RSS

The Toast of New York (1937)

mv5bm2nlzwqxzjetowjjny00ndzklwjjmgmtmmnjytjjzdg1m2eyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjc0mzmznja-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_1937 was an important year for Cary Grant, appearing in both The Awful Truth and Topper and establishing his persona as a comedian. However, he also made two other movies that year, one of which is The Toast of New York, where he plays an earnest second fiddle to Edward Arnold’s larger-than-life Robber Baron James Fisk.

In fact, it’s very interesting to see Cary Grant be so earnest (partly in the role of earnest lover)…at least when he’s not gleefully assisting Edward Arnold in fleecing other wealthy robber barons like Daniel Drew and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Grant also makes for an exceptionally handsome earnest lover, but clearly a slight adjustment of persona was needed to finally put him over the top.

The Toast of New York is a very odd film to have been released during the Great Depression. It seems to celebrate swindlers, only to pull back in the last twenty minutes or so to warn against excessive swindling. Is that the point? It’s okay to hustle a little money for yourself and cheat other hustlers, but don’t get too big for your britches and cause the collapse of the entire economic system.

The star of the film is unquestionably Edward Arnold as James Fisk. The film begins with Fisk and his two sidekicks, Nick (Cary Grant) and Luke (Jack Oakie) helping him to buy cotton in the South during the Civil War, to smuggle the cotton across the border into the North and sell it for a profit. By the end of the war, they are broke, however, owing to some very ill-advised investments by Luke. Nothing daunted, Fisk then proceeds to swindle the skinflint Quaker robber baron Daniel Drew (Donald Meek) into sharing the Erie Railroad and soon Fisk is locking horns with Drew’s rival, Cornelius Vanderbilt (Clarence Kolb).

Fisk is also in love with an ambitious entertainer named Josie Mansfield (Frances Farmer), who Fisk is determined to make a star. She likes Fisk and owes him everything, but is really attracted to Nick, who is also attracted, but trying his best to throw cold water on her so not to betray his friend. The film ends with a love triangle, while Fisk goes a little Napoleonic on everyone and tries to corner all the gold in the market, saying that the little people don’t matter – he’s above them all.

Four Gleeful Swindlers - Cary Grant, Edward Arnold, Jack Oakie,

Four Well-Dressed Crooks – Cary Grant, Edward Arnold, Jack Oakie, Donald Meek

This is partly where the film gets into trouble. Fisk is presented as a rather lovable old scoundrel and it’s hard to buy his sudden descent into Napoleonic power mongering. And it’s never clear if we’re supposed to be cheering for these people or not. Cary Grant is left in the slightly awkward role of both sidekick and moral conscience, which he does inhabit with flair. In fact, the film can’t seem to decide whether or not it’s a romp through the Gilded Age or a more serious drama about the abuses of the robber barons.

Edward Arnold, it must be said, also inhabits his role with flair. His is the pathos and comedy – the rest are supporting players. Though I have to admit his character is an odd one for the times. He even wears a uniform and has his own regiment, protecting his house and trying to rise above the little people. How did this not look like fascism in 1937? I kind of lovable fascism? It seems to hearken to a later, far more sinister role for Arnold with J.P. Norton in Meet John Doe.

Frances Farmer as Josie Mansfield also seems to inhabit a rather odd place in the film. She’s supposed to be ambitious, accepting favors from Fisk and getting ahead in her career on the strength of his influence alone, and yet she’s not nearly hardcore enough to make us quite believe the character. Apparently Frances Farmer did argue for tweaking the role a little, but she was largely ignored.

The real story of James Fisk and Josie Mansfield is actually far more interesting and would have made a fascinating movie, though not a particularly edifying one. The real Fisk was an associate of perhaps the ultimate Robber Baronl, Jay Gould (who seems to have disappeared in the movie), and together they tried to corner gold. But unlike the movie, neither man was ruined by the venture and actually emerged richer than ever. Fisk was married, but enjoyed a number of affairs, most openly and famously with Josie Mansfield. But when she fell in love with a younger associate of Fisk’s, she tried to blackmail Fisk into giving her a settlement. When Fisk refused, Josie Mansfield’s new lover shot Fisk dead.

