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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.

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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!

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Posted by on December 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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Suspicion (1941) The Ending

downloadSuspicion has always fascinating me. Containing what may possibly be the worst tacked-on ending I have ever seen, it nevertheless always seems just a breath away from brilliance. I must confess that my interest in this film also stems from a general fascination with the “spineless” roles of Joan Fontaine, which, despite my love of celebratory strong female actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, I find makes for interesting variety.

Situated in an English village, Suspicion has the setting of a cozy English murder mystery. There is even an author residing there who writes cozy murder stories, but Hitchcock gives the cozy setting a suspense twist rather than a mysterious one. The suspense is quite simple: is Johnnie planning on killing his wife? His wife certainly thinks so and Hitchcock builds suspense magnificently, right up to that moment when Johnnie walks up the stairs with a glowing glass of milk in his hands. Could it be poisoned?

Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) is thecarefully brought up and intellectual daughter of General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Mrs. McLaidlaw (Dame May Whitty). But she meets playboy Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) on a train and he awakens something new in her. He is exciting and spontaneous and sexually alive and she becomes completely enamored of him, determined to have him even if her parents don’t approve.

But as soon as they marry, it becomes obvious that Johnnie is just no good. He has no money, no desire to get a job, bets at the races and assumes that Lina will have much more money from her parents than she does have. She thinks he’s a child and believes that she can help him – the classic love-of-a-good-woman-can-reform-a-man delusion. He does get work, but is fired for theft and does not tell her anything about it. And as Lina realizes that Johnnie is a chronic liar, suddenly his protestations of love and assertion that marrying her is the only thing he never regretted doing begins to sound a little hollow.

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce

Which opens the way for mistrust and suspicion. It starts with Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), Johnnie’s friend, who Johnnie talks into financing a plan of Johnnie’s to buy some land and build on it. Now that Lina knows that Johnnie stole money and has been given a little time to pay it back before he is prosecuted and sent to prison, Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie intends to kill Beaky. And when Beaky dies under mysterious circumstances, she thinks Johnnie wants to kill her so he can collect on her life insurance, pay back what he stole and avoid jail time.

There have been two theories about the ending. One is that Hitchcock always intended to use the ending that was in the book (Before the Fact by Frances Iles) where Johnnie gives Lina a glass of milk containing poison. Almost relieved to finally have the suspense broken and know for certain that Johnnie wants to kill her and loving him too much to want to go on, she drinks the milk after writing a letter to her mother explaining what happened. The last scene in the film would have been of Johnnie sending the letter. Alfred Hitchcock himself said this was his original intention and many people have noted the importance of letters and stamps in the film. The theory is that the Hays Code wouldn’t let the film end with what would essentially have been Lina’s suicide and that the studio didn’t want Cary Grant to be a murder, thus forcing Hitchcock to come up with something else.

However, Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto argues that there is no evidence that Hitchcock ever intended to film this ending and that instead his intention was to make a film about the neuroses of a woman imagining that her husband is trying to kill her. But if that is the case, then it seems like Hitchcock failed. There appears to me to be nothing illogical or neurotic about Lina. In fact, her reasoning strikes me as being perfectly logical and it is only after some time living with Johnnie and his lies that her imagination begins to run riot. Johnnie is an amoral man, a petty thief, insensitive when his friend almost chokes to death, lying at every turn. It makes sense to me that this sort of man would be capable of murder if he thought it would keep him out of jail.

soupcons_suspicion_1941_portrait_w858And no matter what Hitchcock intended, the ending is completely illogical and deflating. Suddenly, the film suggests, it was all in her head and her suspicions were unfounded and she was simply being hysterical (completely glossing over how much reason he gave for her suspicions) and should have stood by her man all along. Johnnie is apparently a reformed man and the reason he was pestering the local mystery author about an undetectable poison is because he was thinking of committing suicide. But if so, why undetectable poison? Wouldn’t arsenic do just as well? And I cannot believe that they would happily drive off to face the future together as if nothing was really wrong with him.

