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Tag Archives: William Frawley

Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947)

When I was a kid, I briefly corresponded with Santa Claus. I’m not talking about the annual “letter to Santa” every kid writes, with a list of everything they want in their stocking that year. I dropped Santa a line in the off-season — June or July — and asked him how summers were at the North Pole, how Mrs. Claus and the elves were doing, and what his reindeer liked to eat.

I was eight or nine years old. I didn’t exactly believe in Santa Claus, but I liked the idea of him. Writing a letter to him felt good. And doing it in the summer made me feel unselfish.

I can’t remember if I was surprised or not when I received a response from Santa Claus.

It was a typewritten letter, and it was postmarked the North Pole. Santa thanked me for my letter, let me know what was going on at the North Pole, told me what his reindeer liked to eat, and told me that he liked my drawing of a train and said he assumed I must live near a railroad and that he sincerely hoped I stayed away from the railroad tracks. I didn’t quite understand that last part. There was a freight train that ran through town, but it wasn’t that close to my house, and I never hung out down there, and why wouldn’t Santa know that? Doesn’t he know everything? Surely “plays risky games on the train tracks” would’ve put me in the “naughty” column, wouldn’t it?

He ended the letter by saying that he thought the stamp I’d pasted to the front of the letter was awfully attractive, and asked if I’d ever considered stamp collecting as a hobby. He may have thrown in some stamps to get me started. I can’t remember.

I figured I should probably take Santa’s advice, so I got into stamp collecting and kept up the hobby for several years. It did occur to me that it was a little strange that the last place I saw my letter to Santa was sliding down the mail slot at the post office and that I got a response from some dude calling himself Santa who seemed to be really into philately. (That’s “stamp collecting” for all you non-philatelists out there.)

Around this time, one of my teenaged foster sister’s friends asked me if I believed in Santa Claus, and I responded, “I believe in the spirit of Christmas.”

Which brings me around (finally) to George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. It was just as funny and enjoyable as I remember it being. I found the scene in which Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) tells a shop owner that his store display features his reindeer in the wrong order more whimsical than factual this time around, and the scene in which we see a man in a chintzy Santa suit, drunk as a lord, really disturbed me when I was a kid. This time around, it was merely mildly amusing. (As a jaded adult, Santa Claus-related hijinks have to be a little more disturbing than public intoxication to get a rise out of me.)

Kris Kringle replaces the intoxicated Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and does such a good job that he’s hired as a store Santa. Unlike most department store Santas, he doesn’t shill for his employer. In his first day on the job at Macy’s, he sends a harried mother (Thelma Ritter) to Schoenfeld’s Department Store, which he says is the only place in town that has the toy her son wants. Kringle keeps a very close watch on the toy market, after all. She’s flabbergasted that a department store Santa would send her to a competitor, but she’s delighted, too, and Kringle’s helpfulness creates an enormous wave of good publicity for Macy’s.

The only problem is that Kris believes he really is Santa Claus, and tells everyone so. When the event director who hired him, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), finds out that he’s been filling the head of her six-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), full of such nonsense, she’s upset, and pulls his employment card. It lists his address as Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged, 126 Maplewood Drive, Great Neck, Long Island, but his date of birth says “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth,” under “place” he has written “North Pole,” and his eight tiny reindeer are listed as his next of kin.

Dr. Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris’s nursing home, assures Doris that Kris’s delusion is harmless, but a meddling little twit named Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who gives psychological evaluations to Macy’s employees conspires to have Kris committed.

In order to prove Kris’s sanity, his lawyer, Fred Gailey (John Payne), announces that he will in fact prove that Kringle is Santa Claus, and therefore not insane. It’s the trial of the century. A series of newspapers blare increasingly wild headlines, culminating in the ridiculous “Kris Kringle Krazy? Kourt Kase Koming ‘Kalamity!’ Kry Kiddies.” (A lot of people will tell you that puns are the lowest form of humor, but they’re not. Alliteration is.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction. Every character who has faith is rewarded, but there’s nothing in the film that’s overtly unreal. Doris and Fred find love with each other, and Susan’s only Christmas wish is fulfilled, but in a clever, roundabout way. (There’s no final shot of Kris Kringle shooting out of a chimney or anything.)

It was a little weird to watch this movie in springtime. It created the same type of cognitive dissonance as smelling turkey roasting in August, or attending a Fourth of July barbecue in November. I blame Daryl F. Zanuck, who insisted that the film be released in May, since he said that more people went to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. The studio kept the film’s Christmas theme a secret in its trailer. Also, you’ll note that the theatrical release poster above prominently features Payne and O’Hara, and Gwenn is not dressed up like Santa.

Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Adapted Screenplay (George Seaton), and Best Story (Valentine Davies). It won all of the Oscars it was nominated for except Best Picture, which went to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.

