Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ringing Out the Old: 15 Posts from 2009

Classic Movies Digest went online in late March of 2009 and in the nine months since its inception, much has been covered in the way of classic movies, so much more has not....yet. Great response has been given by the blogs readers and as a reflection on the past year as it concerns CMD, I wish to offer you the highlights from 2009.

The following are 15 posts which were deemed some of the more popular, by way of feedback through blog comments, Facebook and/or Twitter comments, notes sent via e-mail and page hits. They also include some of my personal favorites. The order in which they are listed is random and each title is clickable in order for you to easily catch any post you may have missed.

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In Like Flynn
    One of the most memorable films since its release in 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood cemented the stardom of Errol Flynn and made a bundle for Warner Brothers. Technicolor extraordinaire!

  • The Glass Key (1942): Lake and Ladd in Hardboiled Hammett
    A classic crime drama from Paramount, the film re-teamed Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a red hot pairing who became an iconic Hollywood on-screen couple.

  • The Many Faces of Those Glorious Character Actors
    By far one of the most popular posts of the year, Character Actors showcases some of the marvelous supporting players who make the films from Hollywood's Golden Age, the well rounded, multi faceted stories they should be.

  • Black Narcissus: Technicolor Masterpiece
    A cinematic masterpiece from British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is brilliant in almost every way. Even if nuns in a remote convent aren't your cup of tea, you might be surprised.

  • 42nd Street: Brother, Can You Spare a Dame
    "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star." That's the famous line Warner Baxter said to dancer Ruby Keeler in this classic Depression-era musical, and she did! Both on screen and off.

  • George Sanders: A Scoundrel for All Seasons
    Readers either love to hate this suave cad or hate to love him but regardless they made this post spotlighting the urbane actor very popular.

  • Bride of Frankenstein: A Toast to Gods and Monsters
    Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester make electricity of the most morbid sort in this classic horror flick from Universal Studios. One of the most creative and intriguing films of its genre.

  • 13 Classic Movies I've Never Seen ...But Really Want To
    A post with a personal slant, it arguably got the most response than any other Classic Movies Digest entry in 2009. A final update on this post is planned for January 2010.

  • Scarlet Street (1945): Classic Film Noir
    Film noir at its finest. A femme fatale, murder, sex and Edward G. Robinson in a frilly apron. You gotta see this one.

  • My Darling Clementine: An American Classic
    John Ford's poetic western, climaxing at the legendary OK Corral. Fonda, Mature and Darnell are great but Ford's direction and the gorgeous photography are the stars here.

  • Laura (1944): Sophisticated Murder
    Gene Tierney became synonymous with her title character in Laura. The most stylish murder mystery of the 1940's, it made a star of Tierney and didn't hurt Dana Andrews or Clifton Webb either.

  • Judy Garland: Before the Yellow Brick Road
    With all that's been written about the superstar, this post touches on her early innocent days, before booze and pills took their toll. A young girl on the cusp of stardom.

  • A Letter to Three Wives: Is It Your Husband?
    With A Letter to Three Wives, master screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz put dialogue and direction together to create a sublime slice of middle class Americana. Sharp and witty, Mankiewicz' Wives set the stage for his greatest work the following year, All About Eve.

  • The Innocents (1961): Spectres of Complexity
    The classic ghost story based on Henry James' novel. Deborah Kerr gives one of her finest performances as a timid governess who may or may not be seeing spirits. Classy and spooky in every respect.

  • The Awful Truth: Grant, Dunne and a Dog Named Smith
    One of the funniest and most clever screwball comedies to come out of the genre, The Awful Truth stars comedic greats Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as perfect foils for one anothers mishaps. As a divorcing couple still in love, they are A #1.

There you have it. It's been a fun year (or should I say nine months) here at Classic Movies Digest and I hope the coming year will be even more so. Check out the next post to find out some great stuff CMD has in store for 2010. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945): It Ain't Gabriel

When The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) was released by Warner Brothers in 1945, it was a major box office dud. The comedy-fantasy just wasn't what audiences nearing the end of World War II were looking for. The financial failure was so profound that its star, Jack Benny, used it as comic fodder for years to come on his radio and television shows, and whether or not it was a factor, Benny never made a starring feature again. But, although the film has a reputation for being unfunny, I strongly beg to differ. When I was young, The Horn Blows at Midnight played annually on New Years Eve, due to its theme of great change at the midnight hour. It is filled with one gag and/or joke after another, some timely, many timeless.