No, the only way it makes sense to me is that Johnnie is really a killer and Cary Grant certainly plays Johnnie like a killer. There is an edge to his performance, even his protestations of love at the beginning of the film sound a bit pat and devoid of the sincerity you find in some of his other roles, like in The Philadelphia Story, where it is very obvious that he does love and cherish Katharine Hepburn’s character. His pet name for Lina is, of all things, Monkeyface, and he is often condescending in his manner. The only other way the film could have made sense is to acknowledge at the end that Johnnie’s behavior caused the suspicions in the first place and embrace the fact that Johnnie is worthless and doesn’t love her and have Lina realize this, even if he doesn’t kill her.

But I’ve always found that I enjoy the movie best when I mentally throw out the real ending and insert the one Hitchcock claimed he wanted, with Lina drinking the milk and Johnnie sending the letter. It’s more satisfying, up until I reach the real ending (at which point, I rant and rave a little). This way, everything makes sense and the movie becomes a fantastic suspense film and exploration of lies and fear and paranoia, beautifully acted and inexorably leading to the murder that seems inevitable even as you are hoping it’s not.

Suspicion-1941-classic-movies-16283117-2072-2560Once again, I think that Joan Fontaine’s character of Lina McLaidlaw is somewhat misunderstood, like her role in Jane Eyre, almost always compared to her role in Rebecca. But as in Jane Eyre, she’s actually surprisingly different. Lina is not, as she is often called, timid or repressed. In her own social sphere (she is from a more elite background than Johnnie) she is perfectly at her ease and what I would call sexually un-awakened. It is specifically Johnnie who makes her initially ill at ease and most woman who are not experienced with men like Johnnie would be. She is forthright, direct in what she says and initially believes that Johnnie is as direct and honest as she is. She is also a bit of a rebel. She only really decides she wants Johnnie after she hears her father say that she is the spinsterish type and will never marry. Her father thinks she is intellectual and doesn’t need to marry.

Which brings me to another observation. Lina seems to be both bookish and intelligent (also exhibited by her need for reading glasses, a classic Hitchcock indication that a character is smart), but there is no outlet for that and even after she marries Johnnie, she doesn’t seem to have anything to do except hang around the house. This perhaps contributes to how completely she wrapps her entire life around Johnnie and is so determined to forgive him and retain his love. In fact, she reminds me slightly of another self-destructive Hitchcock leading Lady: Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy from Vertigo, who is also so desperately in love that she allows another man to dominate her.

But what is interesting is how an intelligent woman could trap herself in a situation like this, as opposed to someone who really is just plain dumb. It’s willful self-deception, which makes it all the more disturbing, but also all the more real. As an interesting aside, it struck me that Johnnie is really not a very good crook. Beaky always knows when he’s lying, he’s caught stealing, he gets caught out in lies repeatedly and if we pretend that he’s really trying to kill her, he’s not being very subtle because she’s totally on to him. He’s always gotten by on charm, it seems, rather than any real criminal ability.

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Movies

 

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Gunga Din (1939)

gunga_dinI can definitely see why people like this movie, and why it has endured as one of the great classic adventure tales and I can also definitely see why some people find it annoying. It really depends on how much you like adventure and the chemistry of the leads and how much you can overlook the blatant romanticization of British Colonialism in India.

The movie was inspired by the poem by Rudyard Kipling, also called “Gunga Din,” which recounts a soldier’s memories of a water carrier, Gunga Din, who is abused by all the army, but who faithfully brings them water, no matter the danger to himself. In the end, he dies saving the life of the solider who utters the line “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

However, the movie is really less about Gunga Din and more about what we now call a bromance between the three main characters: Sergeant MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Sergeant Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr,) and Sergeant Cutter (Cary Grant). They are like the Three Musketeers, only in India, with the same high-spirits, mischief and utter loyalty to each other. They bicker and fight and always have each other’s backs.