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Monsieur Verdoux (April 11, 1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
United Artists

Monsieur Verdoux, “a comedy of murders,” is a product of Charles Chaplin’s Frantic One-Man Band. Besides starring in the film, Chaplin is credited with directing the picture, writing the screenplay, producing the film, and writing the music. Orson Welles wrote the original script and was slated to direct Chaplin in the picture, but at the last minute, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else — he’d always been his own director in the past — and bought the script from Welles, crediting him with the “idea” for the film.

The film is based on the career of real-life murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1914 and 1918 seduced a number of women and murdered them after gaining access to their assets. He burned their dismembered bodies in his oven, disposing of them completely, which made prosecuting him a challenge after he was caught. A trail of paperwork and other evidence was enough to eventually convict him of 11 counts of murder (10 women and one of their teenaged sons), and he was executed on the guillotine in 1922.

In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a man named Henri Verdoux, who describes himself as an “honest bank clerk.” Honest, that is, until the Depression of 1930, at which point he began his new career, “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” He claims that he began his career as a Bluebeard strictly as a business proposition. This is utter claptrap, as is nearly every other word out of M. Verdoux’s mouth that isn’t plot-advancing dialogue, but we’ll get to that later.

The film takes place in 1932. M. Verdoux had a 30-year career in banking before he began his new career as a murderer, and with his dainty, foppish clothes he looks like a relic of another time. When the film begins, he is living in a villa in the south of France. He’s a tidy little man who loves to garden, but whose incinerator has been going full-blast for the past three days. He’s kind to animals, moving a caterpillar out of his way in the garden path and feeding a cat on the street. M. Verdoux is even a vegetarian.

He is also a lothario with an insatiable appetite for well-heeled widows. But this, M. Verdoux assures us, is just his day job. His heart belongs to his wheelchair-bound wife Mona (Mady Correll) and adorable little boy Peter (Allison Roddan). At home, M. Verdoux lectures Peter when he catches him pulling the cat’s tail that “violence begets violence.” He also tells his son that he has a mean streak. “I don’t know where you get it!” he exclaims.

Aside from the saintly Mme. Verdoux, nearly everyone in the film is a grotesque and obnoxious caricature. In this way, Monsieur Verdoux is a distillation of Chaplin’s career-long vacillation between sentimentality and cruelty. A perfect example of this is the scene in which M. Verdoux brings a girl in off the street to poison her, but thinks better of it after she speaks of how wonderful life can be, and how she loved her husband, crippled in the war. (The girl is played by 20-year-old ingenue Marilyn Nash.)

The few bits of physical comedy in the film are funny, but they’re mostly either too brief or out of character with the rest of the scene in which they take place. Several comedic scenes — such as when M. Verdoux and another man start slapping each other with rapid-fire speed, or when M. Verdoux is romancing the older woman who was going to buy his villa in the beginning of the film, and he’s moving ever closer to her on the couch — fade to black in a quick, unsatisfying way.

When Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin’s reputation was severely tarnished. He hadn’t made a film since The Great Dictator (1940), and he was under attack for both his Leftist political sympathies and his morals (he was the subject of a sensational paternity suit, and was a serial seducer of young women, many of them underage).

Chaplin and Nash

Monsieur Verdoux can be seen as a defiant stand against his critics. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and was a box office disaster in the United States when it was first released (it fared a bit better in Europe), but has built up quite a cult since it was re-released to receptive audiences in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of its release, however, it polarized critics. James Agee crowned it a masterpiece, and the National Board of Review named it the best English-language film of 1947. Others were less enthusiastic.

I think that Monsieur Verdoux is a deeply flawed film. Chaplin was the preeminent clown of the silent era. He wasn’t quite the master technician of hijinks that Buster Keaton was, but he was able to convey a panoply of emotions through his face and body. His films are not only some of the funniest of the silent era, but are emotionally affecting, too. The ending of City Lights (1931) is still one of the most powerful I have seen in any film.

When he was able to speak onscreen, however, Chaplin was a tedious hack who only thought he was profound. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t as crushingly pretentious and boring as his later film Limelight (1952), but it has its moments.

The end of Monsieur Verdoux is especially problematic. Speaking on his own behalf in court, M. Verdoux says, “I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

The problem with this is that the murders of dowdy and grotesque women that we’ve seen M. Verdoux carry out in the film are very different from the mass mechanized killing of the Great War or the genocidal horrors of World War II. They’re intimate crimes, carried out for personal gain, and occasionally hilarious, such as the sequence in which M. Verdoux is repeatedly foiled while attempting to drop a noose around one of his wives’ necks while they are out fishing. It would be one thing if Chaplin were presenting M. Verdoux’s crimes as symptoms of a sick society, but what he seems to be doing is using a sick society as a justification for M. Verdoux’s crimes.

Is M. Verdoux meant to be an unreliable narrator? Perhaps, but he never comes across that way. I think that Chaplin was simply too infatuated with himself to present M. Verdoux as anything but a lovable cad, which makes the entire film uncomfortable and off-putting in ways I’m not sure Chaplin ever intended.

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (Oct. 24, 1946)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s mystery programmer Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is yet another wacky outing with Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, M.D., Ph.D. (a.k.a. the Crime Doctor).

