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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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Girl Trouble (1942) – A Wartime Screwball Comedy

girl-trouble-affiche_463166_16938Hollywood has always liked stories about rich people pretending to be domestics, usually not successfully; though William Powell was an exception as an unsurpassed butler in My Man Godfrey. There is often overcooked toast involved in these kinds of tales. Merrily We Live (Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne) and If Only You Could Cook (Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur) are also lesser known entries into this genre. However, what all three movies have in common is that it is the man who is pretending to be a domestic when he is, in reality, quite wealthy.

Girl Trouble takes a different tack, in that the domestic is a woman and she’s no longer rich. Without being a war propaganda film, the movie is firmly set during WWII and much of what the characters are doing are the result of the war. There is June Delaney (Joan Bennett) who has lost all her fortune because, for some reason, she can no longer get her money out of London (presumably due to the war). There is also the South American playboy, Pedro Sullivan (Don Ameche), who has come to America to negotiate a loan for his father’s rubber plantation so that they can start selling rubber to the Americans. It is a loan that the US government very much wants, partly because they are in desperate need of rubber and partly to cement good relations with South America – both rubber and South American relations really being genuine concerns of the US at that time.

And then there is Mrs. Rowland (Billie Burke), who is the ultimate in fluttery women, always organizing charities (usually for the war effort) and red cross meetings. And June seems to have an awful lot of spoiled, rich friends (some in uniform) who go from home to home, participating in these meetings. Even the fluttery and spoiled must help the war effort.

1407210366_3Because June is now broke, she must rent out her apartment and Pedro Sullivan (his name is explained by the fact that his father came from America) must stay in New York for a while, so he rents her apartment and mistakes her for the maid because she is dressed like a maid and running the vacuum. June’s friend Helen (Helene Reynolds) thinks it’s all very funny and is glad that June will no longer be in competition for the men now that she is poor. However, when Pedro asks June to stay on as his maid, June says yes and she has the advantage over her friend in that, though he thinks she’s the maid, it allows her to be on the spot where he is most of the time.

Joan Bennett is by far the calmest screwball comedienne I have ever seen. No matter what happens, like burnt toast, a vacuum that spits dust all over her dog, Mrs. Rowland taking Pedro’s clothes away with her for charity (she believes they are June’s father’s clothes), she always remains calm and never visibly reacts. There is no making faces, wringing hands, screaming or looking frazzled. She simply moves on, unflappably, with whatever she is doing, finding some way out of her difficultly or coming up with some sort of lie when necessary. She even takes the news about her impoverishment relatively philosophically and never utters one word of complaint. Perhaps complaining would have seemed unseemly during the war.

It’s not the greatest comedy ever made; it’s only 81 minutes and there’s not a tremendous amount of character depth, but it’s cute and I especially enjoyed Joan Bennett’s comedic style. I was also fascinated with how effortlessly WWII grounded it is. Even the decision to have the romantic lead be from South America is partially war related since South America was about the only continent that didn’t have most of it’s young men in uniform or off fighting

girl-trouble_478199_47588June also has the cutest little black terrier (I think it’s a Scottish Terrier) who is always frisking about and accompanied by lively Scottish (or Irish) music. What is also pretty funny is how blithely unaware Pedro and June are of the massive impropriety of having a female maid living in the same apartment with her male employer. Whenever people hear about the arrangement, they are shocked, but June and Pedro don’t seem to notice.

The irony is that he is a playboy and isn’t all that good at his business. It is June who seems to display business acumen. She reads his papers and asks him intelligent questions that he can’t answer and is also the one to resolve his business difficulties. For being a spoiled, rich young lady, she turns out to be pretty competent, except she can’t make toast.

 

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