Films I’ve Watched in 2021: Part 2

Covid isn’t over but at least our lockdown is.  I’ve been busy like crazy at work.  A good thing—now I can actually look forward to my time off.

The last film I watched was Too Many Girls (1940), a DVD that had been sitting on my shelf for years.  My sister asked to see something with Lucille Ball and I wanted to show her something when she was young.  I have many of her early films where her appearance is so minor you could blink and miss her, such as The Bowery, Broadway Thru a Keyhole, Blood Money, Roman Scandals (as a naked Goldwyn Girl), Nana, Murder at the Vanities, and it wasn’t until 1937 that she started getting roles where her characters actually had names.  She’s absolutely beautiful in both Five Came Back (1939), a good film directed by John Farrow, and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) directed by Dorothy Arzner with Ball being the best thing in it, so thought it would be good to see something in the same time frame and finally see the film where she and Desi Arnaz met.

It’s a fairly ridiculous story of four college football players (Richard Carlson, Eddie Bracken, Hal LeRoy and Desi Arnaz), deciding on which college to honour with their expertise when it’s decided for them by Lucy’s father Harry Shannon when he hires these four young men to be the secret bodyguards of his wayward daughter.  Connie (Lucy) has decided to go to college, choosing her father’s alma mater, Pottawatomie College.  Connie of course has ulterior motives, the motive being the rich Beverly Waverly (Douglas Walton) who she meets up with every free moment when not studying calculus.  Suffice to say, she falls in love with Clint Kelly (Richard Carlson), unbeknownst to her as one of her bodyguards, and you can guess the rest. 

There were a number of things, though, that made this film interesting.  It fell into the musical category and was directed by George Abbott, and even though he only directed 15 films most of which I had seen, he was responsible for the still majorly famous The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958).  Besides these directorial credits, he wrote plenty of screenplays including many for 1930 films such as All Quiet on the Western Front (directed by Lewis Milestone who won the Academy Award for Best Director), The Sea God (with Fay Wray and Richard Arlen, directed by Abbott), My Sin (with Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, also directed by Abbott), Lilly Turner (with married couple Ruth Chatterton and George Brent, directed by William A. Wellman), and Three On a Horse (with Joan Blondell, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and from Abbott’s own play).  He also directed three 1931 pre-Code favourites, Stolen Heaven, Secrets of a Secretary, and The Cheat.

Since this is a musical with songs written by Rodgers and Hart, Lucille Ball sings three (if I counted correctly) songs.  Of course, this couldn’t be nasally Lucy singing, and if my research is correct, she lip-synced to Trudy Erwin’s lovely voice.  And letting you know off the bat it’s a musical, the film opens with a bunch of young footballers singing with a very young Van Johnson front row and centre during the credits.  Although likeable, I’ve never found Johnson all that attractive, but here at the age of 24 he was young and cute, dancing with some crazy abandonment in the final frenzied dance scene.

There was Eddie Bracken, who I had just seen earlier in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), certainly a film he is much more famous for.  Although all four main bodyguards are a bit goofy, Bracken is probably the least, more the “brains” behind any of their ideas.  Richard Carlson, the main bodyguard and the one that Connie falls for, was someone I didn’t know.  But I did know Hal LeRoy, one of the few well-known Caucasian tap dancers from the 1930s, someone I knew from the “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” fantasy sequence in Wonder Bar (1934), certainly one of the most outrageous pre-Code films and a favourite of mine.  Then there was 23-year-old Desi.  I had never seen him look so utterly young and, dare I again say, cute.  We can see how his conga talents led him to becoming Ricky Ricardo.

Another additional perk was Ann Miller, a wickedly sexy and fabulous dancer.  There was vocalist Frances Langford in a significant role and the prolific Grady Sutton in a minor role as the football coach.

Is the film worth watching?  With all these ingredients meshing, and if you like at least two of them, I say it is.

I had been as usual adding notes to the Toronto Film Society (TFS) website, ones for the 1970 Summer Series when they were showcasing Preston Sturges’s films.  I decided to watch The Great McGinty (1940) realizing I had never seen it before.  A satiric political-corruption comedy, you realize things that people continue to worry about are as old as the hills.

Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy) no longer lives in the good old USA.  He is bartender at some tropical island watering hole where he meets Tommy Thompson (Louis Jean Heydt) who has been saved from committing suicide by a dancer (Steffi Duna).  He tells the two his story in the hopes of helping Thompson realize his one ethical breach shouldn’t put an end to his world.  And this is his story…

Just coming out of The Great Depression, you meet hobo Dan McGinty at a soup kitchen run by Skeeters, “The Politician” (William Demarest).  He offers McGinty the chance to make $2 for every fraudulent vote he can muster up for Mayer Wilfred Tillinghast (Arthur Hoyt) in his USA town.  It’s easy pickings for McGinty and he comes back with something like 38 tickets, having voted all over town using what seems to be mostly names of people who have retired from life.  Since Skeeters doesn’t carry that kind of money on him, he brings McGinty to meet The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) who runs the politics in this, and probably other, towns.  The two men never allow the other to get the upper hand, brawling it out when the disagreements get too vocal.  But that doesn’t stop The Boss from raising McGinty from political position to position, from Alderman (okay, don’t quote me), to Mayor (replacing Tillinghast) to Governor of their fine State.  Along the way, it’s decided it would be wise if pre-Mayoral McGinty find a wife, which would help him get the female vote, and he and his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) make a platonic deal.  He knows she was married previously to a man who was killed in action, but she somehow neglected to mention that she had two children from this marriage.  It doesn’t faze McGinty for longer than a second or two, and you know with the chemistry between the two where this will lead. 

Where everything falls apart is when McGinty decides to end his corrupt ways by separating from The Boss.  Thus the tropical island.  The fun is in how he got there…and who he’s taken along with him.

I enjoyed Brian Donlevy’s likeable yet brutish McGinty.  I was even more intrigued to see how Akim Tamiroff would come off playing the totally corrupt Boss.  He didn’t disappoint with his ability to portray a man who reeks with uneducated suaveness.  There’s a small role for another film favourite, Esther Howard.

So who is this Muriel Angelus?  With only 19 credits to her name and most of her films being made in her home country of Britain, Muriel first began her professional career as a singer.  She started in films near the end of the silent era, coming to the States to appear on Broadway, most coincidentally in Abbott, Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse.  Reminding me very much of a somewhat comedic Greer Garson, possibly due to how she was directed in this film, The Great McGinty was her very last film role.  She had one more Broadway hit with Early to Bed and retired entirely after meeting then marrying Radio City Music Hall orchestra conductor Paul Lavalle to focus on raising their daughter.  She died in August, 2004 at the age of 95.

TFS set up a virtual screening of D.O.A. (1949) several nights ago.  If you haven’t seen this Film Noir, it’s certainly one that is worthwhile but best if you can find a good print.  It’s the story of a man who reports a murder—his own.  The story is then told in flashback with more detail than you would need to know if you were the detective in charge.  Regardless, it’s a compelling story, that keeps you on your toes until close to the end.  And there’s more than one murder along the way, you satisfactorily realize. 

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is the victim and he and we have no idea why.  He’s off to San Francisco to speak with a client, Philips, only to discover he has committed suicide.  And that’s when the story takes off.  What is kind of funny is the side story.  Paula (Pamela Britton), is his secretary and she makes no bones about the fact that she’s in love with Bigelow and wants him to marry her.  Frank sidesteps her while still trying to keep her hopes up, but as soon as he gets to his San Francisco hotel, he starts to party with the people in the room across from him who are part of a large convention the hotel is housing.  He goes bar hoping with some of the women, listens to a cool jazz band, becoming interested in a rich barfly.  That’s where his troubles begin.  He eventually figures out that’s where the poisoning took place, although it’s never quite clear how he’d been followed there by the culprit.

Frank is promiscuous and the women appear a bit desperate, wanting to hook a husband.  Once Frank knows he’s terminally ill, his thoughts on love change and you get the impression that he thinks he might not have gotten into this horrible fix if he had done the right thing by Paula.  For instance, did Frank really have to go to San Francisco in the first place? But that may be only wishful thinking on his part as Frank certainly liked playing the field.  

It all comes to a satisfactory ending for us even if it didn’t end well for Bigelow. His death moment is rather strange, that it takes you aback.  The film was directed by Rudolph Maté who started off his film career as a cinematographer, then graduated to director in 1947.  Originally from Austria-Hungary, he acted as cameraman for many famous European directors such as Alexander Korda, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Fritz Lang and producer Erich Pommer, coming to Hollywood sometime around 1935.  D.O.A. was his third film as director and he used the talents of Ernest Laszlo behind the camera who filmed the exciting, almost raw street scenes. 