The Crime Doctor was a character created by Max Marcin for a Sunday-night mystery radio show that ran from 1940 to 1947 on CBS stations. Like a lot of radio detectives (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon), the Crime Doctor also got his own series of hour-long B movies.

In the first film in the series, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), a Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan survives a murder attempt, but suffers from complete amnesia, reinvents himself as “Robert Ordway,” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. His past eventually catches up with him, but everything works out all right, and he is able to continue being Dr. Ordway, putting crooks behind bars and helping the helpless.

Crime Doctor is one of the best films in the series. The subsequent films are all a lot of fun, but Dr. Ordway’s checkered past is rarely referred to. Baxter’s performance in the lead role is always top-notch, however, and most of the Crime Doctor pictures are a cut above most other mystery programmers from the ’40s.

In Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt, John Foster (Myron Healey), a young, pencil-mustachioed man suffering from “bomb shock and combat fatigue,” comes to see Dr. Ordway. He’s suffering from fugue states in which he wanders in a daze, always drawn to the same intersection, but he doesn’t know why, and never remembers how he got there. He could get treatment from the Army, but he doesn’t want his fiancée to know about his condition.

His fiancée, Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew), comes to see Dr. Ordway right afterward. (Foster’s attempts to conceal his condition from her were clearly in vain.) Dr. Ordway deflects her questions and tells her that he can’t violate any patient’s confidentiality.

As with most of the Crime Doctor films, things get loonier as the film goes on. We learn that Foster had his fortune cast during a “slumming party” downtown, and was told by a fortuneteller named “Alfredi” (real name “Alfred Hemstead,” played by Ivan Triesault) that he would meet his violent death on the corner of Garth and Davis streets, which is why he is continually drawn there.

There’s also a case of split personality, which I won’t say too much about in order not to give anything away. However, even the dimmer bulbs in the audience will see the “twist” ending coming from a mile away. I’m not even sure it was meant to be a surprise.

Ordway comments at the end of the film that this has been a strange case, first the fugue, then the split personality. “Doctor, I’d like you to come see my wife,” says Police Inspector Harry B. Manning (William Frawley). “Split personality?” asks the doctor. “No personality,” quips the inspector.

Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.

Lady on a Train (Aug. 17, 1945)

LadyOnATrainDeanna Durbin is an absolute delight in this farcical murder mystery. Durbin, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but never made a movie after 1948. (She currently lives in a small village in France, grants no interviews, and is reportedly very happy.) In Lady on a Train, she plays a young woman named Nicki Collins. When the film begins, Collins is sitting by herself in a compartment on a train entering New York on an elevated line. She has come from San Francisco to spend the holidays with her wealthy businessman father, and is currently engrossed in a mystery novel called The Case of the Headless Bride. When the train is briefly delayed, she looks out the window of her train car and witnesses a murder. Through a lighted window, she sees a young man beat an older man to death with a crowbar. She never sees the murderer’s face, however, and when she reports the murder to the police, the desk sergeant dismisses her report as the product of the overheated imagination of a girl who loves murder mysteries and can provide no real specifics of where she was when she saw the murder. Also, it’s Christmas Eve, and who want to traipse around looking for a murder that may or may not have occurred somewhere in Manhattan north of Grand Central Station?

Undeterred, Collins calls up Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), the author of the mystery novel she was reading, and insinuates herself into his life, much to Morgan’s fiancée’s chagrin. After interrupting Morgan on a date at the movies, Collins see the murder victim in a newsreel, and identifies him as Josiah Waring, a shipping magnate. She heads to the Waring estate, where she is mistaken for Circus Club singer Margo Martin, who was Waring’s girlfriend. This allows her to sit in on the reading of Waring’s will, which leaves $1 to his nephew Arnold (Dan Duryea), $1 to his nephew Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy), and the rest of his substantial fortune to Martin.

Sure enough, Collins discovers that Martin has been murdered, throwing suspicion on the Arnold nephews and putting her in a tight spot, since she’s now performing at the club as the murdered girl.

DurbinLady on a Train is part mystery, part musical, part noir, part comedy, and part romance. The most surprising thing about this movie is that each element works perfectly, and they all complement one another. (Calling this film a noir is stretching it, but the final chase in a warehouse contains some striking chiaroscuro shot constructions, and is as tense as one could ask for.) Lady on a Train is also a delight for Durbin fetishists, since she has a different outfit and hairstyle in literally every scene. Sometimes the changes are subtle, but occasionally they’re impossible to miss, such as the scene in which she comes in out of the rain and is suddenly wearing gravity-defying, Pippi Longstocking-style braided pigtails.

Durbin made her film debut in Three Smart Girls (1936) at the age of 14. Apparently she was so popular that she singlehandedly saved Universal Pictures from financial ruin. Here, at the age of 23, she’s a joy to watch. Unlike a lot of former teen stars, she reached maturity while retaining all of her youthful charm, without ever seeming childish or forced.