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.”

alexandergraham00118

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.

Summer Stock (1950)

dorojaneIt’s somehow both twisted and touching that Judy Garland’s last film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is set on a farm. Garland’s first feature film appearance was for Fox and she debuted as Sairy Dodd, catching watermelons heaved like footballs from her backwards brother on the family farm. Then, of course, there is Garland’s iconic role as Dorothy. Never noticed it until just now, but the outfit Jane wears in the beginning of the film is oddly reminiscent of Dorothy Gale’s gingham dress–a 50s update, perhaps? Intentional or not (and I would wager not), it’s one of many elements of Summer Stock that can be way over-analyzed. For instance, Jane pulling off a page of her calendar to June 22, the date of Garland’s untimely death. Never ceases to be a bit spooky to see that scene.

Summer Stock centers on Jane Falbury (Judy Garland) trying to keep her family farm after losing workers that had been with the family for years. She gets a tractor on loan from her fiancee’s father to try to do the work herself. This seems perfect for Jane, vowing to pay down the tractor so she brings no debts to the marriage. Unfortunately, Jane’s plans go awry when her little sister (Gloria DeHaven) promises a troop of summerstock120actors that they can rehearse on the farm. Jane lets them stay if they can help with the farm work, but one of the actors (Phil Silvers) spins out of control while using the tractor. Everything seems at a loss.

This is the last of the dubbed ‘barnyard musicals’ that Garland appeared in. Mickey Rooney was no longer a fraction of the box office draw he once was. Gene Kelly was then called in for the role much to his chagrin. Gene always said he did the film for Judy in thanks for what she had taught him during the filming of For Me and My Gal. He appreciated Judy’s talent and you can see in the dance numbers he really played to her strengths. She really seems comfortable in her dance routines with him. They really didn’t dance together in their second film, The Pirate, but they did have a couple short dance numbers as well as two charming knock-out routines in For Me and My Gal. Summer Stock, because of the simple way it was scripted, gave them both the opportunity to revisit the basics.

summerstock058Despite the low expectations for the film and the flimsy script, Kelly and Garland did salvage a lot of lovely moments in the film to make it pleasant to watch. Gene Kelly took on the philosophy of his character,

“Look, the way I see it, the farm needs a tractor–me, I don’t need a station wagon. It got us up here, that’s all that matters. When the show’s a hit, I’ll buy two to take us home in.”

The script provided a station wagon. It was a means to an end. Kelly could help Judy Garland and make opportunities for himself to do numbers that brought the simple story line a bit more substance. Not only was Kelly in a position to humble himself to the task, his character was humble, too. Kelly’s Joe Ross may have been his most humble screen persona.

As Jane Falbury, Judy Garland does a lot of yelling, a lot of hoofing, and a lot of pondering under the harvest moon. She has five dance numbers, quite a lot for a Judy Garland film. She sings six numbers as well. The highlights though are when she dances “The Portland Fancy” along with Gene Kelly, plays the love interest summerstock208and does a bit of a soft shoe in “You Wonderful You,” sings a ballad seeking a “Friendly Star,” and last but not least there is “Get Happy” which feels out of place for many reasons, but couldn’t possibly be replaced in the film or omitted. It wouldn’t be Summer Stock without it.

Gloria DeHaven is deliciously annoying as Jane’s little sister. One feels the need to slap her. I’ve never figured out why her hair had to be dyed. Were they trying to make her less appealing to give Judy a little more gloss in comparison? It’s hard to say. DeHaven sings “Mem’ry Island” and sadly doesn’t appear in any more numbers. Her character has the job of leaving Joe’s show and apparently that was enough to satisfy director Chuck Walters or the powers that be.

Marjorie Main makes her third and final screen appearance with Garland–the other two films were Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls. She’s so much fun in this film. She’s a little more like Ma Kettle in this one than the two previous films with Garland. Main said she loved working with Judy and it shows in the chemistry between the two of them.

With a grand supporting cast, Garland and Kelly make the best of a dull premise. Summer Stock is one of those films that grows on you.  You may not like it the first time, second time–fifth time, but eventually it sneaks up on you and becomes lovely and familiar like an old friend.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

heavencanwait00007What if you could choose whether or not you belong in heaven or hell and had to interview either above or below for the opportunity of the lodgings? A New York playboy who loves chorus girls as much as he does avoiding work chooses hell without reservations for a string of life long misdemeanors–literally, which gives him the opportunity to share his life story with the figure he  politely calls His Excellency.

Heaven Can Wait boasts ‘The Lubitsch Touch,” making the playful roaming eye of Henry Van Cleve seem absolutely reasonable for his character and the understandable nature of the devil himself quite logical in the world he spun. The film is a feast for the viewer in technicolor, gorgeous sets, and period settings. Everything feels realistic, but at the same time with the narration of Henry Van Cleve you’re transported to another place and time. A place that’s a little simpler, a little more sincere, and often more colorful than our everyday mundane world.

heavencanwait00163Don Ameche plays the man who is sure of his place, Henry Van Cleve. This is by far one of Don Ameche’s most endearing film roles. Through his narration, the film takes us through his life from infancy to death allowing us to see the relationships he had with the women in his life as well as that of his grandfather and son. Like His Excellency, Henry Van Cleve doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities except for his charm, but he’s lovable because of the things he does and the high regard he has for people even if he doesn’t always do the right thing.

Henry’s personality is contrasted with that of his cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). Cousin Albert can do nothing wrong. He plays by the book, finds and becomes engaged to the girl of Henry’s dreams, and is a genuine stuffed-shirt tattle tale. It drives home the issue of how one should live their life–conform as Albert was perfectly comfortable with doing often at the expense of others or make the most life trying to keep those who love you happy. And by bringing Strable family into the Van Cleve family, Heaven Can Wait delves into how one makes their fortune. Martha Strable (Gene Tierney) is considered a good match for Albert by his parents because she comes from a well-made respectable family. His grandfather

heavencanwait00085(Charles Coburn), on the other hand, can’t help but pick on the Kansas-based in-laws. Henry changes everything when he falls in love with Martha Strable caring little about where her family came from. The contrast makes for many amusing scenes in the film with Grandfather Van Cleve always choosing to help Henry over Albert.

Laird Cregar does a brilliant job as the devilish lord of the underworld. He’s lovable. He truly is. And that smile and the flash of his eyes seal the deal. He is a devil. It’s extremely unfortunate that his career was cut short by his untimely death, because he really could have mastered many more character roles.

And of course there is Gene Tierney, the lovely Martha (Strable) Van Cleve, the girl Henry takes away from his cousin.  Tierney is particularly strong in her portrayal of the later years of their marriage. She plays a lovely, wistful mature old woman for her 22 years of life. Her film career picked up fairly quickly, starting in 1940 when she was fresh off Broadway.

heavencanwait00135Other stand out performances came from Spring Byington as Henry’s mother and Mr. and Mrs. Strable played by Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main. Spring nearly steals every scene, but it’s Main and Pallette who quickly gain validity to their characters over a long dining table, a bit of silent treatment, and curiosity about how the hero of a comic manages to get out of a barrel. It’s brilliantly done. You see within a few seconds exactly how the relationship works–and not only do you see the dysfunction, you see the dysfunction as advertised by Martha. It says so much about how wealth may buy an extraordinarily long dinner table and a butler, but it won’t buy you peace of mind.

A classic, an essential, Heaven Can Wait is a grand film with lovable characters, beautiful backdrops, and a lot of heart. A must watch for any film fan.