Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Favourite movies: Genevieve (1953)

Genevieve is -

  • The best Ealing comedy not to come from that studio.
  • A quintessentially British film written by an American.
  • A  film about motor cars whose leading man did not hold a driver's license.
  • A beloved classic that flopped at previews.
  • An Oscar nominated score whose composer's credit did not air on screens in America or could be mentioned at the ceremony.

William Rose was born in Jefferson, Missouri and prior to America's entry into WW2 he joined the fracas by way of Canada's Black Watch.  He found a home in England after the war and a market for his screenplays such as Genevieve, The Ladykillers, The Maggie and The Smallest Show on Earth.  Later films would include The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, The Flim Flam Man, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and his Oscar winning Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Director Henry Cornelius had a great success at famed Ealing Studios with Passport to Pimlico and left the studio to set up his own company.  He was enthused about Rose's project concerning vintage car enthusiasts and the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Rally, but couldn't get it off the ground as his first independent film, The Galloping Major hadn't reached the level of success of "Pimlico".  Eventually "Corny" found backing from the Rank Organisation, but only if he put up some of his own money.

For their patient co-operation the makers of this film express their thanks to the officers and members of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain.  Any resemblance between the deportment of our characters and any club members is emphatically denied—by the Club.

The above disclaimer featured at the opening credits let us in immediately on the amused and amusing tone of Genevieve.
Dinah Sheridan, John Gregson
Kenneth More, Kay Kendall

John Gregson (The Holly and the Ivy, Titfield Thunderbolt, Hand in Hand, TVs Gideon C.I.D.) plays Alan McKim, a barrister with a pretty wife and a beloved 1904 Darracq.  His father drove in all the rallies prior to the war and Alan all the years after.  He lives for the vintage car rally and the time he spends tinkering with the car named Genevieve.  At the time of filming, Gregson was learning to drive and had yet to receive his license.  Dinah Sheridan (Breaking the Sound Barrier, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Railway Children) is lovely as Alan's wife Wendy.  Wendy is not so enamoured of bouncing around the countryside in an outmoded form of transportation.  Wendy and Alan have words, but being a young married couple they can't stay angry for long and the trip is on.

Joining in the annual tradition is family friend Ambrose Claverhouse played in his brightest manner by Kenneth More (Reach for the Sky, A Night to Remember, TVs The Forsyte Saga and Father Brown).  Ambrose is the proud owner of a Spyker.  Ambrose also is accompanied on each rally by a different young lady.  It is this playboy's dream to combine the London to Brighton with a "truly memorable emotional experience", but something always goes wrong.  For instance, the year he escorted Wendy, and introduced her to Alan, she locked Ambrose out of her room.  Ah, but this year Ambrose is bringing a model he has just met.  The fashionable Rosalind is played by vivacious Kay Kendall (Les Girls, The Reluctant Debutante, Doctor in the House), who is joined by her neurotic St. Bernard, Suzy.

Ambrose Claverhouse (1980 - 2000)
Beloved Nolan family pet named for Kenneth More's character in Genevieve.

We stop now to applaud Marjory Cornelius, the wife of the director and costume designer for the film.  Rosalind is so very, very chic and modern in her suit, floppy hat and sunglasses.  Wendy is pretty as a picture in a vintage costume suitable for the occasion.  Both ladies get a chance to wear more formal wear for dinner and, again, Rosalind looks like a dream and Wendy as if she never, ever put a foot wrong in the fashion department.  Applause.

Joyce Grenfell as the hotel proprietress, with Dinah Sheridan

Due to that little misunderstanding between Wendy and Alan that was mentioned earlier, they are without a hotel reservation when they finally (Genevieve was acting up) reach Brighton.  Beggars can't be choosers and they take what accommodation they can, although a cranky Wendy does not endear herself to the solicitous landlady played by Joyce Grenfell.  Bad feelings simmer throughout the night, not the least of which is Alan's sudden jealousy toward Ambrose.  An ill-considered bet is the outcome with a secret race on the return trip to London between Alan and Ambrose with nothing less than Genevieve on the line.

Arthur Wontner as an old gentleman

If the journey to Brighton was filled with comic mishaps, the return trip is filled with comic dirty tricks.  Near the finish line there is a charming cameo with Arthur Wontner as an elderly Darracq fan.  Wonter is  most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in 5 films in the 1930s.  The best of those Holmes films is The Sign of Four and the best thing about all of the films is Arthur Wonter.

The shooting of the film on location and in Technicolor adds immensely to the delightful feel of this comedy, although the weather and logistics of the cameras made the movie a chore for its actors who came down with all sorts of colds and illnesses.  However, what truly distinguishes Genevieve is its Oscar-nominated score by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler.  The talented Mr. Adler had moved to England in 1949 to escape the black list, although he retained his U.S. citizenship.  His agent advised against turning down the job to score Genevieve as they could not reach his price.  Instead, Adler agreed to a portion of the profits.  His certificate of nomination from the Academy was presented 31 years after the ceremony.  Adler's score for Genevieve is sprightly and keeps the action moving, always moving.  At the same time, there is a nostalgic, sentimental feel that leaves a warm glow long after the movie has finished.  

Along with Larry Adler's Oscar nomination for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (winner - Dimitri Tiomkin, The High and the Mighty), William Rose was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (winner - Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront).  Genevieve won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Picture, a BAFTA for Best British Film and BAFTA nominations for Best Film from any Source (winner - Forbidden Games) and for Kenneth More for Best British Actor (winner - John Gielgud, Julius Caesar).

