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Romance on the High Seas (1948)

ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEASDo you mind if I gush for a moment? Thank you very much.

I am a huge Doris Day fan. I love her warmth and enthusiasm, her can-do attitude and resilience in the face of obstacles (onscreen and off-screen). She could literally do it all: sing (oh, how she could sing), dance, handle comedy and drama. And yet it’s so easy to overlook her outsized talent because she always seems to downplay it.

I’m done gushing. Thank you for your patience.

Romance on the High Seas was Doris Day’s Hollywood debut. She was 23, a successful band singer and at a low point in her personal life. She was so depressed that she didn’t even go out of her way to impress director Michael Curtiz during her audition, bursting into tears at one point (her husband was leaving her because he could tell she was going to be a star and didn’t want to be “Mr. Doris Day”). But according to lyricist Sammy Cahn, ” On the day they screened the tests, first came Marion Hutton (Betty Hutton’s sister); she was not earth shaking. Then came Janis Paige–by comparison, excellent. Then came Doris Day–and the projection room, when they ran the film, exploded.” Doris Day was cast and rapidly became Warner Bros’ top star, though they continued to give her inferior vehicles to star in.

Romance on the High Seas is something of a musical/screwball comedy. Because this was Doris Day’s first film, she is only third-billed and shares screen time with Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Don DeFore, not to mention a host of scene-stealing character actors including Oscar Levant, S.Z. Sakall, Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn.

Society lady Elvira Kent (Janis Paige) is happily married to wealthy Michael Kent (Don DeFore), or she would be if she wasn’t convinced that he is chronically cheating on her. But her suspicions are unfounded; he’s mad about Elvira, though equally convinced that she’s cheating on him. When Michael is unable to accompany Elvira on a cruise because of a business merger, she immediately suspects him and decides to stay in New York to keep an eye on him, while hiring someone else to go on the cruise in her place to allay her husband’s suspicions.

Doris Day, Jack Carson

Doris Day, Jack Carson

The woman she hires is struggling singer Georgia Garrett (Doris Day), who works in a dinky little cafe with pianist and would-be lover Oscar Farrar (Oscar Levant, playing himself), who proposes marriage to her by the hour. Georgia is thrilled at the prospect of taking a cruise and promptly quits her job. But Michael Kent is suspicions that his wife is happily be taking a cruise without him and he hires private investigator Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to keep an eye on her during the cruise. But when Peter meets Georgia – believing her to be Mrs. Elvira Kent – he has to struggle awfully hard not to make love to her.

It gets more complicated when Oscar joins them on the cruise, but things really get out of hand when Elvira and Michael also join them at the end of the cruise in Rio, along with their Uncle Lazlo (S.Z. Sakall), who is trying to sort everything out.

Admittedly, it’s not The Awful Truth or Singin’ In the Rain, but there is a lot to enjoy. In Doris Day’s debut, she is not quite the Doris Day we know from later films. She is super perky (perhaps a bit too perky; she obviously learned to tone it down) and plays what would have been termed a hepcat, tossing slang around even when she supposed to be acting like the dignified Elvira Kent. Doris Day always hated the costumes, makeup and hair of her Warner Bros. days. She felt it was phony and she has a point there. The hats are pretty extraordinary in the film, too. Janis Paige as Elvira Kent has one that looks like a flying saucer landed on her head.

I watched this film with my friend Andrea and she thought the film could be understood as being about perceptions and how people see things (often incorrectly). Because Elvira and Michael believe the other is a flirt, they interpret everything in a way that supports their belief, even when it’s not true. Likewise, Peter Virgil believes that Georgia is Mrs. Elvira Kent, even though there are quite a few things Georgia says and does that should have tipped him off. Likewise, the scene where Peter and Oscar manage to get drunk on nothing has to do with perceptions. They think they are drinking shot after shot, not realizing that a man is stealing their drinks before they have a chance to down the glass. They are too busy telling the other about their girl (not knowing they are both talking about Georgia). Even the song “The Tourist Trade,” which is sung by a man from Havana about how everything they do is for the tourists, makes a similar point about expectations. They don’t actually live this way; they just put on the show that the tourists are expecting.

One thing I enjoy about Romance on the High Seas is that it gives Jack Carson an opportunity to play a romantic lead. He even sings a song – in a fake Trinidad accent – and he’s actually rather endearing. He still has his usual sense of humor, but it’s fun to see him get the girl for a change. Oscar Levant, on the other hand, is his usual misanthropic self, which is either good or bad, depending on how much you enjoy his particular brand of wit, which I do.