So if the movie had been closer to real life, Frances Farmer should have tried to blackmail Edward Arnold and Cary Grant should have shot him. Instead, Arnold dies rather heroically, surrounded by his friends and the woman he loves.

annex-grant-cary-toast-of-new-york-the_02

Cary Grant is getting jealous

Some of the events in the movie did really happen, though. Fisk’s tussles with Vanderbilt, his flight to New Jersey to avoid getting arrested, the attempts to corner the gold market.

I had read that Cary Grant could not make effective period movies, that he didn’t look quite right in period garb. This must be select period garb, because he looks fine in The Toast of New York. He looks very handsome indeed. It must depend on the period films. I guess Gunga Din is period, too. I can’t think of any others, though, that I have seen him in. It’s nearly impossible to imagine him in films set in ancient Greece or Rome (Cary Grant in a toga?) or the Medieval period. Perhaps he had a limit of sixty, seventy years into the past.🙂 I have to remind myself that the 1860s wasn’t really that long ago in 1937. Like WWII is for us.

This post is part of The Cary Grant Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click here for more entires about him!

cary-grant-blogathon-banner-2

 
9 Comments

Posted by on December 1, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Turning Tragedy into Humor

800px-Chaplin_the_gold_rush_boot

Chaplin eating his shoe

In Silverscreenings article on Dr. Strangelove, she brought out a very interesting aspect of the film, how Stanley Kubrick originally intended his film to be a serious drama, but he kept having ideas for his film that he knew would make people laugh, so he instead turned the film into a comedy. Ultimately, she felt that the humor made his point about nuclear warfare all the more potent.

Humor can serve many purposes. One is simply to entertain and make us laugh (always pleasant). Another is rhetorical, to make someone’s position look absurd. I have to admit to being leery of humor used in this way. Not because it isn’t effective or even funny, but because I always feel like I have to be on the alert that I do not allow the humor itself to change my mind.

But another use of humor, the one Silverscreenings highlighted, has really fascinated me. It is to use humor to make something that is not funny at all more accessible to us. Using humor to help us comprehend something that might otherwise be too horrible to grasp. Two masters of this technique who I have been thinking about recently are Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens.

Perhaps the finest example of turning something terrible into an indelible moment of humor is the scene in The Gold Rush, where Charlie Chaplin and his friend, played by Mack Swain, are starving in a cabin during a snow storm. Chaplin cooks his boot and serves it for Thanksgiving and later Swain imagines that Chaplin is a chicken and chases him around the cabin trying to shoot him. It’s funny, and yet starvation is actually horrible. While the German army were sieging Leningrad, the inhabitants ate glue. One reads of stories of people becoming deranged with hunger. During the Stalin-induced famine of 1933 in Ukraine, there were a startling number of people who ate other people.

Curiously, it does not seem like Chaplin exaggerates at all in The Gold Rush. He just made it funny. He took a topic that no one would particularly like to watch and made us watch it. He does the same thing with poverty.

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasentness behind him

Mr. Podsnap, in the act of sweeping all unpleasantness away

Charles Dickens is another person who uses humor in this way. Not exactly a barrel of laughs, but Beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist could have been a loathsome character (which he really is), but Dickens turns him into a figure of fun, even though it’s clear Dickens hates him and everything he stands for (the workhouse), but even gives him several unforgettable lines (“The law is a ass”). By making Bumble unforgettable, Dickens also makes the workhouse unforgettable.

I’m reading Our Mutual Friend right now, Dickens’ last completed novel, where we meet the wealthy Mr. Podsnap, who has a trick of using his arm to metaphorically sweep all unpleasant subjects away from him – any subject that would “bring a blush into the cheek of the young person [his daughter].” Hunger, poverty, the existence of other countries other than his own. I think that is what Dickens uses humor to do, to prevent us from sweeping it all behind us.

But it also makes it accessible. Few people would voluntarily watch a movie or read a book about starvation. I’m not sure starvation is something we could fully comprehend (unless we had really gone hungry) or even nuclear warfare. We understand intellectually, but not truly. Humor can give one an “in.” A way to approach the subject and really look at it.

 
14 Comments

Posted by on November 28, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comparing Two Oliver Twists: The Jackie Coogan Show and Film Noir Dickens

poster-oliver-twist-1922_03Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seems to be one his most often adapted novels. I’ve seen five different film versions, but there are many, many more, from musical to British miniseries to feature film to silent to talkie. Last week, however, I saw the 1922 silent Oliver Twist and David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist.

