Four Daughters (1938)

four-daughters00742Like Random Harvest, Little Nellie Kelly, and a handful of others, Four Daughters is a film that I’ve found myself identifying strongly with. Surely, we all imagine ourselves or tie our lives into every film plot we meet, but some films allow us to come away with just a little more understanding of ourselves and force us to think a little more about who we want to be. Four Daughters is one of those films for me.

The film centers around the Lemp family–daughters of musician Adam Lemp (Claude Rains): Emma (Gale Page), Thea (Lola Lane), Kay (Rosemary Lane), and Ann (Priscilla Lane). Into their lives, comes charming Felix Dietz (Jeffrey Lynn) who turns the girls’ lives upside down when they all believe they’re in love with him. Problem for three of the Lemp girls is that Felix has a preference toward gate swingers. The lives of the girls are complicated even further when Felix hires a moody fellow, Mickey Borden (John Garfield), to help him with a composition he’s entering in a contest. The film’s mood turns on a single glance from Mickey to Felix and therein lies the beauty and depth that Four Daughters takes on.

four-daughters00715There’s something about seeing how real sisters interact that is hard to duplicate. Rosemary and Priscilla might not have gotten along in later years for whatever reason, but you can see the real affection between sisters in this film. Same can be said for Loretta Young with her sisters in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. That something might just be life experience and relationships built throughout an entire lifetime and it probably is, but Gale Page fits right in the mold as well.

I’m not the only fan who truly adores the Lemp Sisters, Adam Lemp, Dietz, Aunt Etta and Mickey Borden, there are many out there who have come across this trilogy of films and have taken bits and pieces of it claiming them as our own. Most people love Ann Lemp best (I’ve got a handful of Anns in my posse), but I’ve claimed Kay Lemp with her love of chocolates, yen for being lazy, lack of ambition and love of song, as well as fondness for living in daydreams. Lola, Rosemary, and Priscilla actually had two more sisters: one who didn’t go into show business and another, Leota, who had success on Broadway, but after Gale Page stepped into the role of Emma for the film and was often referred to as “the other Lane Sister.” These characters are so rich that we all can find a piece of ourselves swinging on the doors of a white picket fence.

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Gate swinging and white picket fences—the proverbial American dream was rarely dissected on film though Warner Brothers had a history of making the most of the effort to question the norm, to question good and evil and to draw a nice grey area. It’s quite apt that James Garfield made his debut in a Warner Brothers film. The world had never seen anyone like Garfield on film. He was smoldering, he was a rebel (often described as the pre-cursor to James Dean), he stole scenes—he was dangerous intellectually and emotionally. His characters questioned everything that was status quo and then turned all of his observations on their heads once he mingled with the rainbow’s end or some semblance of happiness. Garfield’s fanbase is why Warner Brothers placed his pan on the cover of the DVD and all subsequent contemporary advertising for the sequel (Four Wives) and similar spin-off (Daughters Courageous) released the same year. [The former is an interesting use of a character who shall we say—disappears? More on that later. Surely audiences were ready for a fellow like Garfield to come along and take all clichés for a spin.

four-daughters00532Priscilla Lane is engaging and youthful as Ann. It’s hard to imagine anyone who didn’t find her infectious—certainly not I. Matched with John Garfield, she’s immense. She could take on scenes with him without losing her presence and challenge his crazy ideas with equally philosophical quips. It’s Priscilla that carries the film and subsequent films. Ann’s relationship with Felix Dietz and the drama that unfolds is beautifully done at every turn. The characters are introduced in such subtle ways and yet you really feel like you have a handle on every one of them regardless of Mickey Borden’s observations. For instance, Felix dictating how one should swing on a gate immediately gives you a solid picture of his leading trait, the ability to jump into situations and micromanage them in the most delightful and charming way. The script was beautifully adapted and altered from an odd short story written by Fannie Hurst.

four-daughters00203Claude Rains is lovable in this film. Prior to Four Daughters, I had identified Claude with darker roles. It’s a lovely change to see him as the incorrigible Beethoven-loving family man who loves all of his daughters. Along with him, his sister Etta (May Robson) is charming and perfect in her role as well.

Fashion is another element in this film that I love. There are few clothes on the girls that I don’t love except maybe one thing that Rosemary wears. It’s all lovely. I’ve been looking for ages for a wrap like the lace one Priscilla wears during the birthday party. It’s lovely. I will find something some day, but for anyone that knows me well, the idea of me actually considering fashion is generally laughable, but after watching Four Daughters and Four Wives, I find myself envying clothes.

The screen captures included in this review are from the Warner Brothers Archive edition of Four Daughters. I’m so glad that Warner Brothers released the film on DVD. Don’t get me wrong, but it really could use some restoration and because it’s Garfield’s screen debut. I would have rather seen a box set of Four Daughters, Daughters Courageous, Four Wives, four-daughters00323and Four Mothers just given how many of my own friends love the series. It’s unfortunate that more time and attention wasn’t given to this film and the films to follow. There’s about a whole reel where there’s a line midway through the left portion of the screen and that’s more than a bit irritating.

Though my favorite film in the series is Four Wives, I adore Four Daughters just about as much. The film starts off seemingly ordinary, but suddenly packs an emotional punch. It’s rare when a script is tight and deep enough to send you through every major emotion without becoming too convoluted or taking itself too seriously, but Four Daughters does so and how.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

alexandergraham00048Been a while since I’ve seen The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and I’ve always loved it, so when I saw it was going to be on Fox Movie Channel again, I couldn’t help but record a fresh copy on my DVR. It occurred to me only a few minutes into the film that I incorrectly named my iPhone and decided after nearly a year that it should be named Ameche. [Really, I’m not obsessed at all.] The film opens with a fellow who walked ten miles to give a lady a message. She says he shouldn’t have walked all the way over and he assures it was no problem as it was only a two hour walk. Only a two hour walk–hits home now, especially as we don’t even need to walk over to a telephone wire to receive a call. In 1939, the telephone was well-used but still fairly new–really didn’t catch on in the United States until the 1920s. After this film’s release, Ameche became a household name for telephone. Now his name is but a memory when attached to the telephone except to the faithful few fans who love this film.

alexandergraham00125Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche) is in the process of inventing a more efficient telegraph. He has trouble getting backing and decides to go to dinner at the home of a man who has the means and the leverage to potentially back his project if Graham worked with his daughter (Loretta Young) who lost her hearing when she was only a little girl with Scarlet Fever. Ameche plays Bell as an absent-minded professor–always living in his mind with his leading trait running his hand through his hair when he gets into a spot. When he tries to convey ideas, Alexander speaks with so much enthusiasm that you would think that Ameche would become lost in the lines the way they trip eloquently off the tongue. The following dialogue is from testimony given by Bell to protect his patent:

“…shall the lonely scientist, the man who dreams, and out of his dreams benefits the world, is he, that often half-starved, lonely little man, to be told the world has no need of him the moment his work is done? Is he to be told that others, less gifted, but stronger, men with money and power behind them, are waiting to take the product of his genius and turn it to their own uses–leaving him with liar and thief branded on his brow as his only reward? Do that, and you stop the clock of progress. You smother the spark of genius that lies hidden here and there throughout the world. Do that, and the world stands still.”

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Bell’s plea really brings the plot around to a lovely end. It’s lovely, progressive, and idealistic. In fact, through Alexander Graham Bell, the film itself mocks points of view outside of science a bit. Hollywood also gave Don Ameche back his baby-face, when he left his trademark mustache behind. History and Hollywood took many liberties with the film. It’s a little ironic in the historical time frame that someone who was half Italian played a Alexander Graham Bell, a Scotchman.

There has been much debate well over the past 100 years about who really invented the telephone. The United States government acknowledged Italy’s Antonio Meucci’s early work on the telephone in 2002 after a long battle by Italy for recognition. That didn’t end the debate by historians though. Like Bell in the film, Meucci didn’t have any tangible evidence of his invention, so the battle rages on. Hollywood played around a bit with events, though it follows Bell’s life a bit closer than many biographical pictures did at the time.

Darryl F. Zanuck, as head of Fox, was quite interested in these biopics. Within three years, they made many films based on inventors, politicians and entertainers including: In Old Chicago (1937, the O’Leary family in Chicago), Lillian Russell (1940), Swanee River (Don Ameche also starred in this film, also released in 1939 as Stephen Foster), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, Henry Fonda), and Jesse James (1939, Henry Fonda). That’s only the beginning. Could rattle off Tyrone Power films and others made by Fox at the same time.

