The Jungle Princess (1936)

lamour1I’ve been looking forward to seeing The Jungle Princess with as much joy as I’ve been lazy about getting back to my reviews, apparently.  I really have.  I’ve been wanting to get back to the reviews, but I just didn’t do it.  As soon as I received The Jungle Princess in the mail though, it went straight into my laptop.

Dorothy Lamour was a genuinely fine human being.  You can see her child-like playfulness and honesty as an orphaned Malaysian native show right through The Jungle Princess and that’s what makes a story that is the women’s version of Tarzan watchable–well, Dottie with quite a dash of Ray Milland.

The other thing that plays in favor of the film is that in regular circumstances with the plot taken out of the jungle, it would have walked a very, very fine line with the censors.  Since the film was placed in a jungle setting, there appears to have been a magical rule that meant things could be a bit more wild without getting in the censor’s hair–my new dream is to see the drafts of the script for this film and the censor’s comments on each scene.  I can’t even imagine the cuts they might have made in other circumstances.  Especially given the fact that a white fellow fancied a native. In Tarzan, at least the jungle boy was free, white, and over twenty-one.  Surely the film wouldn’t have been made in any other setting. As it was, the risque-interracial material went as unnoticed as the film did to a great deal of reviewers at the time. There’s no doubt the film bolstered Lamour into instant stardom, but surprisingly made little splash outside of grandiose billing. The Tarzan films certainly set a precedent that was evident from everything from the staging to the publicity for the film, but the The Jungle Princess carried it just that much farther.

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The story is fairly simple.  Boy wants to complete a novel and tries to dissolve his writer’s block by finding inspiration in Malaysia jungle–a small jungle town that boasts a mysterious laughing tiger.  Boy gets attacked by tiger and finds the laughter really comes from a native girl who knows nothing of civilized ways.

Dorothy Lamour did several of these films, all with plots that deviated little, but this was the first and it was the first role she had where she had not only a substantial part, but also played the lead.  Lamour had been groomed by Paramount, but found the process too slow and decided to speed things up by getting her own agent.  She had a bit parts in Footlight Parade (1933) and College Holiday (1936), but other than that she had no screen time. It’s amazing that her personality alone would have been able to carry this film alone, but she really did have the talent to make it work. She was formerly a singer in Herbie Kay’s band. She was also married to Herbie Kay at the time, but that didn’t last very long.

The chemistry between Lamour and Milland is what really makes the film work though. In Lamour’s Autobiography, she said Milland taught her more about acting than anyone else she worked with. During the filming, there was an incident on set where he saved her life.

Dorothy Lamour’s 30-inch head of hair is getting her into trouble out at Malibu Lake, where she’s working in “Jungle Princess.”… One scene called for her to dive into the water, hair streaming behind her… in the first take her hair caught on a snag and might have drowned her had not Ray Milland dived in like a true hero and extricated her.

vlcsnap-2011-01-11-01h44m19s161They made two more ‘sarong’ films together, but the two that followed could never match the original. Milland was at the turn of his career as well. Unlike Lamour, Milland had been in many small parts in the early 30s in both British and American films. He finally got his break in We’re Not Dressing (1934) and was signed by Paramount. He had a memorable role in Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), but for the most part he was well below second billing status. It’s interesting to note that even though Dorothy Lamour was a complete novice compared to Ray Milland by years, she had top billing in the film. It must have been clear to Paramount that Lamour would be an instant star.

The “Seattle Daily Times” said of Lamour:

Johnny Weissmueller must look to his laurels, he has a feminine rival, Dorothy Lamour, radio singer…she is now a screen star by virtue of her appearance in The Jungle Princess…and if her performance counts for anything she has the acting gifts to go with her physical charm and appealing singing voice.

Lamour’s home paper, the “Times-Picayune” of New Orleans noted:

It is to be hoped that Lamour isn’t detained too long in the jungle. She is pretty, has a good voice, and seems completely at ease in front of the camera, three qualifications for a better role than she has here. Those movie moguls know their business, and no doubt one of their main objectives in “The Jungle Princess” was to introduce Lamour to the public.

Paramount had a hit–a film that looked rather like an ‘A’ movie which was often shown as a ‘B’ movie. It may have been considered a B movie, but the only song Lamour sings, “Moonlight and Shadows” was number one on The Hit Parade. The film may or may not have been overlooked and it’s certainly rare today–not commercially available anywhere, but one of the most notable things about the film may not have been that it’s Lamour’s debut or that it helped propel Ray Milland’s career, but that it featured a couple of mixed race in an unlikely year to do so.

