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Tag Archives: Charles Coburn

Made For Each Other (1939)

downloadI can now be counted as an unabashed fan of Carole Lombard. The first movie I ever saw her in was My Man Godfrey and she was a bit much for me and I stayed away from her films for years. It was my loss, though. The more I see her films, the more brilliant she seems. She combines luminous beauty and depth of feeling with brilliant comic timing and energy.

Made For Each Other is an imperfect movie about the travails of a recently married couple, but allows Carole Lombard to showcase the range of her acting. She plays Jane Mason, the wife of John Mason (James Stewart), who is a lawyer and lives with his mother. The film begins with them just married, crazy in love, and planning to go on their honeymoon to Europe.

But life does not proceed exactly as planned. It’s the depression (the boss wants everyone to take a cut in salary), they live in a small apartment with his querulous and critical mother (Lucile Watson) and John is passed over as a partner by his boss, Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn). Things become even more strained when they have a child.

Part of the trouble is that John is somewhat meek and disinclined to assert himself, something that Jane takes him to task on (she is definitely the bolder one). She wants him to appreciate his own worth. In some ways, the beginning of the film reminds me of Vivacious Lady, which James Stewart made the previous year with Ginger Rogers and Charles Coburn. In that film, James Stewart is a professor who meets, falls in love with, and marries Rogers all within the space of several hours (just like Made For Each Other), but is too timid to tell his father (Charles Coburn) and generally needs to have his spine stiffened. But Vivacious Lady is purely a comedy. Made For Each Other begins much like a comedy, but veers into melodrama territory by the end. The ending, in particular, is improbable.

But Carole Lombard is a delight as Jane. She absolutely adores John and a large part of the charm of the film is how invested Stewart and Lombard makes the audience in their story, despite its improbabilities. Lombard also demonstrates her excellent comic timing, especially in her interactions with her step-mother, who is never quite satisfied with anything Jane does. Her patience, but also her frustrations, all seemed very believable and it is an interesting look at people trying to get along in a small space. I would have enjoyed more of that and less of the ending race to fly some serum to New York to save their baby from pneumonia.

imagesOkay, apart from the ending, there is one thing I thought was distinctly odd. What is with the string of maids? How are they affording a string of maids (who all give notice for various reasons)? John laments at one point how their marriage is a mistake and how he’s turned Jane into a household drudge because she’s now having to take care of the apartment. My grandmother was married, had five children, took care of the house and frequently worked (at night, so she could be home with the kids). No maid. She never thought of herself as a drudge. She told me people simply did whatever they needed to do. And this was the ’50s, when there was no depression. Hollywood’s idea of how working people lived is certainly curious (my grandmother always gets a laugh whenever she sees a Hollywood “middle-class” family with a housekeeper).

I did find the relationship between Jane and Lily interesting (Lily is their last maid, played by Louise Beavers). In nearly all ways, it is a stereotypical role for Beavers. However, the dynamics stuck out to me. Jane has been looking for work and she and Lily sit down together on the bench and talk. Lily is given dialogue that is stereotyped in the extreme (using watermelons as a metaphor), but the body language and mutual friendship tells a different story. In many films, there can be a tone of condescension used when addressing a black character, but Lombard speaks to Lily just as she would a friend. Even the hug they share when Lily stops by their apartment on New Year’s Eve seems genuine and unforced, like they are really happy to see each other. Oddly enough, Jane’s struggles with poverty has give her common ground with Lily and made them equals in a certain way.

It’s something you see occasionally in depression era films (and WWII films). The sense that the national tragedy or struggle has equalized people to a certain extent. Everyone is fighting the same battle. True unity, the suggestion is, often comes from tragedy and shared struggle. Even the overwrought ending reinforces this. The struggle to save the baby at the end resolves all tensions and troubles, leading to reconciliation and prosperity.

This post is part of “Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon.” Reportedly, Stewart and Lombard got on extremely well and Stewart said that Carole Lombard was the only person he knew who could make swearing ladylike. Thanks to In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting!

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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-miss-jones-robert-cummings-jean-arthur-1941I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this movie. I knew I’d like the actors, but sometimes movies about unions and business men can be a bit preachy and ridiculing the businessman has been a Hollywood sport for so long that it can get a little grating if not handled right. But I shouldn’t have worried; The Devil and Miss Jones is delightful.

Charles Coburn is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), a reclusive businessman who isn’t even aware that he still owns Neeley’s Department Store until he is burned in effigy outside the store. He’s tried his whole life to keep his picture out of the papers and considers even an image of his effigy to be an invasion of his privacy.

But when he meets the detective hired to infiltrated his store and root out the malcontents, he is unimpressed by the detective and gets the idea of taking his place, hearing what it is that the employees really want and exposing the people who are causing the trouble. The idea is somewhat prompted by his musing on how the agitators must be morons who’s arguments he could instantly deflate.

