Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Blogathon for RANDOLPH SCOTT: Hangman's Knot (1952)

The camera introduces us to a gang of sun baked, desperate men in a rocky terrain.  Weary, tough and determined, young and afraid, thoroughly absorbed in the task at hand.  It is obvious that this is dangerous business and many will die this day.  The credits alert us that we are watching Hangman's Knot, a Columbia release produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott, written and directed by Roy Huggins.  Hold onto your hats, once the physical and emotional action begins, it does not let up.

Scott is Confederate Major Matt Stewart and he leads his men, dressed as civilians, on a mission to rob gold being transported by Union soldiers.  The Confederates are successful in their ambush only to learn that their timing is off; the war is over and theirs was the losing side.  When the advance scout, Captain Peterson played by Glen Langan (Dragonwyck, Margie), admits he knew in advance of the ambush that the war was over he is shot by the volatile Rolph Bainter played by Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, Point Blank).  This was the first of three movies Marvin made with Randolph Scott followed by The Stranger Wore a Gun and Seven Men from Now.  Trouble always seems to come from Lee Marvin.  Frank Faylen (It's a Wonderful Life, TVs The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) plays Cass Browne, a man of infinitely more stability and a wry observer.  John Call (Don't Bother to Knock, The Anderson Tapes) plays Egan Walsh who does his duty.  18-year-old Claude Jarmin Jr. (Intruder in the Dust, Rio Grande) plays young Jamie Groves who does a lot of growing up in a short time.

Randolph Scott, Claude Jarmin Jr.

Major Stewart agrees with his men that they have fought for the gold and it is theirs, but instead of keeping it for themselves it should be used to help rebuild the South.  The new plan is thwarted by men and events.  The men are a posse led by Ray Teal (The Best Years of Our Lives, TVs Bonanza) as Quincy and they are in search of the fugitives not for retribution or a cause, but to claim the loot for themselves.  Circumstances force the gang to hijack a stagecoach and hold its passengers and way station keepers hostage as they battle the murderous posse and each other (Remember, trouble always seems to come from Lee Marvin.).

Donna Reed, Randolph Scott

The hostages which complicate the already perilous situation are a Union nurse Molly Hull played by Donna Reed.  Miss Reed began her movie career at MGM and in ten years had grown from a charming ingenue to a versatile leading lady.  Her professionalism and chemistry with co-star Randolph Scott adds much to Hangman's Knot made a year prior to her Oscar winning role in From Here to Eternity and a half dozen years before conquering television with The Donna Reed Show (four Emmy nominations, one Golden Globe win).

Claude Jarmin Jr., Clem Begans, Jeanette Nolan

Richard Denning (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Glass Key) plays Lee Kemper, a schemer with little backbone, but crucial knowledge.  The station agent Plunkett is played by old timer Clem Bevans (The Yearling, Portrait of Jennie), a man who has seen a thing or two.  Plunkett's daughter Mrs. Harris is played by Jeanette Nolan (The Big Heat, MacBeth).  Her character's heart has been hardened by loss.

Claude Jarmin Jr., Randolph Scott, Jeanette Nolan
Clem Bevans, Richard Denning, Donna Reed, Frank Faylen

The tension builds between both sides and within the camps as the Southerners are trapped by men as daring as themselves.  The interplay between the fine actors with their sparse and well-written characters is intriguing and riveting viewing.  Bold action and that thing we call Fate will have to combine if there is any chance for Major Stewart and those he leads and protects.

Roy Huggins
1914 - 2002

Roy Huggins was a working screenwriter at Columbia with seven credits to his name including Too Late for Tears and The Lady Gambles, and Hangman's Knot was his directorial debut.  The film was well received by critics and fans, and Huggins was offered directing contracts from Scott-Brown and Columbia which were turned down.  Huggins is quoted in Robert Nott's Last of the Cowboy Heroes (published 2000) as saying "I directed Hangman's Knot just to prove I could do it, so directors wouldn't talk down to me.  I wanted to produce and write, not direct, and when I told Harry Cohn that, he said 'Every son of a bitch in this town wants to direct, and you don't'."  The well-paced adventure film shows directing promise, although one might quibble about the filming of the stunt double in the fight scene, but it is still a good fight.  In the long run, fans of Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, etc. are happy Mr. Huggins was true to himself.