Olive Twist (1922)

I think the best way to think of the silent Oliver Twist is as The Jackie Coogan show. Jackie Coogan is the most full of personality, vital and alive Oliver Twist I have seen yet. He manages the unique feat of being able to co-opt his own story, something that not even the fictional character of Dickens’ novel is able to do. The character of Oliver Twist is, in the words of Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens, a “blank slate” on which all the character seek to put their own stamp. But not Jackie Coogan. He even manages to upstage Lon Chaney as Fagin, though Chaney is certainly good.

Olivr Twist was made one year after Coogan appeared with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, which feels like an appropriate follow-up film. According to Epstein, Oliver Twist was Chaplin’s favorite novel, which isn’t surprising since Chaplin’s very childhood is essentially Dickensian.

Jackie Coogan has wide, innocent eyes that look up at the camera so mournfully, you wonder how anyone can be cruel to him. But he also brings perhaps just a touch of mischief, which is not something one usually sees in an Oliver. Coogan was eight years old, only one year younger than Oliver’s actual age in the book, But Oliver is usually played by a boy who looks closer to eleven or twelve, making Coogan look so young. It’s hard to imagine anyone imaging that adorable child could be a hardened criminal.

oliver-twistThe movie is actually quite faithful to the book, hitting all the key plot points and characters, but the only other actor who has a chance to make an impression is Lon Chaney as Fagin, though it is still a relatively small role. He shows his remarkable ability to not only transform his face, but his entire posture and manner. But what makes the film work is how Coogan makes us root for and relate directly to the character of Oliver Twist. I can see why he was such a beloved child actor.

Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean opens his Oliver Twist with a Gothic flourish, as Oliver’s mother makes her way through the rain and storm to a workhouse, where she gives birth. With the storm, it’s like she’s being persecuted by nature itself. But once she arrives in the workhouse, the film switches from Gothic nature to grim London city, with shadows and grime and the seedy side of life, looking occasionally like a film noir, proving that noir is perfectly compatible with the grim, dirty reality of a Dickens novel.

As a result, this Oliver Twist belongs far more to the villains and grifters of the film. Alec Guinness plays Fagin with considerable zest and heavy makeup. It’s amazing to think he played Herbert Pocket in Lean’s Great Expectations just a few years ago. Initially, Guinness seems to be having some fun with his role, but gradually he reveals him to be the one who embodies real evil as he eggs on Bill Sikes (an effectively brutal Robert Newton) into murdering Nancy (Kay Walsh).

mv5bmjexndu3ota1of5bml5banbnxkftztcwnzy3mdyxmq-_v1-_cr7233264427_ux182_cr00182268_al_All Oliver Twist adaptations unashamedly build up to the murder of Nancy. It’s the unacknowledged high-point of any film and filmmakers know audiences are waiting for it with a mixture of anticipation and horror. It has to be one of the most famous murders in literature and Dickens himself was fond if reading that passage aloud to audiences.

And because the film modifies the story somewhat – eliminating the Maylie thread of the story entirely – it leaves more room for Nancy to emerge as the real heroine of the story (which she is in the book, but she must compete for attention with Rose Maylie). Kay Walsh, I thought was very effective as the prostitute who is touched by Oliver and manages to be the only one to stand between him and the combined forces of Fagin, Sikes and Oliver’s evil half-brother, Monk, even though it kills her. This also makes the horror of the murder all the greater and Lean uses this murder as the spur that brings down Fagin and Sikes.

In some ways, the center of the film actually feels like Fagin’s lair. We even get a last stand, with the angry mob outside and Fagin, Bill Sikes and a number of terrified young boys holed up inside. Poor Oliver Twist kind of disappears in his own story during the last bit of the film, but the film is no less effective for it.

Oliver is played by John Howard Davies, who looks a few years older than nine, but plays him with a kind of deadened acceptance of the privations and cruelties of life. He initially looks like a concentration camp survivor, as do all of the children at the workhouse, with their shaved heads and listlessness. It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of the horror of the workhouse and does full justice to Dickens sense of outrage and horror.

As a side note: Alec Guinness wanted his makeup to be modeled after the original illustrations of George Cruikshank and his resulting appearance and especially his nose caused a sensation because of how it evoked traditional, negative depictions of Jews. America in particular was uncomfortable with it and it took three years for Oliver Twist  to be shown in the US, with several minutes of footage of Fagin deleted. My understanding is that his is the last overtly Jewish depiction of Fagin in any film adaptation.

 
9 Comments

Posted by on November 23, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: