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Tag Archives: Percy Kilbride

Mr. Soft Touch (July 28, 1949)

Mr Soft Touch
Mr. Soft Touch (1949)
Directed by Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

I saw Mr. Soft Touch two weeks ago at the Music Box Theatre, and I loved everything about it.

I couldn’t find many reviews of Mr. Soft Touch online, but most of the reviews I found were lukewarm, and criticized its dichotomous nature. “It can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a film noir or a comedy” seems to be the consensus. Another refrain I saw was “Could have been a holiday classic but misses the mark.”

Most of those reviews blame the fact that the film has two directors.

Well, for once in my life I don’t care what went on behind the scenes, or which director contributed to what parts of the film, because I loved Mr. Soft Touch and I’ll sing its praises from the rooftops.

It probably helped that I saw it on the big screen in a real theater on a gloomy winter afternoon. If it wasn’t a pristine and fully restored 35mm print then it was a damned good facsimile of one. I watch most of the movies I review on DVD (occasionally Blu-ray) or on a streaming service, but that’s out of necessity. If you love classic films there is simply no substitute for the theatrical experience.

Glenn Ford

Mr. Soft Touch stars Glenn Ford as Joe Miracle, a shady character who’s running from the law with a bag full of cash when the movie begins. The opening sequence is suspenseful and features some great San Francisco location shooting. Joe Miracle uses his wits to get through a series of close shaves and eventually winds up hiding out for several days in a settlement house run by a woman named Jenny Jones (Evelyn Keyes).

The settlement house is staffed by Jenny and a group of older women, including actresses Beulah Bondi and Clara Blandick. They tend to the needs of homeless men, juvenile delinquents, and poor immigrants.

For the first reel or two of Mr. Soft Touch I kept waiting for a flashback sequence that would show how Joe Miracle wound up with a bag full of cash, fleeing for his life, and biding his time until he can hop on a steamer bound for Japan. A flashback like that would have been a classic film noir device, but the story unfolds in a linear fashion, and everything is explained along the way.

A bunch of gangland toughs are on Joe’s tail, and they’re led by the always entertaining mug Ted de Corsia. There’s also a muckraking radio reporter, Henry “Early” Byrd (played by a bespectacled John Ireland), who sends warnings to Joe over the airwaves but who might not have Joe’s best interests at heart.

Significantly, Mr. Soft Touch takes place at Christmastime, and adds the layer of “holiday film” to the already rare blending of hard-boiled noir, romantic comedy, and “social issues” picture.

Santa Ford

I got very involved with the story and characters in Mr. Soft Touch. I tend to dislike movies that have an inconsistent tone. Despite the blending of genres, I never felt like the tone of Mr. Soft Touch shifted uncomfortably from one genre to another. It was unpredictable, but it all worked.

I don’t know which director did what, but I never had the sense that there were two different films fighting each other for supremacy. Mr. Soft Touch is all about dualities, though, so perhaps having two directors works in the film’s favor. Joe Miracle’s last name is an Americanization of a much longer Polish surname that starts with the letter M. But it also symbolizes the unexpected gifts of the holiday season, and the element of the unexpected that he brings to Jenny’s settlement house. The title of the film has a double meaning, too. Joe Miracle has hands that can make the dice in a craps game come up the way he wants them, but the title of the film also refers to the goodness lurking behind his tough exterior that Jenny helps expose.

It’s a somewhat odd film, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

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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.

Fallen Angel (Dec. 5, 1945)

Fallen Angel, Otto Preminger’s follow-up to his smash hit Laura (1944), was slapped around by critics and passed over by audiences, but it’s not a bad film. It’s just not involving or memorable in the ways Laura was, and it’s composed of a bunch of elements that never really coalesce.

Fallen Angel reunited Preminger with the star of his previous film, Dana Andrews, and a lot of my enjoyment in the film came from watching Andrews. He’s more of a focal point in Fallen Angel than he was in Laura, and he dominates every scene he’s in. Andrews was 5’10”, but he looks well over six feet in this picture. He’s rough-looking but charming, and imposing and tough without being wooden. At the same time, he projects bitterness and alienation, barely concealed behind a handsome mask. In short, he’s the embodiment of American post-war masculinity. Andrews’s co-stars are all good as well. And I can’t fault Preminger’s direction. The film looks great, and taken one scene at a time, it’s very good.

Where Fallen Angel failed to engage me was in its pacing and storytelling. I haven’t read the Marty Holland novel the film is based on, but Fallen Angel plays like an adaptation of a sprawling book in which each section of the plot is dutifully reenacted, as opposed to a terse adaptation in which unnecessary subplots and themes are jettisoned. When drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is thrown off a bus in the small town of Walton, California, because he doesn’t have the $2.25 fare necessary to continue on to San Francisco, he stops in at a place called Pop’s Café. In the first few minutes of the film we’re introduced to all the major players; the phony spiritualist Professor Madley (John Carradine), whom Stanton used to shill for, hard-boiled ex-New York police detective Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), cafe owner Pop (Percy Kilbride), June Mills (Alice Faye), June’s spinster sister Clara (Anne Revere), and Pop’s pouting, sexy waitress Stella (Linda Darnell), whom every man in town seems to be obsessed with (and it’s not hard to see why).