Randolph Scott
1898 - 1987

Our star Randolph Scott devoted his screen career to westerns from 1948 on and they are a most interesting grouping of medium budgeted, well-crafted films that showcase an actor/star whose command of his abilities and persona improved with age and whose popularity as a top western star is legendary.

A click on this enticing banner will lead you to a world of Randolph Scott films and fans as hosted by Toby Roan of 50 Westerns From The 50s.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: The Stranger's Return (1933)

"Coming home to a place he's never been before"
- Rocky Mountain High, John Denver

Miriam Hopkins stars as Louise Storr in The Stranger's Return.  The movie was adapted by Phil Strong (State Fair) from his novel and directed by King Vidor (The Crowd).  It is the story of finding yourself and believing in who you found.

Louise was born in New York City, bred for the city, lived the life of a city girl.  Louise was married and separated in the city.  Worn out by the city, and the Great Depression, Louise arrives at Storr Haven, the Iowa farm her father left years ago after a fight with his own father.  She's a stranger, yet she's coming home.

Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Hopkins
Grandpa Storr and Louise

Grandpa:  "I'd rather spend two minutes doing the things I want to do than a hundred years doing the things I don't want to do."

Louise forms an immediate bond with her 85-year-old grandfather played by Lionel Barrymore.  The Storr's are fighters; clear-eyed cynics who bury their sentiment deep.  Louise and Grandpa are cut from the same cloth.  They are two souls that were meant to be together.  For many years Grandpa has lived on the farm, only leaving once as a Union soldier in the Civil War.  He spends his days among strangers, for the folks he shares the farm with are not related by blood.  They are nieces by marriage as in the case of bossy Beatrice played by Beulah Bondi, a step-daughter, Thelma played by Aileen Carlyle, from one of his marriages and her husband Allen played by Grant Mitchell.  If they care for Grandpa it is secondary to his role as a provider.

Aileen Carlyle, Miriam Hopkins, Beulah Bondi
Thelma Redfield, Louise Storr, Beatrice Storr

Thelma:  "If you want to go back now, dear, we would see that you had enough to begin again.  Otherwise, I think you may get invitations to leave from outsiders.

Louise:  "That's what I just had."

Louise's arrival at Storr Haven is cause for major concern among the Storr relatives, spurred by Beatrice's fear of losing her position on the farm and what she sees as her rightful inheritance.  Louise makes it easy for the small town gossip mongers through her relationship with neighbouring married farmer Guy Crane played by Franchot Tone.  Guy is a graduate of Cornell University, has published papers on agriculture, and on more than one occasion has turned down the opportunity to return to the University to teach.  He is happy with his life on the farm with his lovely wife Nettie played by Irene Hervey and a young son Widdie played by Tad Alexander.  At the same time, Guy is immediately drawn to Louise with her vivacious looks and mind.  Like Louise and Grandpa, they speak the same language, but with the added allure of romance.

Louise is discovering that her most important relationship is that with the farm.  She has found her true home.  Her energy and honesty win her the admiration of farm hand Simon played by Stuart Irwin.  He's a bit of a rascal, and a little bit lazy, but he's Grandpa's loyal friend.  Louise also wins over the workers who help at threshing time when she shows what a good sport she is handling the hungry crowd at lunchtime.  Winning bits of business and Hopkins' timing make the scene a joyful triumph as directed by King Vidor.

Irene Hervey, Franchot Tone, Miriam Hopkins
Nettie Crane, Guy Crane, Louise Storr

Grandpa:  "You find a lot of couples like that.  Childhood sweethearts.  He went away to school and when he came back they didn't take the time to find out if they still liked each other."

Louise has found a home on a farm which may never be hers.  She has found love with a man who never can be hers.  She has found friends and she has found enemies.  Can she find the strength to be true to herself.  She ran away from trouble once.  Is Storr Haven where Louise stops running and takes a stand?

