It Happened One Night

July 13, 2011 at 8:26 pm (Capra, Classics) (, , , , , )

Clark Gable & Claudette Colbert, directed by Frank Capra

What a movie.  It’s one of the beautiful classics I saw eons ago and not since.  Claudette Colbert is Ellie Andrews, who has run off and married King Westley, a world-famous pilot – and her father doesn’t like it.  He has grabbed her up and stuck her on a yacht and is taking her home.

This ties in to “The Popcorn Dialogues”, a podcast which I’ve just discovered, which is two writers looking at romantic comedies and how they convey the story, whether it’s done well, and how, and why.  This was, coincidentally, the first movie they tackled.  At the beginning of the podcast they talk about how someone tweeting during the film said they didn’t like Ellie – but as the ladies and Ellie herself point out, she’s not a spoiled brat.  She’s bursting out because she’s never had her own way, and she has decided that she is going to do this dammit, because after all she loves her pilot – doesn’t she?  I thought the beginning was wonderful: she is refusing to eat, and so the father orders food brought to her cabin and goes to see her.  When the stewards bring the food in Ellie yells at them – she told them not to bring any more food! – and they cower before her.  The father makes them put it down, and as soon as it’s down they scamper.  She’s a terror, she is.

He provokes her, so she jumps off the boat and swims for it – and manages to evade the men Dad sends after her.  A telling detail: right then he’s angry, and frustrated, and kinda proud of her: “She’s too smart for you!”  Nice character development.  Next time we see Ellie, right after a moment with either detectives or reporters (sorry – can’t remember) talking about how she would never travel by bus, she is paying off a little old lady who went to the ticket counter for her for a ticket to New York.  Ellie very sweetly thanks her and tips her.

We are introduced to Peter Warne in that station, on the phone with his editor being thoroughly fired.  Again, nice character development – he is hung up on, and, since he has an audience, creates a new ending to the story.  On the bus – to New York, of course – he can’t resist getting into a battle of wits with an unarmed man – the conductor.  “Oh yeah?” It could be a revelation of an ugliness in him, baiting a poor stupid Neanderthal in front of an audience, but the Neanderthal is so very stupid he hasn’t the least idea that he is being baited.  He is probably certain that “Oh yeah?” is all the witty riposte that is needed.  And Peter isn’t cruel about it – he surrenders, and the conductor never sees the mockery.

He turns to his seat, and finds it has become occupied while he fenced: Ellie.  And she’s tired, and not in any mood to yield.  And so it begins – – and as it begins so it continues, bristly and funny and growing quickly warmer.  Their relationship was genuine – they’re on the same level, intellectually and in terms of understanding, and it looks like a keeper.  They’ll wear well.

Cropped screenshot of Clark Gable and Claudett...

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One apparent bone of contention is that people think she’s extremely bratty because she expects the bus to wait for her – but she simply doesn’t know any better.  It isn’t as if she’s ever been on a bus before; she asked nicely – it wasn’t as though she came back late and expected them to have waited.  She let the driver know she needed to go somewhere (they never did explain why she needed to go to that hotel), let him know about how late she would be, and had no frame of reference to know that that wasn’t the way things work.

Cropped screenshot of Claudette Colbert and Cl...

Image via Wikipedia

I love the tidbits some of the hosts – on Reel 13, and on TCM (On Demand in this case) (I swear, I want a quarter every time I mention On Demand or Reel 13).  This time I learned: Claudette Colbert didn’t want to hoist her skirt and “hitch-hike”; she didn’t think it was funny.  He said that was fine; they would bring in a leg double.  Claudette changed her mind.  And, to her surprise, from that moment on she was mentioned any time gorgeous gams were listed: Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Hee.

I’ve said it before about other movies – it won’t be nearly as long till I see this again.