The story is cute as well as comedic. As the film starts we find Benny as a trumpet player in a radio station orchestra. The drifting tones of the radio commercial announcer put him to sleep and in his slumber he is transported to Heaven 1945-46 (that's what the screen says, really), where untold scores of angelic heavenly hosts make up the grandest orchestra ever to behold. This lighthearted view of kingdom come offers a corporate scenario of eternity ~ even a Hollywood studio in 1945 perhaps ~ where orders come from "the front office". In Heaven, Jack is a naive, slow witted angel named Athanael, who plays trumpet in the celestial symphony. His girlfriend, Elizabeth, secretary to "the Chief", recommends him for the job of destroying the planet Earth, which has gotten out of hand. The task of planet destruction usually goes to the demolition expert (Gabriel?) but Athanael is given the task, since the Earth is one of the lesser planets, whose creation was "merely a six day job....practically slapped together".

Using the elevator of the swanky Hotel Universe in New York City as his cosmic transport, Athanael descends to find two fallen angels turned playboys, who manage to dissuade the nit wit from his task of Armageddon. Now a fallen angel himself, the bemoaned bugler must make his way around the Big Apple as a babe in the wood, even losing his trusty trumpet to a waiter from "Joisy" because he didn't have enough of something called 'dollas' to pay for his meal.

Gorgeous Alexis Smith is at her glamorous prime as Elizabeth, the harpist/secretary with the heavenly figure. She is merely window dressing for Benny's jokes but displays much style and grace. Also on hand as a pretty trinket is beautiful blonde Dolores Moran, a Warners starlet who always raised the temperature in her scenes. The rest of the cast is simply littered with superb character actors, offering a veritable who's who of supporting players. Suave slimeball Reginald Gardiner; ranting curmudgeon Guy Kibbee; tough and dumb hood Mike Mazurki; classic Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont; Little Rascal cum Baretta Bobby Blake; and the incomparable fussy & prissy Franklin Pangborn, who nearly steals the show. As fallen angels Osidro and Doremus, Allyn Joslin and John Alexander are wickedly decadent, offering the ex-patriot Athanael a job peddling stolen ladies foundation garments ~ Osidro: "The job for you is hot girdles" Athanael: "But I don't know anything about a girdle, hot or cold...I don't even know what a girdle is!"

The Horn Blows at Midnight has become a cult classic of sorts, its virtues and value discovered over time. It's a wonderfully creative film and very 1940's modern. It's Warners version of ultra chic 1945 with laughs thrown in all around, not only verbally but with heavy dashes of slapstick as well, furnishing not one but two hilarious cliffhanging (literally) episodes atop the roof of the Hotel Universe at midnight when Athanael must blow his horn. Clever and engaging, The Horn Blows at Midnight would make a great Christmas/New Years Eve double feature with Christmas in Connecticut (also 1945 from Warners). Try it, you may like it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


For all the readers of Classic Movies Digest and classic film fans everywhere, here are a few reminders of the magic and glamour of Christmas past with a few of filmdoms most magical and glamorous stars. Merry Christmas to you all.

A peek at Betty Grable's fabulously famous gams as she spreads Yuletide cheer

Judy Garland and choir at MGM getting in the Christmas spirt in 1937

Who knew Bette Davis could be so colorfully festive at the holidays?

Beautiful Paulette Goddard by her tree....say, where's the mistletoe?

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Cheaters (1945): Have You Seen It?

