Friday, August 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for August on TCM

I'm a sucker for an after-life fantasy. As an impressionable youngster I saw The Green Pastures on television and I'll certainly be surprised if I get past those Pearly Gates and the head guy doesn't look like Rex Ingram. Of course, in Cabin in the Sky Mr. Ingram was in charge of that other place, which impressed me because of the presence of Louis Armstrong ("You gotta get hot to play real cool."). However, in that movie Ethel Waters was so adamant about Heaven being THE place to go that she made me feel guilty about liking the music.  

Someone else who was a sucker for after-life fantasies was writer Harry Segall whose play Heaven Can Wait aka The Wonderful Journey was filmed in 1941 as Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The Jordan of the title was played by stylish Claude Rains. As the angel in charge, his unflappability could be either comforting or annoying as the mood strikes you. Most of us, I imagine, would retain our human fallibility as Messenger 7013 played by Edward Everett Horton exhibits when he causes all the fuss in the plot.

Like Mr. Ingram mentioned previously, Claude Rains covered both realms of Forever-after on screen. Also written by Harry Segall, in Angel on My Shoulder Rains plays Nick, the harried manager of the repository of soiled souls. The 1946 film directed by Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Moontide) tells the tale of his experiences with bumped off mobster Eddie Kagel played by Paul Muni.

Paul Muni
1895 - 1967

In his time Mr. Muni was a highly respected actor of stage and screen. He received a Tony as Henry Drummond in the 1956 Broadway production of Inherit the Wind and won an Oscar for 1937s The Story of Louis Pasteur. His five other Oscar nominations were for The Valiant in 1929, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1934, Black Fury in 1934, The Life of Emile Zola in 1938, and The Last Angry Man in 1959. Perhaps not as well-remembered as some of his contemporaries of the screen, I believe audiences do themselves a disservice in missing out on Muni's range and commitment.

Paul Muni Day during TCM's August Summer Under the Stars salute is the perfect opportunity to judge anew the man who seamlessly immersed himself in the roles of intellectuals and brutes, labourers and gangsters.

 Paul Muni, Claude Rains 

Angel on My Shoulder's Eddie Kagle is a kid of the streets, a self-made man who used his instincts and his strength to gain power. After doing a stretch in prison and expecting due consideration from his partner in crime, Smiley Williams played by Hardy Albright, Kagle gets what's coming to him.  Shot with his own rod and sent straight to ... well, where the "H" is he? The place is a hellhole, suffocatingly hot and smelling of sulphur. Guards or no guards, nothing will stand in Eddie's way. He has to crash out and make Smiley pay for his betrayal. 

Nick or Mephistopheles or whatever you want to call him, is the head man and he has a use for Eddie. It seems our boy is the spitting image of a crusading judge named Parker. Nick has got to stop Parker from cleaning up the streets and helping disadvantaged kids. If he plants Eddie's soul in Judge Parker's body, Eddie will have the means to get even with Smiley and the thick-headed lout will ruin Judge Parker's reputation in time to keep him from becoming Governor. Win-Win as far as old Beelzebub is concerned. Eddie's willing to go along, even though he senses that Nick is a con man of the highest order.  Revenge is the engine moving his actions.

Anne Baxter, Paul Muni

You'll be able to see the plot coming a mile away, but the fun is in the journey. Judge Parker's pretty secretary, Barbara, played by Anne Baxter (The Razor's Edge, All About Eve) has a softening influence on Eddie's heart and Eddie's impetuosity turns each misstep into something favourable on the Judge's behalf. The screenplay is a delight to my ears. Nick speaks as if he had swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary while Eddie's speech is a jumble of blunt and colourful 1940s slang.

The fun and philosophy can be found on Wednesday, August 6th at 4 p.m. Let's spend Summer Under the Stars with Paul Muni.


  1. I like this: "The screenplay is a delight to my ears. Nick speaks as if he had swallowed the Oxford English Dictionary while Eddie's speech is a jumble of blunt and colourful 1940s slang." I think the purposeful and specifically directed use of language in classic films is something we don't see anymore. It's very much a crossover from theatre, where in order to tell the audience with as little time wasted as possible who the characters are, a playwright delineates the nature of his characters by giving them very specific speech qualities. I think today in film and TV the characters are written as to be more egalitarian, for want of a better description, making pretty much everyone sound alike.

    I look forward to you Choice of the Month. We should put it on a t-shirt.

  2. I am both thrilled and humbled by the t-shirt idea.

    The English Language is such a joy. You have hit on something important that may be a major draw for a lot of classic movie fans. All hail the classic screenwriters!

  3. Paul Muni is an actor I struggle to get close to - but on your recommendation, I am going to give it a whirl!

    1. It will just take one role to turn you into a Muni fan, and maybe it will be one of the parts on TCMs schedule.

      PS: Don't let on to anyone, but there was a time (long ago) when I couldn't stand Warren William. Now I dream about him. Don't spread that around either.

  4. 'After-life fantasies,' as you call them, interest me too, but for different reasons. The idea of free will vs. destiny has interested me ever since I read 'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad' in school, and old school Hollywood had kind of a sub-genre going for awhile with such movies. I liked 'Cabin in the Sky,' didn't like 'Mr. Jordan,' and was a bit confused by 'Heaven Can Wait' - why would the Devil be such a reasonable guy?

    'Chain Gang' and 'Scarface' are more than enough to sell me on Paul Muni, so maybe I'll look at this one, especially if Anne Baxter's in it.

    1. It's probably the imagination at work that is the draw to the fantastical musings for me.

      It's worth seeing all sides of Muni. It's nothing very startling, but for me there is an undeniable charm.

  5. While Muni is great, as usual, I think Claude Rains stills the show in this one - as he did in "Notorious" and "Casablanca". My favorite Muni film has to be "Fugitive from a chain gang" with the classic line "I steal". Pretty good stuff for 1932.

    1. All Claude Rains has to do is show up!

      I think "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is an important and fine movie, but I've never been able to choose a favourite Paul Muni movie. I do have a soft spot for "The Story of Louis Pasteur" because of I have fond memories of sharing that one with my daughter when she was younger.



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