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Arsenic and Old Lace

Reportedly Cary Grant was later unhappy with his acting in this film, thinking it hackneyed and completely over the top. Indeed his performance is over the top, as is nearly everything else in this film. Based on a long-running Broadway play, the overall direction is stagey, all the acting is overdone, the villains are cartoonish, and the supposedly suspenseful scenes are far from scary. But these are not actually reasons to avoid this delightful little film. Light entertainment, yes, but entertaining nevertheless.

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Family Plot

It is easy to dismiss Hitchock’s last film as one of his “light” works because of its comedy, made-for-TV production values and the director’s failing health during the time of shooting. But Family Plot still bears some of the director’s old masterful touches and his impish sense of humor. The story concerns two parallel couples, a pair of sophisticated jewel robbers (Karen Black and William Devane) and a struggling taxi driver and pseudo psychic (Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris). The script by Ernest Lehman, who previously worked with Hitch on North by Northwest (1958), supposedly split the story evenly between the two couples, but reportedly Hitch got quite a kick out of working with Dern and Harris and tilted the plot to feature them more  during filming. It is their scenes together that make the film a joy to watch and give a new slant to the Hitchcockian couple. While Dern and Harris are no Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Hitchcock, freed from oppressive producers and official censorship, could play with compromising positions and innuendo to an extent that he had never been allowed. The sequence in which their sabotaged car races down a mountain road is the most famous in the film, but the dialogue in the kitchen which has Harris chomping on a hamburger while badgering Dern to make her another is a personal favorite of mine.

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Walking Tall

I knew the actor John Don Baker from a couple of pretty lousy movies he is in that were lampooned on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” so my expectations were pretty low when I sat down to watch Walking Tall, the biopic of Bufford Pusser, a retired pro wrestler who returns to his hometown in rural Tennesse to find it overrun with corruption, and launches a one-main campaign against the bad guys. Although the crimes, namely running illegal booze and gambling, seem tame by today’s standards, Pusser is absolutely disgusted. If there is a role that Baker was born to play, this is it, and it is his cocksure strutting, good ol’ boy charm and unbridled rage that makes the film worth watching.  Bruce Glover (father of Crispin) plays Pusser’s right-hand man. The story seems to be partially fictionalized or at least exaggerated, but supposedly the real Pusser survived several assassination attempts which were just as dramatic as shown in the film.

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Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark is a film that was much better than I expected, and I am sure this taught thriller came as quite a surprise for many people who saw it on its initial release. Audrey Hepburn had dipped her toes  into the thriller genre in Charade (1963), but in that pairing with Cary Grant, she was still coasting on her glamorous image. Here the glamor is traded in for vulnerability as Hepburn plays a blind housewife, who is not yet used to being blind, and whose husband is often away on photography assignments. An adaption of a 1966 play that was a Broadway hit for Lee Remick and Robert Duvall, the film is set almost entirely in a downstairs Greenwich Village, which is spacious by today’s New York standards, but adds to the claustrophobia and sense of entrapment in the film. Although I wouldn’t go as far as Stephen King  who said that Alan Arkin’s performance “may be the greatest evocation of screen villainy ever,” he is truly frightening as the bad guy trying to find a doll stuffed with heroin somewhere in the apartment, and bending a pair of cops to his will. The climactic scene between Hepburn and Arkin, which gradually fades into complete darkness is truly terrifying.

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The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story is a film that I have seen countless times, and enjoy it more every time. Why is it the prospect of watching a Sandra Bullock rom-com sends shivers up my spine, but I can watch this film over and over again and enjoy it just as much, even more, with each new viewing? I am not so sure it is simple nostalgia. Granted, the verbal gymnastics present in each and every line of dialogue, evoking the feel of the early ’40s, are a delight to listen to. A lot the enduring appeal of The Philadelphia Story must come down to the sheer charm of the performers. Katharine Hepburn is pitch perfect in a role that was quite literally written for her. Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant also seem to inhabit their roles, and even little Virginia Weidler is excellent as Dinah Lord, who sees the outcome of the weekend long before anyone else. Many of Jimmy Stewart’s best lines seem great coming from Jimmy Stewart, although I shudder to think of the possibility someone like, say, Tom Hanks reciting them in modern language. To wit: “Well, l made a funny discovery. In spite of the fact that somebody’s up from the bottom he can still be quite a heel,  and even though somebody else is born to the purple,  he can still be a very nice guy.” It sounds great coming from Stewart, but any actor today would sink in that much sentimentality.

