Thursday, December 22, 2011

Heidi (1937): Shirley Temple Climbs a Mountain

During the 1930’s in Hollywood, the top brass at 20th Century-Fox knew a good thing when they saw it and they saw it in a little tyke named Shirley Temple. Depression weary audiences flocked to the movies of the grammer school cupie-doll in droves, allowing her to single-handedly save her home studio from bankruptcy. Already the top box office draw in America for two years running, Temple was starting to age by 1937 (she was all of 9 years-old) and Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck handed over the newest Temple vehicle, Heidi, to director Allan Dwan to see what he could do with it. It would be the first of three film collaborations for Dwan and Temple and the most successful, being a perfect vehicle for the star and keeping her at the top of the box office for a third year in a row.

Based on the classic children’s story by Joanna Spyri, Heidi is a little orphan girl, thrust upon her brusque and bitter grandfather by a mercenary and unloving aunt in the Swiss Alps. Cold and indifferent at first, the Grandfather (Jean Hersholt) warms quickly to the natural and loving child and the two become very attached. Enter evil aunt Dete again, whisking Heidi away to sell her into servitude to a wealthy aristocrat. While the Grandfather searches high and low for his beloved grandchild, Heidi begs to be taken back to her Alpine haven, only to be told she must stay in the opulent household to entertain a sad crippled girl named Klara (Marcia Mae Jones). All this is overseen by Klara’s sinister governess Fraulein Rottenmeier (Mary Nash).

Temple could have easily taken this to the saccharine, and some may say she did, but her natural charm and good humor shines through and makes for a highly entertaining family film. The fake snow proved a problem though when little Shirley accidentally swallowed some and had to be off the set for a day or two to recuperate. But if the snow was phony the settings are authentic in look and feel and that is mostly attributed to the fact that much of the outdoors was shot at Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, California.

A musical number, “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” was inserted in the middle of the picture, much influenced by the miniature star herself. As a personal observation, the scene seems tacked on. It’s actually a dream sequence but lends nothing at all to the story. However, it is a cute way to interject Shirley in a few ornate costumes.

Heidi is a favorite around the holiday season. The snow, the classic story for children, the curmudgeonly Santa look-alike in the Grandfather all come together to give a Christmas aura (plus, the film climaxes on Christmas Eve). I know I first saw it as a kid on Christmas break from school. It was actually the first Shirley Temple movie I ever saw and for anyone who hasn’t seen one and wonders what she’s all about, it is a good film to get started.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deck the Halls With Tinsel(town)!

Classic Hollywood knew how to deck the halls (and the terrace and the pool house and the second story mezzanine and the....well, anyway) with all the glitz and glamour that only it could.  Bet Elizabeth Taylor (above) knew the joys of icy diamonds even at this youthful age.

Alice Faye is definitely in the giving Yuletide spirit!

Gene Tierney makes a lovely and colorful Christmas card.

Cary Grant mugging as St. Nick with galpals Lucille Ball and Ann Sheridan egg(nog)ing him along.

Joan Bennett and daughter Melinda in the late 1930's.

Carole Lombard has been a good girl (or maybe a bad one), as evidenced by her haul of Christmas goodies.

June Allyson filling her stockings with care.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951): Ring Those “Silver Bells”

Damon Runyon was a writer of short stories whose literary world was hard boiled and street smart, where women were ‘dames’ or ‘tomatoes’ and men were named ‘Benny the Gouge’ and ‘Harry the Horse’. He wrote of the shady types whose domain was Broadway during and shortly after Prohibition. Paramount produced two films in 1934 based on Runyon tales, Little Miss Marker and The Lemon Drop Kid. In 1949, the studio remade Little Miss Marker as Sorrowful Jones starring their top comedian Bob Hope. Hope, along with co-star Lucille Ball, made the film a big success and the funny man decided he wanted to try another Runyon story as a film vehicle. The next year production started on a remake of the other ‘34 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid.

It’s silly fun, like most Bob Hope movies, but an added attraction was a holiday ditty written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, called “Silver Bells”. It was sung by Hope and his female lead, blonde Marilyn Maxwell and became an instant hit and holiday standard. Story has it the song was originally going to be called “Tinkle Bells” but Mrs. Jay Livingston advised against it, making reference to childhood slang for urination, hence “Silver”.