Miriam Hopkins was 31 years old when she made this film in 1933; in her filmography it falls between the controversial The Story of Temple Drake and the sophisticated Design for Living.  Louise Storr is the most down-to-earth characters of that year's output.  Miriam's vitality is on full display, and her humanity is expressed sincerely.  The affectionate scenes with Lionel Barrymore particularly have a genuineness that easily strikes a responsive chord with the viewer.  The 1930s were a special time for Miriam Hopkins, Hollywood leading lady, with a variety of roles in which she excelled.  The Stranger's Return is a gentle and thoughtful entry in Miriam's films.

Ruth of Silver Screenings and Maedez of A Small Press Life and Font and Frock are hosting The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon from January 22nd to 25th.  It is a privilege to participate and to learn more about the talented actress from her many fans.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon: Christmas in Connecticut - Pfui!
“This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one!”  Check out all the excitement, nodding sagely in agreement or shaking your fist in ire, by clicking on the banner.

I love the Christmas holiday.  One of the main reasons is all of the familiar old favourite movies that get dusted off and enjoyed.  A perennial on television, and on the big screen this past season by Fathom Events, is Warner Brothers 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut.  It is not a movie that I would switch the channel to watch, let alone pay Cineplex prices.

Christmas in Connecticut is the merry mix-up of a successful food writer who has been lying about her homemaking cred and is caught up in a publicity stunt to give a good old-fashioned Christmas on the farm to a Navy hero.  Elizabeth Lane as played by Miss Barbara Stanwyck is quick-witted, ambitious and surrounded by willing accomplices in bringing to life her public persona to save her job.  After all, all that's needed is a convenient house, a baby or two, and a most obliging husband and chef substitute.  A lot is riding on this deception.  Naturally, love blossoms between the writer and the war hero.  Madcap hijinks ensure with the movie ending clinch.   What's not to like?

Barbara Stanwyck and a Christmas tree

All of the ingredients are there for a good time, but Christmas in Connecticut leaves me flat.  I'm not anti-romance or anti-mistaken-identity-in-a-romantic-comedy.  It is a time honoured and worthy tradition in the genre, one I have enjoyed before and will again.  I like babies and sleigh rides and Christmas trees and song.  I like food and 1940s magazines.  I'm sure I'd even like Connecticut, movie version or not, if I ever visit.

Barbara Stanwyck and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall

Warners pulled out all the stops in casting this movie.  Barbara Stanwyck is my number one all-time favourite actress.  I find Stanley Morner/Dennis Morgan perpetually adorable.  I have a storehouse of fond movie memories connected with Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, Joyce Compton and Una O'Connor.  It is true that upon occasion S.Z. Sakall has been known to grate upon my frayed nerves, but then, so has my husband and I haven't kicked him to the curb.  Eventually, both "Cuddles" and my hubby do something to get back into my good graces.

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan
Bow to your partner!

I have over the years come up with various theories to explain my dislike of Christmas in Connecticut.  The first is that it is not Remember the Night.  When I was young Remember the Night would pop up on television during the holidays.  Eventually, the movie faded from local television and while I forgot the title, I never forgot the film.  It starred Barbara Stanwyck.  There was a farm and a Christmas tree and a barn dance.  It made me cry (in a good way).  It was wonderful.  Gradually I began to notice a Stanwyck movie called Christmas in Connecticut getting air time.  Christmas?  Barbara Stanwyck?  That must be it!  Well, it had Missy and a Christmas tree and a farm and a dance, and romance, but ... it sure didn't make me cry (in any way).  Christmas in Connecticut simply left me frustrated and perturbed.

Twenty years ago Universal released the Barbara Stanwyck Collection on VHS.  I came across the treasure trove at Eaton's Department Store one lunch hour.  Displayed in all their glory were The Lady Eve, The Great Man's Lady, Internes Can't Take Money, All I Desire and Remember the NightRemember the Night?  The title didn't ring a bell, but the artwork on the case featured Barbara Stanwyck and a Christmas tree.  Could it possibly be the long lost movie of my youth?  It was!