There is something very comfortable about Genevieve.  Even if you are seeing it for the first time, you feel at home and that home is a place you'll want to revisit.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon: Charlie Chan in Hollywood (1940)

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon hosted by Diana and Connie, the Metzinger Sisters, at Silver Scenes is underway.  Classic film bloggers will never be accused of not having great imaginations!  Check out the amazing movies that never were yet should have been.

Released by 20th Century Fox in 1940
Starring Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan
Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan
Special appearance by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Director - Norman Foster
Writers - Earl Derr Biggers (character)
Patricia Nolan-Hall (screenplay)

The renowned detective, Inspector Charlie Chan of Honolulu has a large family that is generally divided into two groups.  Half of his children want to be detectives like their old man.  The other half are movie crazy.  Both characteristics are currently found in beloved number 2 son, Jimmy.  Jimmy is employed at Mammoth Studios as a "best boy" or electrician's assistant.  He has told his parents that the job is only during the summer and that he will be returning to his university studies in the fall.  Charlie decides to check out matters for himself as Jimmy's job is related to the new girl in his life, Linda Li played by Iris Wong (Charlie Chan in Reno).  She's a script girl at Mammoth and was instrumental in Jimmy's employment.

Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan

Sidney Toler was the surprising yet excellent choice to succeed the late Warner Oland in the role of Charlie Chan for 20th Century Fox.  More new world than old in his approach to Earl Derr Biggers creation, he sustained the character's popularity throughout the decade.  His partnership with the wonderful Sen Yung (The Letter, Across the Pacific) as the ebullient Jimmy Chan added immeasurably to the continued success of the series.  In his 60s at the time, Toler had a long career in the theatre as an actor/writer and appeared in small roles in several films.  When the studio dropped the series in 1942, Toler purchased the rights to the character from Derr Biggers' widow and continued playing the role in less expensive productions released through Monogram.

Kane Richmond as Bill Dixon

The head of Mammoth Studios, Miles Trent, is played by George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Mermaids).  He is a friendly, warmhearted sort of boss who has the trust and affection of his employees.  Trent is most pleased that Jimmy wants to show his Pop around the studio as Mammoth would love to produce a film based on one of Inspector Chan's exploits.  Although aware of his international reputation, the Inspector does not see himself as a screen character.  Trent's partner, Grant Randall, played by Robert Barrat (Heroes for Sale, The Last of the Mohicans) is more the wheeler dealer type.  His bulldozer reputation is accurate and currently he's engaged in some particularly rough negotiations with the studio's popular leading man Bill Dixon played by Kane Richmond (Charlie Chan in Panama, The Shadow Returns).  The leading man gig is okay for what it is, but Bill is a flyer and he's keen on breaking his contract with the studio to go to Canada and join the Royal Air Force.  Randall is not about to let the studio's money maker do a fool thing like that.

Marjorie Weaver as Lois Williams

Bill's desire to be part of the war is of great concern to his girlfriend, Mammoth's ingenue Lois Williams played by Marjorie Weaver (Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Michael Shayne, Private Detective).  Lois and Linda Li have been friends since childhood so, naturally, her and Bill's problems become Jimmy's as well.

Mary Beth Hughes as Catherine Thomas

Lois also has career issues in that her latest role had originally been intended for another actress on the lot, Catherine Thomas played by Mary Beth Hughes (Charlie Chan in Rio, The Great Flamarion).  Mary Beth could lob sarcastic barbs with the best of them.

 James Ellison as Steve Brannigan

Catherine's stock has gone down considerably due to her involvement with the head of a notorious gambling ring, Steve Brannigan played by James Ellison (Vivacious Lady, I Walked With a Zombie).  The handsome and affable Ellison brings a very dark tone to the character that should have changed the trajectory of his career if this had been an A production.  Catherine's decline is most worrisome to her overbearing stage mother, Evelyn Thomas played by Esther Howard at her most elegant and officious (Sullivan's Travels, Born to Kill).  Evelyn has no difficulty making her displeasure felt at Mammoth Studios.  Harold Huber (The Thin Man, Beau Geste) plays Lou Mason, the head of studio security.  What's his connection with the shady Mr. Brannigan?  Huber keeps you guessing about his character.  Is he really that dumb or that sly?

Hamilton MacFadden, the director of the Chan film The Black Camel, has a featured role in Charlie Chan in Hollywood as film director Roger King.  He's been with Mammoth since the early days when Trent and Randall started the company.  He knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  The outstanding treat in this movie is the appearance of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or, at least, two very nice actors whom we imagine Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy to be in real life.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as themselves

It is a shocking day at Mammoth when Jimmy discovers the body of Grant Randall with a knife in his back.  Inspector Chan has a corpse, a studio full of suspects, and more assistants than one world famous detective can handle.  Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy consider themselves amateur detectives and are champing at the bit to be part of the excitement.  

Babe Hardy:  "It will work out great, Inspector Chan.  Stan sounds like Sherlock Holmes and I have the brains."

The scene where Jimmy, Stan and Babe sneak into the studio at night to search for clues is played mostly without dialogue and rightfully deserves its reputation as a gem in 40s cinema.  In later years Stan would recall Charlie Chan in Hollywood as the team's happiest time at Fox.  He was most fulsome in his praise of Sen Yung whom he called an inventive and instinctive comic, and a bright young man.

Clocking in at 88 minutes, the movie is longer than the usual Chan feature, but director Norman Foster (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Woman on the Run) keeps all the comedy and thrills seamlessly paced and perfectly timed.  The well-drawn characters and behind the scenes atmosphere will leave you wishing it were longer. 

I won't give the ending away except to say that I did not see it coming.  Wow!  Inspector Chan's tried and true "If you want wild bird to sing do not put him in cage" comes into play big time.  Charlie Chan in Hollywood is a dandy.


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