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Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Having played more serious roles inDestination Tokyo (1943) and Notorious (1946), Cary Grant returned to comedy with Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the story of a New York adman who decides to turn his life around by building the perfect home for himself and his family in Connecticut, a pet project that  takes over his life and finances in short order. The story may sound familiar as it was remade as The Money Pit (1986) with Tom Hanks and Are We Done Yet? (2007) with Ice Cube. While the original is not an laugh-out-loud funny movie in the way Grant’s earlier comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938)were, there is something reassuringly charming in watching the attractive middle aged couple of Grant and Myrna Loy bickering and then making up, bickering and then making up, over and over again, and Melvyn Douglas is somewhat comical as their best friend lawyer, who warns them against every step they take.

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To Catch a Thief

With Hitchcock being my favorite director, and Cary Grant my favorite actor, To Catch a Thief is of course a movie I have seen many, many times before. Hitchcock and Grant made two darker films together: Suspicion and Notorious and two lighter films together: To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. But even in Hitchcock’s lightest films, there is something new you can find with each viewing.One thing that really struck me this time around is that To Catch a Thief was Hitchcock’s love letter to his wife and constant collaborator, Alma Reville.

Alma had scriptwriting and continuity credits in several of her husband’s films, and played some role or another in the creation of all of them, whether her name appeared in the credits or not. Biographer Patrick Mcgilligan reports that Hitch would be devastated if his wife lightly criticized even a single scene in one of his films, so important was her opinion to him. The couple loved the French Riviera and often went there to celebrate their birthdays (one day apart from each other in August). Mrs. Hitchcock loved the cuisine of the area and excelled in duplicating it at home, and Mr. Hitchcock loved French wine, becoming a renowned connoisseur, often bringing his own bottles into the regions famous restaurants. By pursuing To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock was giving his wife the opportunity to work together in their favorite place, and the film became on one of their closest collaborations. One of the most famous sequences in the film, in which Grace Kelly races along a coastline road while a nervous Cary Grant looks over his shoulder at the police in pursuit was planned shot by shot by Alma, who knew the area well she was able to give exact instructions to second unit cameramen on what to shoot for back projections.

The film also brings together the Hitchcocks’ favorite actors. Cary Grant was, in Hitchcock’s own words, “the only actor I ever loved,” and Alma was very close with Grace Kelly. Even after she became the Princess of Monaco, Kelly continued to visit the Hitchcocks at their home and often spend a lot of time in the kitchen with Alma. And so To Catch a Thief can be seen as a celebration of everything the Hitchcocks enjoyed together.

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Destination Tokyo

Although I am (obviously) a Cary Grant fan, I have never been into war films, especially submarine films. So Destination Tokyo was a film that I have had on DVD for ages, and always put off watching until today, when I could not find anything I wanted to watch more. . It turned out to be a fairly well-made tense drama with some genuine suspense. Cary Grant plays the captain of a US Navy sub given the dangerous mission of sneaking into Tokyo Bay and sending men ashore to gather topographical and weather data needed by the Air Force for the Doolittle raid. The crew is played by character actors such as Alan Hale, Dane Clark, and William Prince, a young John Forsythe in his first credited role, and an excellent John Garfield, who has all of the best lines in the film. “The only kind of babies I am interested in,” he says in one scene, “are the ones born 21 years ago.” Robert Hutton is a timid submariner on his first patrol, who goes on to play a critical role in the mission. As a long-time resident in Japan, I was made slightly uneasy by some of the anti-Japanese propaganda, but realize this is is far from the worst of what came out of Hollywood during the war.

