Long before I had a real awareness of classic film, I was unknowingly exposed to it through Disney’s feature films of the 1960’s and 70’s. These movies introduced me to the fading stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, names like Dorothy McGuire, Jane Wyman, Adolf Menjou, Maureen O’Hara, Karl Malden, Donald Crisp, Maurice Chevalier, Walter Brennan and David Niven. One of my favorite of these films was the musical The Happiest Millionaire. It features some of the most talented actors of decades past – Fred MacMurray, Greer Garson, Gladys Cooper and Geraldine Page in a story of a wealthy but eccentric Philadelphia family.
John Lawless (Tommy Steele) is an Irish immigrant fresh off the boat who arrives at the Biddle household to apply as a butler. He is invited to wait for Mrs. Biddle (Greer Garson) to approve his employment. But before she can arrive, he has a rather unconventional introduction first to Mr. Biddle (Fred MacMurray), then to his daughter Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren), his sons and the starchy family matriarch Aunt Mary (Gladys Cooper). He quickly becomes embroiled in the household while also acting as the narrator for the story. Continue reading “Fred MacMurray Blogathon -The Happiest Millionaire”
There are few groups more loyal than classic film fans. Many of us have our favorite movies, genres, actors and actresses and can passionately articulate what we love about each. Equal to our love is our dislike of those things that don’t live up to our standards or that we find disappointing. Actors and actresses particularly earn our derision, though we usually only discuss this within our own circles.
George Brent is an actor I’ve often heard mentioned with disdain. Many classic film fans denounce him as wooden, his performances lacking emotional depth. I won’t deny that he is compared unfavorably to his contemporary counterparts. But unlike some, I’ve always enjoyed Brent’s films. I believe he has been unfairly and too harshly judged. I’m here today to convince you of the same. Continue reading “In Defense of George Brent”
Arsène Lupin -The Gentleman Thief of French Literature
The gentleman thief is a much beloved character in both literature and film. Arsène Lupin is one such character, first birthed by the pen of French writer Maurice Leblanc in the early 1900’s. Over the course of the next two decades Leblanc published many novellas, novels and even plays featuring his popular creation. These stories were contemporary with another, perhaps more famous, thief and master of disguise, that of the English gentleman Raffles. Without the underrated gift of classic film, I might never have heard of or been introduced to either.
The Arsène Lupin character also made appearances in television, stage and over twenty films. It is the pre-code 1932 version starring the Barrymore brothers, Lionel and John that I fell in love with. According to an introduction given by Dave Karger for this film on TCM, the Barrymore brothers were highly regarded by the two most important men at MGM during the early Thirties. Louis B Mayer believed Lionel to be one of the best actors of his time, while Irving Thalberg felt the same about John. When John’s contract with Warner Bros. expired, MGM snapped him up. He was cast with Lionel in Arsène Lupin, the first of five films in which the brothers would appear together in the years 1932-1933. Of those five only one would also star their equally famous sister Ethel. Sadly, after 1933 there would be no more films co-starring Lionel and John. Continue reading “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon -Arsène Lupin (1932)”
Not too many years ago, I happened across a Ginger Rogers film I had never seen or even heard of before. Romance in Manhattan turned out to be not only a lovely little movie, but also became one of my favorites. As much as I love the pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to introduce others to this lesser known charmer which co-stars Ginger with Francis Lederer.
Karel Novak (Lederer) has worked hard to achieve his dream of immigrating to America. A native of Czechoslovakia, he meets all the legal requirements for entry. However, upon his arrival he learns that one of those requirements has changed and he is to be deported back to his home country.
Karel can’t bear the thought that he must return home. Leaving his belongings and money behind, he escapes into New York City, where he is certain he will find work. However, the only luck Karel has is meeting the kind and compassionate show girl Sylvia Dennis (Rogers). Sylvia is the sole caretaker for her younger brother Frank (Jimmy Butler) and is barely making ends meet herself. But she offers Karel food, a place to sleep and help in finding a job.
As weeks and months pass, Karel becomes a welcome addition to the lives of Sylvia and her brother Frank. Karel finds a job as a taxi driver and helps contribute to the household. He also manages to befriend police officer Murphy (J. Farrell McDonald), despite living in fear of discovery and deportation.
Sylvia and Karel begin to fall for each other, but Sylvia prefers to marry a millionaire. She is sick of poverty and seeks security for herself and Frank. This desire becomes even more important when both she and Karel find themselves out of work just as social services threaten to take Frank away from her. Karel however, is convinced that love will find a way and proposes to Sylvia. But their problems are far from over. A shady lawyer reports Karel’s immigrant status and Frank is taken from Sylvia. But with a little help from Officer Murphy, Karel and Sylvia may just have a chance.
In today’s climate, it would be easy to politicize a film like Romance in Manhattan. Especially as it features the story of an immigrant whose dream of America motivates him to break the law when one subjective requirement threatens to obliterate his hope and sacrifice. But in my opinion, this would be a mistake, because you might miss the sweetness of this story and it’s characters.
This film came at a time of transition in Ginger Rogers’ career and is one of five films she made in 1935. Ginger already had numerous credits to her name, but mostly as a supporting or character actress. However, prior to the release of Romance in Manhattan, she was paired with Fred Astaire in two of the nine films in which they would appear together. Her star was just starting to rise. Within the following several years she appeared in six more films with Astaire and also branched out into serious dramatic roles, one of which (Kitty Foyle) won her an Oscar.
Ginger’s portrayal of Sylvia Dennis is one of my favorite’s. Sylvia is practical and realistic, but she has not allowed the challenges of life to harden her or make her cynical. She has retained her innocence but is also wise to the ways of the world. Though Sylvia has little, she doesn’t think twice about sharing it with someone who has even less. And even though she espouses a desire to marry wealth, Sylvia doesn’t really fit the definition of a gold-digger. She is playful yet sincere in her wish, but when it comes down to it, she realizes that love is more valuable. Rogers never overplays her performance as Sylvia, keeping it genuine with an underlying sense of humor. In her capable hands, Sylvia is a believable depiction of an average, quietly heroic, every day American.
As much as I love Ginger Roger’s portrayal of Sylvia though, this is really Francis Lederer’s film. From his first appearance onscreen he draws you in to the heart of Karel Novak. You feel his excitement, disappointment, determination and every emotion in between in his pursuit to become an American. His earnestness, innocence and optimism help you to experience the poignancy of his plight. Here is a man who truly wants to follow the laws of his adopted country, but who also refuses to allow his inability to meet one subjective requirement make all his sacrifice for naught. Even though he begins with nothing and needs every spare penny, Karel willingly contributes to the Dennis household. He also risks the threat of deportation in order to keep Sylvia and Frank together, willing to give up his dream for their sake. I particularly appreciate how his immigrant perspective helps Sylvia to see her native country through new, appreciative eyes.
Romance in Manhattan also benefits from the performances of Jimmy Butler and J Farrell McDonald as Frank and Officer Murphy. I’m not familiar with Butler’s other work, but his portrayal of Sylvia’s brother is quietly convincing. Unlike some child actors, his personality doesn’t overpower the part, but he doesn’t disappear into it either. Butler really makes Frank his own. It is a shame that he died young in combat in WWII. It would have been interesting to see what he might have done as an adult actor.
McDonald was a familiar face to me as he should be. In his career he amassed over 300 credits in small parts (some uncredited). Here he has the chance to shine as a soft-hearted Irish cop who doesn’t let the law crush an otherwise good man. And of course, what 1930’s film would be complete without the presence of Donald Meek? Sadly, he doesn’t appear until the end of the picture. But it’s still a pleasure to see him play a small role as a minister.
Romance in Manhattan celebrates self-sacrifice, compassion, human kindness, understanding and love. It’s focus on these attributes reminds us not only of the best qualities of America but also of mankind.
Unfortunately, this film rarely airs on TCM. But it is available to rent through Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. Or you could always buy the DVD like I did.
For the second year in a row, I am happy to be participating in The Reel Infatuation Blogathon. Hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock, this blogathon is all about film, television or book character crushes.