The bread and butter at Republic Pictures was its low budget westerns which were churned out at a breakneck pace, but on rare occasions, the studio would produce a quality "A" picture with more lavish sets, costumes and music than the dusty prairie afforded. The Cheaters (1945) is one example of Republic's foray into "A" movie territory. The film centers on the Pidgeon family, a snobbish set of eccentrics whose self-centered lives are infiltrated by an out of work ham actor, who they take into their home at Christmas. Facing financial ruin, the Pidgeons hatch a scheme to garner an inheritance, given by their wealthy uncle to an unsuspecting innocent actress. Between the family of crazies, the actor and the actress cum heiress the mayhem is rampant. There is a hint of My Man Godfrey (1936) in The Cheaters except with lesser known actors in a less cohesive package. Had this film been made at MGM with an A-list cast it would most assuredly be a well remembered classic.
As the actor, a charity case who is initially taken into the Pidgeon household as merely a shallow stunt, is noted stage thespian Joseph Schildkraut. The Austrian native had several notable screen roles before The Cheaters, even becoming the first non American Oscar winner as Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. His part as Anthony Marchand or Mr. M, as he is hailed by the Pidgeons, is no star maker, but his confidence and presence shines through. Billie Burke, best known on screen as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and off screen as Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld, plays the kind of role she became famous for, the flibbertigibbet social matron, for whom social standing, status and celebrity reign supreme. As Mrs. Pidgeon, she is a snob but not a vicious one, instead, she is frivolous, financially foolish and flighty.
Best known as bad girl Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939), Ona Munson is terrific as Florie Watson, a part originally slated for actress Binnie Barnes. Munson does a fine job as the down on her luck actress, who inherits a bundle. She is completely down to earth and world weary at the same time. Sadly, Munson would commit suicide ten years later in New York City. Also noteworthy are Eugene Pallette as the Pidgeon patriarch, Norma Varden, as his loyal if not cynical secretary and Anne Gillis as spoiled to the bone daughter Angela (think Veda from Mildred Pierce in a comedy, if you can!).

The film's director, Joseph Kane, was Republic's top western man, but occasionally took the helm of some of their other more ambitious projects, such as The Cheaters. Repackaging for television in the 1950's, the movie became known as The Castaway and was chopped down to an hour. Long lost to many classic movie fans, the film resurfaced on Turner Classic Movies in December 2008.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Christmas and Stanwyck, These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

Unlike Remember the Night (1940), the Christmas flick starring Barbara Stanwyck, which is relatively unknown to the masses, Christmas in Connecticut is a Yuletide offering with Stanwyck that gains more of a following with each passing year. The highly successful actress, professional to a fault and proficient in both heavy drama and screwball comedy, created in this film, a character whose stylish sense of humor has charmed classic film lovers for over 60 years. In fact, the film itself has every bit of style and panache today ~ if not more so ~ as it did in 1945, when it was released by Warner Brothers. Even the department store delivery girl is chic and modern when she ushers in Stanwyck's swanky mink coat.

A Christmas Eve staple for decades, Christmas in Connecticut features Babs as Elizabeth Lane, author of a wildly popular homemaking column in the fictional magazine Smart Housekeeping. However, as it turns out, the Martha Stewart of her day is a complete fake and hasn't a domestic bone in her cosmopolitan body, and when her publisher asks her to play hostess to a young attractive war hero for Christmas, all heck breaks loose. The cast of characters, which is perfect to a fault, rings in the holiday with complete hilarious abandon, making each successive viewing more familiar and more smile inducing.

Barbara is joined in the merriment by Dennis Morgan as Jefferson Jones, the sailor, whose obvious charms entice both a Navy hospital nurse (Joyce Compton) and our magazine darling. But he's not alone, the cast is bulging at the seams with delightful talent including the rotund Sidney Greenstreet as Stanwyck's abominable boss Alexander Yardley, who huffs and puffs his way from Long Island to Connecticut, eating anything he can get his hands on along the way. And speaking of jolly fat men (no, HE'S not in this movie), this film offers double duty with S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall joining Greenstreet in a corpulent clique. As Uncle Felix, the Hungarian Sakall's verbal massacre of the English language is matched only by his deadpan delivery of it. When he is informed of the definition of the word catastrophe, it leaves his mouth pronounced "cat'e stroph" ~ no final "e" ~ in the thickest Hungarian accent imaginable and used often at the most opportune times. Joyce Compton is a peach as Nurse Mary Lee, who orchestrates the whole fiasco in an attempt to nab a marriage proposal from "Jeffy Boy" (Morgan). Reginald Gardiner, Una O'Connor and Frank Jenks round out the top notch ensemble.