Grant, who became a US citizen in the year proceeding this film, was sometimes criticized for not doing more to “do his part” for the war effort. Grant’s biographer Marc Eliot claims that the actor actually volunteered to enlist, but was told he could better serve by basically spying on his wife Barbara Hutton, whose previous husband, Curt Haugwitz-Reventlow, was a possible Nazi-sympathizer. Grant was also instructed to make films highlighting the war effort, and this is one of the results of that command.

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Holiday

Holiday is a gem of a film which is not seen or appreciated nearly enough. Although not as widely available today as The Philadelphia Story (1940) or as celebrated as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are perhaps best paired in this, the third or their four films together.

Grant plays free-thinking, ambitious bachelor Johnny Case. During the first vacation of his long working life, he meets and falls in love with Julia Setton (Doris Nolan), not knowing she is from one of the richest families in New York. Julia’s sister Linda (Hepburn) takes an instant liking to Johnny, who tells her of his plan to “retire young, work old” saving money in order to take time of work and enjoy life, but part of the young part, and go back to work when he knows what he is working for. Julia’s father is apprehensive of the young suitor, seeing him as representative of a “strange new spirit in the world, a spirit of revolt,” but reluctantly consents to their proposed marriage. Linda wants to plan an intimate party to announce the engagement, but their father throws a New Year’s Eve gala instead. During the party, Linda hides out in her favorite room in the house, where she is joined by brother Ned, a talented musician who sheepishly submits to his father’s demands that he go into business. The party away from the party is rounded out by Johnny’s friends the Potters (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon), who are free spirits much like Linda. When Johnny also decamps to the playroom, it becomes clear he has much more in common with Linda than Julia, who can’t comprehend his plan to give up business to enjoy life.

Hepburn puts in one of her most emotionally rich performances of her early career, and the scenes of her and Grant together are simply priceless.

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My Favorite Wife

My Favorite Wife is a pleasant little slice of a cinematic cake, which is delectable on its own, and becomes all the more fascinating when considering the inspiration and influence of this little film, and the off-camera real-life dramas surrounding it.

In the opening scene, Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife, Ellen (Irene Dunne), a photographer who has been missing for seven years after going down in a shipwreck, declared legally dead, and then has the same judge marry him to Bianca (Gail Patrick). Later that same day, Ellen returns from the island where she has been stranded only to hear from her mother-in-law (Ann Shoemaker), that Nick has remarried. Ellen launches a scheme to win back her husband and two kids (Scotty Beckett and Mary Lou Harrington), which is complicated when the man she was stranded with for seven years (Randolph Scott) returns and they resume their habit of calling each other “Adam” and “Eve.” Ellen fights to win back Nick, while he frets over what might have have happened during Adam and Eve’s time together, and the whole thing ends in predictable screwball comedy fashion.

It was a surprise to learn that the script was based on the 1864 Alfred Lord Tennyson poem “Enoch Arden.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) The poem tells the story of merchant seaman Enoch Arden, who shares a last name with Cary Grant’s character, returning home ten years after a shipwreck to find his wife married to his childhood rival. My Favorite Wife also has a complicated remake history. In 1962, George Cukor began directing the remake Something’s Got to Give, envisioned as a comeback vehicle for Marilyn Monroe, who hadn’t made a film in over a year. The film was to star Monroe in the Irene Dunne role, Dean Martin in the Cary Grant role, Cyd Charisse as Bianca, and Wally Cox as the timid shoe salesman who poses as “Adam” in order to ally Nick’s fears. Production problems set in almost immediately. Monroe missed her first day of work and many after, then took a holiday to go to New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy. Exasperated, Cukor fired Monroe and was trying to get her replaced with Lee Remick, when Dean Martin backed out. The production shut down, and another remake, Move Over, Darling was made the following year with Doris Day and James Gardner.