YOU’VE GOT MAIL
In You’ve Got Mail Kathleen is the owner of New York City children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner. Kathleen is the second generation owner of the store inherited from her mother. The Shop Around the Corner is not just a business to Kathleen, but also home to all of her happy childhood memories with her mother. It is also a beloved neighborhood institution, where the customers and employees are treated like family. Kathleen’s life revolves around her shop. Her secret correspondence with online pen pal NY152 provides her an outlet where she can share her dreams and fears not just about the shop, but also her life.
Norma Shearer wasn’t known as the Queen of MGM without reason. Before she married the studio’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, she had proven herself as a talented actress in her own right. Undeterred by criticism and rejection, she clawed her way into a successful career through sheer determination, persistence and discipline. Before Madonna, Shearer was a pioneer in reinventing her image. She was a woman who didn’t take no for an answer and who refused to let anyone else shape her public image. Sadly, she is not as well known today as other classic Hollywood film stars, which is a real shame. Because she is a powerful female role model even now, despite the misconception that she rode her husband’s coat tails to success.
Robert Montgomery has always been one of my favorite actors. His early years of comfort followed by loss gave him the strength and emotional tools needed to make a good actor. Montgomery has never been listed among the acting greats. I believe part of the reason he is excluded from that club is the lack of great parts that really allow him to shine. We see glimpses of it in his films The Big House, The Night Must Fall, They Were Expendable among others. But no one can deny that he was a solid, dependable, capable actor who played opposite some of the greatest leading ladies of the day. Continue reading “Dynamic Duos Blogathon -Norma Shearer & Robert Montgomery.”
The Wilkins family is your typical American family. Traffic cop judge Harry Wilkins (Edward Arnold) shares a happy and balanced marriage with wife Edie (Mary Philips) and their two daughters Ruth (Joan Caulfield) and Miriam (Mona Freeman). The only conflict in their household generally arises from teenaged Miriam’s passion for political causes. Not to mention her general meddling in the lives of her family members. For her part, Ruth is a mature young woman, ready to settle down to marriage and a home of her own with her long term beau, Albert. Continue reading “William Holden Blogathon -Dear Ruth (1947)”
Velvet Brown is your average young girl. She lives in a small English village with her parents, older sisters and younger brother. But Velvet has one trait that sets her apart -she is horse crazy! Not only does she pretend that she owns her own equine, but she cares even more for the noble beasts than she does people.
Velvet’s life is first upended by the arrival of Mi Taylor, a suspicious young man with possible ties to her mother. Because Mi seems to share her appreciation for horses, she convinces both Mi and her family that he should stay. Though Mi is drawn to the freedom of the open road, he reluctantly agrees for Velvet’s sake.
Velvet’s life is completely changed when she wins a high spirited horse no one else wants in the village lottery. But this is no ordinary horse to the young Velvet. She sees something special in the Pie. Suddenly, it becomes her mission to see him win the honor and glory she thinks he deserves. When Velvet learns of Mi’s familiarity with horse racing, she sweetly coerces him into a pact to train Pie for the world’s most prestigious race, The Grand National. But the odds are small and the stakes are high and no one believes the Pie can win. No one but his young dreamy owner. Continue reading “Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon -National Velvet (1944)”
Not only are Stephen (Lionel Barrymore) and Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) father and daughter, but they comprise a team of two against the world. Stephen has raised his daughter to think for herself, stand on her own two feet and to live free of the trappings of his high society family.
Stephen’s work as a criminal defense attorney introduces the independent Jan to gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable). Their instant attraction causes Jan to end her engagement to her long-suffering and faithful fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). Jan’s obsession with Ace blinds her to his true character. But even still she keeps their relationship hidden from her father. When Ace pushes for marriage, Jan balks. But her hand is forced when her drunken father finds her in Ace’s apartment late one night.
Jan’s shame is only outweighed by her concern for her father. She strikes a bargain with him that she will stop seeing Ace if he will quit drinking. She is scared that he is close to ruining not only his career, but his life with his addiction to alcohol. Stephen very reluctantly agrees. Will father and daughter be able to keep their bargain or will their individual addictions ruin their lives? Continue reading “Clark Gable Blogathon – A Free Soul (1931)”