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 of 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 for a conveniently short time.  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 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 goodwill 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 a 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.


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