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Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

loR45C3The best description I can think of for Yolanda and the Thief is bucolic surrealism. A musical fantasy that was the brainchild of director Vincente Minnelli, it flopped on its release and ruined Lucille Bremer’s career before it was even properly underway. Not even Fred Astaire liked it and retired soon afterwards (though he came back again). Most people consider it a mess with a few who feel it is a hidden gem ahead of its time. I’m somewhere in between. It’s a mess, but it has an odd kind of charm.

In the South American-flavored fictional country of Patria, Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) is the heir to the Aquaviva fortune, a family business so omnipresent that it seems to have a monopoly on the entire national economy. I’m surprised there aren’t any revolutions in Patria. But Yolanda is an innocent child, raised in a convent, who must take up the family business on her eighteenth birthday, much to her dismay and trepidation.

Meanwhile, con artist Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire) and his partner in crime, swindler Victor Budlow Trout (Frank Morgan), have come to Patria because they can’t be extradited there. When they hear of Yolanda’s incredible wealth, Johnny determines to steal her money away. He sneaks into her garden and when he hears her praying to her guardian angel for help in managing her estate, has an idea. He’ll pretend to be her guardian angel, come to relieve her of her financial troubles.

Yolanda instantly falls for his ruse (though I thought his idea of how angels should act was original, to say the least – a bit condescending and a bit too smooth an operator; angels shouldn’t be smarmy). He tells her that he will take care of everything if she’ll sign certain papers and gives him power of attorney. But while he and Trout are engaged in this bit of larceny, a mysterious man (Leon Ames) seems to be hanging around and Johnny can’t quite figure out his angle. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he’s fallen in love with Yolanda, which she completely reciprocates, though she feels ashamed, since one is not supposed to fall in love with an angel.

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

The Techniclor in this film is bonkers! When people say someone is a “flaming redhead” they are describing Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief. Bremer looks gorgeous, but she’s not very convincing as an innocent fresh from the convent. And she doesn’t dress like an innocent fresh from the convent, either. She looks like she could play a terrific New York socialite, though.

What’s puzzling about this film is that it’s such an odd blend of happy peasants and imaginative combinations of color and sets. There are contented, simple, singing people who cheer as Yolanda arrives at her home as if she were a princess and greet her with flowers. Her family practically has a monopoly on the nation and they throw flowers? I would have thought at least on person would have thrown a brick or two.

Contrasted with this pastoral bucolicism (there is a deer in her garden) is the riotous color palette, an unique nightmare sequence where Johnny works out his conflicting greed and attraction to her (with laundry ladies, sheets, gold, a snooty British racing crowd, treasure in a chest and Yolanda looking like a Greek stature offering him her money and entangling him in her dress).

And I can’t figure out Patria’s religion. It initially looks Catholic, but we only see her praying to her guardian angel. And later we see people paying reverence to a stature of Michael as it is led into a church during a carnival. Do these people worship angels? Just a fanciful question.

Fancy and whimsy personify this movie. What it lacks is a slight edge, something to give it a bit of tension. It also lacks sufficient dancing, something generally essential to the success of a Fred Astaire film. Which I thought was too bad, because Lucille Bremer is actually one of his more skilled and accomplished dance partners. But apart from the nightmare sequence and a brief dance while Johnny plays the harp, there is only one, admittedly fantastic, dance at the end called “Coffee Time.”

"Coffee Time"

“Coffee Time”

The cast is all good playing eccentric characters. Frank Morgan is a bit more subdued than usual. My favorite line of his is when he and Johnny are stopped by the police and deny their identity. When the police say they recognize them, he claims that “we don’t look like this.” Mildred Natwick plays Yolanda’s batty aunt. Since she was in charge of Yolanda’s fortune while she was in school, it’s a wonder the Aquaviva monopoly is doing as well as it is, but perhaps she hides her business acumen under eccentricity as part of a disarming persona? Leon Ames plays, for once, not a father of anyone. He is a mysterious, slightly mischievous stranger who seems to be looking out for Yolanda (most people will guess his real identity from the moment they first see him).

It’s not as bad as its reputation, though it will appeal to very specific tastes: devoted fans of Fred Astaire, musicals, visually imaginative Technicolor and fantasy. It’s somewhat in the genre of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Bishop’s Wife, where celestial beings interact with humans, but more whimsical and less realistic. It just doesn’t quite gel.

This trailer does not do the color justice.

A truly fantastic dance: “Coffee Time”

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Movies

 

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We’re No Angels (1955)

We're_No_Angels_-_1955_-_poster“What a cast!” was my first thought as I read about the Christmas film We’re No Angels: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, Joan Bennett, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll! And directed by the incredibly diverse Michael Curtiz? Woohoo!