alexandergraham00068Loretta Young’s three sisters who were actresses appeared in this film as Loretta’s sisters. It was the first and only time this happened for Loretta.  She is beautiful in this film, just radiant and enchanting–very sympathetic character, indeed. She could have played the role for sympathy though the dialogue clearly dismisses any urge to feel pity for her character. She provides ‘Alec’ the friendly ear to bounce ideas off of and inspiration when he’s ready to give up. (Incidentally, Young rivals Alice Faye for the most film appearances with Don Ameche, she was just one short of Faye–unless you count Clive of India where Don Ameche had a bit part–still haven’t spotted him). The film also sports a great supporting cast that includes Henry Fonda (just coming into recognition), Spring Byington, Charles Coburn, Gene Lockhart, and the lovely Henry Davenport who must have played a judge in at least 10 films. Spring’s character is not so easily flustered in this film, which is a nice change of pace for one of her roles. Gene Lockhart has beautifully acted scenes with child star Bobs Watson. Henry Fonda is charming with the gift of timing and wit you generally don’t see in his roles. Over all, the film is magnificently, if not masterfully done. Though it had no recognition by Oscar, it might have had it been released in another year, perhaps the film would have garnered more awards. Oakland Times reviewer H. M. Levy said this of Alexander:

On occasion, the motion picture becomes a radiant and perfect thing, fulfilling its emotional and intellectual mission with a completeness that defies the cynic’s sneer and the fool’s ridicule. Such a play is “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell,” which started what should become a long and useful career at the Paramount yesterday—one destined to reach the dizzy heights, perhaps, of 1939’s “big” films. The excellence of this biography lies in the careful fusing of incident and characterization; of inspired acting and masterful direction; of gentility and conflict; of realism and the stuff of dreams. Each element would have made an acceptable drama; all of them together form a monumental and beautiful work. H. M. Levy, Oakland Tribune, April 7, 1939

alexandergraham00038A stunning contemporary tribute to the film, Levy speaks to the importance the film may have had in another year. Don Ameche had been panned a bit for earlier roles as invoked again by Levy who says Don Ameche gave a “surprising” performance. He called Loretta Young’s performance “delightfully different.” All of the performances were wonderful, however, and it all gels together with just the right dose of emotional charge.

Well, must charge up my wireless Ameche and perhaps watch The Story of Alexander Graham Bell once again in honor of the iPhone re-christening.

Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)

onceupon00100Once Upon a Honeymoon is a wonderful comedy about the Nazi deluge of Europe. Sounds hideous, right? Not so much. Not when you add Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant to the mix. Not when you have witty dialogue and sensitivity to the subject matter. This is a comedy, make no bones about it and the dialogue is highly quotable. In fact, I got carried away on the filmography page for the film.

Baroness Katherine Von Luber (Ginger Rogers) meets newspaper reporter Patrick O’Toole (Cary Grant) while he is under the guise of being a tailor. O’Toole believes his way into what goes on with the Nazis is through the Baroness and her husband, Baron Von Luber (Walter Slezak). O’Toole follows the Honeymooners while each country visited seems to fall. At the same time, he tries to convince Katherine Von Luber that the Baron isn’t the man she thinks he is.

Though there were several films in the 1940s such as The Great Dictator (1940) which included plot lines involved with the Nazi party, this film is unique in both being a comedy and taking the locales and the tension into the mix with the sensitivity it should be dealt with–a task one can really only do by walking a fine line with upmost care. To Be or Not To Be (1942) took a view of the Nazi party that made them look highly incapable of doing anything. Once Upon a Honeymoon, which also premiered in late 1942, gives us a better look into the successes of human element of both side and the unfortunate success of the Nazi party up until that point in time.

onceupon00319The film also gives us a look at concentration camps and tugs on our heartstrings as we follow the story of Katherine Von Luber’s Jewish maid and her children. This is really the first humanistic look that I can recall of the inner workings of the Nazi party–and one of the few Americans got during the war, especially the scene where Katherine talks to the Young Nazi who says he is to be married after the war only to find out he had been gunned down only hours later. At least for a space of a moment, you see this fellow as a human being rather than ‘the other.’ Mrs. Miniver is probably the best known film for stirring pro-war favor and giving the allies a human face, but there’s an edge and a dehumanizing element given to the Nazi that needs help you don’t find in Once Upon a Honeymoon. Baron Von Luber, even as Nazi number 5, is given frailties, onceupon00467which is more than a bit shocking considering the scope of the Nazi party and the damage they did in the extermination of millions and the structural damage to large cities and small villages that in some places in Europe still haven’t been repaired.

