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Tag Archives: Fred MacMurray

The Miracle of the Bells (March 16, 1948)

How do you like your schmaltz? Extra fatty, thick, and glopped all over the place?

You do? Well, Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells should satisfy your appetite, provided you don’t require nauseating Technicolor or weepy musical numbers. Everything else is in place; soft-focus feel-good spirituality, a tragic love story, and a town coming together for the greater good.

Fred MacMurray plays Hollywood press agent extraordinaire Bill Dunnigan, an affable regular guy with a killer instinct when it comes to a promotional angle. One day he meets a struggling actress named Olga Treskovna (played by Italian actress Alida Valli, who’s credited as just “Valli”) and helps her get a break in a low-rent chorus line.

A year later, they meet again in a small town on Christmas Eve. They have a warm and romantic meal at a Chinese restaurant run by a venerable wise man named Ming Gow (Philip Ahn). Olga coughs when Dunnigan gets up to put some Christmas carols on the jukebox, which — if you’re a connoisseur of movie clichés — means you’ve already figured out that she will die of tuberculosis.

I’m not giving anything away, since the film begins with Dunnigan transporting Olga’s coffin back to her hometown of Coaltown, PA, and the rest of the film recounts her life and death through his eyes. She literally killed herself playing Joan of Arc in her first starring role, refusing to drop out even though she had TB, and her dying wish was to be buried on a hill in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Coaltown, next to her parents.

To thicken the plot, Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb), the big-time Hollywood producer of Olga’s star turn as Joan of Arc, doesn’t want to release the film because it stars a dead woman no one’s ever heard of. Too morbid, Harris declares.

Dunnigan has a reputation as a press agent who pulls stunts to put over crummy shows and lousy movies, so when he arranges all the bells in Coaltown to ring for three days for Olga, people think it’s a cheap ploy to get her final picture released. (It is, but Dunnigan’s motives are pure.)

Dunnigan also has to fight to have her body interred in St. Michael’s Cathedral, which is the smaller, poorer Catholic church in Coaltown, and the more popular his PR campaign becomes, the more pressure there is to have Olga’s funeral services held in the larger cathedral.

Frank Sinatra plays Father Paul, the young priest who presides over St. Michael’s, and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with another crooner who famously played a priest — Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) — but Sinatra’s performance is more understated. In The Miracle of the Bells he plays a character, not a song-and-dance version of himself.

Despite its overwhelming sentimentality, I didn’t hate The Miracle of the Bells. It’s OK for what it is, and it could have been much worse. (The great Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay with Quentin Reynolds, adapting Russell Janney’s best-selling novel. I haven’t read it, but the review in the September 16, 1946, issue of Time said that “as a novel, The Miracle of the Bells is one of the worst ever published.”)

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Singapore (Aug. 13, 1947)

Note to aspiring makers of B movies — if you’re going to blatantly rip off Casablanca (1942), take a page from director John Brahm’s book. Don’t just change the characters’ names and tack on a happy ending. Do it with real panache and also change the hero’s occupation to “pearl smuggler” and spice up the love triangle by giving the heroine a case of amnesia.

True to its title, Singapore is steeped in the exoticism and heat of the Pacific Rim, but like the film noir techniques Brahm uses to tell his story, it’s mostly just window dressing for a run-of-the-mill potboiler. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brahm keeps things moving along nicely, and Singapore is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a melodrama and you can overlook some contrivances.

When Matt Gordon (MacMurray) returns to Singapore after World War II, it’s clear as soon as he steps off the plane that he has a history there. Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) has Gordon brought to his office, and he reminds him that the penalty for removing illegally obtained pearls from a British colony is a minimum of 10 years in prison.

“Before the war it was only eight,” Gordon quips. “But I guess everything’s gone up, huh?”

Gordon sits down in the hotel bar, orders two gin slings, and sits alone, reminiscing about life in Singapore before the war. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), but their whirlwind romance was cut short by the beginning of hostilities with the Japanese.

They were engaged to be married, but before they could tie the knot she was killed in a bombing raid, and Allied forces had occupied his hotel room, where his $250,000 worth of pearls were secreted in the motor of the ceiling fan in his room.

He made it out of Singapore with his life, but that’s all, and now that the war is over he’s intent on retrieving his pearls. (It’s established that Gordon has a service record, and saw combat during the war, perhaps to engender audience sympathy.)

Of course, Linda didn’t really die in a bombing raid. She was injured and stricken with total amnesia. Unable to remember any details of her former life, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where she met Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), a British plantation owner who saved her life many times during the war. Now they are married, and her name is Ann Van Leyden. No matter how many times Gordon calls her “Linda,” she just can’t remember their time together, or the love they shared.

So Gordon has two problems — winning back Linda/Ann, and somehow getting his pearls out of the ceiling fan of a hotel room that is now occupied by an obnoxious married couple. The problem of the pearls is compounded not only by the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, but also by the corpulent gangster Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez), who wants the pearls for himself.

There are a lot of ceiling fans in Singapore, and none of them move quickly. It’s all part of the languorous, overheated atmosphere of the film, but like I said above, it’s all just window dressing. The Asian extras in the background and the crowded streets of the port city add ambiance, but not much else. The action could be moved to any other “exotic” locale, and few details of the plot would have to be changed. (And that’s exactly what happened in 1957 when director Joseph Pevney remade Singapore as a vehicle for Errol Flynn called Istanbul.)

I liked Singapore despite its flaws, and it’s always enjoyable to watch the beautiful Ava Gardner do anything. I didn’t completely buy her relationship with the hulking, thuggish Fred MacMurray — I’ve always thought MacMurray was better in comedic roles than dramatic ones — but it works well enough to keep the film moving.

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.