Thursday, November 25, 2010

'Tis the Season - Part II

Whodunit? That's the question on everyone's mind. Of course, motive and method are important, but only insofar as they are necessary to solve the puzzle. The classic whodunit should not be weighed down with psychological quirks and ramifications. As to method, we will leave the gory details to the television of the 21st century. If I had wanted to be an autopsy surgeon, I would be an autopsy surgeon.

The comedy-mystery film can be one of the most delightful ways to spend time, but the style is fraught with pitfalls. It takes the right touch from all involved to pull one off successfully. 1945s Lady on a Train is a comedy-mystery that works for me. It is based on a story by Leslie "The Saint" Charteris with a screenplay by Edmund Beloin who wrote everything from Bob Hope's Christmas classic The Lemon Drop Kid to episodes of television's Family Affair.

The movie was directed by Charles David, a career producer/production manager who has two directing credits to his name. The other is also based on a Charteris story, 1945s River Gang starring Universal's criminally under-valued Durbin back-up, Gloria Jean. Charles David married his leading lady, Deanna in 1950 and they remained so until his death in 1999.

Deanna Durbin
Lady...with a book...on a train

Deanna Durbin stars as Nikkie Collins, an heiress. She is not the madcap heiress of 30s comedies, but a determined young lady with an acute case of Nancy Drew Syndrome. On her way to NYC from San Francisco to spend Christmas with an aunt we never meet, Nikki looks up from her mystery novel and witnesses a murder through her train window. In the natural course of events desk sergeant William Frawley has no time for dizzy dames and suggests she consult the author of the fiction she's reading to help with the fiction she has brought to the authorities.

Nikki needs ploys-a-plenty to solve this case. She finds ways to ditch her "keeper", Haskell of the New York office, who proves totally inept in his assignment to keep her safe and secure. She convinces the befuddled and bemused mystery writer that he must help her. She convinces the heirs of the murder victim that she was the late millionaire's paramour.

Dan Duryea, Deanna Durbin, David Bruce

Suspects include disinherited nephews Ralph Bellamy and Dan Duryea, a proud sister, Elizabeth Patterson, a sinister underling, George Colouris, a mug, Allen Jenkins and a lawyer, Samuel S. Hinds. A gloomy mansion, a fancy nightclub and a deserted warehouse complete the atmosphere.

David Bruce, usually seen as the best friend gives an assured, appealing performance as the romantic lead in this picture. However, I'm one of those gals who has eyes for no one else when Dan Duryea is on the screen. Here Duryea is a wastrel nephew with an eye to increasing his fortune.

Deanna's lovely voice is showcased beautifully and naturally in this movie. She sings a tender Silent Night over the long-distance telephone to her father. When put on the spot by the baddies at the night club, she gives out with a cute-sexy rendition of Gimme a Little Kiss. Later in the club, Deanna's sultry Night and Day is a highlight.

Lady on a Train also abounds in Christmas trees. There is the tree the sergeant is delicately decorating at the police station. There is a big, friendly tree in the mystery author's spacious apartment. There is an elegant tree in Nikki's hotel suite. There is a partially decorated tree at the mansion. It is believed the deceased millionaire fell from a ladder while decorating his tree. We can also spot a tree behind a fellow who thinks he is shaving in the privacy of his own apartment but comes face to face with Nikki seeking the room she spotted from the train.

Lady on a Train offers a satisfying puzzle, moments of true suspense, and comedy that comes from its characters without becoming frantic. All that plus Dan Duryea and Christmas trees. Thank you, Santa.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

'Tis the Season - Part I

I adore the Christmas season. I love the music, the baking, the decorations. The days grow short and the nights are long and dark with the murky atmosphere of mystery and film noir. Enough light seeps between the cracks in my Venetian blinds to remind me that life, filled with jolly revelers, is going on outside my door. I curl up with a steaming brew (dolloped with something special) and lose myself with the tough guys and gals of classic cinema.

First up, 1944s Christmas Holiday starring Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. A movie with that title and those stars leads the mind to a Lake Placid resort featuring a tap dance on skates to Jingle Bells and a heartwarming Ave Maria solo. No. The musical side of my soul must seek elsewhere for that sort of entertainment. A Somerset Maugham story was the basis for Herman Mankiewicz's screenplay, a story of deceit and obsession. Noir master Robert Siodmak directed and this places among his best in that time-honoured style, The Killers, Criss Cross, Phantom Lady, and Cry of the City.

Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly 

Reliable "everyman" Dean Harens plays Lt. Mason, a young soldier about to be sent overseas. On the eve of what he thought was to be his wedding a "Dear John" letter spurs him to thoughts of revenge. A storm detours his plane to New Orleans where he is befriended by drunken (aren't they all?) newspaperman Simon Fenimore played by future director (Champagne for Caesar, TVs My Three Sons) Richard Whorf. Fenimore thinks the lieutenant needs to drown his sorrows and takes him to a dive run by Gladys George who introduces him to jaded gal singer Jackie Lamont played by Durbin.

