RSS

Tag Archives: Edward Arnold

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.

annex-grant-cary-toast-of-new-york-the_02

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!

cary-grant-blogathon-banner-2

 
14 Comments

Posted by on December 1, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

220px-Smith_goesAfter watching Meet John Doe and The Miracle Woman, I was struck by one (of many) themes that Frank Capra seemed repeatedly interested in exploring: whether or not something is still true –  faith, an ideal, a principle – even when it is exploited, ignored or corrupted. I had a dim memory that Frank Capra also explored this theme in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so I thought it was time I revisited it.

The first time I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I was still in my phase of resisting Frank Capra. On the surface, he seemed simplistic and contradictory. I’ve been rethinking that assessment, however, and warming to his films. And this time I around I was greatly impressed by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a senator from an unnamed state dies, the governor must appoint a temporary senator until the next election. But the governor (Guy Kibbee) and all the politicians are beholden to party boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt man who ensures that certain people stay in power, all the while lining his own pockets. The governor chooses Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the young leader of the Boy Rangers, who they believe will be too ignorant and naive to interfere with Jim Taylor’s little projects in the senate.

Jefferson Smith is awed to be chosen an honorary senator and is especially honored to become the colleague of the revered Senator Joseph Payne (Claude Rains), who used to work with his father fighting for justice for “lost causes.” Jefferson Smith thinks of Payne as a saint, a man who has done well for his state and who looks very likely to make it to the White House. He’s even called the Silver Knight. But Payne, it turns out, is just as beholden to Jim Taylor as all the rest of the politicians of the state.

Jefferson Smith is also assigned a secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), a tough-egg, knowledgeable, smart and cynical, who is initially convinced that Jefferson Smith is just a stooge, until she realizes that he’s actually sincere and no man’s patsy, at least when he realizes what is really going on. He wants to introduce an inoffensive bill to create a national boy’s camp, but it turns out that it conflicts with a bit of pork in an appropriations bill that will benefit Taylor. When Smith discovers this (with Saunder’s help), he refuses to go along with it and sets out to expose them, only to have Taylor and the “saintly” Payne frame him for the exact crime they committed.

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart - ironic image

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – iconic image

Thus begins the filibuster to end all filibusters, with Saunders coaching him all the way; one man standing against the party machine. It’s epic.

My first thought was, “What a cast!” Frank Capra always seems to assemble the most marvelous collection of actors. Edward Arnold (in a similar role to Meet John Doe), Eugene Pallette, Porter Hall, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, William Demarest, Thomas Mitchell (drunk, as usual). Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the sincere and naive junior senator who, by all rights, ought not to be in politics, but on finding himself in that position, is willing to fight for what is right. He’s a modern-day nearly-martyred saint.

Jean Arthur is also fantastic. I’ve been watching her in some of her comedies, like Easy Living, where she is a bit of a scatter brain, but not in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her character actually shares a lot of similarities with Barbara Stanwyck’s in Meet John Doe: hard-boiled woman who had to go to work young because her father was so philanthropic and ethical that he couldn’t provide for his own family, yet still retains the values of her father deep inside. Her affection for Jefferson Smith hovers between mothering solicitude and deep admiration.

But for me, it is Claude Rains who really gets the best role. He manages to show both the vestiges of the idealism he felt as a young man and the well-schooled, ambitious politician of today. The admiration Jefferson Smith feels for him and the genuine affection Payne has for Smith as the son of his friend makes his denunciation of Smith one of the more effective betrayals I’ve seen in cinema. You can see the hurt confusion in Smith’s eyes and how Payne hates himself for it. Claude Rains also demonstrates perfectly the dichotomy between the private man and the public one, switching between publicly denouncing Smith without batting an eye to being privately ashamed of himself and almost sick to his stomach.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

The central question Jefferson Smith must ask himself is, “are the American principles he believed in still true, even though he was pilloried and the government is mired in corruption and ambition?” The answer, Saunders urges him, is yes. And it’s worth fighting for. But the irony is that although Jefferson Smith expects the people of his state to rise up and vindicate him, the state party machine is too strong and manages to suppress his defense. He doesn’t exactly convince anyone. All that happens is that the war inside Joe Payne (a la Darth Vader) finally comes to a head and his guilt nearly pushes him over the edge and Payne himself vindicates Smith.

Perhaps the message here is that hope is not necessarily to be found in groups of people or the press or the political system, but simply in the consciences of individual people, which is still alive despite all. The most unexpected people can both disappoint, but also support you. The other message, perhaps, is that right is always worth fighting for, win or lose. Or perhaps it’s a story of rediscovery: Joe Payne, Clarissa Saunders, even Jefferson Smith to a certain degree, must rediscover their ideals that have been buried or obscured by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe would make, I think, an revealing double feature. There are many similarities – the martyred public man who ambitious and corrupt men attempt to use as a tool, then destroy when they refuse to be used, the smart, tough-talking woman who is softened by the man and rediscovers the principles of her youth, the self-doubts, the media wars, the exploitation, the fickleness of people in following their hero, the rapidity in which a hero can fall or rise, the struggle to maintain one’s personal integrity. They are films that reward repeat viewings.

