Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Horn Blows at Midnight directed by Raoul Walsh (starring Jack Benny, Alexis Smith, Dolores Moran)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). Screenplay by Sam Hellman and James V. Kern from a story by Aubrey Wisberg.

The Horn Blows at Midnight is the infamous film about which Jack Benny constantly expressed shame on his radio show (the movie was a flop on release and became his last lead role). And while it's by no means a classic (in fact, it's probably only as well known as it is because he made so much fun of it), it's not that bad.

Yes, some of the jokes are obvious. Yes, Benny is pretty much playing himself. But not only are there several character actors worth seeing, but the storyline is also innovative (Doomsday is presented in a light, cheery manner), the performances are top-rate, the fallen-angel duo are a terrific comic team, and Dolores Moran steals every scene she's in.

Benny stars as a bad trumpet player who falls asleep during a radio commercial and dreams that he is Athanael, an angel chosen to go to Earth and blow the Doomsday trumpet, heralding its end. All he has to do is blow the horn precisely at the stroke of midnight and the world will end, getting him promoted to Angel Senior Grade. But of course things keep getting in his way, including two fallen angels who are living it up on Earth.

Benny's escapades on Earth comprise the bulk of the film, making room for several fish-out-of-water scenes (eating at a restaurant and not knowing to pay) and references to famous dead people (upon seeing a dollar bill, Benny recognizes George Washington and makes a note to tell George about it on his return).

Director Raoul Walsh has assembled a stellar cast of character actors — many with whom classic film fans will be familiar — that give Benny fabulous support. Alexis Smith is Elizabeth, Athanael's girlfriend; Guy Kibbee plays "the Chief," who assigns Benny his task; and Reginald Gardiner is suavity at its utmost as Archie Dexter, thief and aspiring conductor.

Preston Sturges stock player Franklin Pangborn is in fine pomposity as Sloan; Mike Mazurki has perfected the role of lovable goon by this point, but this is by far the largest role I've seen him in; and Allyn Joslyn and John Alexander are Osidro and Doremus, the fallen angels who don't want to go back. They are the American "Caldicott and Charters."

Former Marx brothers' foil Margaret Dumont also has a small role, and Bobby Blake, fresh from his Our Gang days, plays bratty-punk personified.

Lots of gags and quick pacing keep The Horn Blows at Midnight interesting. The climax is funny and suspenseful, involving all the main characters hanging off the side of a building. Good actors doing their best to entertain us is always fun to watch, as are all of the set pieces, especially one involving an oversized cup of coffee. On the downside, I wish they had stretched the ending out, giving viewers time to realize the story is ending, instead of compressing it into an unfunny punchline.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer directed by Irving Reis (starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, Rudy Vallee)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1948). Screenplay by Sidney Sheldon.

Cary Grant and Myrna Loy star with a teenaged Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a light-hearted comedy from the pen of Sidney Sheldon. Painter Richard Nugent (Grant, supposedly portraying a troublemaking womanizer but remaining lovable Cary) comes before Judge Margaret Turner (Loy) due to a nightclub scuffle in which he was a participant.

He later speaks on art at the school of Margaret's younger sister Susan (Temple), where she develops a crush on him (going so far as to envision him in shining armor). Upon her discovery of this disturbing crush, Margaret decides her only recourse is to have "Dickie" (as Susan has taken to calling Nugent) actually court Susan so she will lose her crush.

Grant decides that she is attracted to the "older man" side of him, so he plays at being a teenage type to turn her off. He dresses with his pant cuffs rolled up and pulls off some current slang (this was 1948), barging into the Turner home with a hearty "Mellow greetings, yookie dookie." Then he plays a funny word game:

Dickie: "You remind me of a man."
Susan: "What man?"
Dickie: "The man with the power."
Susan: "What power?"
Dickie: "The power of hoodoo."
Susan: "Hoodoo?"
Dickie: "You do."
Susan: "Do what?"
Dickie: "Remind me of a man..."

...and prepares to leave with a "Ready, boot? Let's scoot." Grant is surprisingly effective at this charade, probably because he looks so unassuming, completely dropping the suave screen personality viewers expect. (The wordplay is so seemingly original and clever, I've been quoting it since I first saw the movie back in the 1990s.)