Janis Paige and Don DeFore are adequate, but the S.Z. Sakall is his usual adorable self and Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn both make delightful appearances. Fortunio Bonanova (who pops up in all sorts of unexpected films: Double IndemnityFor Whom the Bells TollThe Black SwanCitizen Kane, Kiss Me Deadly) plays the manager of the hotel in Rio who would like to hire Georgia to sing, believing her to be a society lady with name recognition.

The songs were written by Sammy Cahn (lyricist) and Jule Styne (music). “It’s Magic” was the hit of the film, nominated for Best Song (it lost to “Buttons and Bows”) and become forever associated with Doris Day. That is where Doris Day shines most of all in Romance on the High Seas. No one sings a ballad quite like she does. Like Judy Garland, she can bring emotion through a song that is often greater than the film even requires.

Doris Day sings “Put ‘Em in a Box” to express her disgruntlement with Jack Carson’s Peter Virgil, who is too principled to make love to married woman.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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If I Were You – P.G. Wodehouse

51fdg9cAeSL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I love P.G. Wodehouse. He’s most famous for creating Jeeves and Wooster, but my favorite of his stories are those part of his Blandings series, with Lord Emsworth, his prize pig and the parade of impostors that always seem to be trooping through his estate. However, Wodehouse also wrote a host of stand alone novels that have nothing to do with Blandings or Bertie Wooster and I have begun sampling them. If I Were You was written in 1931 and is a Wodehouseian blend of The Prince and the Pauper and “The H.M.S. Pinafore.” Two boys switched at birth must now trade places. The barber becomes an earl and the earl becomes a barber (except no one will let him give them a shave).

Anthony – Tony to his family and friends – believes he is the Earl of Droitwich and has just gotten himself engaged to the somewhat cold-blooded Violet Waddington, heiress of Waddington’s Ninety-Seven Soups. He lives with his “brother,” the Honorable (and useless) Freddie Chalk-Marshall, his aunt and uncle, Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia Bassinger, and his butler, Slingsby (who likes to play the horses and has an unfortunate habit of picking the wrong one).

But Mrs. Price (coincidentally the sister of Slingsby), Tony’s childhood nurse, likes to make lachrymose and slightly tipsy visits to cry over him, often bringing along the putative Syd Price, pugnacious socialist and barber extraordinaire…. who happens to look just like one of the ancestors hanging on the wall.

Soon the cat is out of the bag and Syd insists on his rights and settles in to learn how to be an earl while Tony must play barber for a while…while the family tries to sort everything out. Lady Lydia, Sir Herbert, Freddie and Violet are all for taking the matter to court. Tony isn’t too perturbed, though. He’s fallen in love with Syd’s American manicurist, Polly Brown, and is enjoying being near her at the barbershop.

It’s a typical Wodehouse concoction and made me laugh numerous times (no one can make me laugh quite like Wodehouse), but If I Were You turned out to be somewhat unexpectedly grating. On the one hand, Wodehouse is subverting the traditional notion that “blood will tell.” In this case, blood most certainly does not as Syd proves much more at home giving a shave than riding a horse or interacting with the nobility, while Tony has all the ease, polish and good manners of – not good breeding – but a good education. On the other hand, Wodehouse can’t help but betray a certain degree of snobbery regarding education and refined manners.

16418The trouble is that Syd really is done out of his inheritance by his scheming family. It’s justified by saying that he isn’t really happy as an earl, but that seems a feeble excuse. The family is appalled at the thought that this uncouth, cockney socialist could really be their relative and they deal with the situation by quite simply refusing to believe it’s true…even though it probably is (though it’s never proved quite proved). Their horror was so gratuitous and ungenerous that I couldn’t help wishing that Syd would remain the earl, just to spite them.

Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert do everything in their power to oust Syd and are joined in their endeavor by Slingsby, who can’t stand to have his former nephew lording it over him. Perhaps I felt for Syd simply because no one was on his side…not his real uncle or even his supposed uncle. He’s supposed to be universally obnoxious, but he isn’t really (after all, Polly likes him and often defends him). He just likes to assert that he’s as good as anybody else and with people like Freddie, Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert trying to prove that he isn’t, one can’t help but feel for him.

Admittedly, Wodehouse is definitely aware that the British aristocracy is of limited use in the world. Tony’s somewhat humorous justification for it? “Every time…that I got a twinge of conscience at the thought that I was living off the fat of the land and doing nothing to deserve it, I used to console myself by reflecting: ‘Well, at least I’m a sportsman!’” He could have also said that at least he has “nice manners,” which Syd does not have. Though Tony does occasionally wonder of what use people like Freddie are in the world, Wodehouse backs out by having Freddie save the day in manipulating Syd into voluntarily giving up his claim to be earl (he’s instead going to be an extremely wealthy barber). I think it would have been more satisfying if everything wasn’t restored to exactly the same state at the beginning.