After a good cry I returned that season to Christmas in Connecticut with hopes of putting the old ghosts to rest, but the nagging boredom remained giving rise to more theories.  One was that I was close-minded and stubborn.  I didn't particularly care for that theory and dismissed it.  Another was that I had unconsciously conditioned my response in the way that I always cry at the end of Maytime or cheer when Robin Hood dispatches Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  Perhaps.  Recently I have begun to wonder if it is that I simply dislike these characters.  We all know that liking movie characters is not a prerequisite to enjoying a movie.  Aside from Det. Hill, played by Jay Adler, I don't have any particular fondness for the characters in The Big Combo, but I love that movie!  However, it is certainly important to be rooting for the characters in a romantic comedy.  I have yet to witness the endearing qualities that make Elizabeth Lane's confederates so eager to assist her in the big lie.  Wouldn't you agree that Jefferson Jones is a bit of sneak and Sloan is blatantly opportunistic.  Sydney Greenstreet as Mr. Yardley comes perilously close to falling into "Cuddles" territory.

Perhaps I'm being too judgmental toward a frothy piece of cinema, but it is a frothy piece of cinema that has failed to enchant me the way it appears to have won over the masses, Fathom Events and TCM's publicity mill.         

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for January on TCM

The big news this holiday season is the release of two - count 'em - two film versions of successful Broadway musicals, Annie and Into the Woods.  Once upon a time, the transfer of a popular stage hit to the screen was a given in Hollywood.  In 1943 it was time for Broadway's 1940 hit Cabin in the Sky to become immortalized on celluloid.  The book was by Lynn Root, based on his story Little Joe.  Original songs were composed by Songwriter's Hall of Fame inductee Vernon Duke, whose classical works were published under his birth name of Vladimir Dukelesky.  Taking a Chance on Love performed by Ethel Waters became a standard.  The production was staged by the legendary George Ballanchine.  Todd Duncan, Broadway's original Porgy in Porgy and Bess played The General.  Beautiful vixen Georgia Brown was played by beautiful Katherine Dunham, the pioneering dancer and choreographer whose dance troupe enlivened the ensemble.

After a year of apprenticing at MGM, set and costume designer and stage director Vincente Minnelli directed Cabin in the Sky as the first of his remarkable films.  The talent that gave us Meet Me in St. Louis, Madame Bovary, Lust for Life, Father of the Bride, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc. is mind boggling.

Two members of the original Broadway cast made it to the screen.  Ethel Waters, the great jazz artist and stage star played the pious Petunia.  In her later years, Ms. Waters was born again and toured with the Billy Graham crusades.  In the 1920s Harold Arlen wrote Stormy Weather for Ethel.  In the 1930s Irving Berlin wrote Supper Time for Ethel to sing in the revue As Thousands Cheer.  Ethel Waters also enjoyed success as a dramatic actress in the Broadway and film versions of The Member of the Wedding and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 1949s Pinky.

Lucifer Jr. and his "idea men"
Louis Armstrong, Rex Ingram, Mantan Moreland, Fletcher Rivers, Willie Best

Rex Ingram reprised the role of Lucifer Jr., adding to his round-up of supernatural characters including De Lawd in The Green Pastures and the Djinn in Thief of Bagdad.    Mr. Ingram's screen acting career began as an uncredited native in 1918s Tarzan of the Apes and included such major roles and movies as Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Talk of the Town, Sahara, Dark Waters, Moonrise, God's Little Acre, Elmer Gantry and Your Cheatin' Heart.

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson
Ethel Waters, Eddie Anderson

I'm drawn to the creative optimism in after-life fantasies and the touch of humour to be found in dream sequences.  Cabin in the Sky gives us both in the story of Little Joe Jackson played by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.  Imagine creating a character so popular, as Rochester was on The Jack Benny Program, that it becomes part of your name.  A bit on Benny's radio show in 1937 turned into a lifelong happy association as the Benny and Anderson found in each other the perfect comic foil.  Little Joe is married to Petunia and although he truly loves his devout spouse, Little Joe has a gambling habit and an eye for pretty girls.  He is constantly getting into trouble and constantly promising to mend his ways.  Petunia is constantly forgiving Little Joe's transgressions.

