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Tag Archives: Screwball Comedy

Never Say Goodbye (1946)

lNeversaygoodbye1946Never Say Goodbye is a lesser known, but charming Christmas movie and I think what is most fun about it is seeing Errol Flynn in a non-typical screwball mode. He even gets to poke a little fun at his swashbuckling image.

Phillip Gayley (Errol Flynn) is an artist mostly known for his paintings of pin-up girls. But though his paintings have brought him fame, it has also lost him his wife, Ellen Gayley (Eleanor Parker). Now their daughter, Flip (Patti Brady), spends six months with each parent and when the film opens, she is about to go to her mother’s house for six months with her.

But Flip wants a baby brother to play with and reasons that the only way she can have one is to get her parents back together. And truly, her parents are more than willing to oblige. It’s clear that after a year of being divorced, they still only have eyes for each other. The only reason they divorced is because Ellen’s mother (Lucile Watson) talked her into it over the issue of Phillip’s pin-up models (and though he claims to be wrongly accused, he does seem to be a bit of a flirt).

Ellen still perks up at the mention of Phillip’s name, completely ignores the new suitor, Rex (Donald Woods), her mother has in mind for her and seems to be all-but encouraging Phillip to convince her that they should still be together. And Phillip does try awfully hard to convince her. Throughout the film he attempts wooing, cajoling, singing their song in her ear (Ellen asks, “You sang like that and I still married you?”), dancing, kissing, sneaking into her house dressed as Santa Claus, but something always comes along to break it up, usually in the shape of his current model, Nancy (Peggy Knudsen), who is trying just as hard to land Phillip.

The scene where Phillip accidentally ends up with two dates at the same restaurant is one of the film’s highlights. Luigi (S.Z. Sakall) – his real name is Schmidt, but when he bought a restaurant called Luigi’s he thought it was cheaper to change his name than buy a new sign – is a scene stealer as the friend who tries to get rid of Nancy so Phillip can devote his evening to Ellen and stop running between two different tables. Luigi tries everything from spilling soup on Nancy’s lap to an “accident” involving glass (“What are you trying to do to the girl? Kill her?” Phillip asks) to luring her away with a phone call, but it all ends in catastrophe (and the soup ends on him) with two very unhappy women. You almost feel sorry for poor Nancy, who seems to have some legitimate expectations from Phillip. As Luigi says, bemoaning with Philip that you “take a girl out two or three hundred times and right away she thinks that you are interested.”

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Errol Flynn is the first Santa on the right

Phillip also shows up at Ellen’s house on Christmas Eve dressed as Santa. It used to be a tradition every evening where he played Santa for Flip, but since Rex is also dressed as Santa, there is much confusion, best summarized at DVD Talk: “complete with Flynn running around the house and slamming doors, kissing an undressing Parker and slapping his ex-mother-in-law on the rump (much to their delight), as he pretends to be the stuffy Woods [Rex]. The scripters even drag up the old Marx Bros.’ “mirroring” bit (which Flynn performs flawlessly), before there’s a funny wrap-up as Flynn-as-Rex hands out gifts (none for the “old bag” Watson, he states) before smashing Woods over the head with a cocktail shaker (Woods does a hilarious crash into the Christmas tree).

Some actors work better with children than others, but Errol Flynn seems to be one of those who relates well. Phillip’s relationship with his daughter is actually just as central to the film as his relationship with his ex-wife and he and child actress Brady have genuinely sweet chemistry together as father and daughter. He plays a super indulgent father who does everything possible to make her life seem magical and she is a unique blend of worldly-wisdom who sees through it and children enthusiasm who embraces his fantasies fully. He likes to pretend to be Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot and calls her his Ziegfeld girl or Guinevere and talks a policeman into letting her ride his horse. He’s like a big kid and the two of them talking about how much they both want to be a family again is touching.

The film is very much Errol Flynn’s film, though it does have good performances from Eleanor Parker, Lucile Watson, S.Z. Sakall (Hattie MacDaniel is under-used) and the rest of the cast. Also in the film is Forrest Tucker as the marine, Fenwick Lonkowski. Flip has been writing to a marine because she heard on the radio that just because the war is over doesn’t mean there aren’t any lonely solders. With the help of Cozy (Hattie McDaniel), she has been penning romantic letters signed “Smoochie.” When she proposes including a pin-up picture of herself, her father argues that it could ruin a soldier’s moral by making him think that women in America are shrinking and instead swaps a picture of his wife in a bathing suit. Of course, when Fenwick comes back, he immediately thinks that Ellen is his “Smoochie” and she is happy to play along in revenge against Phillip.

Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker

Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker

Errol Flynn must have been a really good sport for this film, because he completely allows Forrest Tucker to show him up as physically wimpy (Fenwick does calisthenics in Ellen’s kitchen with his shirt off while Phillip wears Fenwick’s too-big pajamas and falls over and hits his head on the refrigerator – his jumping jacks are a hoot, too…so half-hearted and uncoordinated). Flynn also gets to do a pretty good imitation of Humphrey Bogart (the voice for that scene is really provided by Bogart) as he desperately tries to scare Fenwick away from Ellen.