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur at Coney Island

Sure enough, despite the protests of his flustered butler, George (S.Z. Sakall), he reports for work the next morning in the shoe department under the name of Tom Higgins. There he meets the condescending floor manager and small time despot, Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), who must be called “sir” and belittles J.P’s IQ as being the lowest in the department and puts him in charge of selling slippers (J.P. makes a note to get rid of the IQ test for employees). In the shoe department, he also meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who instantly adopts him as her special charge and tries to help him settle into his new job. When he says that he doesn’t eat lunch (because he has a delicate digestion) she believes it’s because he does not have enough money to pay for it and gives him 50¢. When he meets fellow employee, Elizabeth (Spring Byington), she also takes an interest in Higgins/Merrick and makes him eat some of her lunch (tuna fish popovers – her own recipe). Since he’s generally on a diet of graham crackers and milk, this is quite a revelation for him.

And while he is experiencing for the first time what it is to be an employee – one of the crowd, obliged to be polite to Hooper (Mary and Elizabeth are always giving him advice on how to behave and keep his temper or interact with costumers, and who watch over his work like two mother hens) – he is also invited to the meeting organized by Mary’s boyfriend, Joe (Robert Cummings), who was fired for being the ring leader of the effigy incident, but has not given up trying to organize a strike protesting the company’s policy of firing people after years of service so that they can hire people with a lower salary. They want more company loyalty. J.P. is not initially impressed.

At Coney Island

At Coney Island

But gradually his attitude begins to change and the reasons are not cosmic reasons of justice or right and wrong, but simple friendship. He cares about Mary, Elizabeth and Joe and wants them to be happy. He doesn’t realize it at the beginning of the film, but he is a lonely man and they recognize it and go out of their way to make him one of them. It’s a friendship that is very well portrayed in the film. It begins simply with kindness from Mary and Elizabeth. As he spends time with them, it develops into caring. He doesn’t initially like Joe, but comes to see him as Mary sees him simply because Mary loves him.

When they all go to Coney Island (hilarious contrasted to his cavernous house where he lives alone – people are so squished together like sardines on the beach that they’re practically in each other’s laps) he gets lost and his three friends don’t give up until they find him…even braving the police and arrest to do so (he nearly gets arresting for trying to sell his gold watch for one dollar so he can make a phone call; they think he’s stolen it).

Jean Arthur gets her name billed above the title, but the film is more carried by Coburn and we see the story mostly from his perspective. But Arthur is excellent in the role, both warm and funny. She’s the heart of the film; the person who knows all the employees, who cares about all her friends and engages in a little matchmaking of her own between J.P. and Elizabeth, and is the person whose kindness initially thaws J.P. Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur were a great team on screen. In The More the Merrier, Coburn played the business man who stays in Arthur’s apartment during the WWII housing shortage in Washington DC, becomes fond of her and begins to play matchmaker. They play well off each other well and can convey genuine friendship. There is an adorable scene near the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, when Mary thinks that J.P. is a detective and has betrayed them. She gets him into the stock room and is going to hit him over the head with a shoe because she wants to get back a list Joe had of all the people in the store who are willing to strike. But even when she thinks he’s betrayed them, she still can’t bring herself to hurt him. He sits, oblivious, looking at shoes, while she stands behind him and tries to get herself psyched up to bean him over the head. 

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

Jean Arthur tries to bean Charles Coburn

I always enjoy Spring Byington in all her movies. She usually played mothers, but in The Devil and Miss Jones she is J.P.’s love interest – though he must compete with the loathsome Hooper. I am used to Edmund Gwenn as the kindly Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street, but he’s about as un-Santa Claus-like as possible here. One totally shares J.P.’s dislike. Robert Cummings as Joe is perhaps not particularly shining (Arthur had better romantic chemistry with Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier), but he’s supposed to be just a regular guy. He’s not a hero, just a man who rises to heroism when he stands against injustice, despite being immature in his private life.

It’s an extremely satisfying movie, a comedy with heart, where friendship can overcome any prejudice or class barrier and where human relationships are more important than anything else.

 

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

download (1)Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was made in 1953, a movie adaptation of the 1949 musical of the same name. The musical was an adaptation of a play, which was adapted from the novel, written in 1925 by Anita Loos (a prominent screenwriter of ’20s). The original book was a satire of the flapper culture in the 1920s. The movie has none of that satire, mostly being an excuse for catchy songs sung by Hollywood’s leading sex icons of the era, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, in glorious (occasionally gaudy) technicolor.

However, I found it a very entertaining extravaganza. What I really enjoyed about it most was the great camaraderie between Russell and Monroe as they sail through the film, making mincemeat of the men, all the while having each other’s back. There’s none of the usual Hollywood female cat-fighting in this film.