MacChesney is the senior soldier and loves his elephant, Annie, and nurses her like he would a baby; Cutter is the class clown who has a thing for treasure, maps, and gold and seems to be an Indiana Jones in the making (without wishing to put any of the treasure in a museum); and Ballantine is dashing and in love, which threatens the entire bromance. He is in love with Emaline Stebbins (Joan Fontaine) and as soon as his enlistment is up, he is going to get married and run a tea shop, much to the disgust of Cutter and MacChesney, who want him to enlist for another nine years.

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Ballantine is helping Emmy to pick out curtains by wearing them while Cutter and MacChesney look on

Meanwhile, the Thuggee cult, which worships Kali and seems to believe rather generally in killing for killing’s sake, are on the move and are threatening to sweep through all of India. The three men are sent out, with Ballantine only having a few days left on his enlistment, to meet the Thuggee. Coming along with them is Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), who carries water and dreams of being a soldier. He also knows where there is a temple filled with gold, which very much interests Cutter. However, when he takes Cutter there, they find the Thuggee, and MacChesney, Ballantine and Gunga Din have to go rescue him.

The cast is almost all uniformly excellent. Eduardo Ciannelli makes a suitably creepy, if massively politically incorrect, guru who leads the Thugs and comes across as rather educated, despite his death cult. The British commanding officer is played by Montagu Love, who, whenever he opens his mouth, reminds me of his other role as the Bishop of the Black Cannon in The Adventures of Robin. Joan Fontaine also does well in a tiny role as the female obstacle to all that joshing brotherly love. After all, women and a tea shop! Soft!

GungaDinJaffeThe one bit of casting I do not agree with is Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din. I am not really sure how old Gunga Din is supposed to be in the poem, but in the movie he is middle aged and plays him as such a simple guy that he comes across as mentally challenged, especially in the way he reacts in gratitude to the other men’s condescending attitude towards him and it feels very awkward. Perhaps it would have worked better if he had actually been a child instead of a grown man.

As I said, this movie is really just an adventurous romp and there is zero character development. The movie seems like three-fifths action sequences. It actually brings irresistibly to mind the Indiana Jones movies, especially the second one. There are elephants, a rickety rope bridge, treasure, a gold temple, snakes, native peoples chasing the heroes. It also has the kind of light-hearted adventure characteristic of Indiana Jones.

The movie was filmed on location in the Sierra Mountains, which stand in for the Khyber Pass, and really looks good. It took much longer to shoot than was originally intended, however, and they went so far over budget that even though the movie was a hit, it still lost money.

MacChesney and Cutter

MacChesney and Cutter

The role of Cutter was originally going to be played by Fairbanks, Jr. and Grant was going to play Ballantine, but Grant wanted to play the comic and so they switched roles. Cary Grant also has what is supposed to be a Cockney accent, though most people comment that it sounds half-hearted. However, since Cary Grant (when he was still Archibald Leach) really did have a Cockney accent from working in music halls before he brushed his accent up along with his image as the most suave man ever living, I would think he would know how to speak with a genuine accent. Perhaps he lost the knack, or perhaps I’m just used to a broader movie accent than most people actually have.

The big issue that most people have with the movie is the celebration of colonialism and how Gunga Din, in saving the British army, is essentially a traitor to his own people. I can definitely see their point. The condescending attitude the British adopt is pretty hard to take and if the rather juvenile MacChesney, Ballantine and Cutter are anything to go by, it’s hard not to sympathize a little with the impulse of the Thuggee to kill them. Also, pretty much every Indian role is played by people in body paint, which was standard practice during those years. However, I feel that this movie is really not essentially about Colonialism; it is more an excuse for adventure, male bonding, courage, and lots of fighting.

Gunga Din 1939The movie was directed by George Stevens, who was known for his comedies before he joined the army and saw, first hand, the affects of the Holocaust. He made movies like Woman of the Year, with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Swing Time, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. However, after the war he was so affected by what he had seen that he never made another comedy or light-hearted film and instead made movies like Giant, Place in the Sun and Shane.

Gunga Din ultimately is a very well-done movie, despite my complaints. It’s just not quite my cup of tea.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Comedy, Historical Drama

 

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