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Tag Archives: Jack Conway

The Hucksters (Aug. 27, 1947)

It’s hard to watch Jack Conway’s The Hucksters today and not compare it with Mad Men.

While Mad Men is a TV series that began in 2007 and takes place in the early ’60s and The Hucksters takes place during the time it was filmed (the post-war ’40s), they share a number of similarities, and not just because they’re both about advertising agencies.

Both feature at their center a dashing leading man with rugged good looks as an advertising genius who must navigate the tricky waters of love, sex, and difficult clients. Jon Hamm was in his mid-30s when Mad Men began, while Clark Gable was in his mid-40s in 1947, but both of their characters are veterans of the most recent war and inveterate seducers of women.

The Hucksters is based on Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 novel of the same name, which spent a year at the top of the best-seller lists. Wakeman’s novel was based on a four-part exposé in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Star Spangled Octopus,” about talent and promotional agency MCA.

The novel’s racy subject matter was largely responsible for its success. Life magazine called it “Last year’s best-selling travesty on bigtime advertising.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid nearly $200,000 for the rights to Wakeman’s novel in a pre-publication deal. Most of the salacious details, however, never made it into the final shooting script. (Clark Gable’s take on the first draft of the script was, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.”) For instance, in the novel, Gable’s character, Victor Albee Norman, has an affair with a married woman, but she was changed into a war widow for the film.

Consequently, The Hucksters never quite achieves the satirical bite of Mad Men, but there are number of bits that are funny, particularly if you’re familiar with radio advertising circa 1947.

There are plenty of reasons to see The Hucksters. It was the American film debut of Deborah Kerr, who plays Gable’s widowed love interest, Kay Dorrance, and it also features the beautiful Ava Gardner as a torch singer named Jean Ogilvie. Adolphe Menjou is wonderful as Mr. Kimberly, the head of the advertising agency, and Keenan Wynn is appropriately irritating as a third-rate radio comedian named Buddy Hare.

The most memorable actor in the film, however, is Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Evan Llewellyn Evans, the grotesque and demanding head of Beautee Soap. After Gable’s character, Victor Norman, rejects the more scandalous layout favored by Evans, Evans sits down at the head of the boardroom table, tilts his head back, hawks, and spits on the table. “Mr. Norman, you’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “But you’ll always remember what I just did. You see, Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, you aren’t gonna sell any soap.”

The Hucksters could have used more moments like that. It’s nearly two hours long, and Gable’s romance with Kerr takes up much of the running time. It’s perfectly well-handled and shot, but it’s a storyline one could see in any number of pictures, while the advertising angle of the story is unique, and the film could have gotten more mileage out of it.

The Hucksters earned a respectable $4.4 million during its domestic release, but was a complete flop overseas, since in those days no one outside the United States was in any way familiar with American advertising or commercial broadcasting.

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High Barbaree (May 1947)

High Barbaree

High Barbaree (1947)
Directed by Jack Conway
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Jack Conway’s High Barbaree pairs America’s boy next door, Van Johnson, with America’s girl next door, June Allyson.

It wasn’t the first time they appeared in a film together. In Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Johnson played the sailor of the title and Allyson played one of the pair of sisters who were in love with him. (They also both appeared in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. I haven’t seen it, but I know that it features a cast of thousands, and I’m not sure if they shared any scenes.)

High Barbaree puts the two of them front and center. Their characters’ romance is unencumbered by comedy or contrived stumbling blocks. The title of the film and the poster art imply an exotic tale set in the South Seas, and the tagline of the poster — He wanted to stay in the arms of his first true love — but another woman claimed him! — implies that the film will be about a torrid love triangle. It’s neither of these things. It’s a sweet, earnest love story about two childhood sweethearts.

It’s a story told mostly in flashback. It’s WWII, and Lt. Alec Brooke (Johnson) and Lt. Joe Moore (Cameron Mitchell) are drifting in the Pacific, their plane shot down during a bombing run. Every other man in the crew is dead, and Alec and Joe will soon join them if they’re not picked up.

Their water supply dwindling and their bodies weakening, Alec reminisces with Joe about his childhood. Alec is a corn-fed all-American type from Iowa, and Joe ribs him about it, since he’s a typical cynical kid from Brooklyn. Alec recalls the girl he loved when he was little, Nancy Frazer (played by Gigi Perreau as a child, and by Joan Wells as a young girl). She fearlessly climbed the water tower with him when they were children, and later ran away with him to the circus, and witnessed his brief career as a bicycle-riding daredevil. (Alec is played as a child by Jimmy Hunt, and as a 14-year-old by Claude Jarman Jr., fresh off his success as the lead in The Yearling.)

By time passed, as it must, and Nancy and Alec lost touch. He abandoned his plans to become a doctor like his father, Dr. William G. Brooke (Henry Hull), and went into aviation. He got engaged to the wealthy blond heiress Diana Case (Marilyn Maxwell) and went to work for her father’s airplane manufacturing company. Everything seemed to be going his way until Nancy (played as an adult by June Allyson, natch) re-entered his life, and he realized how lost and unhappy he really was.

At some point in the midst of his recollections, Alec realizes that he and Joe and the wreckage of their PBY Catalina are drifting toward a spot marked on a map long ago by Alec’s vagabond uncle, Capt. Thad Vail (Thomas Mitchell). The spot marks a fabulous island called “High Barbaree.” Uncle Thad described it as a mysterious place that was always just over the horizon, but that was perfectly beautiful and serene. If only they can make it to High Barbaree, Alec says, they’ll be saved.

While the exotic island of High Barbaree gives the film its title, it’s not a central part of the story, the way Shangri-La is central to Lost Horizon. Most of the story takes place in Alec and Nancy’s hometown of Westview, Iowa, which is its own kind of dreamlike phantasmagoria. I’ve never been crazy about Van Johnson (I think his stage name really should have been Bland Johnson), but he and Allyson make an appealing couple, and his earnestness is hard to resist in this picture.

High Barbaree isn’t a great film, but it’s pretty good, and is recommended for anyone who’s craving an old-fashioned romance. It’s based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The review of the novel in the October 29, 1945, edition of Time magazine said that “It is plainly designed as a refuge for readers who have had enough of wartime realism.” The same can be said of the film.