The film follows the exploits of two showgirls, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw. Monroe is Lorelei, the blonde ditz and dedicated gold digger (diamond digger, really). Jane Russell plays Dorothy, her fun-loving, snarky, but utterly loyal friend. Lorelei has managed to ensnare the hapless Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), the son of a millionaire. However, Gus’ father is determined to prevent their wedding and when Lorelei and Dorothy make a transatlantic crossing to Europe, Gus’ father sends a private detective along to watch Lorelei.

Lorelei, meanwhile, meets the very rich Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who owns a diamond mind, but is also married. Dorothy meets the detective, Malone (Elliott Reid), not knowing he is a detective and they mutually fall for each other while he still tries to spy on Lorelei. His vigilance pays off, too. Sir Francis has traveled a great deal in Africa and while he demonstrates to Lorelei how a python wraps up a goat, with Lorelei as the goat, Malone manages to snap some pictures. But Dorothy catches him taking pictures and between her and Lorelei, they swipe the pictures back. Lorelei gives the pictures to Sir Francis to destroy and in gratitude he swipes his own wife’s diamond tiara (that Lorelei has been coveting) and gives it to Lorelei at her request.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

This proves to be her undoing as Malone gets wind of it, who passes the information on to Lady Beekman and Gus’ father. Gus breaks up with Lorelei and Dorothy breaks up with Malone, leaving the two girls broke in Paris; down, but by no means out. Through more machinations, the girls manage to get everything they want, including Gus and Malone.

The film is often characterized as being about two gold diggers, but there is actually only one gold digger and that is a big reason why these two women can be such good friends in the film. They are not competition for each other. They want different things out of life and they both get what they want.

Lorelei Lee, as played by Monroe, personifies the blonde ditz, but nevertheless has a razor sharp streak of pragmatism and smarts. She may not know that you wear a tiara on your head, but she certainly knows how to get what she wants and has a surprisingly well developed philosophy on the matter.

Movies and novels have always popularized the notion that you can’t help who you love, but Lorelei earnestly believes that you can chose who you fall in love with and there is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t find a millionaire that you can also love. And nothing in the film contradicts this belief. She is not made to fall in love with a poor man or repent of her scheming for money. In fact, when Mr. Esmond says that she only wants his son for his money, she admits that money is a factor. Being a rich man is like being a pretty woman, she says. Men don’t marry women just because they are pretty, but “my goodness, doesn’t it help?” If he had a daughter, surely he would want his daughter to marry a man with money, too.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-jane-russell-marilyn-monroe-1953

Dorothy and Lorelei ponder a problem

Dorothy, unlike Lorelei, is not a ditz and gets to deliver some of the films funniest and snarkiest lines. She also has a completely different philosophy in life. She likes “a beautiful hunk of man” and she likes to have a good time and she can’t stand playboys. When Gus wants her to chaperone Lorelei while they are on their trip to Europe, she is very excited to see that the whole US Olympic team will be on board. Gus is worried (he needn’t have been; athletes are too poor for Lorelei to glance at), but Dorothy replies that “the chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m so right for this job.”

The film is generally regarded as being Monroe’s film, but I have to say I really enjoyed Jane Russell. She brings an intelligent good humor to the character, with staunch loyalty to Lorelei. Russell has always had a reputation for not being the most versatile actress, but I like her low-key, comfortable persona and how she has a way of looking as if she’s really there with the other actors, instead of just using them as a prop, as Monroe can occasionally do.

The iconic song is, of course, “Diamond Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” sung by Marilyn Monroe, in pink dress with red background and dozens of men dancing in tuxedos, offering her dozens of diamonds. It’s a very catchy song, but my favorite songs are from the first half of the film. There is “Bye, Bye Baby,” which I absolutely cannot get out of my head, “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” and the song that Dorothy sings when she learns that the entire Olympic team has to be in bed by nine, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love.”

Notes

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

I have always had a lukewarm opinion of Marilyn Monroe’s singing abilities. She has a way of breathing through a song instead of singing. However, Monroe does a fairly good job in this. She still manages to whisper/sing many of the lyrics, but she studied hard for the film and she’s better than usual. For the really high, operatic notes in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” however, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Deborah Kerr’s voice in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady.

The director, Howard Hawks, is best known for films like Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings. He did not get along with Marilyn Monroe at all. He didn’t like that she had her acting instructor on set all the time or that she wanted many retakes. However, Jane Russell was evidently a very easy going person and was able to intercede between Hawks and Monroe.

All the songs were written by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Leo Robin. However, two additional songs were written by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson: “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” and “When Love Goes Wrong.”

Here is “Bye Bye Baby.” The first woman you hear singing is Jane Russell. Later, when you hear somebody crooning breathily that is Marilyn Monroe, singing to her fiance, Gus.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Comedy, Movie Musicals

 

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