 
10 Comments

Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Meet John Doe (1941)

downloadFrank Capra and Christmas go together like baked apples and cinnamon. Even some of his non-Christmas films have a Christmas vibe. But I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent feeling about Capra’s films, partially because I can never figure out exactly what he’s trying to say. There often seem to be contradictory messages. I like to be able to take the meaning of a film and crystallize it and no film defies crystallization more than Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe.

And after watching it this morning on TCM, I still can’t decide whether I like Meet John Doe or not. Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper are adorable together (two of my favorite actors), the cast is good and it is certainly a thought-provoking movie. Heart-warming, humorous, cynical, sentimental and totally irritating. I am eternally fascinated. It’s also a Christmas film.

When a newspaper is taken over by the wealthy business tycoon D.B. Norton, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) loses her job along with many other people. In revenge, she writes one last column, purportedly from a man threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve in protest against the current state of society. The column causes a sensation, with people writing and calling in, begging “John Doe” not to jump and the paper is besieged with accusations that John Doe is a fraud. The frazzled editor Henry Connell (James Gleason) finally manages to find Ann, who tells him that she made the letter up, but she has an idea to capitalize on it. Why not find a man to play John Doe and milk the sensation for all it’s worth? If Connell isn’t willing, she threatens to tell their rival paper that it was all a fraud.

download (1)What they first have to do is find a man who looks like an all-American John Doe and Connell and Ann interview various tramps who show up at the newspaper looking for work or claiming to be the “real” John Doe. The man they ultimately choose is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a baseball pitcher turned tramp who hurt his arm and is looking for work so he get can get enough money to have a specialist fix it. Ann talks him into being John Doe and they put him in a hotel, get him new clothes and coach him on how to act.

But John Doe fever catches on beyond anyone’s expectations, especially after he makes a speech over the radio (written by Ann) about the average guy. It causes such a sensation that J.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) takes notice of how people are reacting. Perhaps he can use the sensation for his own ends, riding the new John Doe wave to the White House, and maybe beyond. He enlists Ann to handle Willoughby, despite Connell’s growing discomfort with the direction the fraud is taking and the increasing complexity of the lie, which is only resolved in a riot and an attempted suicide.

The film’s message is all over the place.  It is a warning that fascism could come to America, media exploitation, a call to the working man to stand together, a protest against commercialism and greed, a tender romance. Capra believes in the common man’s capacity for kindness and at the same time their capacity for mobbing and naivete. He also seems to be warning against the danger of centering a movement on the appeal of one person (John Doe) and at the same time asking if an ideal or principle can still be valid when it is based on a lie. But Capra never seems to fully develop any of these themes.

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Meet John Doe)_03My biggest frustration with the movie is the character of Ann Mitchell: a living contradiction. She is part cynical newspaper exploiter and part sentimental idealist who supports her mother and two sisters. The reason she’s so desperate for work is because her mother is always giving away their money to help people. There’s some irony there. Her father was an idealist who was generous to a fault. Is her money-at-all-costs attitude a reaction against her father’s excessive generosity? This unspoken tension is never resolved. She seems to idealize her father. One moment she’s flatly telling Norton what she wants is money and the next she is starry-eyed with enthusiasm for John Doe and what he stands for. It’s like a reverse Pygmalion; she’s in love with the man she created…who she created somewhat in the image of her father.

Also interesting is that John Willoughby seems to lose his identity in John Doe. By the end, he believes completely in what John Doe stands for and that he really is John Doe. He has no identity apart from that and whether or not Ann loves him for being John Willoughby or John Doe is never answered. The ending is downright confusing. Even Capra said he tried various endings and never could figure out how to bring it to a satisfactory close. There are messianic overtones. Ann basically asks John to take on the mantle of John Doe; he sort of dies and is reborn on Christmas Eve as the man of the people.

The cast – as in all Capra films – is unmatched. Only someone as skilled and genuine as Barbara Stanwyck could make a mess of a character like Ann Mitchell still appealing and interesting. She’s especially great as the fast-talking journalist (listen to her try to sell Connell on her idea, talking a mile a minute…she sells him on it, too). Gary Cooper is earnest and sincere and has adorable chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck (I love them in Ball of Fire, too).

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Edward Arnold, Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan

Walter Brennan plays the tramp who is a tramp by choice and doesn’t believe in civilization. He calls people helots, but even he can’t do without human connections and never does find it in his heart to abandon John, even when John becomes a tacit accomplice in the fraud. Edward Arnold is the would-be fascist with his brown-shirted motorcycle brigade, quietly menacing as he polishes his spectacles. And James Gleason is excellent as the hard-boiled newspaperman whose sympathy is with the people. Even smaller roles, such as Bert, the man who tells John Willoughby what the John Doe movement has meant for him, are well played.

Perhaps what the core of film is about is helping people. It sounds simplistic, but if every single person helped their immediate neighbor the world would be very nearly perfect. The John Doe movement was about the average person helping their neighbors, finding humanity, dignity and comfort among each other, apart from politics, government, the media or corporations. In one of John Doe’s speeches, he talks about what it would be like if the spirit of Christmas prevailed all year long. But Capra also recognizes the many conflicting realities of the world that prevents it. But that does not invalidate the principle. What Capra ultimately seems to want to convey is that no exploitation or lie can invalidate a true principle.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: