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Evening Primrose (1966)

mv5bmtmzmde2ntuzml5bml5banbnxkftztcwndm1mjy4mw-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Evening Primrose is a musical written for the television series ABC Stage 67, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and I am indebted to Realweegiemidget for making me aware of this film. It sounded too quirky to pass up. A sort of grotesque little Romeo and Juliet set in a department store.

Anthony Perkins is Charles Snell, a poet who decides to get away from the world and devote himself to inspiration and poetry by hiding out in a department store. To his surprise, however, the department store is  already inhabited by people, who pose as mannequins during the day and live their lives at night. Almost all of them are elderly. Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney) is the original resident, arriving in the department store before the turn of the century. During various depressions (1921, 1929) more people arrived.

There is one young person there, however. Ella Harkins (Charmian Carr) was left in the department store as a child and now works as a servant to Mrs. Monday, though she is viewed and treated as an outsider. Charles is immediately enchanted with her, but Mrs. Monday and her people have very strict rules. One does not associate with Ella, who is not living there from choice; one cannot ever leave (they are afraid of exposure); and one apparently must do everything Mrs. Monday says, who’s really running a kind of snobby dictatorship. Her will is enforced by “the Dark Men,” mysterious inhabitants of a mortuary who periodically visit to enforce Mrs. Monday’s laws by turning people into mannequins.

It makes one wonder very much how many of the mannequins are really mannequins and how many are simply corpses. Interestingly, all the mannequins are young people. Though one perhaps could make a case that the elderly inhabitants, playing their bridge, dancing their waltzes, are half-mummified, too.

It’s ironic. Charles left the world so he could leave the petty money and social concerns of life and encounters another oppressive society in microcosm in the department store. Ella and Charles have to meet on the sly while he teaches her how to read and do arithmetic. It’s actually very touching, along with Ella’s desire to “see the world,” which she can barely remember. She poignantly sings about her memories in a song that compares things like the sky to various department store items.

It’s a rather romantic film, if ironic and deeply quirky, even horror-ish, and it totally had me going until the end, at which point I was a little horrified. I laughed, and was a bit horrified.

downloadEvening Primrose, as I understand it, is distinctly minor Sondheim, but the songs are rather catchy and poignant, especially “Take Me to Your World. It was televised in color, but only recently did they find and released the black and white copy on DVD. It still looks rather grainy, but the film has a certain atmosphere about it. It made me think of a wax museum.

I must admit to being taken aback to learn that Anthony Perkins did a musical, but he does well. His voice has a somewhat limited range, but it works for the role. Charles Snell is still a little eccentric, but one still feels completely invested in his character.

I can’t help but think of Charmian Carr as Liesl, but it was nice to see in her an another film. Here, she is sad, eager, both brimming for life and longing for it – they are a rather adorable couple. If you like Perkins or Carr, are in the mood for something a little offbeat or are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, it’s definitely worth seeing.

The film can currently be seen on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 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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