And when Sir Herbert and Lady Lydia pretend to teach Syd how to be a proper earl and succeed in turning him into a slightly cringing, browbeaten man, I almost hated them. Even Tony is uncomfortable, bringing up his thoughts that at all costs they must be good sportsmen. Lady Lydia and Sir Herbert are definitely not good sportsmen, but I guess we are to forgive them because they are so fond of Tony. Besides, as Lady Lydia says, “the whole British social system…rests on the principle that a man with his ancestry can’t be a vulgarian.”

And even though Wodehouse is definitely writing tongue-in-cheek, one gets the feeling not even he would not like to have a cockney socialist earl on the loose.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2016 in Books

 

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My Name Is Julia Ross (1945)

my-name-is-julia-ross-movie-poster-1945-1020493690I’d read of the movie My Name Is Julia Ross described as the ultimate example of what a good B movie is. Only 65 minutes long and made on a small budget, the film has an excellent cast and crew and is quite a chilling little film. It was a breakthrough film for both the director, Joseph H. Lewis (who went on to more high profile film noirs like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) and Nina Foch (best remembered from An American in Paris, as Milo Roberts).

Described as a “gothic thriller,” My Name Is Julia Ross has a relatively simple plot. Julia Ross (Nina Foch) is out of work, alone, and apparently friendless in London. She answers an advertisement and is quickly hired to be secretary to Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty – about as harmless and aristocratic as a person can appear to be). Mrs. Hughes has a son, Ralph (George Mcready), who looks quite respectable…though he likes to play with knives. Julia doesn’t know that, however.

I don’t really want to spoil the entire plot, but the movie is so short that to discuss anything is to give something away. But it’s not really a mystery. The audience has a pretty good idea what’s going on ten minutes into the film. What is excellent is the suspense and overhanging claustrophobia of Julia’s situation, beautifully, and creepily, shot by Lewis and cinematographer Burnett Guffrey.

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Nina Foch as Julia stands at the estate gates while Ralph and a gardener look on

Julia is supposed to be a live-in secretary, but when she goes to their home in London she is drugged and wakes up in a home in Cornwall, by the ocean. There is a ring on her finger, all her papers proving her previous identity have been destroyed and Mrs. Hughes and her son insist that her name is Marion, that she’s Ralph’s wife and that she’s been ill. She’s practically a prisoner in their home. Even the servants believe that she is really Marion Hughes, despite Julia’s frequent insistence on her identity.

The movie has been compared to Gaslight. It is a bit of a gaslight scenario, though different in that Julia never really doubts her sanity. She staunchly maintains her identity, never ceasing in her efforts to contrive a way out of the house, no matter how much people insist that she is Marion.

But her attempts at escape are frustrated by the fact that even the people in the village believe that she is suffering from a nervous breakdown. It is an interesting scheme that Mrs. Hughes has concocted. Very improbably, but brilliant, in a way. It hinges on the fact that people’s natural impulse is not to get involved in other people’s affairs. When Mrs. Hughes say that Marion is ill, they believe her, no matter how much Julia insists that she is really Julia Ross and begs them to remember her name and get help. They believe Mrs. Hughes because she is rich and respectable, because she told them her story before Julia had a chance to, and because she looks sane. Dame May Whitty does not project malevolent scheming.

Dame May Whitty - would you trust that woman?

Dame May Whitty – would you trust that woman?

Despite our general insistence that we have suspicious minds, most people do generally believe what they are told (what we don’t believe stands out to us, because it’s relatively uncommon). It’s an interesting idea. If someone told me that their daughter-in-law was ill and I met that daughter-in-law and she told me that she was being held against her will and that she was really another person, would I believe her? Probably not. And even if I did, would I know what to do, who to go to, or be afraid people would laugh at me? It’s a brilliant psychological calculation on the part of Mrs. Hughes, thinking that she can get away with such an extraordinary masquerade.

It’s quite well-acted, especially by Nina Foch as the desperate, though resolute, Julia, a normal working girl caught in a mind-boggling and frightening situation. And Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Hughes, never overplaying her villainy, though definitely able to project menace when she needs to. George Macready is also excellent, in contrast, as her psychotic son, Ralph. The script is the apotheosis of taut script writing, with every scene and every bit of dialogue important and weighted with meaning. Highly atmospheric, quite tense, it is definitely worth seeing.

My Name Is Julia Ross can be viewed here on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Movies

 

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