Ginger Rogers was at her prime when this film was released. Every review I’ve found in this era suggested Ginger should have received an Academy Award nomination had she not received one for Kitty Foyle. The following comes from the Fresno Bee, “As for Miss Rogers’ own performance, many a Hollywood previewer came out of the projection room calling it the best of her career.” Though Ginger had to play her character as naive in the beginning of the film, it didn’t come off as goofy as some of her other characters which grate on my nerves just a little, little bit (Tom, Dick and Harry for once). There was a lovely character arc as her character learns more about what goes on.

onceupon00288Cary Grant, despite what the reviewer from the Fresno Bee said, was lovely in the film. He’s the charming Cary we all come to know and love, with the wit and dead pan that can keep ’em rolling in the isles. He takes on the role of ‘der fitter’ in order to get a news story out of Katherine. Instead of bringing a soft measuring tape, he brings a plastic one and much fun ensues out of the scene. The chemistry between Grant and Rogers is pretty lovely, too.

And then we have Walter Slezak, who has the difficult task of playing the Nazi whose honeymoon we follow. Somehow, I don’t know if it’s Walter himself or his role in the film, the man comes off as charming in his own right. He’s someone you love to hate.

This film has been overlooked and under-appreciated by film historians simply as a glimpse of how Hollywood viewed the war and the inner-workings of the Nazi party. Sometimes it’s easier to look at the fluff on the surface. At the time, there was more than a bit of controversy over the concentration camp scene. I think it’s just more important that it was mentioned and that there is a strain of the despair therein.

Having Wonderful Time (1938)

havingwonderfultime00048Big Bear Lake as the stand-in for the Adirondacks has never been so much fun as it is in Having Wonderful Time.

Teddy Shaw (Ginger Rogers) only gets two weeks vacation every year. Her friend Kitty suggests she go to camp Kare-Free, which is advertised as a luscious retreat with luxurious private cabanas and loads of fresh air and lovely scenery. When Teddy arrives, after we see her fighting through loads of family all bunched up in a small New York flat, she finds herself surrounded by people and escorted by a frustrated waiter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to a small cabin with three other girls (Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Peggy Conklin). Teddy wants to go home, but a talk in the light of a full moon convinces her to stay around.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. said in his autobiography, The Salad Days, that originally when they filmed the movie Fairbanks and Rogers did Brooklyn-Bronx accents. When they screened the film in the midwest nobody could understand them, so they had to redub the entire film much to the chagrin of the executives. This was Fairbanks’ third film of four released in 1938. The others were Joy of Living, The Rage of Paris, and The Young in Heart. The years just before the war had promise of a great career ahead of him, which he just didn’t quite achieve after the war.

havingwonderfultime00071When Having Wonderful Time was released, Holiday and The Joy of Living were playing as well–both films also look at whether wealth is important and whether or not society should intrude on living life with substance and quality rather than by the dictates of class or family. The film was panned by critics. The review from the Oakland Tribune said that the B picture was far superior and despite the acting skills of Rogers and Fairbanks, the plot was so inferior to the original play that not even the best actors could dredge it from the depths.

Being completely unfamiliar with the play, I think the only thing wrong with the film is that it actually comes off a little heavy-handed at times. Would have been a little more fun intellectually if Teddy and Chick delved a little farther into why society has forced them into this little corner of the earth in the Catskills to forge for fresh air and a good time without bringing the moon so far into the equation. Then again, we might not have gotten Ginger Rogers’ backgammon insanity and that is necessary, because it makes me happy. Although, it always drives me a little batty when a Ginger Rogers character acts naive. Ginger is great playing that character, but because she’s so quick with the quips and so able to deliver great turns of phrase I always expect more from her characters than they deliver in certain films.

havingwonderfultime00046One possible cause of the film’s holes may be Red Skelton. He made his debut in this film, though the powers that be didn’t particularly care for his antics and left a lot of his screen time on the cutting room floor. This could be why the film is a little on the short side at 70 minutes and why some substance is lost. Perhaps if his character were a little more fleshed out and involved with the rest of the cast in some fashion, he would be less of a novelty and more of a fixture for the film.  That’s a lot to ask of a script that doesn’t quite meet it’s predecessor, but it may explain the gaps better than I’m able to articulate.

