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Rhubarb (1951)

Rhubarb_1951When I mentioned to my grandfather that I was reviewing a movie named Rhubarb and was explaining (not to him) that a rhubarb was a baseball term for a fight, he said it was a bit like a blast from the past. He hadn’t heard that word used in thirty or forty years. The only reason I knew the term was because of the movie; I’ve never heard the word used once during my fifteen years of baseball enthusiasm.

In the 1951 film Rhubarb, the word rhubarb not only refers to a scrap between ball players, but is also the name of a cat, who is given that name because he is a fighter. As millionaire T.J. Banner (Gene Lockhart) says:

“I like things that fight back – whether it’s animal or vegetable. That’s why I eat artichokes all the time. An artichoke doesn’t just lie on a plate like a mess of spinach waiting to be devoured. It gives you a battle. It doesn’t give up ‘till you eat its heart out.”

The film is a bit episodic, but it follows the fortunes of Rhubarb, a mangy, vicious cat that can defeat two dogs in pitched battle and likes to steal golf balls from the over-privileged at play. Banner is so taken with him that he adopts him and the two develop an unexpected bond, with Rhubarb taking the place of Banner’s unaffectionate daughter, Myra (Elsie Holmes). It’s actually incredibly sweet.

But soon that phase of the story is over when Banner dies, unexpectedly leaving everything to Rhubarb and cutting Myra out almost entirely. Rhubarb even inherits the Brooklyn baseball team that Banner owned (a team so bad they are derisively known as the Loons). Press agent and long-time friend Eric Yeager (Ray Milland – the man who had to do the dirty work in trapping Rhubarb so Banner could adopt him) is appointed Rhubarb’s guardian, an unenviable task since he now has Myra on his case, as well as the entire Brooklyn team, who refuses to play for a cat.

Rhubarb at the baseball game - a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

Rhubarb at the baseball game – a butler, some milk and even his own litter box

The film actually has a strong Damon Runyon feel to it. Even Milland talks a bit Runyonesquely, calling girlfriend Polly Sickles (Jan Sterling) “doll” and “dame” and generally talking more like a mug (not always convincingly) than a gentleman. There’s a little of everything in the film: baseball, gangsters with names like Pencil Louis and Cadaver, betting, Myra’s attempts to take the fortune away from Rhubarb, a little romance, cat allergies, picturesque characters and language, the rivalry between Brooklyn and Manhattan, cops. The film is often tongue-in-cheek, but with feeling.

After Yeager manages to snooker the baseball team into believing that Rhubarb is actually good luck for them, suddenly they start winning. But Yeager is a victim of his own success, because now the team won’t let him or Rhubarb miss a game and all he wants to do is get married. He and Polly try at least four times. To make things more complicated, Polly discovers that she’s allergic to Rhubarb…though it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. But Yeager can’t come near her without first cleansing himself of all cat hair.

The cast includes William Frawley as the manager of the team, a man whose only focus is the team (“I don’t know. Ballplayers ain’t like people…exactly.” he mumbles to himself when he learns that Rhubarb has inherited the team, speculating that the team will react badly). If you look carefully among the ballplayers, you can also see an extremely young Leonard Nimoy. He even gets a line. Jan Sterling plays Polly, a baseball fan who keeps having to put off her marriage for the sake of the team. Her real-life husband at the time, Paul Douglas, also gets a cameo at the end. He’s the man with the newspaper who watches as Rhubarb walks down the street, followed by a dozen kittens (“What a cat!” he says admiringly. “A litter from three wives.”).

rhubarb-1951-02-gRhubarb the cat is played by Orangey, who was something of a movie star. His debut came in Rhubarb, but he also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’sThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Comedy of Terrors. He was apparently a rather vicious cat in real life, but he had the happy knack of being willing to stick around longer than most cats during filming, though he would still get fed up and run off the set (as I suspect most cats would do). Many cats were used during the filming, however, often for specific stunts.

In truth, Orangey often looks distinctly peeved in the film. His tail is always swishing and his ears frequently flatten and his general demeanor is of a cat barely tolerating the humans around him. Ever since adopting a cat, I’ve been paying more attention to cat behavior in film and often what I see is a swishing tail. A happy cat is usually one with ears forward and alert, tail straight up with a little curl at the end, slowly blinking eyes and a general willingness to expose their stomach or stretch out. Still, Orangey despite his evident irritation, can’t help looking seriously cute.

The baseball part of the story was filmed at Wrigley Field (in Los Angeles, not Chicago – it was home for a minor league team). I have to believe that the Brooklyn team is supposed to be the Dodgers and Manhattan represents the Yankees. Sadly, the Dodgers would leave Brooklyn for LA only seven years later. Brooklyn fans – such as Doris Kearns Goodwin – never have forgotten their beloved team or ceased to mourn for them.

This post is my contribution to the Animals in Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. For a list of all the wonderful posts for this blogathon, follow this link.

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And just because I have too many pictures, here is a montage of some scenes from the film.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2016 in Movies

 

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Dial M For Murder (1954)

dialmformurderposterBecause Dial M For Murder is an unusually close adaptation of a successful play, it does not seem to garner the same attention that other Hitchcock films do. There is simply less to say about Hitchcock as auteur. But as a masterful film of suspense, red-herrings, and the overlooked little things that trip one up, it cannot be topped. I never tire of watching it; there seems to be something new to see each time.

The film begins with Margo Wendice (Grace Kelly), sitting in white at the breakfast table and enjoying a demure kiss with her husband, former tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). Next, it is evening and she is in a flaming red dress and enjoying a passionate kiss with mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), who is her former lover. They have broken off the relationship and believe that Tony knows nothing about it. He’s changed, Margo tells Mark. He’s a more attentive husband now.

And for good reason. In fairness, I should warn that this post is rife with plot spoilers. If you have never seen it before, it is a stimulating experience to watch the story unfold without prior knowledge. My only warning is that it’s a film you have to pay close attention to. There are a lot of red-herrings.

Tony, it turns out, knows everything about Margo and Mark’s affair. He married Margo for her money and when he realized that she could leave him flat, he concocted a scheme that was a year in the making. He’s going to blackmail an old school fellow from Cambridge, Swan (Anthony Dawson) – a man constantly skating “on thin ice” – into killing his wife for him. He has everything planned down to the last detail and it is a marvel as he calmly unfurls his plan to Swan, a man who is no slouch himself when it comes to criminal scheming, but has nothing on Tony.

But as mystery-writer Mark discusses with Tony and Margo, murders are only perfect on paper. People do not always behave exactly as you expect them to. Owing to a small change in the behavior of Margo earlier in the evening, instead of being murdered by Swan, she manages to kill him in self-defense with a pair of scissors. Tony’s year of planning is a shambles, but he quickly contrives a second plan, which seems to work much better. With the judicious planting of a few telling objects, he make it look like Margo deliberately murdered Swan. The police, lead by Inspector Hubbard (John Williams), seem to fall exactly in line and she is convicted of murder.

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland

Robert Cummings, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland – an insincere lot of people in this moment

To me, the most fascinating part of this film is watching people think, especially Ray Milland as Tony. There are moments when he realizes that he has miscalculated, but everything still seems to fall his way. Will he succeed? Will he not? What is going to finally trip him up? The film is full of red-herrings. For example, part of Tony’s original plan was to call his wife on the phone while Swan kills her. But he’s late and we, as the audience, are convinced that his lateness is what is going to save her life. But ironically, it is something that happened earlier, that we’ve already forgotten about, that saves her life.

Earlier in the evening, she didn’t want to stay home alone while Tony and Mark went to a stag party and he had to convince her, suggesting it was an ideal time to paste his press clippings into an album. He persuades her, but as a result her scissors are on the desk instead of in her mending basket, providing her an ideal weapon.

Even Mark Halliday is a red-herring. Because he’s a mystery writer, one keeps expecting him to be the one to bring Tony down. But in what is the finest twist, the police actually turn out to be rather good at their job. As Inspector Hubbard says, “The saints preserve us from the gifted amateur!”

John Williams played the role of Inspector Hubbard on Broadway and reprised it for the film. He initially seems like your stereotypical British officer, conscientious, following his own line of reasoning and apparently missing the important details. The first time I watched this movie I maligned him twice. I thought he was a stupid policeman, began to rethink it as he seemed to be getting at something important and then impugned him again when he appeared to drop it. Williams is perfect, lending the character sympathy and kindness towards Margo, impatience with Mark and complete satisfaction when he gets his man. He even gets the last shot of the film, brushing his mustache with pleased self-congratulation.

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play's Broadway run

John Williams as Inspector Hubbard during the play’s Broadway run

Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings are perfectly fine in the film, but it really belongs to Ray Milland (with Williams coming in second). He’s smooth, sophisticated, and believes he has all the answers…which largely he does. But as much as he might feel like he owns people (as he says he feels about Swan), he doesn’t. He’s awfully good at it, though. He says he puts himself in the place of others to see what they will do.

But everyone does that to a certain extent, which is another part of the fascination of the film. Everyone thinks, realizes, and put themselves in each other’s shoes to arrive at the exact same conclusion at the end. Sherlock Holmes would be proud at how they logically arrive at the only possible solution.