There was also plenty going on behind the scenes in the casting of My Favorite Wife. Earlier in his career, Grant was often pressured by studio execs to date young starlets, a common practice at the time, used to generate publicity, and it Grant’s case, to offset circulating rumors that the sauve leading man was homosexual. One of the starlets he was photographed during this time was Gail Patrick, who plays the “kissless” second Mrs. Arden. In his early years in Hollywood, Grant’s roommate and constant companion was Randolph Scott, who plays his rival here. There has long been speculation that the two actors were long-time lovers, and Grant biographer Marc Eliot writes as if this were a fact, while Scott’s surviving family have denied the rumors. In either case, the two were extremely close and also extremely competitive, so it must have caused a bit of friction between them to be cast in the same film, as Grant was at the pinnacle of his long career and the most in-demand actor in Hollywood, while Scott had been starring mostly in B films, although he would later find his forte in Western films. The casting of Grant and Dunne together was calculated to cash in on the earlier runaway success of The Awful Truth (1937), although the two stars reportedly did not get along so well off camera.

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The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

This film opens with one of the great cinematic reveals of the ’40s. Domestic servant Bessie (Lillian Randolph, who made a lasting impression with her small role as Annie in It’s a Wonderful Life), wakes up high school student Susan (Shirley Temple), who doesn’t want to get up as she feels “sklunklish.” When Bessie threatens to wake up “the judge,” Susan is up with a shot. Bessie goes to wake up the judge, the audience is allow to believe the judge is Susan’s father. But a slow dolly shot gradually shows Margert Turner (Myrna Loy). Margaret is a no-nonsense judge who is particular tough on playboys and philanderers, and there is not exception when  later that morning one shows up in her court room in the form of painter Richard Nuggent (Cary Grant.) Nuggent meets Susan later the same day, and she quickly develops a crush on the mysterious man. Misunderstandings, flared tempers, and mixed emotions follow.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer falls neatly into the paradigm of the screwball comedy, in which Grant honed his comedic skills a decade earlier, with films such as The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing up Baby (1938).  By 1947, the heyday of the genre was more or less over, and while this film follows the overall structure of the the screwball comedy, it is distinctly more mature than earlier films crafted in the same mold. As Nuggent returns from his first court-appointed date with Susan, designed to make her schoolgirl’s crush on him wear away, he has a private talk with Judge Marget, telling her about his mother hiding a philosophy book inside the cover of a novel with a racy title, teaching him not to judge a book by its cover. While life lessons were always a part of screwball comedies, beginning with It Happened One Night (1934), these were normally slotted in to very brief breaks in spitfire dialogue, and never conversations stretching to a few minutes. Nevertheless, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer has lots of snappy lines, and ends with a happily-ever-after ending that slides into home base in the final seconds of screen time. This is a film that sits between the screwball comedies of the ’30s and the more substantial dramatic comedies of the ’50s, such as Harvey (1950) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

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Night and Day

As a big Cary Grant fan, a Cole Porter fanatic, and a member of the legions of admirers of Casablanca, this Porter biopic, from an era when the term “biopic” had yet to be coined, by Casablanca (1942) director Michael Curtiz, has the potential to be my favorite movies of all time. But, unexpectedly, I found a bit lacking here. The adaptation is ludicrously inaccurate in dealing with the facts of Porter’s life. The songwriter’s homosexuality is, not surprisingly, not even referred to, the details of Porter meeting and marrying Linda Lee Thomas are all wrong, and there is the fact that Cary Grant does not look the slightest bit like the short, crippled, sullen-eye composer.

But none of these are really the reason I don’t like this more. Although Night and Day is heavily fictionalized, it suffers from somehow not being fantastic enough. Many scenes are unnatural and stagey. An early scene set at a college-aged Porter at home for Christmas, with the gathered family spontaneously singing “In the Still of the Night” together, a major anachronism, as the song was not written until much later, in 1937. But this is one of the best scenes in the film. A Cole Porter biopic should be unabashedly artificial, just like a Porter stage musical.

But Night and Day is not completely without its merits. The arrangements of Porter songs, both those is the foreground of the action and those used as incidentally music, are good, and Porter’s real-life friend and mentor Montey Wooly, playing himself steals every scene he is in. As to the casting of Grant in the central role, a journalist asked the composer who he would like to have play him in a film based on his life, and Porter replied, “why Cary Grant, of course.” Grant read the quote in the papers and was intrigued enough to pursue the role.