It’s a fun story. Hope plays a small time swindler called, you guessed it, the Lemon Drop Kid, who hustles tips at a Florida horse racing track and touts a race to a gangster’s unsuspecting moll. The losing horse ends up costing the thug $10,000, and the mob comes a knocking. Kid heads back to his stomping grounds of NYC and tries to solicit help from his chorus girl cutie Maxwell. Instead he ends up concocting a scheme to collect money for a fake retirement home called, get this, the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls! Classic. Bob gets to dress in a sad looking Santa suit (as do his band of shady elves) and even takes a turn in drag as one of the “old dolls”.

To many, Bob Hope is remembered for his television comedy specials, his USO tours or his numerous turns as Oscar host but after transitioning from vaudeville in the late 1930’s, he became a major film star at Paramount. His “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour were mega hits and his non-Road films were box office gold as well. By the time he made The Lemon Drop Kid, he was top of his game.

The colorful characters of Runyon’s world were portrayed by a colorful roster of Hollywood supporting players. William Frawley (who made this film just before starting his run as Fred Mertz on the long running T.V. classic, “I Love Lucy”), Jane Darwell, Lloyd Nolan and Fred Clark are all hilarious or hilariously menacing. And then there’s the pretty Marilyn Maxwell, but when it’s all said and done, it’s Bob Hope film and Bob more than delivers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934): Laurel and Hardy Meet Santa Claus (AND the Boogeyman!)

As a kid, I always looked forward to March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934) starring the hysterical twosome Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. But I must admit that I did so with excited trepidation. To put it bluntly, that flick creeped me out! Much like The Wizard of Oz, March (originally released as Babes in Toyland), featured many surreal looking characters and situations that fascinated as well as terrified this five year-old.
Based on a Victor Herbert operetta from 1903, the film was a fantasy extravaganza without the use of the yet to be invented CGI. Set entirely in Toyland, bizarre almost grotesque looking costumes adorned inhabitants such as the Cat and the Fiddle, the Three Little Pigs and even a Mickey Mouse (almost) look-alike. THEN there were the Boogeymen, Sasquatch wannabes who hooted and hollered while terrorizing Toyland. Santa Clause even makes an appearance though he looks as if he made a stop at the North Pole Bar and Grill on his way in (make it a double Blitzen). But of all these weird and wonderful eccentrics two ‘humans’ were creepiest of all and perhaps that’s because they were real people. First, Silas Barnaby, the meanest man in Toyland, was a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the hated black clad villain in silent film melodramas. You know, the one who tied the virginal damsel in distress to the railroad? Henry Brandon, billed as his birth name Kleinbach here, would again play this Barnaby-like character in an Our Gang episode a few years down the road. Second, and perhaps most surprising was Mother Goose. I don’t know, when she walked out with her gray finger waved, Goldie locked hair set underneath that tall prick-a-finger-you-die pointy black witches hat, heavy framed glasses sloped down on her nose and Salem witch trial collar wrapped ‘round her neck, I just didn’t get a good vibe. On top of that, this was all heaped around a face that didn’t look a day over 25! Creepy…….
But these were mere window dressing for the deco grand guignol by producer Hal Roach. The film was really a vehicle for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose massive popularity was catapulted further still by the release of this film in Fall 1934. As Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, L and H tumble and bumble in the most celebrated way while trying to help Widow Peep and her daughter Little Bo Peep battle the nasty Barnaby, who holds the mortgage on the shoe they all live in together (get it, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe?). Bo Peep makes eyes at Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son and he gets in on the action too.
Although Stan and Ollie were the stars of the film no holds barred, the other actors overplayed their parts to perfection. I mean this was Toyland in the midst of the Depression. Kids loved it and dragged parents in droves. Charlotte Henry, who was cast as Bo Peep, had just played another literary ingenue as the title character in the previous year’s Alice in Wonderland at Paramount. As the comely maiden, wearing a blond wig borrowed from Jethreen Bodine, she always reminded me very much of June Marlow, another Hal Roach player who immortalized Miss Crabtree in his Our Gang shorts. And speaking of resembling someone else in Tinseltown, if you have the opportunity to check the film out sometime, see if you don’t agree that as Tom-Tom, tenor Felix Knight could be the kid brother of Robert Taylor.

Seems kind of odd that physical comedy giants L and H would be plunked down in the middle of a Herbert operetta but for celluloid whimsy it works and Stan and Ollie aren’t required to sing anyway (although Oliver Hardy did get his show business start singing). With the flood of television sets in the 1950’s and 60’s, March of the Wooden Soldiers, also like The Wizard of Oz, made annual appearances to generations of kiddies. Colorized at the end of the 20th century, the original black and white version is better, lending an even eerier feel to an already tantalizing funfest.


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