I’m dedicating this week of films to my long-time friend Barry Chapman. Barry was a director on the board of Toronto Film Society for many, many years and was always involved in the programming. The last time I spoke with him was just after the TFS screening on December 8th and he died in the early hours of the morning on the 14th. If there’s a movie house in an afterlife, I’m sure that’s where Barry will be.
We had two Toronto Film Society screenings this week programmed by Barry, the first being held on Monday, December 2nd. It was a holiday-themed double bill more or less, and I had never seen either.
The first film was the British The Holly and the Ivy (1952) directed by George More O’Ferrall, featuring a talented cast including Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson, Margaret Leighton, Denholm Elliott and John Gregson. Family-related as all holiday stories tend to be, this one begins when a Reverend’s daughter, Jenny Gregory (Celia Johnson) reluctantly mails invitations to her two siblings and two aunts to join her and her father for Christmas. Jenny has a beau, David Paterson (John Gregson), and he is very insistent that they marry so that she can follow him to another part of the world where he has a job waiting. But Jenny is determined not to leave her father alone, imagining that he needs someone to take care of him, no matter the cost to her happiness.
What was interesting to me, of course, is the ages of the people involved. Jenny and David stated that their ages were 31 and 35 respectively (I’m going by memory, but it was something similar to that). Until more recently, people always looked at least their age if not older in early and mid-20 century film. But I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that Jenny was 31 and later, when I looked up to see how old Celia Johnson was, well, she was 44. If her more glamorous older sister Margaret (Margaret Leighton) was also supposed to look younger, then she certainly did–and was, by about 14 years. So drink, being a key factor in the story, didn’t hurt Margaret, and the lack of drinking any didn’t help Jenny.
Ralph Richardson is always, always brilliant. Besides being a most natural actor, he is so subtle, nuanced and realistic in everything he says and does. Nowadays, the secrets in the story are far from shocking, but they would have been more so in 1952. Yet, the things that happened to these people who lived through the War are things that could easily have been as common then as they are now.
This would have been a very early film for Denholm Elliott who looked incredibly young at the age of 30. Although today I think most people know that Elliott was gay, during his life he was privately bisexual and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis at the age of 70. He had been married twice, first to Virginia McKenna most famous for Born Free (1966) which she starred in with her second and last husband, Bill Travers. Elliott’s second marriage was to Susan Robinson, director, producer and writer of the documentary Building Bombs (1989). This marriage lasted until his death in October 1992, producing two children.
The second film of the evening was the little-seen Come to the Stable (1949) directed by Henry Koster, featuring Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Elsa Lanchester, Thomas Gomez, Dooley Wilson and Regis Toomey.
Apparently, this story by Clare Boothe Luce was based on true events but because it works out too perfectly, you have to wonder where the embellishments lie. American Sister Margaret (Loretta Young) living in France during the War and Sister Scholastica (Celeste Holms, with the most adorable French accent) have come to the New England town of Bethlehem, America (where else?) to fulfill a promise sister Margaret made to God during the War to build a hospital. There is no obstacle that can stand in the way of the building of this children’s hospital nor stop the positive determination of these two women. They choose the land. It is owned, by a gangster no less. Surprise, the gangster donates the land, with a stipulation.
Racketeer Luigi Rossi is played by a favourite of mine, Thomas Gomez. Just this past season, I had seen Gomez in several films: Phantom Lady (1944), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and Force of Evil (1948). In April, I will be seeing him in The Sellout (1952). A very versatile actor, able to play men of many ethnicities; here, he’s a likable but not-so-good Italian. It’s always funny that when criminals are religious, they don’t necessarily mind murder; but heck, don’t mess with those nuns!
After the land gets donated, our nuns have to tangle with the neighbour, songwriter Robert Mason (Hugh Marlowe, Celeste Holme’s husband in All About Eve  which they made just three films later). He likes the nuns but doesn’t want his quiet, rural neighbourhood to become noisy through the construction period and busy with people. He has a houseman who tends to his indoor and outdoor needs played by Dooley Wilson (from Casablanca fame) who adds a little comic relief. Canadian-born Dorothy Patrick plays singer Kitty Blaine, Mason’s girlfriend. One of my favourite scenes is when the nuns make a bet with Mason about something or other that will move them closer to their goal. The bet is made in the form of a tennis match with Sister Scholastica playing in a double’s match against Mason’s friends. It appears that in a previous life to becoming a nun, the Sister was an Olympic tennis pro!
I always look forward to a film with Elsa Lanchester. Here, she has the very, very small role as the reluctant landlady, at least at first, Amelia Potts.
Not always like real life but certainly like Hollywood films from certain eras, all goes according to God’s plan. One lesson from viewing this film is possibly learning to stay calm and stifle disappointment because, apparently, there is always some sort of solution to a problem.