“What was that?” was what I first wondered when I had completed watching it. I suspect that I am going to get into trouble if I try to analyze the film too closely. But purely on a superficial level, on the strength of it’s cast and script, We’re No Angels is both sentimental and somewhat darkly comedic and deliciously enjoyable. After all, how many angels kill the villain with a snake to bring peace and happiness to the heroes? I suppose that’s why they’re not really angels. I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1895 on Devil’s Island in French Cayenne, three convicts escape from prison on Christmas Eve. They are Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray) and Jules (Peter Ustinov). And Adolphe, Albert’s poisonous pet snake. Because there are many convicts on parole on Devil’s Island, they figure they can walk boldly into the city and no one will notice them. Their plan is to forge passports, steal clothes and murder the owner of the general store where they plan to get their materials and then slip away on a ship back to Paris.

The general store they select is run by the vague and ineffectual Felix Ducotel (Leo G.Carroll), who is nevertheless a kind and honest man. Joseph wants to hang around until dark, so he offers to have the three of them fix Felix’s roof. While on the roof, they listen to Felix talk to his wife, Amelie (Joan Bennett) about their business difficulties, their daughter, Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) and Cousin Andre (Basil Rathbone), who is the rich business man who owns their general store. He is arriving that evening from Paris with his nephew (who Isabelle loves) to look at the books. Since Felix is a hopeless businessman, their fear is that Cousin Andre, who is a ruthless businessman, will throw them in prison.

As the convicts listen, they are drawn into the family’s concerns and their inherent goodness, but Joseph insists that they stick to the plan and cut their throats that night (“Now that’s the kind of thing that makes people stop believing in Santa Clause,” Jules complains). But instead they end up helping sort out the family’s affairs, both business and romantic, and go out of their way to give them a Christmas they’ll never forget.

Humphrey Bogart, Pete Ustinov, Aldo Ray

Humphrey Bogart, Pete Ustinov, Aldo Ray

We’re No Angels is based on a French play and is a somewhat offbeat story. The three convicts are just as much avenging angels as good angels. They literally appear from on high (the roof) to help, even if they are kind of peeping toms. Bogart plays the scam artist who can sell anything (including combs to a bald man), cook any books and forge anything. Ustinov was a successful safe cracker who is only in jail because he murdered his wife. Aldo is the lug who murdered his uncle for not giving him money when he asked and likes to chase women.

But the Ducotel family doesn’t seem to mind having murderers, rapists and scam artists around. They are hopelessly naive, but honest and treat the three convicts like anyone else…actually, more like family friends. They even invite them to share their Christmas dinner with them. Jules begins to have second thoughts about murdering them that night, but Joseph insists they remain strong.

We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gauge their eyes out, slash their throats…soon as we wash the dishes.

The three of them make a great team, always lolling about, stealing from the local community (the Ducotel’s become the unknowing repository of stolen goods), offering sage advice, cooking dinner, arranging flowers, washing dishes, being insolent to the villains, playing matchmaker, singing a carol in three part harmony. They combine a recognition of goodness with a perfectly open zest for criminality and rejoice when Cousin Andre unexpectedly arrives, because in the words of Jules, he was getting tired of all this niceness. But for all their talk about cutting throats and murder, it’s clear they’re really just big softies.

Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart, Basil Rathbone, Leo G. Carroll, Aldo Ray - Rathbone wants to look at the books before Bogart has time to alter them

Peter Ustinov, Humphrey Bogart, Leo G. Carroll, Basil Rathbone, Aldo Ray – Rathbone wants to look at the books before Bogart has time to alter them

All three actors – Bogart, Ray and Ustinov – approach their roles lightly and seem to be having a great time. I particularly enjoyed Ustinov and Bogart, who I don’t usually associate with comedy, but he certainly can deliver a line. Basil Rathbone as Cousin Andre is also fantastic, showing up later in the film to make a big impression as the walking cash box. To an angry Isabelle, he says with complete indifference, “Your opinion of me has no cash value.”

Oddly enough, by being fugitives from prison, it actually frees the three of them from having to follow society’s laws, or even it’s most basic morals dictates. Joan Bennett as Amelie mentions to Joseph several times that she envies him for doing what he wants. Ironically, they also do what she dreams of doing, but would never do – which is kill Cousin Andre. So, crooks make it possible for the innocent people to go on being innocent and happy by committing murder? Somehow, that seems morally dubious, but hey! It’s a fun film, heartwarming despite that.

Bogart with his stolen turkey, while Ustinov admires his “beautiful big brown eyes.”