Given all the red-herrings, this last time I was finally able to isolate the three things that undid Tony. They are the scissors, the latchkeys and the money. Three things that seem innocuous and – in the case of the money and the scissors especially – things we completely forget about.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Uninvited (1944)

zbzxx2mm0gf5fbrsxs85From the moment I heard the score by Victor Young play during the credits of The Uninvited I suspected I was in for a romantic ghost story more in the realm of Rebecca or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir than the creepy haunted house story I was expecting. It’s not creepy, though it does have some genuinely chilling moments, but what makes it so good is the excellent way it blends and layers its many elements of romance, horror, mystery, ghosts, and family secrets, all played with a light touch and a surprisingly uplifting ending.

Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are on vacation in Cornwall and come across Windward House, which they fall in love with instantly and purchase cheaply from Commodore Beech (Donald Crisp), who is eager to be rid of the house. His granddaughter, however, is not so eager and tries to prevent the sale. Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is an orphan raised by her grandfather and feels an attachment for Windward because it was her mother’s, Mary Meredith – a woman whose memory everyone respects and admires.

But Roderick and Pamela move in anyway, despite the fact that their dog refuses to go up the stairs to the second floor and that one of the rooms has a cold, clammy feeling about it. Soon, their dog even deserts them for the local doctor. Worse still, they hear sobbing and moaning in the night, which they cannot explain. There is that traveling coldness, the sudden smell of mimosa. They learn that Mary Meredith died in the house, as well as another woman, Carmel, who was the mistress of Mary Meredith’s husband.

Ray Milland, Barbara Everest as their housekeeper, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell

Ray Milland, Barbara Everest as their housekeeper, Ruth Hussey and Gail Russell

Meanwhile, Stella is still attracted to the house, despite the commodore forbidding her to go near it. He fears the house is only evil for Stella while Stella believes that there is love there, from her mother. The commodore desperately turns to Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) for help, who runs a sanitarium and has a massive Mrs. Danvers-complex about the deceased Mary Meredith. Meanwhile, Roderick (who has fallen in love with Stella) and Pamela are determined to cure the house and find out what is going on.

Its an unique attitude, because most people would have left the house as soon as they knew there were ghosts there, but not Roderick and Pamela. They certainly find it disconcerting, but they seem to have no fear for themselves. The fear is all for Stella. It is as if the ghosts have no means of hurting them; there is no opening. Only Stella, who feels a connection with the house, is open to any influence or harm.

The movie unfolds more as a mystery than a horror story, as Roderick, Pamela and the local doctor, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier – a solid, comforting and rational presence in the film) investigate, both naturally and supernaturally. But what is revealed, and the threat and hatred directed at Stella, is where the horror comes into the story. It’s also an effective ghost story, though somewhat unconventional, The ghosts begin to take on distinct personalities, to become human with specific purposes, and the more human they are, the less frightening they are.

Gail Russell and Cornelia Otis Skinner

Gail Russell and Cornelia Otis Skinner

But however sordid and twisted the past, the present is kept light, especially through the character played by Ray Milland, who seems, even near the end, as if he still can hardly believe he’s landed in a ghost story (which, perhaps, is a very natural reaction). Ruth Hussey’s Pamela, on the other hand, hardly bats an eye and is determined to fix everything. The Uninvited was the film that introduced Gail Russell and she has to carry the heart of the film as the vulnerable girl who is becoming a woman, but is still tied to the past. Cornelia Otis Skinner gives us a flesh-and-blood villain to compliment the evil in the house and is extremely effective.

Spoilers…sort of! And how do they ultimately defeat the evil and free Stella? With the truth – which causes the ghost to lose her hold over Stella and the entire house. No one fears her and she now has no power. There is a twist at the end of the story and a surprisingly uplifting ending, as if now that the truth is known, it can be laid in the past. Everything is swept clean, simply by knowing the truth. And the secrets were festering. The relationships in the house between Stella’s father, Mary Meredith, Carmel and Miss Holloway (nurse and friend to Mary Meredith) were so dysfunctional and poisonous that certain of them couldn’t rest until they had destroyed even Stella, who lived in the poisonous atmosphere until she was three.

Ruth Hussey, Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Cornelia Otis Skinner - that is a portrait of Mary Meredith on the wall

Ruth Hussey, Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Cornelia Otis Skinner – that is a portrait of Mary Meredith on the wall

I was rather intrigued by the ending because I am currently reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, which deals with the theme of how the sins of the fathers are visited on that of the children and how the Pyncheon family line (and house) seems to have been cursed by the original sin committed by the original Pyncheon. The curse seems to follow the family down the generations as the house and inhabitants become increasingly decayed. The Uninvited is slightly different, but there is a kernel of similarity. Once again, the sins of the father (really mother and even enemies of mother) are being visited on the child, but this time through active malevolence. The hatred was so strong that the spirit of the dead woman stayed behind in the house to ensure that Stella participated in the destruction. But by learning the truth (and Miss Holloway is invested in maintaining deception), Stella is freed from it. She is not obliged to pay for the sins of her parents. And neither is the house.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2015 in Movies

 

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