Lily, Reverend Green, Petunia, the Doctor, Little Joe Jackson
Butterly McQueen, Kenneth Spencer, Ethel Waters, Clinton Rosemond, Eddie Anderson

Consorting with a dangerous crowd, Little Joe is shot and as he lays on his deathbed we watch the battle for Joe's soul play out.  In the righteous corner we have the strong faith of Petunia and an angel played by bass-baritone Kenneth Spencer.  This heavenly emissary is the "Lawd's General" and he bears a striking resemblance to the local minister.  The fire and brimstone crowd is led by Lucifer Jr. and his imps, played with comic glee by the likes of Mantan Moreland, Louis Armstrong and Willie Best.  Is this a dream brought on by delirium or are these visions true?

Little Joe Jackson, Lucifer Jr., Georgia Brown
Eddie Anderson, Rex Ingram, Lena Horne

Lucifer Jr. does not fight fair.  Apparently the worst thing you can do for someone is give them money (I've never been able to figure that one out!) and it is arranged for Little Joe to win the Irish Sweepstakes.  A lot is riding on this gig for Junior, so for insurance he calls on the services of one of their best sinners, luscious Miss George Brown played by Lena Horne in her best role at MGM.  Lena positively shines as the narcissistic Miss Brown.  She's playful, headstrong and has a couple of fun numbers in Honey in the Honeycomb and a duet with Eddie Anderson of Life is Full of Consequence.  Lena's performance of Ain't It the Truth, performed in a bubble bath, was cut from this movie but used in a 1946 short called Studio VisitHoney in the Honeycomb is one of three songs from the play to make it to the movie along with the title tune and Taking a Chance on Love.  Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote new songs for the movie including Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe, which went on to be a standard of the Great American Songbook as well as receiving an Oscar nomination.

It is a titanic struggle between the bible loving Petunia and all that would take her beloved Joe from her side.  Who do you suppose will win?  There are some knowing laughs and wonderful music in Cabin in the Sky, plus a few surprises in store.  Fair warning: I learned from the General that you can't get into Heaven on a technicality.  I found that aspect rather upsetting when I was a kid and I still keep looking for loopholes.  

The depth of talent in Cabin in the Sky is phenomenal.  Along with the lead actors there are performances from Duke Ellington and his orchestra, "Bubbles" Sublett, the Father of Rhythm Tap and Broadway's original Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, Pearl Bailey's dancing brother Bill Bailey, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, and the Hall Johnson Choir.  Mr. Johnson and his talented choristers cornered the movie market for choirs appearing in The Green Pastures, Tales of Manhattan, Way Down South, St. Louis Blues and more. 

A hit in its day and a joy today, TCM is screening Cabin in the Sky on Thursday, January 8th at 12:30 a.m. as one of guest programmer Michael Feinstein's selections.  It is essential entertainment.   

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Cozy for Christmas: Cover Up (1949)

Have your copies of Holmes for the Holidays, Christmas Stalkings, Murder at Christmas and The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries reached the stage of yellowed edges and missing pages?  Are you looking for that light, short story of murder and mayhem perfect for a post-shopping sit down with a cup of cocoa (laced with Kahlua)?  You will find the movie equivalent of something from the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1949s Cover Up.

Dennis O'Keefe
(1908 - 1968)

Sam Donovan:  Now look, Sheriff, I can take a joke as well as the next man, but murder is serious, even in a small town.  Either we co-operate or I go at it my own way.  You'd be surprised what I might find out.