It’s a pity Flynn didn’t get to make more comedies; he’s very effective in them. He has a sometimes goofy charm and yet he’s so handsome, no matter what he’s doing. But he wears his good looks lightly and never takes himself too seriously. The best swashbucklers do approach their work with a light touch, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he should be adept at comedy as well (Douglas Fairbanks did comedy before he started making his famous swashbucklers). It’s not going to replace Miracle on 34th Street as a Christmas classic, but it’s fun, especially if you are a fan of Errol Flynn.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Movies

 

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When You Don’t Like a Great Classic Film and Introducing Others to Classic Movies

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

I always feel embarrassed and slightly apologetic when I don’t love a great classic movie. My Man Godfrey? When the subject comes up, I smile sheepishly and fidget. Dare I admit it? I didn’t like My Man Godfrey. I couldn’t take it. Carole Lombard drove me up the wall and for years I was convinced that I did not like screwball comedies. If My Man Godfrey was the quintessence of the screwball comedy, then there was no hope for me. But then I saw The Lady Eve and suddenly the screwball comedy genre opened its arms towards me and I embraced it…though I still don’t particularly like My Man Godrey. I love the actors, but not the movie.

My Man Godfrey also put me off from watching Carole Lombard’s movies and it was not until Hands Across the Table that I realized that she was actually very funny.

I suppose the lesson here is that just because you don’t like the banner title of a genre it does not follow that you won’t like the genre (or the actor) and that is why I am always leery of recommending movies. Sometimes the banner movie can actually scare people away from the genre (or actor). If you don’t like the acknowledged best, why would you like any of the others? My Man Godfrey frequently makes lists as a good movie to introduce non-classic movie lovers to classic movies, but because of my experience I wonder. Does it really appeal to non-classic movie lovers and I am just the exception or would another movie be better to recommend generally?

But people are so idiosyncratic in their tastes. Perhaps it would be better to simply suggest a movie you had fun with, regardless of its actual merit or the importance it had in movie history. I have a theory that the list of important classics has been partly predetermined by TV and what was available for the last fifty years: The Wizard of OzIt’s a Wonderful Life, etc. My eye doctor told me that he found classic movie acting to be over-the-top, but I wonder what movies form the basis of that assessment. It’s like when people see Douglas Fairbanks in a silent film and assume all silent acting was like him, when he represents one unique style among many.

The way I actually became interested in classic movies was not by targeting specific recommended films, but by picking an actor I liked and watching all their movies I could find: Myrna Loy and William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire. As a result, I saw their best films, mediocre films and even some bad films, but it gave me a  sense of the different genres and eras (pre-code, 1930s, WWII movies, 1940s, 1950s, musicals, melodramas, comedies).

Orson Welles

Orson Welles from Citizen Kane

But I still feel embarrassed when I don’t like a great classic. Another secret shame is the fact that I have not yet seen a film directed by Orson Welles that I have enjoyed: The Magnificent AmbersonsThe StrangerTouch of Evil. It’s almost tantamount to admitting intellectual inferiority to say that I didn’t appreciate Welles’ genius. The movies were interesting, well acted and completely failed to engage me emotionally (I enjoyed The Stranger the most, partially because it had Edward G. Robinson and I love him in anything). I haven’t dared watch Citizen Kane. It’s long been hailed as the greatest American movie ever made and what happens to your credibility when you don’t like the greatest movie ever made? It makes you a cultural philistine.

Though there is a vast difference between liking a movie and appreciating or understanding it.

A movie that I have never read a negative review of but can hardly stand to watch is Only Angels Have Wings. It’s not because it’s a bad movie – it’s a very good movie – but it frustrates me at every turn. A greater bunch of immature boy/men it would be impossible to find. And when Cary Grant gets mad at Rita Hayworth because she does not blindly stand by her disgraced husband (because she does not know he’s disgraced because he has not told her, even though she can tell something is wrong by the way the men are treating him) I couldn’t help wondering what he thinks marriage is, anyway. It is not ignorant trust. Women, apparently, are only good for supporting their men while their men figure out their problems in relation to other men and do their manly things while the women sit at home and worry.

Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings

Sometimes, movies just hit on a pet peeve for you and it becomes difficult to overlook the peeve to see the merits of rest of the film. And sometimes movies simply fail to engage you emotionally, the cause of which I find unfathomable. And sometimes, I am willing to overlook everything for the sake of an aspect I really enjoy. I have forgiven many a shaky musical plot for the sake of the dancing I love.

My policy now is to never recommend a movie, but instead talk enthusiastically about all the movies I have been watching. I talk partially because I love old movies and you talk about what you love and also because it gives friends and family the opportunity to decide if a movie sounds interesting to them or not. When I talk about enough movies, eventually something will pique their interest and they want to see it. And when they chose the movie, it gives them the initiative. I don’t have to urge it on them and they are now predisposed to like the movie.

What classic movies do you dislike, even in the face of universal acclaim? Have you ever had any luck recommending movies to others?

