Outrageous Fortune

I have no idea what possessed me to actually get my hands on a copy of this film and then sit through it, but it was pretty bad. This was made at the height of Shelley Long’s fame for “Cheers,” and the height of Bette Midler’s fame for being Bette Midler. The producers obviously thought that having Midler play a street-smart New Yorker and Long play an uptight, prissy actress thrown together in a plot involving CIA operatives would lead to instant hilarity, but there is really nothing funny here. Even George Carlin arriving two thirds into the film couldn’t do much to save this disaster.

His Girl Friday

What can be said about His Girl Friday that has not already been said a thousand times over? The dialogue by Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur was at the time the best ever written for the screen, and that claim probably still holds true today. For the first time in Hollywood history, the writers dared to have more than one character speak a true people, and director Hawks dared to allow more than one actor to speaks at the same time, making the dialogue more realistic than anything that had proceeded it. Each and every line in this film is infused with so much wit and verbal acrobatics, that each line fits into the whole but can also stand on its own. The fact that lines from this film are still recycled in the likes of Kill Bill prove that this is a milestone in screen writing after 70 years.

Cary Grant is at his peak playing charismatic comedic roles here, but this is really Rosalind Russell’s film. Based Hecht and MacArthur’s play The Front Page, director Howard Hawks had his secretary read the then male part of Hildy Johnson in audition, and found he preferred the role as a fast-talking dame, and went after Carole Lambard and a bevy of other actresses before finally settling on Russell. Of course today it is impossible imagine this role played by anyone other than Russell, who is perfect in her role as a fast-talking newspaper writer and actually manages to upstage the always smooth Cary Grant in scene after scene.

I Was a Male War Bride

This film is based on the memoirs of Henri Rochard, a Belgian member of the French Army who married a female member of the American expeditionary forces and made a successful, but very trying attempt go with her back to the US. Although countless members of the US military married European women, very few married European men and so Rochard (Cary Grant) must go through endless red tape in a system set up for war brides. Ann Sheridan is excellent as a tough, brassy WAC lieutenant. Grant, while never seeming especially French, is at his comedic best, and  the final scenes in which he has to don drag and pass as an army nurse to board a ship have to be seen to be believed.

Witness for the Prosecution

The courtroom drama has to be one of the most challenging genres for directors, given the basic necessity of creating a dramatic situations that stay in one location, and having to create a narrative structure that sticks to the basic manner of legal proceedings. Hitchcock tried and later admitted he had failed in the Paradine Case (1947), which coincidentally also starred Charles Laughton. Many other directors have foundered in Hitchcock’s wake.

Billy Wilder succeeds, indeed triumphs, with the genre in Witness for the Prosecution, thanks in no small part to a bravura performance by Charles Laughton, as Sir Wilfred Robarts, a master barrister who is suffering from heart problems and takes a difficult case against the orders of his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). Sir Wilfred’s antagonist is not a brilliant prosecuting attorney and not even the surprise witness they call to the stand, but the importance of him remaining calm for the sake of his heart during a trial that has him genuinely intrigued.

In the trailer Laughton filmed in 1957, he asks that no one give away the ending of the film, and so I’m not about to.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.