The beginning doesn’t seem rushed, however, or as though too much information is being packed in. A lot of this can be credited to Preminger’s cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, who also worked with Preminger on Laura, and whose fluid tracking shots and crisp black and white cinematography are both a joy to watch. Eventually, however, the way certain characters dropped out of the picture left me feeling suspended. The grifting medium and his relationship with Stanton could have filled an entire picture (although I admit being partial to John Carradine), but he leaves town before too much time has passed. Later, when Stella is murdered, it happens off screen, and just as I felt her relationship with Stanton was starting to get juicy. His romance with June and Stella could have formed the classic “good girl/bad girl” film noir tension, but his romance with June doesn’t really get started until Stella’s ticket has been punched, and once that happens, Fallen Angel becomes more of a melodrama than a noir. It’s also a mystery, since we don’t know who killed Stella, but this aspect of the film doesn’t come to much, as the second half focuses more on Stanton’s courtship of the sheltered, naïve June, and the question of whether or not he really loves her or is just out to fleece her. Meanwhile, most viewers will have the number of suspects in Stella’s murder narrowed down to two suspects, neither of whom is a more interesting culprit than the other.

I’m probably making Fallen Angel sound worse than it is. Many modern viewers consider it a lost classic of film noir, or just a really great film that has been overlooked. It’s worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of Preminger or any of the principal actors. I found it disappointing, but that might change years from now with a second viewing.

State Fair (Aug. 30, 1945)

StateFairState Fair was the first musical made specifically for film by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their two previous musical collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, were both stage productions. (Although both would eventually be made into films in the ’50s.) State Fair was based on a novel by Philip Stong that had previously been made into a non-musical film in 1933 with Will Rogers.

Margy Frake (Jeanne Crain) and her brother, Wayne (Dick Haymes), go to the Iowa State Fair with their parents (played by Fay Bainter and Charles Winninger) and their prize hog, Blue Boy. Margy and Wayne are both somewhat dissatisfied with their current significant others, and each find someone a whole lot more exciting at the fair; she a cavalier reporter played by Dana Andrews and he a flame-haired singer played by Vivian Blaine. Things go well for both, but can their love affairs outlast the fair?

Musically primitive and relentlessly cheery, State Fair injects life into its clichéd proceedings with charm, humor, and some cartoonishly outsized, Technicolor images of middle-American excess. And Andrews (who played the detective in the 1944 noir classic Laura) is rakishly charming, almost but not quite a thug, and always fun to watch.

The Southerner (April 30, 1945)

SouthernerFrench director Jean Renoir directed this adaptation of George Sessions Perry’s novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, which won the first National Book Award in 1941. (The novel was adapted by screenwriter Hugo Butler, with uncredited contributions from Nunnally Johnson and William Faulkner.)

Zachary Scott, in a role originally intended for Joel McCrea, plays a Texas cotton picker named Sam Tucker who decides he doesn’t want to be a sharecropper anymore. He wants to grow his own cotton, harvest it, and be responsible for his own destiny. So he buys a piece of land and a ramshackle little house, and moves his wife (played by Betty Field), his children, and their crotchety grandmother onto it. Once there, the Tuckers must valiantly struggle against nature, disease, and their fellow humans to make a go of it.

The Southerner received three Academy Award nominations, including one for best director. Renoir didn’t win, but he was named best director by the National Board of Review, which also named The Southerner the third best film of 1945, after the World War II documentary The True Glory and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (which won the Oscar for best picture). Despite all these accolades, I was lukewarm about this picture. Scott is good in his role. His acting is understated, and he embodies “quiet dignity.” J. Carrol Naish is also very good as the villain of the piece, Tucker’s neighbor who seeks to destroy Tucker merely because of his inchoate hatred for anyone who tries to rise from his station in life. In fact, all the actors are good, except for perhaps Beulah Bondi, who hams it up a bit as Granny, a prickly pear if ever there was one. (Also, it might be hard for modern viewers to see her sitting in her rocking chair in the bed of a slow-moving pickup truck along with all the family’s worldly possessions and not think of The Beverly Hillbillies, which is unfortunate, since this film strives to be a realistic human drama.) My tepid reaction to the film is not related to any of the particulars, but rather to the overall feeling I had at the end. I just felt as if something was missing. Some essential component that would make me care about the characters and their situation more than I did.

Renoir is today best known for his French-language films like Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), but he made a few English-language films besides this one. The first was Swamp Water (1941), which, like The Southerner, is about simple rural Americans. Perhaps my cool reaction to this film was due to the fact that I don’t find simple people as compelling as complicated people. Or maybe it’s just because the print I saw was kind of crummy. If the visual beauty of the countryside were allowed to shine through, maybe I would have liked it more. I’ve read that Renoir considered this his favorite American-made film. And, as I mentioned above, it was very successful with critics. So if this sounds like the kind of film you enjoy, then by all means you should see it. Meanwhile, I’ll be next door, watching a late ’40s film noir set in a big city about paranoid, sweaty people who aren’t quietly dignified in the slightest.