For Me and My Gal (1942)

I could almost single-handedly blame For Me and My Gal for getting me as obsessed, shall we say, with classic films as I am today. It started on a fall day in 1996. I couldn’t tell you the day, but I remember it so well. I was 14-years-old. I had already been raiding Blockbuster shelves in search for Judy Garland films as well as other musicals, so I was familiar with other Judy films, but on this particular night I think I just had For Me and My Gal. It only took the opening lines and the following Judy quip to catch my attention and hold it there for the whole film:

Jo: Who’s the want ad with the squirrel around his neck?
Jimmy: Single act, name of Palmer.
Jo: His act can’t be as funny as that coat.

I watched “For Me and My Gal” over and over again until morning. I had school the next day, but I didn’t care. I watched the “For Me and My Gal” number just about on repeat–if only DVD existed at the time, but we’re dealing with VHS. Along with “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and “Ball in the Jack,” the tape got a lot of wear repeating the entire film again and again, but most certainly for certain numbers as well. It wasn’t abnormal for me to watch the same film back to back, but for whatever reason I was so emotionally drawn to this film at that specific moment in time more than any of the others I had seen to date (I suspect it might be the heightened sense of drama that is even attractive to the mildest of teenagers, such as I). I felt somehow connected to Jo Hayden and I really had nothing in common with her character other than a love of belting. I was taken on her roller coaster though and I empathized with her situation.

Jo Hayden (Judy Garland) plays a young vaudeville player who is in a troupe with Jimmy Metcalfe (George Murphy). They’re on the lowest rung of the vaudeville circuit and share the bill with hoofer Joe Palmer (Gene Kelly) who sees promise in a song that Jimmy had bought from the local music director and steals it right from under him. That song, “For Me and My Gal,” marks the beginning of the teaming of Palmer and Hayden. Throw in a brother who isn’t quite ready to be a doctor, World War I, and a champion draft dodger and you’ve got a complicated, compelling story.

Garland’s above title billing marked the first time she acknowledged as the top draw to a film. She played her part beautifully. One of her strongest moments in the film is when she sings “After You’ve Gone.” There’s a moment in the song where she breaks down just a little. Without missing a beat, you can see the recovery from that moment, see and feel exactly what she’s thinking, and that she culled the strength to go on–all within a few frames of film. Garland is completely underrated as an actress and there are several moments in this film where she is able to showcase how gifted an actress she was. Not only that, Judy was able to keep up with Gene Kelly in several dance routines astonishingly well, being the perfectionist Kelly was, that was something in itself.

This was Gene Kelly’s first motion picture. He always credited Judy to showing him the ropes in this film and was forever grateful to her. He met Judy while on Broadway in Pal Joey. Gene plays the part of arrogant showman with the best of them. As his character becomes more depraved while he tries to scratch his way to a Palace engagement, Kelly becomes less and less likable which is why audiences who screened the film believed that George Murphy should have gotten the girl. That was almost a requirement for a Murphy character in the late 30s, early 40s, though his character is so much more lovable. Instead of softening Kelly’s character, they gave him an extended scene that was supposed to be heroic and instead he comes off worse after lying to a commander—potentially he could have killed more people without specific training—essentially he gets lucky.

I am completely biased when it comes to George Murphy, so I am completely with audiences who believe he should have won the girl in the end. Love is blind, yes? Murphy turns in another charming performance as good friend with unrequited love. His character is always around at the right time. It’s a shame that he was also cut out as part of the trio in the last scene as well. It makes me bitter, actually. To share with you how it should be, here’s an original outtake of the finale.

 

 

See, it’s much lovelier. I say so. And it plays up the love triangle a little more and leaves you to guessing instead of knowing right away who she chooses.

At any rate, the dialog in this film is fairly fast-paced in a Stage Door sort of way. The cast is wonderful including Martha Eggerth, Ben Blue, and Richard Quine. Richard Quine is one of my favorites in these roles, I must confess this. I won’t speak more of this, because I’ve already given too much of the plot away.

I will say though, this film is not to be missed. It will frustrate you at times, you’ll be caught within melodies at others. The film runs through every color of emotion. I think my little 14-year-old self felt more alive when she watched this movie. There was something real about it even with all of it’s flourishes and I think Judy is the culprit for that. She is the heart and the center of the film. She takes us with her on the journey and does so unknowingly—over and over again on an old VCR at the command of a teenager.