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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The Great McGinty (1940) – Political Satire by Preston Sturges

greatmcgintyposter2My predominant impression of The Great McGinty is unfortunately somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I had a very bad stomach ache when I watched it, though it had nothing to do with the movie. I’ve been trying to watch all of Preston Sturges’ films and when one has a stomach ache it seems like a better idea to watch comedy than drama. Though I will note that laughter does not necessarily ease the pain.

Ironically enough, The Great McGinty is actually a comedic treatment of dramatic material: biting political satire with an ending that is funny, but really quite sad.

Preston Sturges had been writing screenplays throughout the 1930s, his most famous being The Good Fairy (directed by William Wyler), Easy Living and Remember the Night (both directed by Mitchell Leisen), but he always felt that the directors were changing his scripts and that the only way to preserve them was to direct them himself. The first movie he both wrote and directed was the 1940 The Great McGinty, starring Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Muriel Angelus and William Demarest.

The film opens with the caption: This is the story of two men who met in a banana republic. One of them never did anything dishonest in his life except for one crazy minute. The other never did anything honest in his life except for one crazy minute. They both had to get out of the country. Though it’s really the story of the man who had only one crazy moment of honesty. His name is Daniel McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and he relates the story of his rise and fall in politics to the other man.

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy - McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy – McGinty used the money from his 37 votes to buy the new suit

His story begins on election night, when the party faithful are mustering the vote. Soup is being handed out and a party worker (William Demarest) is giving out two dollars to whoever will vote for Mayor Tillinghast…especially several times. As he explains, just because people are too lazy to go out or because they die unexpectedly is no reason for Mayor Tillinghast to be deprived of his voters.

McGinty is a tramp who happens by and votes thirty-seven times and when the party worker (who never does get a name – I think of him as William Demarest) takes McGinty to meet the party boss (Akim Tamiroff…who also never gets a name) the Boss is impressed by McGinty’s pugnacity and unwillingness to be pushed around. He gives him a job, first as an enforcer, but slowly moves him up the political ranks. McGinty goes from tramp to thug in a gaudy suit to polished and well-groomed alderman.

And when the Boss decides that he needs a fresh face in politics he chooses McGinty to run for mayor on the reform ticket (the Boss is the boss of all political parties in the area, reform or otherwise). But first, the Boss tells McGinty, he must get married. Since women have the vote, he says, they don’t vote for bachelors. McGinty’s secretary (Muriel Angelus) talks him into marrying her. She likes him and sees an opportunity to provide for her two children from a previous marriage. It is to be a marriage strictly of convenience…though of course the two fall in love and he comes to care for her two children. It is a very sweet part of the film and once again demonstrates Sturges’ knack for combining satire with genuine sentiment.

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

Muriel Angelus and Brian Donlevy

The film is not a long film and is built around one great irony. In most movies, a man is rewarded for doing the right thing. In The Great McGinty, it is his undoing. His wife begins to influence him and urge him to break free of the party. She’s like a kind of angelic femme fatale. She has good intentions, but she brings him down just the same.

I am used to seeing Brian Donlevy play villains (Destry Rides AgainUnion PacificBeau Geste), but as Daniel McGinty, although he’s a dishonest man, he’s not fundamentally a bad man and can be quite sweet. He’s just used to working with the way things are. I love the moment when he comes home from his election celebration drunk and falls all over his new dishes (there are the usual Sturges’ pratfall in this film) and his wife comes in to help him to bed. At this point, they haven’t realized they love each other and she is trying conscientiously to keep the kids from bothering him. When the kids do come in while she’s putting him to bed, she apologizes for their intrusion, but all he can think is how sorry he is that they had to see him drunk.

What’s interesting is that Preston Sturges seems to be pretty cynical about everybody, even those who genuinely want to do good. The reform party is just as corrupt as the previous party. One man’s reform is another man’s graft. Bridges that bring employment deplete treasuries and enrich party bosses. There are the parades, the showmanship, the total lack of real principles being expressed in political speeches. And even McGinty’s wife’s ideas – ideas that seem like good ideas, like child labor reform – are treated somewhat doubtingly. After all, as McGinty tells her, he liked being able to work when he was a child. It was better than being on the street and it helped his mother, too.

Brian Donlevy and family

Daniel McGinty and family…with dog

William Demarest, as in all of his roles in Sturges’ films, is possibly the funniest person in the film, though Tamiroff more than holds his own. The Boss and McGinty have a habit of getting into tousles whenever they disagree. Demarest usually referees. As a bit of trivia, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Tamiroff and Donlevy actually make an appearance as the characters they played in The Great McGinty and help to bring about the happy ending in that movie.

By no means Preston Sturges’ best film, The Great McGinty is still a pretty good one. What took me aback is that unlike all his following movies (or like Frank Capra’s movies), there is no convenient occurrence to make everything right at the end. Once McGinty falls, he really has fallen. Sturges plays it for laughs, but it’s actually quite tragic. It doesn’t pay to try to do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2015 in Comedy

 

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