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Tag Archives: Selena Royle

Courage of Lassie (Nov. 8, 1946)

Pal rides again! In Fred M. Wilcox’s Courage of Lassie, the irrepressible little scamp from whose seed all dogs who ever played Lassie are descended plays an orphaned collie. The little guy is left behind in an idyllic, Technicolor wilderness after the old fisherman who owns Lassie rows off with her and what he thinks are all of her puppies.

There follows a delightful montage of the little collie frolicking in the woods for days with birds, other four-legged beasties, and even a big black bear. This being a kid’s movie, however, you can be sure that gut-wrenching tragedy is right around the corner. Sure enough, the collie puppy and his little fox friend are caught in stormy rapids, and the fox is washed away, presumably to his death. The puppy, balanced on a tangle of branches, safely makes it to shore. Seemingly unfazed by his little buddy’s demise, the puppy’s next move is to happily run off with Elizabeth Taylor’s pants, and a lifelong bond is formed.

Taylor was 14 years old when she appeared in this film. Just like Pal, she’s playing a different role than she played in the film Lassie Come Home (1943). I think Taylor was a fantastic child actor. Just like in National Velvet (1944), she takes material that could be laughable or treacly and performs it with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along. As Kathie Merrick, she believes in her dog, whom she names “Bill,” even though her family doesn’t think he has what it takes to be a sheep-herding dog.

By the end of the film Bill will prove that he not only has “the right stuff” in the pasture, but that he can be drafted and serve under heavy fire just like any other red-blooded American boy.

Bill goes through a lot in this film. He’s shot by a couple of dopey young hunters with quick trigger fingers, he’s run over by a truck while herding sheep across the road (and carried off by the well-meaning driver who doesn’t realize Bill belongs to someone), he’s renamed “Duke” at Dr. Colman’s Dog and Cat Hospital in the big city, and he’s trained for war and shipped off to the Aleutians to fight the Japanese.

“Duke” performs bravely despite a bloody neck wound, dragging himself through the mud to deliver a message, then leading the reinforcements back to the troops. He saves the day, but suffers from shell shock. He escapes the train that is taking him home and runs off into the area of the country where he remembers being with Kathie. Unfortunately, his PTSD has taken a toll, and he lives as a feral animal, raiding hen houses and killing local livestock. Kathie saves him from a farmer’s bullet, but he’s still put on trial as a mad dog.

Things look pretty grim for Bill until Harry MacBain (Frank Morgan, who played Prof. Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz) makes an impassioned plea for understanding. This is the most interesting part of the film, since MacBain has looked up Bill’s war record, and his speech is a thinly veiled reference to human veterans who may be acting differently after their service overseas. Violent, antisocial behavior and drastic personality changes can be a byproduct of serving in combat, he says, and we on the homefront shouldn’t be so quick to judge our returning veterans. Even if they’re not lovable border collies.

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Night and Day (Aug. 3, 1946)

If you’re looking for a biopic about Cole Porter that tells the real story of his life, Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day is not for you. If, however, you’re merely looking for a sumptuous Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Cary Grant with great songs throughout, then it fits the bill.

The film was made with Porter’s supervision and full approval, so failures early in his career are blamed on everything but mediocre songwriting and production, and questions about his sexuality are never addressed.

The more recent Porter biopic, De-Lovely (2004), which starred Kevin Kline, implied that he was bisexual, but plenty of other sources claim he was gay, which makes more sense. His 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas was successful, if sexless, but all that means is that the two shared a genuine friendship and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, the seamier details of Porter’s parties during his time in Paris in 1917 and 1918 — “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs” — wouldn’t have been appropriate material for a Hollywood production in the ’40s, even if Porter had been completely open about them.

Porter was an undeniably great songwriter — and one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to write both music and lyrics — but even here the movie sanitizes things, since Porter’s lyrics were notoriously risqué. For instance, when the song “Let’s Do It” is played, you’ll heard about how “educated fleas” do it, but nothing about how roosters do it “with a doodle and a cock.” And musically, Ray Heindorf’s orchestrations tend toward the saccharine. By the end of the picture I felt as if I’d heard the same piece played over and over again.

Some of the whitewashing in Night and Day is purely ridiculous, though. Why was Porter’s first Broadway production, See America First, which was written with his Yale classmate Monty Woolley, a flop? Not because it was a critical disaster, according to this movie, but because the opening night crowd was drawn out into the streets by late-edition newspapers carrying word of the Lusitania sinking. Never mind that in real life, the New York American called the play a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” In the world of Night and Day its failure was wholly due to a disaster outside of Woolley and Porter’s control. (Incidentally, Woolley plays himself in Night and Day, but perhaps owing to his age, his character is recast as one of Porter’s Yale professors instead of his contemporary.)

While there is no intimation that Porter may have ever produced mediocre work, there are gay undertones in the picture, if you care to look for them. Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife Linda spends a lot of the film looking dissatisfied and neglected. And the dramatic arc hits its climax at the 90-minute mark when Cole and Linda are pulled apart by the pressures of success. “You’ve put me in a small corner of your life, and every once in awhile you turn around and smile at me,” she tearfully tells him. In the film, their marital difficulties are resolved, but in an unconvincing, wordless final scene.

While the drama of Night and Day may be dishonest, the music is not, and it’s a great-looking movie.

The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.