So much of the dialogue in Christmas in Connecticut is devoted to food. Stanwyck, the "fabulous cook" who can't even boil water basically depends on Uncle Felix, a fabulous restaurateur, for sustenance. The portly gourmet delivers to her door a "yummy mushroom omelette" after her own attempts at breakfast yield a tin of sardines! It is from Felix that she obtains the copy for her magazine cavalcade of culinary delights. " I took crisp lettuce, romaine, and crinkly endive from my own garden for my husband's favorite salad. For this I made a rich, creamy blue cheese dressing. Then to prepare roast duck his favorite way, I rub salt and pepper on the inside, then brown the duck in its own fat..." The gastronomic references continue with Mr. Yardley's refusal to partake in his doctor's recommended Christmas menu: mashed prune whip and creamed turnip fluff. I'd pass too. But the epicurean descriptions add a festive holiday element displayed throughout the movie, an element enhanced by several snowy horse drawn sleigh rides ( jingle bells included). Stanwyck, Morgan and the rest of the crew combine to make Christmas in Connecticut a light and fluffy holiday confection, which if missed would be "cat' e stroph."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Bishop's Wife (1947): Story of a Well Tailored Angel

"This is a picture calculated to make an audience leave the theatre with a good feeling. It has a warmth and charm that makes believable the fantasy and has been put together with complete understanding by all involved." That is how the entertainment trade paper Variety began its review of The Bishop's Wife in November 1947. It is an apt statement to make for what has become a perennial holiday favorite. Many films move us on a personal level but Christmas movies hit us right at the heart for whatever the reason. They elicit such good and warm memories, whether as in my case it was watching them with parents, grandparents and other loved ones as a youth or simply having them playing in the background during holiday gatherings or decorating the tree. They are like old friends and to enjoy them at Yuletide becomes a tradition of sentiment not to be underrated or scoffed at. Samuel Goldwyn's The Bishop's Wife is one such seasonal classic.

Could there be a more suave, debonair or charming angel than Cary Grant? The actor made the perfect Dudley, a heavenly messenger/guardian sent to answer a prayer for guidance given by Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), a clergyman torn between the financial politics of building a massively ornate and superficial cathedral and the emotional needs of his neglected wife and child (Loretta Young and Karolyn Grimes). A poignant story told with charm, humor and tons of Hollywood gloss, the film offers a cinematic respite from the commercial brouhaha presented in modern times.

However, the final product, known and loved by audiences today, was a far cry from that originally planned. Originally directed by William A. Seiter, he was replaced by Henry Koster (who eventually was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film). Koster in turn switched the actors playing the parts of Dudley and the bishop. You see, Grant was originally set to play Bishop Brougham and Niven, the charming angel. Can you imagine? Another casting change came with the replacement of Teresa Wright, who was originally set to play the title role but at the time of Seiter's firing, Wright discovered she was pregnant and Loretta Young was cast. As the star trio settled into their respective roles, it became apparent that each was perfectly suited to his or her part.

The supporting cast appeared to be "heaven sent" as well, offering an assortment of characters from the wonderful Gladys Cooper, as the snobbish Mrs. Hamilton, a wealthy parishioner, whose money the bishop hopes to use in order to build his shiny new cathedral, to James Gleason as Sylvester, a friendly, down to earth cabbie, who admires Dudley's zest for life. There's also Elsa Lanchester, as the bishop's maid, Matilda. Her sense of flighty and giddy cannot be beat. There are also some carry overs from the previous years holiday offering, It's a Wonderful Life. Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu in the Capra classic, appears as the bishop's daughter Debby, while one of the boys Grimes meets playing in the snow is Bobby Anderson, young George Bailey in Life. Also on hand from Bedford Falls is Sara Edwards, who played Mary Bailey's mother, Mrs. Hatch, this time around playing a church organist.

The film is laced with touching sentimental vignettes, sure to set the mood for any lighting of the tree. When Grant's Dudley relates the Biblical story of David to young Debby, he ends his tale with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm to a captivated audience which includes the bishop's entire household. The Robert Mitchell Boys Choir sings O Sing to God, ushering in the Christmas spirit and raising goosebumps along the way and Cary even gets in on the musical feel good, playing a harp solo ~ what else would an angel play ~ of "Lost April", a beautiful composition by musical director Emil Newman (Grant was actually dubbed by musician Gail Laughton).