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Leave Her to Heaven (X2)

May 23, 2010 at 11:41 pm (Classics, Geekery, Movies, PBS, TV) (, , , , , , , )

Yep, it was just Reel 13 time again … Because I didn’t watch all of Gigi last week, and didn’t get around to looking it up, I didn’t know what they would be showing last night.  It was Leave Her to Heaven, starring Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde – and Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price.  I admit it, without thinking about it I was expecting the later Vincent Price; instead there was a young and leading-man-quality Vincent Price. 

The facts are these: Cornel Wilde plays a writer, Richard Harland, who runs into the stunning Gene Tierney, playing Ellen Berent.  Turns out they’re both headed for the same ranch, where she and her family (including Jeanne Crain as Ruth, her cousin/adopted sister) are joining other kin to scatter her father’s ashes, and he is taking a break from writing at the invitation of a friend.  Naturally, they fall in love – although he is quite shocked when her fiancé shows up (Vincent Price, playing Russell Quinton).  Ex-fiancé, that is; he took off to meet her as soon as he received the wire she sent him breaking it off.  Richard is even more shocked when she tells Quinton that she had to break off the engagement, because she and Richard are getting married.  It was kind of nice that we the viewers weren’t the only ones who were flabbergasted – did we miss something??  Nope – she’s a bit impulsive, it seems. 

So married, very shortly, they are – although I would think that when one of the first things a woman says to a man is how very strongly he reminds her of her recently deceased father with whom she had an intense bond, this would not bode well for a healthy romance.  Although she was a bit intense about the memorial service (dumping the ashes on a ridge they both loved – and all over the horse she was riding, but I wasn’t supposed to notice that), with the sudden wedding and a few comments made by the family (“she always wins”) she seems just very determined.  Instead of a proper honeymoon they head off to Warm Springs where his brother is trying to recover from an unnamed ailment I’m assuming was polio.  At first all is lovely; Danny, the little brother, loves her and she appears to get along very well with him.  However, my first reaction on seeing him for the first time, lying young and vulnerable in his wheelchair, was “He’ll be dead in 20 minutes”.  However, I didn’t keep track of the time.  As he is doing better, Richard plans on taking wife and brother off to the secluded cabin he owns called “Back of the Moon” … but secluded as it is, Ellen feels that as long as anyone is there besides herself and Richard it’s not isolated enough.  Trying to convince the boy’s doctor that it wouldn’t be safe for Danny, she lets slip with, “But after all, he’s a cripple!”  Oops. 
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Rhode Island and Philadelphia Stories

May 2, 2010 at 2:46 am (Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , )

A couple of weeks ago, Channel 13 aired High Society, the musical remake of The Philadelphia Story; tonight, funnily enough, they aired The Philadelphia Story.  (Next week: Gaslight, and I’m psyched.)

High Society – 1956 – was the last film made by Grace Kelly before she became Princess Grace.  She starred as Tracy Samantha Lord; Bing Crosby was C.K. Dexter Haven, Frank Sinatra was Macauley “Mike” Connor, and Celeste Holm was Liz Imbrie.  Apparently the studio wanted to combine it with another story, so the location was moved to Rhode Island (hence, in part at least, the name change), and the magnificent Louis Armstrong and his band played themselves as friends of Dext.  The musical numbers added were by Cole Porter, and, woven into the story with the making of CKDH into a musician and songwriter (to accommodate being played by Bing Crosby) and the insertion of a jazz festival – were frothy and fun – which pretty much describes the whole film.  Grace Kelly was stunning to watch, exquisite as always and exquisitely perfect for the role – she even sang quite nicely, and that musical number flashback was a lovely addition to the story.  I had a jaundiced outlook when it started, but I enjoyed it.

Oh, but I missed so many moments from the original.  I missed Mike yelling “C.K. Dexter Haven!  Oh, C.K. Dexter Haaaaven!”  I missed “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”, though Lydia Reed fought against my wish for it and did a wonderful job as Dinah (Caroline in High Society?  Or am I looking at the wrong person?).  Most of all, I missed “hearthfires and holocausts”.