The second double bill on December 8th was a complete surprise for me. I was looking forward to the second film, They Shall Have Music (1939), but didn’t think I was going to care much for the first film that day, Metropolitan (1935). I do like classical music, but once there is opera thrown in, I just hear it as out-of-tune singing. I believe Barry loved films most of all, but he was also a connoisseur of theatre, symphony and opera, so this day’s choice of films was certainly a combination of all things that meant a great deal to him. Directed by Richard Boleslawski, the voice of opera singer Lawrence Tibbett was really spectacular. Tibbett does not have the looks of a matinee idol, even at times crinkling his face up to resemble a curmudgeon, but had a personality you couldn’t help but like. Perhaps the arias went on a bit too long if you weren’t an opera buff, but for any novice like myself, his interpretations were informative.
Virginia Bruce played his love interest. She plays Anne Merril, also an opera singer, but every time you felt as if she was going to sing, something interfered. I thought that since Virginia was not known to be a singer, that this was the studio’s way of allowing you to assume she was, but that she just didn’t need to perform to convince you. Then suddenly, when you expected another interruption to happen once again, lo and behold, Miss Bruce sang. And what a surprise! The New York Times review of the day stated that she did her own singing! She was very good.
It has a strong supporting cast including Cesar Romero, Luis Alberni, George Marion Sr. in his last film (he played Greta Garbo’s father in Anna Christie ), Walter Brennan (who will have a feature role in the next film of the day) and Jane Darwell. But the icing on the cake was Alice Brady’s narcissistic, over-the-top, flutter-brained diva, making this musical tale worth the price of admission.
The final film screened was the above-mentioned They Shall Have Music which I was keen to see. Directed by Archie Mayo, it’s the story of a young teenager who just manages to dodge the reform school system by most of all surprising himself when he becomes interested in classical music. We discover there is a latent interest bred by his biological father, and now specifically the violin, after seeing Jascha Heifetz perform in concert.
Frankie (Gene Reynolds), a young kid on his way to becoming a hoodlum along with his buddies, including Terry Kilburn as Limey, who had previously played Tiny Tim in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol and a number of the Colley boys in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), runs away from home. Both parents are unable to deal with this troubled, disobedient boy, as his mother (Marjorie Main in a role completely different from any I’ve ever seen her play) is too lenient while his step-father (Arthur Hohl) is severe and intolerant. Frankie finds compassion at a musical school for poor children run by Professor Lawson (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Ann (Andrea Leeds) when they take to this boy with the rare ability of perfect pitch under their wing. There is much havoc happening throughout the story which keep the characters busy working on their goal of keeping the school afloat. Joel McCrea is almost not needed in this film as his minor role is the love interest for Ann, while his major role is to relieve Frankie of a needed errand here and there when Frankie’s too busy doing something else. Porter Hall plays Mr. Flower, the “heavy”!
Walter Brennan is truly remarkable in his role as the man who runs the musical school. He doesn’t come across as a pushover, yet you know he’s a man who cares deeply about his students and the importance of why his music school needs to exist.
Another relationship that has some deeper relevance is the connection between Frankie and his step-father. Even though we don’t know exactly how long they’ve had a father/son relationship, you can understand the frustration this man has with a delinquent boy who not only does what he wants without any regard to the people who take care of him, but who is surly, rude and is constantly caught stealing. It is further frustrating to him that his wife, who it appears he loves, is always making lame excuses for her son. But what isn’t so clear is why the father has a meltdown when he discovers Frankie with a violin, learning to play. Is it because he knows it’s an instrument they can’t afford and automatically assumes it was stolen? Is it that he dislikes the boy so much by this point that he begrudges him anything he takes an interest in? How does it help in any way the destruction of the instrument? Still, in the final scene of the film, it was surprising, yet hopeful, to see the parents sitting on either side of their son. You hope that some deep-felt revelations might have brought these people closer together.
Most boys’ best friend is their dog and Frankie is no exception. When a hungry dog becomes enamoured of him, Frankie eventually has no choice but to adopt the stray, naming him “Sucker”. That’s how I felt every time I became emotional. I just found the film so touching.
The Peter Meremblum California Junior Symphony Orchestra was featured as the school’s ensemble, with highlighted performances by the truly talented singer Jaqueline Nash and child pianist, Mary Ruth.
What I noticed as well was that the associate producer was Robert Riskin, mostly known for writing many a screenplay including such famous ones as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Lost Horizon (1937). He was married to Fay Wray from August 1942 until his death on September 20, 1955 and I read the book his daughter Victoria Riskin wrote about her parents, Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir after meeting her at Capitolfest in 2018. Perhaps because he himself was an intellect from New York, he had an affinity for this story written by German-born Irma von Cube and famous member of the Hollywood 10, John Howard Lawson.
I found an article from the Motion Picture Daily dated July 17, 1939 relaying how press agent Ben Washer made this film available to be shown to more than 1,500 inmates at Sing Sing State Prison during their recreational hours. Except for only two people, the rest of the men stayed for the entire movie. It would have been interesting to find out what some of those individuals thought of the storyline.
So Barry, my friend, thank you for choosing these four films which I had never seen before. I look forward to viewing the rest of the films you programmed for Toronto Film Society’s 72nd Season!