Not to be forgotten are Monty Wooley as a gruff professor who experiences the joys of the season after meeting the urbane angel, Sara Haden, as the bishop's secretary, Mildred Casaway and Gregg Toland's magnificent cinematography. Cary Grant was paid a handsome sum to play the handsome angel but for audiences of the day as well as those in the present, it was money well spent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Young in Heart (1938): Charming Charletons

Not to be confused with Young at Heart, a 1954 musical starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, The Young in Heart (1938) is a delightful, almost forgotten comedy produced by master showman David O. Selznick. Although not a holiday related film, The Young in Heart is often shown during the Christmas season and its theme of love, faith and generosity changing hard hearts into soft, is perfect for this time of year (actually any time of year).

The Carletons are a family of charming cons, grifters of the highest order, on the make for the biggest bundle they can find. The foursome includes father Carleton or Sahib (Roland Young), as he is called, due to his fictional background in India (sahib is an Indian term of respect which refers to European men stationed in India during its colonial period); mother Carleton or Marmee (Billie Burke), yes, as in the affectionate maternal moniker given in Little Women; dashing son Rick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.); and clever daughter George-Anne (Janet Gaynor), whose mentally at the helm of the pack of charismatic mercenaries. Tossed out of Monte Carlo (or as it is called via screen text at the film's beginning ~ The Riviera: Coney Island with a Monocle) by the authorities for shady dealings, the Carletons head to London, homeless and penniless, but magnificently tailored. En route, they meet a very kind but very lonely and more importantly, very wealthy old lady aptly named Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She is taken by the striking group (in more ways than one) and desolate about her solitude, invites them to stay with her at her London mansion. As part of a grand ruse, the mooching menagerie moves in with the old gal and starts acting responsibly, the men even gaining employment, something they've never known. Paulette Goddard and Richard Carlson play Fairbanks and Gaynor's sweethearts respectively.

Not a big box office hit, nor a much viewed classic in recent years, in 1938 The Young in Heart was overshadowed at the Selznick studios by the pre-production of the producer's mega project Gone with the Wind (1939). In his autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. devotes a mere quarter of a page to his contribution to the film. Paulette Goddard, a neighbor of David Selznick and hopeful for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in his film, was put under personal contract to the producer and cast in The Young in Heart. Married to Charlie Chaplin at the time*, Goddard made her feature debut in his silent classic Modern Times two years earlier and Heart would be her sound debut in a featured role (the vivacious actress had bit parts and was a chorus girl in some early musicals). Also making their debut is Richard Carlson, an actor who became a staple in Hollywood as a dependable second lead in several fine productions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, first billed Janet Gaynor would make this her last film before retirement and marriage to costume designer Adrian (although she would make one more film, Bernardine in 1957). Famous as the first actress to win a Best Actress Oscar, Gaynor was at the height of her career when choosing to leave films.

Roland Young and Billie Burke, as the wacky, ditsy heads of the Carleton family, reunited in this film after making a splash in the previous years ghostly comedy Topper. They would again make funny as daffy marrieds in the two Topper sequels. Fluttery Burke adds just the touch of feather brained whimsy for which she is famous. As the key figure of Miss Fortune, Selznick wanted to use famous Broadway stars Maud Adams and Laurette Taylor and both actresses even made a screen test but in the end, they passed on the opportunity and little known Minnie Dupree was cast, giving a charming performance as the spinster with the heart of gold.

As awards go, the clever comedy was nominated for Oscars in the Music and Cinematography categories. Much thought to detail and resources were put into The Young in Heart and the great deco sets are superb. Speaking of design, the car in which the Sahib attempts to sell as his livelihood, the "Flying Wombat", was actually a 1938 Corsair and was designed by Rust Heinz, member of the famed Heinz Ketchup family. Reported cost in 1938 dollars to produce the car...$24,000! Unfortunately, with Heinz death, plans to complete the auto never materialized.

* For more on the Charlie Chaplin ~ Paulette Goddard Marriage you may want to check out, "The Chaplin/Goddard Marriage: Was It Legal?"


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