I screened Lili (1953) for my sister, a film I remember liking as a child, showing it once to my kids along the way, still finding it charming at this last viewing.  It’s directed by Charles Walters and although I’m not familiar with his name, it turns out I’ve seen a number of his films, mostly musicals, such as Easter Parade, Easy to Love and High SocietyLili is really quite a gem.  It features Leslie Caron in an early role as an naïve, awkward 16-year-old orphan who travels to a small French town in hopes of finding work and a home with her father’s baker friend and family.  Unfortunately, he has died too, and Lili is saved from molestation by another shop owner when charismatic magician Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont) enters the store.  She immediately falls in love with him, following him to the carnival where he works.  Marc loves women but he does his level best not to take advantage of the situation, finding Lili a job as a waitress in the carnival’s café.  Things don’t go well for Lili when she’s fired and turned away by Marc, and she contemplates suicide.  Here is where the magic begins. 

Okay, this may not sound like a film for children, but trust me, children won’t really understand the subtleties behind some of the goings on, instead relating to the childlike innocence of Lili, the puppets, the magic and the beautiful carnival sets.

Lili grows up with the help of the marionettes that were created by puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Mel Ferrer).  Paul had been a well-known dancer but was wounded in the War and as a result, he had to find another artistic outlet.  He’s wonderful with Lili when the puppets talk to her, but a misery when it’s just plain him.  Caron is so naturally wonderful when she’s conversing with the puppets, you forget that you are watching someone who is actually acting; she’s able to make you believe the puppets are real beings.

The film is shot in Technicolor by Robert Planck and its truly breathtaking.  The fantasy shots are beautiful, and Caron has her chance at dancing in them, something that Lili can’t do, but that Caron is extremely capable of.

Besides the lovely Leslie and the handsome Ferrer and Aumont, there’s the spectacular Zsa Zsa Gabor as Marc’s assistant Rosalie.  Regardless of whether Zsa Zsa was a great actress—or not—she was pretty striking just to look at, specifically in Technicolor.

The last film I want to mention viewing was The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943), also a film I showed my sister.  We needed something funny to watch and there’s nothing better than the (almost) opening scene in this Preston Sturges film—and that’s Betty Hutton lip-syncing to one of the records in the phonograph store she works in.

The film opens up with some wild goings-on, news that we don’t quite follow, but we’re all in on the in-joke with Donlevy and Tamiroff reprising their roles as McGinty and The Boss, bpth in top form, rattling off the “outlandish” news to the rest of the world.  Then flashback to what happened.

Norville (Eddie Bracken), since grade school, has always been in love with Trudy (Betty Hutton).  He’s a schnook but he proves to be Trudy’s schnook and she grows to love him for just being there for her.  Trudy’s father is loud-mouthed constable Edmund Kockenlocker (William Demarest) and no matter how much he yells, his daughters Trudy and 14-year-old Emmy (Diana Lynn) run circles around him.  Trudy appears to be somewhat afraid of what her father will think or do, at least for a second or two, while Emmy has a smart-aleck comeback for anything her father can throw at her. 

Trudy wants to go to the party that is being thrown for the soldiers heading off to war.  Her father doesn’t want her to go.  So what’s a girl to do?  Why not ask her devoted friend Norville to take her to the movies, then when they get there, convince him he’s doing his patriotic duty by sitting through three features while she head’s off in his car to the party.  And of course, the pushover complies. 

How does Sturges get around the censorship code in 1943?  He simply throws in one-liners referring to marriage, simple moments when a head gets bumped in lieu of alcohol being consumed, and voila, Trudy is in the family way in more ways than one.  And that’s where the fun continues.

That’s about all I’m giving away to those of you who haven’t seen the film.  There are a few historical moments such as a newspaper headline along the lines of “Canada is Not Happy” which makes sense if one remembers the Dionne Quintuplets.  The dialogue is fast and snappy, with phrases such as “zipper puss”, and throw-away lines such as “half-a-dozen daughters” by Mr. Kockenlocker. 

It has to be one of my favourite Sturges films.

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