Although, I must say, the title of this film is always altered out of telegram form and I’ve fought hard throughout this review not to add the ‘a’.  Perhaps it was obvious at the time, but there’s no reference to the title in the movie. Might have helped if she sent a telegram with “Having Wonderful Time” to her ex-boyfriend in New York, at least that would give a reason for why he just seems to show up out of the blue.

havingwonderfultime00079Overall, the film works, but it doesn’t quite gel together as it may have been intended to. And I can’t help but be pleased to see Ginger and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. together. Fairbanks does well at portraying characters who are analytical and self-aware, simply because he was both fairly insecure and self-aware himself. Ginger is excellent at just about anything. The film is a pleasure to watch, eccentricities and all.

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947)

shocking00042The suffrage movement is rarely documented on film. I can only think of a handful of films where the movement makes a dominant appearance and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim is one of them. A theme close to my heart, with the proper viewpoint, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim has always been a favorite of mine.

Miss Pilgrim (Betty Grable) appears to Bostonians to lack all propriety. You see, Miss Pilgrim is from New York. She just graduated top of her class from Packard Business College which started a program to get typewriters–male and female–trained so that a typewriter company could actually makes some sales. Miss Pilgrim finds herself on a train to Boston after she draws Prichard Shipping Company in Boston. When she arrives, she is odds with Mr. Prichard (Dick Haymes) and just about fifty percent of Boston as well. Miss Pilgrim finds lodging with a group of outcasts who aid her with confidence in changing the minds of prim and proper Bostonians, including Mr. Prichard.

shocking00140Betty Grable shows very little skin as Mrs. Pilgrim which is why critics say it tanked in box office. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a lovely little film and Betty gets to be a bit more subdued in it and that, frankly, makes me happy. She does some lovely numbers like “Changing My Tune,” “For You, For Me, Forevermore,” “Waltz Me No Waltzes Sitting Down,” and “Aren’t You Kind of Glad We Did?” No big dance numbers, unless you count a couple twirls around her bedroom during “Changing My Tune” and it’s reprise. Just a lovely battle for knife against scissors–a strong argument and solution for women’s rights.

Now, I must admit a little bias. All my feminist views are dashed when it comes to Dick Haymes. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. Like Nelson Eddy and Bing Crosby, he could sing the phonebook and it would make me deliriously happy. This is by far my favorite film of his. Mr. Prichard’s life is controlled by women–his aunt who owns shocking00328an interest in his company, his deep affection that he clearly has for his mother in a relationship that appears to be on an even keel, now he has the first woman typewriter in Boston on his hands–he clearly has affection and respect for women and yet he refuses to bend on women’s rights. While defending male dominance, he shares the screen beautifully with Betty Grable singing duets of every song mentioned above except “Changing My Tune.” Oh, he has beautiful solo parts of the songs, too, but he does share his screen time nicely.

I just took a glance at the filmography of Elisabeth Risdon who played Mr. Prichard’s mother. She has 149 credits on IMDb and yet her biography is only a line long stating that she was a silent star in the UK and made many films during the 30s and 40s in the US. While watching the film again, I thought to myself that I hadn’t recognized her from other films. I’m sad that I never recognized her before. She’s been in many films I have seen, but many more that I haven’t, however, looking back at a couple films–specifically shocking00388Random Harvest and Theodora Goes Wild, I wouldn’t have recognized her for the life of me. She makes very short screen appearances in these two films, but in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim she has an ever so slightly longer, more memorable role. She’s so elegant, too–her character is sensitive and just plain lovely.

Anne Revere is wonderful as Aunt Alice, too. Aunt Alice, the woman who has a tendency to get things done and does so with a whole lot of repetition. It’s charming. This may have been the first film I noticed Anne in come to think of it, but my favorite film of hers by far is her role as Mrs. Brown in National Velvet for which she won an Oscar–such strong women she played.

The supporting eccentrics are genuinely a pleasure to watch. We have Allyn Joslyn as a poet (also in Heaven Can Wait). Arthur Shields plays Michael, a painter who only wants to paint in bright colors. Lillian Bronson is Viola Simmons, a woman who shocking00362wants to completely re-write the dictionary using common words in new ways–“Balloon is used for full, because the double ‘O’ gives it a fuller sound.” It’s grand. Charles Kemper plays a fellow who wants to change the way people read music–music by color. Last but not least, we have the den mother of the establishment, Catharine Dennison, play by Elizabeth Patterson, who was in many, many films, but is probably best known for being on “I Love Lucy.”

This film has many strong points–the plot, the songs are lovely (they were also recorded on Decca’s label by Dick Haymes and Judy Garland), oh–everything is very happy-making. The only thing that’s troubling is that it couldn’t pull in higher numbers at the box office.