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Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time starts with a prologue befitting its fairy tale title:

Someone told us a story the other day that sounded fantastic. But in a world that is so trouble today and where reality is so grim–fantasy was a welcome relief. Thinking you might feel the same way about it–we are passing this yarn on to you. Relax and pull up a chair. Once upon a time—

This intro succinctly sets the tone for this light movie, which is an early example of what today would be called a “family film.” The story opens with theater owner Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant), who has suffered flop after flop and suddenly in need of $100,000 dollars in order to save his theater. Throwing a coin over his shoulder for good luck, he meets the two boys who pick it up, and becomes the first person who actually listens to their claim to fame, namely that they have a caterpillar who dances to the tune of “Yes, Sir That’s My Baby.” Seeing dollar signs, Flynn forms a partnership with the boy, hoping to build a show around the bug and save his theater. Flynn and his right hand man Moke (character actor James Gleason in a bigger role than usual) call in the press corps who are at first unimpressed. But then a sentimental radio show on the bug touches a nerve with the greater public and then Curly the caterpillar becomes an overnight sensation and Walt Disney agrees to buy it for the 100 thou that Flynn needs for his theater. Meanwhile Flynn and the boy bond, fight, and reconcile, while his older sister (Janet Blair) serves as the romantic interest on the sidelines.

It is not really clear what Grant is doing in this film which seems to be have been made more with a kid audience in mind, but he might have simply wanted a break after the seriousness of Destination Tokyo (1943). As expected,  Grant does a fine job playing an incurable optimist who can win anyone over to his point of view. The constant tugging at the heartstrings gets a bit tiring at times, but this is enjoyable for what it is–a little scoop of cinematic ice cream.

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Dr. No

Other than snippets I happened to catch on television, I have never actually seen a single James Bond film. I have often considered watching the series starting with the first and progressing until the films lost their appeal for me. After watching Dr. No, I found I could pretty much end after the first one. I was somewhat interested in the series after reading a biography of Hitchcock, who bemoaned the fact that the Bond films ripped off his North by Northwest. Indeed, Bond creator Ian Flemming famously created the super spy with Cary Grant in mind for a film adaptation, although the first novel in the series was actually published a few years before the Hitchcock-Grant collaboration.

In my opinion, Hitchcock needn’t have worried. Although Sean Connery’s Bond has the same cool, collected charm under distress that Grant perfected in North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s sense of suspense and excitement are missing. Ken Adam’s production design, especially the kitsch sets in Dr. No’s underwater lair set the tone for the first two decades of the series, and was one of the few things to make the film interesting for me.

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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.