredible — another weak feature of the film.” Again, I think this is unfair. Welles got his start in the theater, and as a thespian, he never really grew out of it. His acting was always highly theatrical. He was a man who played to the back row, with grand gestures and a booming voice, but he did so extremely effectively. Not every film performance has to be subtle and understated.

It’s his work behind the camera, however, that really shows Welles in top form. The fast cutting in a scene in a diner, for instance, creates a tense subtext beneath Loretta Young’s seemingly casual banter with Edward G. Robinson by showing each character’s motivations by the looks on their faces. Mary is hiding something, Rankin is coercing her into doing so, and Wilson knows exactly what is going on. Director Welles and editor Ernest J. Nims make it all look easy, but it’s not, or more films would be this well-made.

The film also brilliantly uses sound. For instance, the tolling of the clock in the village square (which the clock-obsessed Rankin has fixed) underscores the tension in the film’s final half hour. The bonging of the clock has a peculiar timbre, and sounds more like incidental music from a ’70s or ’80s suspense or horror flick than any soundtrack from the ’40s I’ve ever heard before. The score itself, by Bronislau Kaper, is quite good, too, and is reminiscent of the work of Bernard Herrmann.

The screenplay, by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Victor Trivas, was imposed on Welles by the studio. The studio and the producer, Sam Spiegel (listed in the credits as “S.P. Eagle”), made plenty of other decisions Welles didn’t like. For instance, Welles wanted Agnes Moorehead to play the part of Wilson, but they forced him to go with Robinson. As far as the studio was concerned, however, everything worked out for the best, since The Stranger was the only film Welles directed that ever made a profit during its initial theatrical run.

The Stranger is a potboiler, to be sure, but it’s such a brilliantly edited, directed, and acted potboiler that it’s remarkable. This is one of those rare movies that I looked forward to seeing again as soon as it was over.

Bedlam (May 10, 1946)

Bedlam,jpg
Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Mark Robson’s Bedlam, produced by the legendary Val Lewton, takes place in London in 1761. It was Lewton’s ninth and final horror film.

A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a master of suggestion and eerie ambience. His films were the antithesis of Universal’s horror offerings, which offered iconic monsters and more overt shocks. Lewton had phenomenal success with his first horror picture for RKO, Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), and his reputation continued to grow with a string of classic and near-classic horror pictures; I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, dir. Robert Wise), Isle of the Dead (1945, dir. Mark Robson), and Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson).

The screenplay for Bedlam, which was written by Robson and Lewton (under the name “Carlos Keith”), was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving of Bethlehem Hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam); the final plate in his 1735 series “The Rake’s Progress,” which depicts in detail the journey of its hero, William Rakewell, from an inheritor of his father’s wealth and happy cad to a broken man locked up in an insane asylum.

Neither Rakewell nor anyone like him appears as a character in the film Bedlam. Rather, Lewton and Robson took the nightmarish images Hogarth created with such elaborate care in his depiction of Bedlam and shaped them into the window dressing of a film that, like The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Hogarth’s vision was of a morally bankrupt society, from the monarchy and the church all the way down to the commoners on the street. Lewton and Robson took this idea and shaped it to their own ends. The inmates of Bedlam may be strange and threatening, but it is the men who control them who are the real monsters.

This idea is exemplified in the first scene of the picture. A lunatic is attempting to escape St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum by scaling the wall. He is forced to jump to his death when a guard carrying a lantern grinds his boot down on the man’s hand.

The man who fell turns out to be an acquaintance of the grotesque Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who arrives at Bedlam that night for a spot of entertainment gawking at the loonies. “Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires from laughter,” he tells his companion, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). When he discovers that his acquaintance has fallen to his death, however, Lord Mortimer is upset. He had paid the man for poetry to be delivered at a later date, and he feels he is now owed a night of entertainment. Enter George Sims (Boris Karloff), the apothecary general of Bedlam. Master Sims promises Lord Mortimer a play performed by his lunatics.

Sims is a combination of the worst qualities of the characters Karloff played in his previous two collaborations with Lewton; the pure malevolence of cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher and the twisted abuser of power General Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead.

Disturbed by what she sees at Bedlam, but not fully able to admit it, Lord Mortimer’s companion Nell returns to Bedlam alone and is taken on a tour by Sims. Leering, he tells her, “Ours is a human world, theirs is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals. Some are dogs; these, I beat. Some are pigs; those, I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers; these, I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.” (Students of script machinations, however, will want to keep an eye on that “dove,” a woman in white who stands immobile, not speaking or blinking.) Also, it should go without saying that Sims’s ability to have anyone he wants committed to Bedlam, regardless of their sanity, will put Nell in grave danger when she breaks with Lord Mortimer and publicly ridicules him.

The rhythm of speech and the language of the script is excellent, and evokes 18th century Britain in a way few of the hackneyed period pieces of the ’40s did. Even if it’s not a perfect replication of the time, it does a pretty good job, and all of the little details are a joy to pick out, such as the words “I love sweet Betty Careless” scrawled on the wall in Bedlam, a detail inspired by the man in the Hogarth plate who has scrawled the initials of his beloved, “Charming Betty Careless” — a famous prostitute of the day — on a banister.

Viewers looking for a straight horror picture might be disappointed by Bedlam, although its scenes within the insane asylum walls deliver plenty of chills. Like many of Lewton’s later horror pictures, it’s an ambitious film that uses the trappings of horror to deliver a deeper message about a sick society.