Jackie has her own troubles. Let's start with the fact that her real name is Abigail and she's running from something, running from herself. She fell in love with a charmer by the name of Robert Manette played by Kelly. Manette, in turn, had his own issues with narcissism, gambling and mother. Mother is played by Gale Sondergaard so you know off the bat that something is off-kilter in the family tree.

Deanna Durbin with Dean Harens

The rain-soaked Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Lt. Mason spends with Abigail as she recounts life with a murderous hubby and imperious mother-in-law prove to be life-changing for the young man and intriguing storytelling for the viewer.

Gene Kelly channels his famous energy and charm into the wastrel Manette. His attraction to lonely Abigail is understandable. Deanna Durbin's trademark perkiness is nowhere in view as we see her tentatively reaching for happiness and shutting down when life slaps her in the face. Her perfunctory delivery of Frank Loesser's Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year when we first meet her in the nightclub shows us her weariness. The later rendition of Irving Berlin's Always is a heartfelt glimpse into her pining heart.

I am struck when watching Christmas Holiday how so many private things occur in such very public places. Abigail and Robert meet and fall in love in the upper gallery of a crowded concert hall. The final crash of the safe world Abigail thought she had found is in a courtroom filled with spectators. It is in church on Christmas Eve that Abigail finds the strength to start to break down. What private calamities and victories will be going on around us during this busy season?

Monday, November 8, 2010

J. Farrell MacDonald Movie Quotes

J. Farrell MacDonald
June 6, 1875 - August 2, 1952

Connecticut born J. Farrell MacDonald had a career or three in show business. He began as a minstrel performer and by the teens was directing for L. Frank Baum's Oz Film Manufacturing Co. and making a name for himself as a reliable character actor.

Working until the last few years of his life, MacDonald's face can be spotted in hundreds of movies as a cop, a doorman, a doctor - always in support, but always more than a "bit". Outstanding roles include Mike Costigan, one of John Ford's 3 Bad Men who break your heart in 1926. He's adorable as the photographer in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. The sympathetic Windy in 1936's Show Boat or the junk man in 1946's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn become memorable in MacDonald's hands. In 1935's Our Little Girl when runaway Shirley Temple encounters a hobo, we know it will be alright when "Mr. Tramp" is played by J. Farrell MacDonald. He worked, and he worked with the best.

Movie fans all have our favourite moments from our years of watching classic movies. Maybe they're not always the ones that make the AFI lists, but nonetheless, they touch us. Three of my favourite movie quotes all came out of the mouth of J. Farrell MacDonald.

MacDonald made 25 pictures with John Ford starting in the silent era. What times they must have had! Number 1 on my JFM countdown is from Ford's first post-war film, My Darling Clementine. In speaking with other western fans I know that I'm not the only one who anticipates the small exchange between Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp and MacDonald's barkeep.

Henry Fonda (Wyatt Earp), J. Farrell MacDonald (Mac)

Wyatt: Mac, have you ever been in love?
Mac: No. I've been a bartender all me life.

In his real life, MacDonald was married to actress Edith Bostwick (1882-1943). The couple appeared together in silent films and were the parents of a daughter, Lorna.

Preston Sturges was a writer/director who knew a good character actor/actress when he saw one, and he used them well. He used J. Farrell MacDonald in 8 of his pictures from The Miracle of Morgan's Creek to The Sin of Harold Diddleback.

In The Palm Beach Story, MacDonald is cast in the familiar guise of a cop. One look at that mug and you can feel his aching feet. It's no wonder Joel McCrea's character refers to him as "Mulligan". The response "The name happens to be O'Donnell if it's all the same to you" speaks volumes. His admonishment to bickering couple McCrea and Claudette Colbert is #2 on my countdown.

"Why don't you two learn to get along together? I had to."

It's the time of year when all thoughts turn to Frank Capra's first post-war project, It's a Wonderful Life. The trio of directors represented here all had their "stock companies" and that use of character greats maybe one of the factors that give their films such lasting qualities. MacDonald has three Capra pictures to his credit, including "Sourpuss" in Meet John Doe.

In It's a Wonderful Life the newly not born George Bailey is seeking evidence of his existence. He goes looking for his car, which was last seen smashed into a tree. The substantial citizen of Pottersville who owns the tree is rightly suspicious of the overwrought stranger in his yard. Sizing up the situation and taking a whiff of Stewart's breath JFM sums up the situation with #3 on my list.

"You must mean two other trees."

Gems all! What other J. Farrell MacDonald gems are waiting for me in classic movieland? Were they gems on paper or did they become so in the hands of the right actor? What do you think?


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