Jo may have been relieved of her VHS tape (which I quickly gained a copy of), but she was then purchased and re-run on DVD, then brought to her computer desktop, but she’s still on demand. It’s amazing that we have these films at our fingertips and it’s a credit to those who restore and release classic films to realize their importance to history and younger generations such as mine who see them in a whole knew framework.

Oklahoma (1955)

I had Oklahoma on my original list of films to profile this summer, but it didn’t happen because I found out that I didn’t own the DVD. How this happened I do not know. I have now remedied this knowing full well that I will have to eventually buy a high definition copy. It’s just one of those films that should be as pristine as possible upon viewing.

Following the farmers and the cowboys of Oklahoma just prior to statehood, Oklahoma! weaves story, song, and dance into a mosaic of lightness against darkness and everything in between. The story centers around the niece of a on old maid who owns a farm. She finds herself caught in the middle of two men who battle for her affections–the cowboy she takes a shine to and the farm laborer who worships her from afar and whom she uses to exact her revenge on the callow cowboy who she deems more than little too sure of himself.

Oklahoma! hit Broadway like a tsunami. Hollywood clamored for the rights and when that failed, the bigger studios attempted to build musicals that could compete with it, but few could even come close. From the time the show opened on Broadway until the release of the film, 12 years had passed. Had the film been released much earlier, it would have competed with the original production which ran 2,212 performances and went on tour across the country and around the world.

Not only has Oklahoma! enjoyed continuous success since it’s original stage debut, but it has crossed generations and sprouts interest in upcoming generations and surely those to come. When I was little, my mom would sing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to me out of the blue and in doing so she helped plant the corn seed, so to speak, of my love of classic movies. It was one of my first memories of watching musicals to see Oklahoma! for the first time on television. Oklahoma! is definitely part of that well-known family of musicals including Rogers and Hammerstein productions like Carousel, The Sound of Music, and State Fair–as well as My Fair Lady and Oliver!, etc. It’s almost perfect, but there’s nothing sterile about it. Oklahoma has an edge that threatens to overtake the film, but never does–it has a balance that the Warner Bros. films of the 30s share with the added brilliance of Todd-AO color.

Rogers and Hammerstein had their hands in every aspect of production on the film and by the end Oklahoma! was the most expensive movie musical made to date. It was a huge risk to put an unknown in the lead role, but that’s what they did with Shirley Jones. Rogers and Hammerstein quickly helped Shirley build experience–from her first audition to a small chorus role in “South Pacific”–her rise was fast, but calculated. Shirley Jones under personal contract to Rogers and Hammerstein and as she says, she was the only person they ever held under personal contract. The producers auditioned hundreds of other girls for the role of Laurey Williams, but kept Jones in mind–she was just the age for the role, she looked the part, and most importantly she had natural talent that they saw could carry the motion picture version of their beloved production.

Gordon MacRae was familiar with Rogers and Hammerstein, he lobbied for the role of Curly and again with Billy Bigelow. I’m always struck every time by MacRae’s entrance with “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” through the cornfields–almost as iconic as Julie Andrews’ entrance in The Sound of Music. It’s easy to dismiss Gordon MacRae when you see his films with Doris Day, still lovable, but often a little too purdy–that is, until you sit down and watch Oklahoma! or Carousel and get carried away into scenes beyond your control. That is–if you’re me. I can imagine that others are not easily swayed by MacRae’s charms much in the way that I’d rather leave than take Howard Keel.

The supporting actors are marvelous. It is no secret that I love Eddie Albert and to be quite honest, I didn’t realize until recently that the peddler man was Eddie Albert. Not sure how that made it past the radar, but there you are. Charlotte Greenwood is my hero. All she has to do is her high kicks and I’m in, but she plays Aunt Eller brilliantly. I know Rod Steiger was hesitant about certain scenes, in particular “Pore Jud is Daid,” but honestly he and Gordon MacRae appear to be having so much fun in that scene that it almost takes you out of it. I can’t help but smile prior to the first gun shot ringing out. He really is brilliant considering his background is hardly that of musical comedy. Gloria Grahame was an awkward choice for Ado Annie–I think even more awkward than Eddie Albert was as a Hungarian Peddler man, but it works. It truly does. It gives film a more earthy appeal and matches the slightly more sophisticated performance of Gene Nelson. At any rate, I’ve grown to accept her character–there’s more to that about me maturing than it is her performance. Oklahoma! also boasts James Whitmore, Jay C. Flippen as well as dancers Bambi Linn and James Mitchell. The ensemble of dancers was hand-picked by choreographer Agnes de Mille.