Alfred E. Green (Union Depot, The Jolson Story) is our director, with the screen play is by crime novelist Jerome Odlum (Each Dawn I Die, Dust Be My Destiny) and the film's star Dennis O'Keefe under the name of Jonathan Rix.  Mr. O'Keefe rates very highly around these parts.  Appearing as a youngster with his Vaudevillian parents, Bud Flanagan's energy, talent and experience made him a natural for the screen.  However, it wasn't until years of uncredited bits that he finally broke through with a contract and the chance to show his versatility. My sister Paula and I fight over him long winter evenings.  She really goes for his good-natured humourous roles such as in Brewster's Millions or his young, brash leads for MGM in pictues like Hold That Kiss and Burn "Em Up O'Connor.  I lean more toward the noirish O'Keefe of T-Men, Raw Deal and Walk a Crooked Mile.

William Bendix
(1906 - 1964)

Sheriff Larry Best:  Put that gun away.  You don't want to go around killing anybody; not at Christmastime anyway.

In Cover Up O'Keefe is Sam Donovan, Insurance Investigator.  He's arrived in a smallish city during Christmas week to wrap up a suicide case.  A suicide case where there was no weapon at the scene.  A suicide case where no autopsy was performed and the body has already been buried.  A suicide case of the meanest man in town.  The sheriff, played by William Bendix (Blue Dahlia, Lifeboat, TV and radio's The Life of Riley), is of a philosophical frame and mind and disinclined to assist our visiting investigator.  Sam is advised to nose around by his superior.

Art Baker as Stu Weatherby

Sam is more than happy to remain in town.  He's met a pretty resident on the train returning for the holidays and his interest is returned.  Barbara Britton (Champagne for Caesar, The Virginian) plays Anita Weatherby.  She's a pretty and confident big city career girl, except when she's around Sam and her family.  In fact, Anita can be almost juvenile when goaded into "fighting" with younger sister Cathie, played by Ann E. Todd (Margie, Three Daring Daughters) for Sam's attention.  The entire Weatherby family takes Sam in as sort of a lost soul project for Christmas, although Art Baker (Impact, Spellbound) as Stu Weatherby does seem unaccountably distracted at times.

Dennis O'Keefe, Barbara Britton

Anita Weatherby:  Oh Sam, before you came here our town was like a quiet little haven.  There was never a hint of anything terrible like this.  Now everybody's a murder suspect.  Our lives will never be the same.
Sam runs into dead ends at every turn.  No one knows anything.  Everyone has an alibi.  There is a great lack of interest in whether the town's hated miser killed himself or was bumped off.  They just seem glad he's gone.  The niece played by Virginia Christine (High Noon, The Killers) was eloping with a man her uncle deemed unsuitable.  The newlywed husband played by Russell Arms (The Man Who Came to Dinner, By the Light of the Silvery Moon) had been at the scene, but left.  He was vouched for by the nervous jeweller and his tight-lipped wife.

Doro Merande plays Hilda

Perhaps the town's retired doctor could shed some light on matters, but the man unfortunately passes away before Sam can reach him.  Watching over the murder, the romance and the Weatherby family is their opinionated maid played with aplomb by Doro Merande (Our Town, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming).  She may be a help or she may be a hindrance.  Mr. Weatherby says she's not happy unless she's unhappy.  She is a delight to audiences.

Dennis O'Keefe, Barbara Britton and that tree!

Nicely paced at just over 80 minutes, Cover Up is a cozy mystery by benefit of the small town flavour and the Christmas setting.  The decorations, the shopping for gifts, the talk of dinner plans contrast to the evasiveness of witnesses and the stonewalling of the sheriff.  The puzzle has a logically satisfactory conclusion, if a tad predictable.  The romance progresses naturally with a nice sense of the emotions of the characters.  Continuity issue:  on Christmas Eve the family is seen decorating a tree and its purchase is the point of great discussion, however there has been a tree in the living room since we and Sam first came to visit.  Once the puzzle is wrapped up, the movie wraps up as well.  I liked the characters well enough to have enjoyed spending a little more of the holidays with them.  It might have been fun to see Sam tackle the mystery of that Christmas tree.

