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Tag Archives: Chester Erskine

All My Sons (March 27, 1948)

All My Sons was not Arthur Miller’s first play, but it was his first success, and the work that put him in the public eye. He won a Tony Award for best author and the play’s director, Elia Kazan, won the Tony for best direction of a play. All My Sons ran on Broadway, at the Coronet Theatre, from January to November 1947 for a total of 328 performances. It starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden.

Irving Reis’s film version premiered in New York on March 27, 1948, and went into wide release in April.

All My Sons stars Edward G. Robinson as Joe Keller, the owner of a factory that made airplane parts during World War II. His partner and former next-door neighbor, Herbert Deever, went to prison for shipping faulty cylinder heads.

The defective parts caused the deaths of 21 airmen, but Joe Keller was exonerated of any wrongdoing in court. (In the original play, Keller’s partner is called “Steve Deever,” and he never appears on stage. In the film, Herbert Deever is played by Frank Conroy in a dark and emotionally wrenching scene in which one of the main characters goes to visit him in prison.)

Joe Keller’s son Larry’s plane went down in the Pacific during the war. Larry was declared MIA, but Joe’s wife Kate (Mady Christians) refuses to believe her son is dead, and keeps everything in Larry’s bedroom the same as the day he shipped out. All his suits are hanging in the closet and all his shoes are shined.

When the film begins, Joe and Kate’s other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), who also served in World War II, is attempting to mend fences with Ann Deever (Louisa Horton), the girl he wants to marry. Ann and Chris love each other, but several obstacles stand between them. Not only is she the daughter of Joe Keller’s disgraced and imprisoned former partner, but she used to be Larry’s girl, and Chris won’t be able to get his parents’ blessing while his mother still holds out hope that Larry is alive somewhere. “You marry that girl and you’re pronouncing him dead,” Joe Keller shouts at Chris. “You’ve no right to do that!”

I find Robinson an odd choice, physically at least, to play Lancaster’s father. He’s about the right age — 20 years older than Lancaster — but the two men couldn’t look more different. Aside from this quibble, however, Robinson is perfectly cast. His bluster and bonhomie cover up a deep well of guilt that slowly, over the course of the film, bubbles to the surface.

Movies based on plays can suffer from a sense of artificiality, but All My Sons is a perfect example of how to adapt a play for the screen. While the dialogue is pretty heavy on exposition for the first reel, it never feels stagey or bound to a single location. Small changes like the addition of Herbert Deever as a speaking character help make the film work as a cinematic experience, and Russell Metty’s dark, atmospheric cinematography and Leith Stevens’s effective musical score really tie everything together.

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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.