Rogers and Hammerstein stayed faithful to the original stage show with slight changes–all perfect for the film version, making the plot clip along just a little faster especially in the beginning, but the running time of the film is still 145 minutes. Surely if a studio had control of the production, a lot more cuts would have been made–specifically the ballet sequence. I admit to forwarding through said sequence. I’m terrible, however, when you do give it the time it is quite a beautiful piece of work, but it really adds little to the plot accept color and foreshadows a bit more than is necessary.

The songs are beautiful. The original cast album included Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm and Lee Dixon. Nelson Eddy also recorded an album in 1952. While Afred Drake had a wonderful voice, Joan Roberts hardly had the purity of Shirley Jones’ vocals. Nelson Eddy recorded a wonderful in album, too, but it hardly can compare to the fullness of the film soundtrack with well-rounded vocals of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae–the loveliness of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Many A New Day,”–it’s wonderful. The music builds in all the right moments. Although it seems to verge on the side of saccharine, I never feel it ever gets there–it all melds together to create lightness against the more insidious climax of the film and lilts the plot softly down again to an all American type of camaraderie.

Oklahoma! is the all-American musical. Shortly after the publicity ended for the film and seas were calm again, Shirley was given the option to go on tour with one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s companies. She ended up doing “Oklahoma!” in Europe with future husband Jack Cassidy in MacRae’s role. The appeal of “Oklahoma!” Jones said, is in the promise of the west, in the cowboys and taming one’s own territory. Rogers and Hammerstein capitalized on this theme and made it real, they dissected a slice of Americana as simple as apple pie and made it rich and complex with layers that are just that–deceptively simple. Seems one can never get their fill of it.

The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

four-daughters01028It’s been a long time–a very long time. The last time I saw The First Traveling Saleslady was probably in 1996. A few years have passed since then. And there’s probably a reason for that, in fact, there are a couple reasons for that.

The first being that this film isn’t shown a whole lot on television. I remember watching it for the first time on American Movie Classics, the formally brilliant channel which has probably been mentioned a time or two before. Not sure if Turner Classic Movies has played the film recently, they probably have, but AMC used to show films several times a month and though it led to fewer films being shown, it gave those a chance in a pre-DVR world to view the films. A search of TCM’s website reveals that it was shown in 2004 as part of a Clint Eastwood schedule. Perhaps I’ll start with Clint.

four-daughters01022Clint Eastwood started in bit parts in 1955, a year before this film was released. He was 26 years old, young, dashing, I suppose. He fit into the western mold, though there is little notion of the hard-edged figure that Clint would soon become. I’m quite sure that when I first saw The First Traveling Saleslady I wouldn’t have known it was him. I was new to classic movies, though I had seen Clint Eastwood films throughout my young years, just wouldn’t have happened. I did a double-take when he appeared in the film in my viewing last night. Bit of a shock to the system to see him as a young man.

Ginger Rogers plays the lead. She plays a young career woman who wants to show men that woman should have equality through selling corsets and barbed wire with every available man attempting to tie her down. By 1956 Ginger was in her 40s, she doesn’t quite fit the working girl roles she played in her 20s and 30s. I’ve commented on Ginger’s mock ‘youthful’ voice before and it makes an appearance here, too. It would be more irritating if not for the presence of Carol Channing, who trumps her in frightening vocal gymnastics.

four-daughters01019The First Traveling Saleslady marked Channing’s first feature role. She’s fresh, she’s different, but her character is written in such a way that leaves a performance that is mediocre and ordinary. Channing plays a Bob Hope type character who plays buddy and runs from her own shadow, but the griping and hollering doesn’t have the quality and sense of fun that Bob Hope characters have. Her talent isn’t exploited as it should have been.

In fact, there are many areas where this film falls short. It’s of little fault of the actors. RKO was falling apart. It went through a series of owners including Howard Hughs. When this film was made, it was run by it’s last owners, the General Tire and Rubber Company, who knew nothing about filmmaking and made no notable films from 1955-1957. Ginger Rogers said in My Story that the film was RKO’s last–that she started at the beginning of RKO and saw the end of it as well. Essentially that rings true, but she wasn’t quite exact. The film was not the last that RKO produced. That came a year later.

four-daughters01032Because it is Ginger’s last film at RKO, because it includes a young Carol Channing and Clint Eastwood, and a host of other recognizable faces, this film is grand to watch on a cloudy day when nothing is on. To own, perhaps not. It’s a shame it’s not given more air time though, because it was fun to catch on AMC all those years ago and it was exactly as I remembered it.

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.