And, overall, where High Society was very good, there’s no doubt but that Philadelphia Story was great.  I’m fond of Bing Crosby – but Cary Grant was peerless.  I never much liked Frank Sinatra, and was pleasantly surprised by how well I liked him in HS – but Jimmy Stewart leaves him in the dust.  I’d give Ruth Hussey and Celeste Holm a photo finish as Liz Imbrie – both were lovely.  And while Grace Kelly couldn’t not be perfect, the part was tailored for Katharine Hepburn.  Grace Kelly was an ice maiden; Katharine Hepburn brought the bronze goddess to life.

I’d forgotten how much more depth PS had than HS – from C.K. Dexter Haven having worked with brother Junius to more background for George Kittredge to the machinations and downfall of the magazine publisher.  (Instead of the blackmail-the-blackmailer sequence, HS had “Well, Did You Evah” – which was very nearly as good.  Not quite, but nearly -)

And there was more between Tracy and Mike, which made it more reasonable for them to fall suddenly, violently, alcoholically in love.

But it was primarily the dialogue that made the difference. The acting, yes, but that may have been partly because the script was watered down somewhat for the musical. One of my favorite pieces of writing in any venue – and not because of my first name:

What do you want?
You’re wonderful. There’s a magnificence in you, Tracy.
Now l’m getting self-conscious.

A magnificence that comes out of your eyes and your voice…in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You’re lit from within, Tracy. You’ve got fires banked down in you…hearth fires and holocausts!
l don’t seem to you made of bronze?
No. You’re made out of flesh and blood. That’s the blank, unholy surprise of it. You’re the golden girl, Tracy… full of life and warmth and delight.   What goes on? You’ve got tears in your eyes.
Shut up. Shut up. Oh, Mike, keep talking. Keep talking. Talk, will you?
No, no, l’ve– l’ve stopped.

Which is here.

Slightly before this is another gem:

Your intolerance infuriates me!  l should think that, of all people, a writer would need tolerance.  The fact is you’ll never, you can’t be, a first-rate writer or a first-rate human being, until you’ve learned to have some small regard for human fra – – (Tracy stops abruptly as she realized where she’s heard these words recently) Aren’t the geraniums pretty, Professor?

Every character has his or her own private life – Liz Imbrie with Joe Smith that she never told about, and her patient forbearance with Mike; Mike’s ineffectual desire to go off and just write short stories like he thinks he’s supposed to do, and the way his back goes right up when Tracy, delighted at the idea, offers him that house she never uses.  They all have a past, a present deeper than we see, and a future – between the acting and the writing they’re real.  (And yet only Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar; Katharine Hepburn and Ruth Hussey were nominated – what about Cary Grant?  Oh, right – he never won an Oscar.  At all.)

And of course, another of my favorite moments in any movie, from a completely different part of the spectrum:

Lydia, oh, Lydia
Say, have you met Lydia
Oh, Lydia
the TAttooed lady
She has eyes
that folks adore so
And a torso even more so

On her back
is the battle of Waterloo
Beside it the wreck
of the Hesperus too
And proudly above
waves the red, white
And blooooo
You can learn a lot from Lydia!


Here’s to Virginia Weidler.

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Meet John Doe? Why, yes, thanks, I will

August 16, 2009 at 2:03 am (Capra, Classics, Movies, PBS) (, , , , , )

I love Channel 13. Every Saturday the New York PBS station shows a couple of Britcoms – Keeping Up Appearances and As Time Goes By, without which it doesn’t ever feel like Saturday (I hate pledge drives) – and then airs a “classic” movie. Lately their definition of “classic” hasn’t melded with mine, but tonight they got back on track (as a birthday present I guess – thanks, 13!) with Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Frank Capra gets a bad rap. The presenter on 13, whose name I’ve never retained, even introduced me to a new phrase: Capra-corn. It took me a second to figure out the distinction from the sign of the zodiac, but I eventually twigged to it. He’s best known, I think, for It’s a Wonderful Life, which is usually pegged as sentimental and all the other adjectives sour nasty souls like to hang on optimistic and good-hearted films (i.e., e.g. “saccharine”), which is especially idiotic given that many of the movies were released just before and during WWII, when people needed a little joy. I’ll get into Wonderful Life another time.

