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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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Revisiting The Parent Trap (1961)

Parent_trap_(1961)I’ve always had a very deep affection for The Parent Trap, both the 1961 original with Hayley Mills and 1998 remake with Lindsay Lohan. They were movies I frequently watched with my mom. There are not many movies about mothers and daughters – fathers get much more screen time – and when there is a mother, often they come out like Mildred Pierce or Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother. Or they’re too busy suffering à la Bette Davis to actually have a relationship with the child.

And admittedly, The Parent Trap is not specifically about mothers and daughters. It is about two twins, who never before knew each other existed, but who meet and conspire to get their parents back together. But Mom and I never failed to cry whenever Susan/Hallie would see her mother for the first time or when she gets to spend those days talking with her mother and getting to know her. I always thought those were very special moments in the film.

But for various reasons, I haven’t seen either movie in years, especially the original, which I must have seen last when I was in my early teens. However, I was recently watching a movie with Maureen O’Hara and it gave me an irresistible urge to see The Parent Trap again. So I watched it and must confess that I loved it as much as ever.

Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan

Hayley Mills as Sharon and Susan

The film is less sentimental than I had remembered, partly because it really is less sentimental than the remake (though not exactly Orson Welles, either). Hayley Mills was older than Lindsay Lohan, so the film was less about cute kids and their shenanigans. She was around fourteen rather than Lohan’s twelve, which is only a two year gap, but I remember when I was twelve and my sister was fourteen and it felt like we were worlds apart, she a young lady and I still a kid. Then I became thirteen and the gap promptly closed. Hayley Mill’s Susan and Sharon are girls who are just becoming young ladies, though still innocent, interested in boys and at least aware, relatively, of the sexual dynamics at play.

There is a hilarious moment when Sharon is trying to get her father to remember her mother and he thinks she is asking about the birds and bees and tries, bumblingly, to explain, though when she figures out what he’s talking about, she says she already knows about that.

There is also far more conflict in the film than the remake or than I had recalled. Besides initially fighting with each other, Sharon fights with her father (played by Brian Keith) about his fiance, Vickie, and she doesn’t speak to him for several days. This is, admittedly, partly a calculated attempt on her part to sabotage the marriage, but it’s still conflict. And there is real, catty animosity between Vickie and Sharon (and really both girls). Even their grandparents have some conflict; their grandmother is imperious and their grandfather puts his foot down at one point.

Maureen O'Hara and Hayley Mills

Maureen O’Hara and Hayley Mills

And of course there is the conflict between Mitch and Maggie. In fact, their surprisingly sexy (for a Disney film) rapport in the film reminded me of a screwball comedy. It is a battle of the sexes, where the women generally rout the men. Poor Mitch never has a chance. He is surrounded by females; his two daughters, his gold-digging fiance and her mother and his ex-wife, all duking it out.

And despite the unifying thread of twins trying to reunite their parents, the film actually has three distinct parts to it, that explore three different forms of relationships in a family.

The first third of the film is about sibling interaction as Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at camp. They loathe each other, but after discovering they are actually twins, form a bond and grew to know each other and become allies as well sisters.

The middle part is how children interact with their parents. Susan gets to know her mother (Maureen O’Hara) and Sharon gets to know her father (Brian Keith). And you can see how their mother is rather better at fielding unexpected questions than their father is.

Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith argue while Leo G. Carrol as Dr. Mosby watches with extreme enjoyment

Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith argue while Leo G. Carrol as Dr. Mosby watches with extreme enjoyment

But by the third part, the girls actually take a back seat to their parents, who have now met and must do the rest of the work themselves. The twins may have driven Vickie away, but their parents still have to work through their own problems and admit that they miss, need and love each other.

Hayley Mills does a very good job of differentiating the two girls, one proper and more soften spoken and the other brash and tomboyish, even when they are pretending to be each other. Although by the last third of the film the two girls have essentially merged into one while the parents take over. I’ve always been a fan of Hayley Mills. Precocious without being annoying, but also still young and not striving to play wiser than she really is.

But for me a real highlight is Maureen O’Hara. She almost runs off with the picture. Warm and touching as a mother, maternal and feisty, she has excellent comedic timing and was extremely sexy. I love it when Mitch tells Vickie that Maggie is maternal and mature and then Maureen O’Hara as Maggie pops down the stairs, cheerful and gorgeous and meanwhile really socking it to Vickie by gushing over what a sweet child she is. She really does as much as the twins to drive Vickie away, putting her in a healthy tradition of screwball comedians who rout the competition, like Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife.

It was also fun to see all the character actors in this film, actors I now know from other classic movies. Mitch’s housekeeper is Verbena, played by Una Merkel, who I best remember for having a barroom brawl with Marlene Dietrich in the 1939 Destry Rides Again. And Maggie’s father is played by Charles Ruggles, who did a number of Ernst Lubitsch films in the early 1930s, like Trouble in Paradise, and also shows up as the big game hunter in Bringing Up Baby who does loon and leopard call imitations.

But the character I always remembered as a kid was Dr. Mosby, the reverend who is going to marry Mitch and Vickie, though he likes Maggie much better. Dr. Mosby is played by Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Alfred Hitchcock films than anyone else, six in total: North By NorthwestRebeccaSuspicionSpellboundStrangers On a Train, and The Paradine Case. Though I always think of him as Dr. Mosby.

This clip shows the film at its screwball best, when Maggie first meets Vickie while Dr. Mosby treats the entire situation as a spectator sport.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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