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer also allows Grant to use his gift at physical humor (as a youth he was trained in acrobatics, dancing, and pantomime) in a series of contests at a local school picnic against family friend Tommy (Rudy Vallee) at Susan's request.

It's all wonderfully fluffy and plays at no pretense of attaining classic status, even though Sheldon's screenplay won an Oscar (and yes, that's the same Sidney Sheldon who wrote all those potboiler novels that were made into TV movies in the 1980s). But Grant, Loy, and Temple are at their comedic best (although Loy is used to greater effect in the Thin Man movies), and the whole thing is a feel-good movie squared, so The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer has become one of my favorites over the years.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Free Soul directed by Clarence Brown (starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard)

A Free Soul (1931). Screenplay by Becky Gardiner (dialogue continuity by John Meehan) from the play by Willard Mack based on the novel A Free Soul by Adela Rogers St. Johns.

Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) may have been raised by her alcoholic lawyer father Stephen (Lionel Barrymore, a personal favorite) to be A Free Soul — much to the detriment of his relationship with his wealthy family — but that didn't mean he wanted her to hook up with his latest client, gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable); Stephen just defended him successfully on a murder charge.

Like any father, he'd rather she marry the more dependable (and unbelievably loyal) Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard). But Jan finds fiery Ace much more appealing than the bland Dwight, and Dwight loves her enough to let her go (even though he finally got her to accept his proposal after 73 tries). Stephen tries to make a pact with Jan that they both quit their vices, but of course it's not so easy for either of them, and the result is a downward spiral leading to the deaths of two people.

A Free Soul is one of the films (Strangers May Kiss is another) given a great deal of coverage in Mick LaSalle's book on pre-Code actresses, Complicated Women. According to LaSalle, "A Free Soul is a movie about lust. Jan ... lusts for her gangster lover, just as her alcoholic father ... lusts for a drink, and neither has any willpower."

Both Shearer and Barrymore were nominated for Academy Awards, along with director Clarence Brown. The terrific Barrymore won, though his performance in this film is no better than others I've seen him in. By most accounts, it was due to his captivating 14-minute monologue at the conclusion of the film — an uninterrupted take that required the splicing of film from two cameras (a reel only holds 10 minutes' worth) and got A Free Soul included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

But Shearer is no slouch here, either, giving one of the sexually charged performances that have made her a favorite of fans of pre-Code cinema. Shearer's silent-film acting may be distracting to some, with her intense facial expressions and often extreme poses (watch out for those elbows, cocked and ready to fire), but it's a skill that allows her to act with more than words, and Jan Ashe is a woman who is definitely more interested in talking with her body than with her larynx. A Free Soul turns the tables on the normally accepted male–female roles. He wants to talk about the relationship, but she brushes him off with, "Oh, dear, he wants to talk some more."

Shearer heats up the screen when she's with Gable (her kind of blatant sexiness was even rare then) and is reluctantly restrained when with Howard. Unfortunately, the film as a whole is less than memorable. Perhaps the consequences and conclusion were simply too predictable to this jaded moviegoer, but I think most viewers will primarily remember the gown Shearer wears through most of the first half of A Free Soul. It alone is enough to elicit a certain level of shock (especially when considering the 1931 release date), in that is leaves very little of Norma to the imagination, showcasing her bralessness along practically every other facet of her figure.

Still, it's fascinating that a movie like A Free Soul that is almost 80 years old still has the ability to astound audiences with its ideas and its fashions — ideas that we in the 21st century can hardly get our heads around, and fashions that no big star of today would outside of a particularly meaty Oscar-bait role. (Five years later, Shearer and Howard would reunite as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet — though both obviously too old for the roles — and Gable and Howard would compete for the love of another free-thinking woman eight years later in Gone with the Wind.)

Historically significant films are not always the most entertaining, but any movie fan who wants to be educated about pre-Code films, or who are simply fans of the stars, will want to take time out for this second Forbidden Hollywood set from the TCM Archives. The three-disc set also includes The Divorcee (the movie that won Shearer her Oscar), Three on a Match (with Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, and Joan Blondell), Female (starring Ruth Chatterton), and Night Nurse (with Gable, Blondell, and Barbara Stanwyck).
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