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David Copperfield (1935)

david_copperfield_1935_film_posterI’ve been going through a Charles Dickens phase (books and movies) and have had had my eye on seeing the 1935 David Copperfield for some time. It was produced by David O. Selznick while he was still at MGM and has the kind of cast where you seem to spend your whole time recognizing and pointing out character actors. The film is so full of picturesque characters and actors that one almost loses sight of the titular hero.

David Copperfield is the story of the maturation of young David Copperfield from child to man, and all the people who populate his life. He is born to a widowed, child-like mother, Clara (Elizabeth Allan), and grows into the 11 year old Freddie Bartholomew. His mother marries the domineering Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and dies of a crushed spirit. David then runs away and seeks protection from his highly eccentric Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), meets the constantly insolvent Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields), the ingratiating and smarmy Uriah Heep (Roland Young), the also child-like Dora (Maureen O’Sullivab), the goodhearted Peggotty family (led by Lionel Barrymore) and the girl-turned woman who will always love him, Agnes Wickfield (played by Madge Evans as an adult).

David O. Selznick wanted to turn David Copperfield into two movies, but MGM was not interested. Instead, the 800 page novel is squeezed into 130 minutes of film and it plays like an animated illustrated Dickens. The highlight reel of the book. A parade of characters fly by. Blink and you miss Elsa Lanchester as Clickett (helping the Micawber’s with their many children). Una O’Connor has a few good bits, though. Jessie Ralph is also excellent as Peggotty, David’s nurse.

The three characters who are most memorable, however, are Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and W.C. Fields. In truth, I think Edna May Oliver is the real star and hero of the film. She even received top billing and was largely acclaimed as the very image of Dickens’ Aunt Betsey in contemporary reviews. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment (though the first Aunt Betsey I saw was Maggie Smith in the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation – she gives Edna May Oliver stiff competition, but they’re both wonderful). Indomitable, jerky and abrupt in movement, and with an alarming expression, she also provides the biggest, most sincere heart in the film. She seems to hold it all together. The film opens with her, she saves David from Mr. Murdstone in the middle, and the movie even ends with her and her cousin, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle).

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Mr. Dick, young David Copperfield, and Aunt Betsey

Basil Rathbone had a busy year in 1935. He appeared in seven films, including Captain BloodAnna KareninaA Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. He mostly played villains that year and is excellent as the cold, controlling man who enjoys crushing people under his will and succeeds in breaking his wife emotionally. Young David Copperfield describes him as looking just like a panther in one of his books, which seems apt.

I have heard much about W.C. Fields, but David Copperfield was the first film I have seen him in. He is, from what I understand, usually, notoriously not fond of children in his films, but Micawber is an exception. Apparently Charles Laughton was originally cast, but he did not like his performance and bowed out. Fields was inserted at the last minute and even had to read some of his lines off cue cards. I enjoyed his performance, though perhaps because he was reading off cue cards, he occasionally seemed oddly disconnected from the other characters (or is that just how W.C. Fields is?).

The film is a bit static, not nearly as dynamic as I remember the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities being (which also featured Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Elizabeth Allan). It’s more like a filmed series of picture postcard, though it makes for a pretty picture and the cast is rich. I’m glad I saw it and it has given me a strong desire to read the book again (though I have promised myself not to start until I finish a few of the books I am reading now).

Random Note: 1935 seems to have been a big year for literary adaptations. Anna KareninaMutiny on the Bounty, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s DreamLes Miserables. Even The Mystery of Edwin DroodCaptain Blood, and She. Something in the air?

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2016 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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The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

downloadVincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).

Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.

Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).

Sitting: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).

The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.

Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black

And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.

Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.

Poster - Comedy of Terrors, The_05But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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