The Male Animal

The Male Animal, 1942, Warner Bros. Starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson. Directed by Elliott Nugent. B&W, 101 minutes.

Earnest professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), are preparing to celebrate Homecoming (which happens to land on Ellen’s birthday), along with the rest of the fictional Midwestern University campus. They’re having a small gathering before the big game, and among the guests are Ellen’s former beau, Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), and one of the school’s narrow-minded trustees, Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette).

Tommy isn’t thrilled Ed is going to be there to start with, and his mild concern turns to great dismay when he learns one of his students has commended him for his “bravery” in reading a literary piece by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the self-proclaimed anarchist convicted of first-degree murder in one of the most controversial court cases of the twentieth century. Tommy plans to read it simply because it’s a fine piece of writing, not because of any political stand, but he’s in trouble. The trustees are ridding the school of “reds” — anyone suspected of communist sympathies.

Jack Carson, Olivia de Havilland in The Male Animal
Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson

Add to his concerns his growing conviction Ellen would be happier with the recently separated Joe. Ellen, for her part, is doing nothing to dissuade him from those thoughts. Only Joe seems uncertain about the potential of a future with his former girlfriend. Joe, it turns out, isn’t as dumb as Tommy would like to believe he is, and sees the situation with a fair amount of clarity.

The Male Animal is light satire about serious issues such as censorship and racism. While the objects of these concerns may be different than today, the rhetoric is much the same, making this film relevant to audiences 75 years after its release.

The movie premiered in Columbus, Ohio, with James Thurber, co-author of the popular play on which the film is closely based, in attendance as a special honoree. The occasion focused on the collegiate theme of the story, including a huge dinner at Thurber’s old fraternity house. Honoring Thurber, who didn’t directly work on the film, was legitimate, as screenwriters Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Stephen Morehouse Avery kept their script true to the original play, and the star of the Broadway production, Elliott Nugent, directed the film. It was as close to a Thurber screenplay as you could get without having the man actually work on the script.

Henry Fonda, Jack Carson in The Male Animal
Henry Fonda, Jack Carson

The studio promoted the film as a love triangle between Tommy, Ellen, and Ellen’s sister, Pat (Joan Leslie), but Pat barely makes an appearance and has nothing to do with the tension between the Turners. Apparently, the provocative nature of the other woman was thought to be needed to sell this film, even though it was actually the other man at issue.

Thurber had a sly wit, and that’s reflected in the dialogue. This is a smart movie poking fun at a serious topic, with a talented cast (down to Tommy’s student, Michael, played by Herbert Anderson, who would go on to be best known as Dennis the Menace’s father). Both stars are at their comedic best, and while these may not have been their most challenging roles, they brought extra depth to the characters lesser actors or actresses may have failed to do. The film moves at a good pace and manages to deliver a serious message in a natural manner. The Male Animal is well worth the watch.

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Princess O’Rourke

Princess O’Rourke, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn. Directed by Norman Krasna. B&W, 94 minutes.

Princess Maria (Olivia de Havilland), heir to the throne of an unnamed European country, has taken refuge in New York City for the duration of WWII. With her is her uncle Holman (Charles Coburn), who shows particular concern she marry soon and produce male heirs. He has someone picked out, a man for whom Maria quite clearly states she feels no attraction.

On a flight to California, Maria, who is afraid of flying, takes too many sleeping pills, and when bad weather forces the plane to return home, the pilot, Eddie O’Rourke (Robert Cummings), co-pilot Dave Campbell (Jack Carson) and stewardess (Julie Bishop) aren’t able to wake her. To further complicate matters, Maria is flying under the name Mary Williams, and she gave no address when she booked her flight.

Eddie takes her home, but is careful to have Dave and his wife Jean (Jane Wyman) stop by to help him care for the heavily sedated woman.

It isn’t long before Maria and Eddie have fallen for each other, but he still doesn’t know who she is, and royal constraints are pulling tight.

olivia-de-havilland-robert-cummings-in-princess-orourke
Olivia de Havilland, Julie Bishop, Robert Cummings, Jack Carson

Olivia de Havilland later called this role “one of the most satisfying” she did while under contract to Warner Bros., even though it came at a turbulent time in her life. Between the time filming was completed and the movie was released, she sued her studio in a move that would ultimately significantly weaken the studio system Hollywood was built on. She won the lawsuit, but did not work for nearly two years while she was essentially blacklisted.