Bogart makes a sale and Joan Bennett is somewhat overwhelmed by the three convicts many talents.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2015 in Movies

 

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Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Poster%20-%20Here%20Comes%20Mr_%20Jordan_121939 has long reigned as the acknowledged finest year in movie history, but I really think 1941 gives it a run for its money, though perhaps I’m biased. Many of my favorite movies come from that year. Here is just a sample of the wonderful year that was 1941: The Maltese Falcon, The Lady Eve, Citizen Kane, The Wolf Man, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Suspicion, Sullivan’s TravelsBall of Fire, The Little Foxes and many more.

Another wonderful film that came out in 1941 is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, with Robert Montgomery, the incomparable Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton.

IMDB labeled it a fantasy/comedy/romance, although really it is a genre all its own, having spawned many other movies of its type, though Here Comes Mr. Jordan remains one of the finest films of the genre of angels or ghosts interacting with, guiding, or annoying humans.

Joe Pendleton (Montgomery) is a boxer with high expectations of becoming the next heavyweight champion. However, while flying his plane and playing his lucky saxophone, his plane takes a nosedive and hits the ground. The next we see of him, he is walking on clouds, absolutely incensed that an angel has pulled him out of his body. He keeps insisting that he is not dead and the bumbling angel (Horton) insists that he is. However, when it comes time to board that plane that presumably leads to the hereafter, Joe complains to the angel in charge, Mr. Jordan (Rains) and it turns out that there has been a grave error. The bumbling angel, Messenger 7013, had pulled Joe out of his body before he was actually dead; Joe was actually fated to survive the crash and live another fifty years. However, it’s too late to put Joe back in his body because it was cremated by his boxing manager, Max Corkle (Gleason).  Mr. Jordan decides that he will take personal charge and find Joe a body he likes.

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Messenger 7013, Joe Pendleton and Mr. Jordan

And after looking at 130 prospective bodies for Joe to inhabit, they do find one that Joe can use temporarily until they find him a really good one that he can use to win the heavyweight championship. Joe steps into the body of Bruce Farnsworth, corrupt banker who was just murdered by his wife and her lover.

Joe, of course, is not really Farnsworth, which confuses everyone he’s around and he discomfits everyone by his strange behavior, like undoing some of Farnsworth’s shady dealings and trying to get Farnsworth’s body back into shape so he can compete for the heavyweight championship. He even manages to convince his manager, Corkle, that Farnsworth is really Joe. And to top it off, he falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man that Farnsworth had framed.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is, among other things, an example of what my sister and I call a “cosmic romance.” A cosmic romance is any romance that is a love story outside of time or dimensions, that goes on forever, where two people were meant to be together, or are trying to be together, despite little things like space and time. Another aspect of a cosmic romance is that there is only the one person for you; there is never anyone else you could be with and if you cannot have them you will live your whole life waiting to be reunited afterwards. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is a cosmic romance, as is Beau Brummel with John Barrymore and Mary Astor, and even, improbably enough, The Mummy with Boris Karloff. And The Princess Bride is actually spoofing the true love, cosmic romance concept, if you think about it, with Wesley and Buttercup and his constant assertion of how this is “true love” and that “death cannot stop true love.”

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Bette Logan, Robert Montgomery and Mr. Jordan, with the angel pins looking like eyes on his suit

What makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan a cosmic romance is also what gives the movie its underlying philosophic core: that a person’s body is just the wrappings of the human soul; the person is still the same no matter what body they inhabit. It’s an idea that goes back to people like Plato and made its way through Rene Descartes. It’s the dual nature, mind/body concept, with the body less important than the mind/spirit. For example, Mr. Jordan tells Joe that although Bette Logan hates Farnsworth, she will learn to look past the fact that Joe looks like Farnsworth and will come to love the Joe who is inside. In fact, no matter what body Joe happens to be in, it is always clear that he and Bette have that special connection and they will always be attracted to each other.

However good the romance is, though, Claude Rains, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton are all natural and delightful scene stealers and who really put this movie over the top. James Gleason’s confusion at the strange goings-on and the body hopping of Joe is so fun, as well as his genuine concern for the guy. And Claude Rains is simply perfect. He has just the right smile, distant and all-knowing as befits an angel, but also benevolent without seeming smug, and definitely with a touch of dry humor. You get the feeling that although he showed Joe 138 bodies before he got to Farnsworth’s, he always knew what body he meant Joe to choose. He spends a lot of time standing around in the background, not saying anything, but looking very wise, and it is amazing how the eye is drawn to him even when he is not doing a thing. And I love how his two angel pins on either side of his lapel make it look like he has two extra eyes watching you.

I don’t know how I missed this movie for so long. I’d hardly even heard of it, but it is so wry, heart-warming, whimsical and so extremely well acted, that it has become one of those movies I feel could become a life-long favorite.

Joe tries to convince Corkle that he's Joe while Mr. Jordan looks on

Joe tries to convince Corkle that though he looks like Mr. Farnsworth he’s really Joe, while Mr. Jordan looks on

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

 

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