Did you know?  In 1955 Cover Up was presented as an episode of Lux Video Theatre with William Bendix reprising his role of Sheriff Larry Best and starring Steve Brodie and Jane Howard as Sam and Anita.  I imagine that was a "slap himself on the back" moment for Dennis O'Keefe, writer. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for December on TCM

"In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: this thing enjoys Dickens."
- G.K. Chesterton

Charles Dickens' engrossing novels and stories have passed down from the 19th century losing none of their power to move us.  The remarkably memorable characters echo through literature and film to become part of our lives.  David Copperfield, published as The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) in 1850 after its initial serialization is Dickens' fictional autobiography and had a special place in his heart:  "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child.  And his name is David Copperfield."  That fondness has been shared by generations of readers one of whom was producer David Selznick, whose father read the story to his young family.  In 1935, after much haggling, Selznick was given the go-ahead by father-in-law Louis B. Mayer to produce the film of David Copperfield.  Selznick must have been in a Dickens mood in 1935, for the sterling adaption of A Tale of Two Cities also came under his purview that year.

Charles Dickens

George Cukor (Little Women) directed the film to a Best Picture nomination.  Look at the quality competition that year:  Mutiny on the Bounty (winner), Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, Les Miserables, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap and Top Hat.  Ah, to be a movie-goer in the 30s! 

Hugh Walpole (Kind Lady) adapted the novel and played the small role of the Vicar.  The screenplay is by Lenore Coffee (Four Daughters) and Howard Estabrook (Cimarron).  Adapting a familiar and well-loved novel for the screen can have its drawbacks as to meeting expectations of fans, but the necessary cuts and telescoping of events in this case was done with great care and taste.  The movie experience of David Copperfield does not cheat fans of the novel as the characters were brilliantly cast. 

Freddie Bartholomew
David Copperfield

Young David is played by Freddie Bartholomew in his first American feature.  Local boys, Jackie Cooper and David Holt had been considered, but Selznick properly wanted a British juvenile for the title character.  The ten-year-old actor gives a most winning performance that audiences cannot not help taking to their hearts.  He is so touching and likeable that it took me years to realize that 30-year-old Frank Lawton as the grown David is not a poor David but, as anyone would be, only a poor substitute for Freddie.  David the youngster is beset by troubles that make us long for his rescue.  Adult David does not have the luxury of our pity, only the good will of our affection.

Elizabeth Allen, Freddie Bartholomew, Basil Rathbone, Violet Kemble Cooper
Mrs. Copperfield, young David, Murdstone, Miss Murdstone 

David's young society is dominated by his tender-hearted mother played by Elizabeth Allen.  A young widow she makes an unfortunate second marriage to the loathsome Mr. Murdstone played with cold relish by Basil Rathbone and his equally nasty sister played by Violet Kemble Cooper.  Life under the Murdstones is hard for David and his mother with their only protection coming from the endearing nursemaid Peggotty played by Jessie Ralph.  David finds an extended family with his nurse's brother, the fisherman Dan Peggotty played by Lionel Barrymore.  There his friendships include Dan's daughter Emily and the orphaned Ham.  Emily is played by Frances Chaldecott (also in A Tale of Two Cities) as a child and by Florine McKinney as a young woman.  John Buckler, the son of actor Hugh Buckler (The Last of the Mohicans), plays the loyal Ham.  

Lennox Pawle, Freddie Bartholomew, Edna May Oliver
Mr. Dick, David, Aunt Betsey

Another bit of perfect casting is Edna May Oliver as David's brusque and eccentric Aunt Betsey Trotwood.  She was also cast as Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities, another quintessential role.  Her companion, the addled Mr. Dick is delightfully played by Lennox Pawle.  Through his aunt David is acquainted with the benevolent but dissolute lawyer Mr. Wickfield played by Lewis Stone and his duplicitous assistant Uriah Heep played by Roland Young.  Wickfield's daughter Agnes is played as a child by Marilyn Knowlden.  Marilyn's most famous literary to screen character is Cosette in Les Miserables.  Madge Evans is Agnes as a young woman.

W.C. Fields, Freddie Bartholomew
Mr. Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield

Perhaps David's most colourful friend and most famous portrayer is the outlandish Mr. Micawber played by W.C. Fields.  Replacing Charles Laughton in the role, Fields, like his castmates, acquits himself admirably, owning the role with his dedication and the force of his considerable personality. 

Herbert Mundin, Freddie Bartholomew, Jessie Ralph
Barkis, David, Peggotty

The details of the story, David's rise from poverty and abuse, his benefactors and enemies, his loves and losses are beautifully told with exquisite attention to sense of time and place through setting, costume and characterizations.  Each role is so flawlessly cast that alternate actors are unimaginable.  Maureen O'Sullivan as Dora, Herbert Mundin as Barkis, Arthur Treacher as a crook, Jean Cadell as Mrs. Micawber, Elsa Lanchester as Clickett, Hugh Williams as Steerforth and Una O'Connor as Mrs. Gummidge.  More than simply a satisfying movie version of a popular tale, 1935s David Copperfield is a truly great movie; a testament to its creators and the studio system. 

TCM is screening David Copperfield on Sunday, December 14th at 10:15 am.  Stop that Christmas baking, delay that Christmas shopping, and give yourself a treat whether for the first or hundredth time.    

Friday, November 21, 2014

World Television Day 2014

The United Nations’ (UN) World Television Day was created by a resolution in 1996 and is annually observed on November 21st in many places around the world recognizing that television plays a major role in presenting different issues that affect people.

From the United Nations website:  "World Television Day is not so much a celebration of the tool, but rather the philosophy which it represents. Television represents a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world."

That's all well and good and I admit that my life has been enriched by news, current affairs programs and documentaries available to me on television.  However, I am also a North American baby boomer and it is a wonder that my generation has not evolved into a creature with one square eye in the middle of our foreheads considering the overwhelming presence of television in our lives.  

My celebration of World Television Day is a look at a baker's dozen of my favourite television themes.  It was tough limiting the list, because there are plenty more where these came from.  It is music that instantly recalls my telelvision friends and the real life people who shared the laughter, the tears and the discussion around our viewing.  This is music that, although inextricably wound up in the fictions they represent, still stand on its own.  Many became radio hits.  I understand in more recent history it is radio hits that become theme songs, if there is a theme song at all.  This is an entertainment evolution that makes no sense at all to me.

PERRY MASON (1957 - 1966)
Fred Steiner's Park Avenue Beat grabs you and doesn't let go.

PETER GUNN (1958 - 1961)
Henry Mancini.  'Nuff said.

WAGON TRAIN (1957 - 1965)
Jerome Moross' lovely, stirring theme used from the 3rd season on.  Melody first heard in 1959s The Jayhawkers!

BONANZA (1959 - 1973)
The team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (Silver Bells, Mona Lisa, Que Sera Sera) gave us this joyous, iconic theme.

IRONSIDE (1967 - 1975)
Quincy Jones and one of my favourite shows of the 60s/70s.  A perfect combination.

MANNIX (1967 - 1975)
Maybe you like one of Lalo Schifrin's other themes better, but I'm a Mannix gal from way back.

HAWAII FIVE-O (1968 - 1980), (2010 - )
I defy anyone to keep still while listening to Morton Stevens evocative theme.

ROOM 222 (1969 - 1974)
If your life had a theme song wouldn't you have wanted it to be composed by Jerry Goldsmith?

ELLERY QUEEN (1975 - 1976)
Elmer Bernstein being cheeky and cool.

HILL STREET BLUES (1981 - 1987)
It would be too easy to have posted a list of favourite Mike Post themes.

ST. ELSEWHERE (1982 - 1988)
Dave Grusin's theme is irresistible.

JEEVES AND WOOSTER (1990 - 1993)
Anne Dudley perfectly captures the era and the whimsey.

and, the one, the only -

CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? (1961 - 1963)

The amusing and memorable song with lyrics by show's creator (and certified genius) Nat Hiken and music by Grammy and Emmy winner John Strauss.

I know you're aching to share your favourite TV themes.  My apologies in advance for pushing you into the time sucking vortex of YouTube, but you know you love it!