Meet John Doe stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann (no “e”) Mitchell, an intrepid young journalist whose job is cut when a new bigwig buys her paper. But she has to turn in her last column before she leaves forever, and so she sits and types furiously and hands over an article based on, apparently, a story that kicked around journalistic circles real and fictional for a long time: the story of how the writer received a letter from a John Doe stating that he’d lost his job due to dirty politics, and because of the state of politics and everything else in the country he was going to jump off the roof of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve. And then she leaves.

Below is a letter which reached my desk this morning. It’s a commentary on what we laughingly call a civilized world.
Dear Miss Mitchell:
Four years ago, I was fired out of my job. Since then, I haven’t been able to get another one. At first, I was sore at the state administration because it’s on account of the slimy politics here. We have all this unemployment. But in looking around, it seems the whole world is goin’ to pot. So in protest, I’m goin’ to commit suicide by jumping off the City Hall roof.
Signed, a disgusted American citizen. John Doe.
Editor’s Note: If you ask this column, the wrong people are jumping off the roofs.

And she is dragged back when the story causes a sensation, as the telephones of state agencies and the newspaper are deluged with calls – job offers, marriage proposals… Ann cheerfully tells her former editor Connell (played by James Gleason) that it was made up – what’s he going to do, fire her? – and then directs him in how to turn the growing popular concern over the fate of the fictional John Doe into a circulation bonanza: they find themselves a John Doe. Gary Cooper’s Long John Willoughby, a homeless former baseball player, is cast in the role, and off they go, over the protests of his friend and fellow traveler the Colonel. Weekly “I protest” articles purporting to come from John Doe begin to show up on the front page, and John Willoughby Doe is suddenly beseiged by fans.

The big boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) scents possibilities, and bankrolls a radio address that leads to wider recognition of John Doe’s manifesto: basically, love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, and get off your keister and do something (actually, a lot of what Obama talked about before the election…).

To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barking dog and a fence around him. Now you can’t be a stranger to any guy who’s on your own team. So tear down that fence that separates you…You’ll tear down a lot of hate and prejudices…I know a lot of you are saying to yourself: ‘He’s asking for a miracle!’ …Well, you’re wrong. It’s no miracle!…I see it happen once every year at Christmas time…Why can’t that spirit last the whole year round? Gosh, if it ever did – we’d develop such a strength that no human force could stand against it.

John Doe Clubs start popping up – strongly encouraged by D.B. – in which people reach out to their neighbors, get to know each other, and figure out ways to help those in need of help without destroying their self-esteem. And the movement spreads … and Long John gradually overcomes his doubts about pulling a fast one on an unsuspecting public to completely buy into the message. Then, as the movement is about to climax with a huge convention of John Doe Club delegates – all bearing petitions begging John Doe not to jump off any roofs – D.B. directs Ann in what he wants in the convention speech to be delivered by John: his announcement of a third political party, the John Doe party, and his endorsement for the leader of that party and candidate for the next presidential election: shockingly, D.B. Norton. Ann recoils, but writes it – but Connell digs in his heels and lets John, who never read the speeches before giving them because he got more of a kick out of it that way – know about it beforehand. It’s a travesty – a betrayal of Washington, and Adams, and Jefferson, and Lincoln:

Lighthouses, John. Lighthouses in a foggy world.