This was the directorial debut for Norman Krasna, who was well established as a screenwriter by this time, including such movies as Bachelor Mother and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Krasna won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay.

olivia-de-havilland-stars-in-princess-orourke
Olivia de Havilland

The final scenes allegedly include an appearance by President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala, although the truth appears to be the dog on the screen was a different Scottish Terrier. Regardless, the pup plays an endearing part as messenger for Maria, who has spent a restless night trying to resolve her problem.

This is a pleasant, lightweight comedy, not of the calibre of the film to which it is so often compared, Roman Holiday, but it has developed a following of its own. Olivia de Havilland has the poise and beauty to make her convincing as a princess, and Robert Cummings is a pleasure as the bewildered suitor who doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into by falling in love.

It moves at a decent pace until the final scenes, when it starts to drag a little. It has a stellar cast, strong script and overall, is a charming film classic movie fans will enjoy.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard.  Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  B&W, 94 minutes.

This charming romantic comedy is a departure for Alfred Hitchcock from his usual suspense dramas, but it is a delightful one, with the best elements of the story found in his direction and the details of the finely written script by Norman Krasna.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a happily married couple living in New York City, where he’s a successful attorney. Their marriage, while loving, is spotted by occasional arguments that can last for days — as do the reconciliations.

One day, when asked if, given the chance, would he marry her all over again, David alarmingly, if not playfully, says, “no.” That same day he discovers that, in fact, they never were legally married. Ann, too, soon separately learns this uncomfortable truth, and expects David to take steps to immediately right the situation. While he has no intention of leaving the marriage, he doesn’t do things the way she’s thinking he should, and she kicks him out.

Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard
Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard

David’s long-time law partner, Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond), it turns out, has always admired Ann, and he sees this as his opportunity to pursue her romantically. Ann, while not fully over David, welcomes Jeff’s advances, and events are set in motion for the permanent dissolution of a relationship that never was what the partners believed in the first place. Yet neither Ann nor David are truly quite ready to lose the other.

In later years, Hitchcock claimed he’d done this film as a favor to Carole Lombard, telling others she had been capable of more than the lightweight comedy work she’d been doing. He reportedly wanted to showcase her in something more serious, although this would hardly be called a “serious” role.

Carole Lombard
Gene Raymond, Carole Lombard

Sadly, this was the last film of Carole Lombard’s to be released before her death. Her final film, To Be or Not to Be, was released two months after the plane crash that killed her, her mother and 20 other people, including 15 servicemen.

Lombard’s comedic skills are sharper than ever here; she is beautiful and wonderfully funny, with a no-fail sense of timing. Montgomery, for his part, is deft at playing both the sophisticated and low-ball elements of his character, and has a style that, while understated, nonetheless shines bright.

Not surprisingly, Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant, no doubt the most popular male actor in Hollywood at the time, for the lead, but he was unavailable. Hitchcock was satisfied with Robert Montgomery in the role, however, and was later quoted as saying he believed Lombard & Montgomery could have gone on to be one of Hollywood’s leading on-screen couples had she not died.

Carole Lombard in Mr and Mrs Smith
Carole Lombard

Hitchcock’s direction as well as the above-average script helped set this film apart from other romantic comedies of the day. It has a style and feel that is unique among other films of its genre, one that is a little more sophisticated, perhaps a bit more subtle, while not letting go of the farcical and screwball elements so popular at the time.

And for the record, Hitchcock did have his signature cameo appearance in the film.

Fans of screwball comedies will no doubt enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as will anyone captivated by Carole Lombard (or for that matter, Robert Montgomery). It is a classic film well worth adding to your must-see list of films.

 

 

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce, 1945, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 111 minutes.

A sharp psychological drama that has had feminists debating the nature of its leading lady’s motivations and decisions from the day it was released, Mildred Pierce is as provocative a a mother/daughter tale as you’ll discover on film.

Set in sunny southern California, yet somehow dark in atmosphere and telling, this is the narrative of a woman who will sacrifice anything for her ever-ungrateful daughter. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) married young and has two girls, and as she explains it, this is the only life she knows. However, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) is out of work and apparently has an interest in another woman. After a particularly nasty fight one evening, he packs his bags and walks out, leaving Mildred alone to pay the bills.

