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Tag Archives: Claudette Colbert

Sleep, My Love (Feb. 18, 1948)

Sleep, My Love is a slick, classy thriller from the slickest, classiest director of all time, Douglas Sirk.

Granted, his greatest work was a few years ahead of him, but even when he was making run-of-the-mill potboilers like Sleep, My Love and Lured (1947), Sirk applied not only his considerable skill as a filmmaker to the material, but also his fetishistic attention to details, and his love of the sumptuous and the glamorous.

The film starts with a bang. Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up from a nightmare on a train, screaming. She doesn’t have any memory of how she got there. The last thing she remembers is going to sleep next to her husband in their palatial home on Sutton Place and East 57th Street.

Oh, and there’s a small pistol in her bag that she doesn’t remember having, either.

Sirk introduces all the players in his mystery early in the film — Alison’s husband, Richard Courtland (Don Ameche), her friend Barby (Rita Johnson), Barby’s brother Bruce (Robert Cummings), Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr), a mysterious man with horn-rimmed glasses named Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), and the leggy, beautiful Daphne (Hazel Brooks) — but it’s not immediately clear how they all relate to one another.

Much of the pleasure in watching Sleep, My Love comes from seeing how Sirk moves all of his chess pieces around the board. It’s clear from the outset that someone is gaslighting Alison, but who is doing it? And why are they doing it?

This isn’t the kind of mystery in which the solution comes as a complete surprise and is explained by a brilliant detective who gathers all the suspects together in a drawing room; rather, it evolves and reveals itself naturally over the course of the film. It won’t take an astute viewer long to figure out what’s going on, but Sirk isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He’s simply making a thrilling film that’s beautiful to look at, and succeeding with aplomb.

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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.

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.'”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.

Tomorrow Is Forever (Feb. 20, 1946)

Tomorrow Is Forever
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)
Directed by Irving Pichel
International Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

Irving Pichel’s weepy wartime melodrama Tomorrow Is Forever premiered in London on January 18, 1946, and premiered in New York City a month later, on February 20th. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept the convoluted, coincidence-laden plot, it’s quite a fine movie, with excellent performances and a moving story.

The film begins on November 11, 1918, as the First World War is drawing to a close. Charles Hamilton (Douglas Wood), the head of the Hamilton Chemical Works, Inc., in Baltimore, is joined by his son Lawrence (George Brent) and other members of the company in toasting their success. He raises a glass to the part the company played in winning the war, as well as their contribution to the nation’s victories in the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Lawrence Hamilton walks over to a pretty woman named Elizabeth MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) who is sitting by herself, and offers her a glass. Charles Hamilton drinks to peace and prosperity, and declares the rest of the day a holiday. Lawrence talks to Elizabeth, a research librarian at the chemical works, and learns that her husband, John, who went to war as an officer just four months earlier, is coming home soon. Elizabeth is elated.

A little time passes. Presumably it’s a little more than a month, since there’s snow on the ground, Max Steiner’s lissome score breaks into an orchestral interpretation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and Elizabeth is carrying a little Christmas tree. When she get home, however, she receives devastating news; a telegram informing her that her husband, Lt. John Andrew MacDonald, was killed in action on November 5th. She goes to their bedroom, stands in front of the dresser, and he appears behind her in the mirror like a ghost. He’s played by Orson Welles, and he and Colbert play out a touching scene. They were clearly very much in love, and seeing him go away to war was difficult for her. In the end, he holds her tightly and promises her he will come back. (Return he does, and that’s where the audience’s suspension of disbelief will come into play, but more on that later.)

Not only has Elizabeth lost her husband, she learns that she is pregnant with his child. Lawrence Hamilton takes her in, and cares for her and her son, who is named John Andrew after his father. Elizabeth and Lawrence marry, and while it is a marriage based on friendship and respect rather than passionate love, it is also a successful marriage, and they have another son of their own, Brian (Sonny Howe). John Andrew Hamilton grows into a strapping young man (played by Richard Long), whom his parents call “Drew.” They never tell Drew, however, that Lawrence is not his biological father.

Meanwhile, we learn that John didn’t actually die in the war, but he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to live, and refused to identify himself to his attending physician, Dr. Ludwig (John Wengraf). In their scenes together, only Welles’s left eye can be seen through his mass of bandages, and he begs Dr. Ludwig to put him out of his misery. Dr. Ludwig refuses, and tells him that with extensive reconstructive surgery and physical conditioning, he can be made well again. It’s not entirely clear why John wants to be allowed to die and never see his wife again, although it seemed to me that “shattered body” was code for “irrevocably damaged genitals.”

Twenty years pass, and war again conspires to destroy Elizabeth’s happiness. Germany invades Poland, and Drew and his fraternity friends, including his best friend, “Pudge” Davis (Tom Wirick), make up their minds to go to Canada to join the R.A.F. and train as pilots. Drew is a few months away from his 21st birthday, however, and Elizabeth refuses to give her consent. Drew is the image of his father, a man she loved with a passionate intensity, and to lose him to battle would be like losing John all over again.

At this point, an Austrian chemist named Erik Kessler enters the United States as a refugee, along with a little blond girl named Margaret (Natalie Wood). Kessler is played by Orson Welles, and it soon becomes clear that he is John A. MacDonald, even though he has an Austrian accent, a beard, glasses, and walks with a limp. He goes to work for the Hamilton Chemical Works, and enters the lives of the Hamiltons.

It’s at this point that the film began to seem ludicrous to me. Kessler immediately recognizes Elizabeth when he meets her, but she does not recognize him. Welles certainly looks and speaks differently as Kessler, but he was less recognizable in his old-age makeup in Citizen Kane (1941) than he is here. How can she not recognize him? A willing suspension of disbelief is required, as well as an appreciation of the conventions of the stage. It is enough to know that Kessler received a great deal of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, so while the audience can recognize Welles in his new guise, they have to accept that no one else in the film can. Was I able to do this? Well … sort of.

Tomorrow Is Forever is a story about loss and letting go. The performances in the film are excellent, especially Welles and Wood. Their scenes together were my favorite in the film. Just seven years old when she made this film, her first credited role, Wood was able to project a wide range of emotions and even delivered her lines in German relatively convincingly. Long was also very good in his first film role, even though his performance is pitched mostly at a single tone; earnestness. It was clearly made as a star vehicle for Colbert, however, and it’s her emotional journey that drives the film. As I said, you have to accept all the coincidences in the story and the idea that Elizabeth is not able to recognize who Kessler really is to go along for the ride, but if you can, Tomorrow Is Forever is a pretty good film.