And John doesn’t like it any more than Connell does. He heads straight to where Norton is meeting with his cronies, and also Ann, and lays down the law – and while he heads back to the convention to try to confess and straighten things out with the delegates, Norton sets Plan B into action: discredit John Doe, get him in jail if possible, and try to gain points as the man who unmasked the fraud. John ends up living under a bridge with the Colonel again, Ann ends up miserable, and Norton tries to regroup – until Christmas.

John having disappeared, a few people start to worry that he will try to repair the wreck he was caught up in by climbing to the top of City Hall at midnight Christmas Eve and, after all, jumping. Three groups arrive there to prevent it: Norton and his cronies and thugs, who don’t want a martyr; a trio from one of the first John Doe Clubs, who were his most loyal followers, and among the most bitterly disappointed but still loyal to the cause; and Ann, backed by Connell and the Colonel.

As is so often the case, I would have sworn I saw this years ago – but I can’t have. I had no idea how it would end. Neither, apparently, did Capra till the 11th hour; they had four possible endings written and filmed, and in the end went with a fifth. Which may be why the suspense was so heavy: they couldn’t telegraph the ending, for certain, and they had made it clear with the rest of the film that the viewer could absolutely not assume that John Doe/Willoughby would not, in the end, jump to his death.

In a way, this was a drastic departure from Capra’s previous films: Ann was honestly mercenary, and thought nothing about journalistic integrity if a bollicking great lie could earn her some serious money. She used her father’s diary to buttress the myth, and even after she balked at the culmination of Norton’s plans to rule the world, she kept on with it. And her mother’s the one who gave her the diary – aiding and abetting. John Willoughby is a bit morally ambiguous; he’s also game to act out a fraud if it means a few months of square meals, great lodgings, and in the end the mending of his arm so he can play baseball again. Also, as the presenter pointed out, it’s unusual to see the American public portrayed as gullible sheep by Capra; all of the virtues of “John Doe” are usually highly lauded in his films. There is a downbeat feel to it –

I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber – I don’t need to read it!

– and the Colonel’s “Heelots” gave me chills.

When they got ya, you’ve got no more chance than a road rabbit…You’re walkin’ along, not a nickel in your jeans, you’re free as the wind. Nobody bothers you. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business. Shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture, everything, and they’re all nice loveable people. They let you alone…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin’ up on ya, tryin’ to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push ’em away, but you haven’t got a chance. They’ve got ya. The first thing you know, you own things – a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines – and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella’s got. And there you are – you’re a heelot yourself.

Yeah, actually.

But in essence it’s all very Capra. There are solid morals at the heart of the quagmire. Norton is a Nazi, plain and simple – or, rather, a Hitler. Unashamed, unredeemed and unredeemable villains aren’t uncommon in Capra – look at Mr. Potter. He’s a Politician, and will thus behave, and anything that doesn’t fit his ambitions goes.

Like dogs – if you can’t eat it you bury it!

He can’t win – he’ll never win in a Capra film. Even though it was a brilliant plan – and it might have worked if they had been able to hold something stronger over John. In the end it made me cry, and that’s the most Capra-esque attribute of all.

They’re just lonely and wanted someone to say to them “I know how you feel”. I’ve been lonely and hungry for something practically all my life.

I feel like death on a stick, so Gary Cooper’s fine, fine eyes and aw-shucks dimple and his lovely ability to play the sweet ol’ big lug, all the while being one of the most gorgeous human beings on the planet, will have to be noted without much depth (not that there’s much depth to be plumbed there). All I can really say to wrap up is … Past message board experience has taught me that reaching out to your neighbors and getting to know them better isn’t necessarily a good idea (and sometimes a really, really bad one). And… I know people are sheep and will follow in the most ridiculous directions – and, if led well, in the most wonderful directions. But people are also lazy, and all too willing to fall back into old patterns. I’m no exception. Obama inspired a lot of people a few months ago, and now I keep getting emails from what was once his campaign saying “write!” and “call!” and – always – “donate!!”… but the impetus is gone. I hope he reignites it.

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