Beyond the usual costs of keeping a home, Mildred has big dreams for her children that come with a price. She’s hired an expensive voice coach for her older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), and her younger girl, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is enrolled in dance classes. What’s more, nothing will truly please self-absorbed Veda, yet Mildred is determined to give her everything she wants.

Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth
Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth

She turns to her friend Wally Fay (Jack Carson) for help with her dream of opening a restaurant. Wally finds a property owned by Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott) and arranges a deal with him that allows Mildred to open her new — and highly successful — place at a cost she can afford. Beragon, for his part, has fallen for Mildred.

What follows is a complex tale of confused relationships, a family’s sorrows and a woman’s choices in the face of losing odds in all she treasures.

Director Michael Curtiz had reluctantly agreed to Crawford’s unusual offer to do a screen test for the part after learning Barbara Stanwyck and several other actresses he sought wouldn’t be available. Despite his hesitation, that screen test quickly convinced him Crawford was the right choice, but tension remained between the two throughout production. Producer Jerry Wald often stepped in to mediate.

Not everyone had complaints about working with Crawford. Ann Blyth later recalled her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about.”

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott
Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott

Crawford, whose career had been in a slump prior to this film, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Mildred Pierce. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice, for Eve Arden and Ann Blyth) Best Writing, Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, Black & White. (The Oscar for Best Picture that year went to The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland.)

After seeing the film, James M. Cain, author of the novel Mildred Pierce on which the film was based, sent Joan Crawford a signed first edition of his original book. The inscription read: “To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred Pierce to life just as I had always hoped she would be, and who has my lifelong gratitude.”

Mildred’s role as wife and mother has long been debated by feminists, and analyzing it in that way, particularly in context of the times, is beyond the scope of this review.  Interpreting motives in fictional characters is a difficult thing to do when singular actions in film may take place simply to move a story forward. However, as a well-played, complex character from that era, it doesn’t get much better than Mildred Pierce.


Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, Warner Bros. Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 118 minutes.

A dark comedy with a pair of innocent-minded serial killer aunts and their bewildered, yet loving, nephew is funny, fast-paced and full of surprises, with a chain of events that maintains suspense and unfolds into a Halloween tale like no other.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just married the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), and before the two leave on their honeymoon, they stop to give the news to their respective families. For their part, the Brewster sisters, Abby & Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, reprising their Broadway roles), who raised Mortimer, are thrilled he’s finally settling down with the lovely Elaine.

Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace
Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant

But during his visit, Mortimer discovers his kindly aunts have taken on a new cause, that of releasing lonely elderly gentlemen from their earthly pain with a sip of poisoned elderberry wine. The morbid work of burying the bodies in the basement is done by deluded Uncle Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, digging the Panama Canal.

About the time the full impact of his aunts “very bad habit” has begun to sink in on him, another blow is dealt to Mortimer — the return of his long-lost brother, Johnathan (Raymond Massey), along with Johnathan’s plastic-surgeon friend, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The two have their own body in tow, that of one late Dr. Spenalzo.

Johnathan isn’t from the same benevolent branch of the family tree as Mortimer and the aunts, and he plans to do the rest of them in, one way or the other.

While this film features Cary Grant in one of his most over-the-top comedic performances, the strength of the dialogue is often in its dry and understated style.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull Arsenic and Old Lace.png
Jean Adair, Josephine Hull

It’s a continued contrast of extremes throughout the film that keeps the humor fresh. There’s a lot going on in this macabre combination of screwball comedy/horror film, yet somehow, the story is cohesive and, despite the numerous plot twists, never contrived beyond the nature of whatever genre this film might actually fall into.

The rest of the cast includes such strong, scene-stealing character actors as Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. After a point, the whole show just lets loose, and it’s Mortimer himself whose surrender to the situation best sums up the whole zany scenario.

The movie was was originally filmed in 1941, in part because of Grant’s availability at that time, with the agreement it wouldn’t be released domestically until the Broadway run of the play was complete. It has been said to have been shown to serviceman overseas before its 1944 release, but no official record of that exists today.

Frank Capra chose this project because it took him away from the “feel good” films he’d become known for and into a wacky plot with no particular redeeming value, save its dark humor and non-stop antics. It’s not a film fans of either Capra or Grant point to as pivotal parts of their careers, yet it remains immensely popular and a part of pop culture today.