3 New-To-Me Classics This Week

Mirage (1965)

I can barely imagine how scary amnesia must be, can you? I just can’t wrap my head around what it would feel like to not remember a thing, not even my name. That’s exactly what happens to David Stilwell (Gregory Peck), corporate accountant in Mirage. The dark, gritty, big-city scenes in Mirage make the prospect of amnesia even scarier. Add some mob-style death threats to the mix and…whew! Just writing that gives me a tinge of anxiety.

After a traumatic event in his office one day, David winds up with amnesia and spends the rest of the movie figuring out who he is, why this thing happened and why certain humans are threatening his very existence. He has no idea. And getting to the answers is quite a ride.

In a panic, David looks everywhere for someone that will help him. Instead of help though, he’s met with a lot of disbelief and distrust that frustrates and frightens him even more. Us viewers too! Eventually he finds a new-to-the-game private detective, Ted Casselle (Walter Matthau)♥ that’s willing to listen to his insane story. Ted’s a big help….until HE gets killed.

Oh, it’s a mess, alright. Mirage is intense. It’s full of terrific performances from actors like Diane Baker, George Kennedy and Kevin McCarthy. It’s well worth the time. I recommend watching it in a dark room for full-affect. Thank goodness our friend Walter, as Ted, is there to ease us through at least part of the story.

Local Hero (1983)

This is, hands down, the most satisfying, calming, peaceful…beautiful….movie I’ve seen all year. Of course I wanted to like Mirage the most this week because of Walter’s presence there, but Local Hero is, by far, my favorite movie….this year! I love this movie and I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. Big mistake on my part to have waited this long.

Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) is an eccentric oil company executive that thinks he has to build a new refinery for his company. The truth is he really doesn’t care about that. We learn early that he’s more interested in the sky and stars. It’s while he’s planning his daily star gazing that he half-heartedly sends one of his company minions, simply known as Mac  (Peter Riegert), to a tiny fishing village on the ocean in Scotland with the purpose of purchasing it. Then, once Mac gets the residents to agree to the terms of the sale, he’ll destroy it and build the new refinery at the location, like Happer wants. Let’s just say it doesn’t work out this way. Once Mac gets to the village he meets Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the innkeeper at the hotel he’s staying at, (who’s also the town accountant and what we might think of as the mayor of the village), he starts to see how much he appreciates the way of life in the village. Residents are content, but don’t have a lot of money and all but one of them easily agrees to and looks forward to making money from this deal. Mac, however, has fallen under the spell of the place and struggles with the entire thing. It’s when Happer comes to the village to meet Ben, the last obstacle to the sale, that a resolution is presented. This is a David v. Goliath tale, small town v. big city, humanity v. corporate….name it what you want…I call it a beautiful movie.

 

Naked City (1948)

Of these three movies, this one is probably my least favorite. I did like it though and I’m glad I finally watched it…it’s been on my watch list for years. Naked City kept me interested and even intrigued in some places, but I often found myself wanting to know more about these detectives. That clearly wasn’t the point of Naked City, though. It was meant to tell the specific story of a murder case in New York City, and it did it very, very well. If you like crime documentaries, chances are  you’ll like this. Directed by Jules Dassin in 1948 for Universal, Naked City is a gritty, documentary-style, film that meticulously follows a New York City murder case. We watch as Lt. Dan Muldoon’s (Barry Fitzgerald) manages the case with his team of detectives, and I have to say, it was Fitzgerald’s performance that held me to the story. He almost, ALMOST reminds me of Columbo, in that he pretends he doesn’t quite comprehend what’s going on. But like Columbo, he does. He absolutely does. This character makes the movie for me.

Charley Varrick, 1973

And now we return to my regularly scheduled Walter Matthau obsession….

Movie poster for 1973’s Charley Varrick.

Charley Varrick is another Walter Matthau movie I’ve discovered and loved this year. Sure, I’ve seen Charade umpteen times, The Bad News Bears and the Grumpy Old Men movies over the years, but I never really went beyond those. (Shameful!) No, my obsession with Matthau’s movies didn’t happen until 2020. We can place the blame for this new obsession squarely on the lap of Barnes and Noble and specifically, the Criterion Collection section of their store. Before the pandemic started, I was in the store browsing that collection one day when Walter Matthau’s unique face jumped off the rack at me in the form of the DVD cover for his movie, Hopscotch (1980). I’d never heard of it, let alone seen it, but I bought it anyway, based on the description on the back of the DVD. Of course the movie was fantastic, I absolutely loved it, but it was the Dick Cavett interview on that DVD with him that made me fall in love with Walter Matthau. Smart, funny, subdued, engaging and a truly nice man. What’s not to love?

I turned into a Walter Matthau movie fangirl immediately. I’ve been collecting his movies ever since I found Hopscotch and that interview….they are likely the reason why this home-bound girl in a pandemic has not completely melted down into a puddle of doom.  Or gone on a multi-state crime-spree….but anyway….

Add Charlie Varrick to my list of much-loved Walter Matthau movies.

Based on the novel, The Looters, by John Reese, Charley Varrick is a traditional crime caper. Matthau plays a stunt pilot/crop duster that robs banks for money with his wife, Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) and a fiercely greedy guy named Harman (Andrew Robinson). Charley, Nadine and Harman rob a small bank in Trec Cruces, New Mexico. It turns out bad in that Nadine is shot and killed by police during the getaway. It goes bad again once Charley realizes that the money they stole was probably Mob money. Why else would that much money be hiding in a small-town bank in the middle of nowhere? He wonders. And he decides he wants nothing to do with any of the cash. Harman has other ideas. So does the mob. Mr. Molly (Joe Don Baker), the mobster sent to deal with these robbers and boy is he vicious.

With the realization of what they’ve done, there’s a cleverness in Charley’s calm plotting and planning that makes me wonder just how much of this he had planned from the beginning. Hmmmm…… I read somewhere that Matthau himself didn’t like Charley Varrick much because it required a lot of thinking on the viewer’s part. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I, for one, loved it, including the wonder of how much Charley really knew.

Charlie Varrick was directed and produced by Don Siegel (you might know him for Dirty Harry) for Universal Studios in 1973.

 

 

Desk Set, 1957

Do you think we’re being re-decorated?” – Ruthie (Sue Randall)

Does he look like an interior decorator to you?” – Sylvia (Dina Merrill)

No, he looks like one of those men that suddenly switched to vodka.” – Peg (Joan Blondell)

With all the things this movie has going for it, and there’s a lot, it’s this kind of banter that I get Desk Set out for to watch again year after year. I love to laugh out loud and this movie consistently provides that.

I’m aware that this isn’t one of the traditional Christmas movies, but I include it in my Christmas movie watching every year. Christmastime is not only the time this story takes place, but it’s also a character in that Christmas gifts and parties play a part in the story. That’s why I’ve chosen it as my entry into the Happy Holidays Blogathon hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.

Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and directed by Walter Lang in 1957, Desk Set is set in a mid-century, New York City office during Christmas time. The threat of the introduction of computers into the lives of the the all-female staff of the reference department at the Federal Broadcasting Company provides the tension for the movie, while the actors deliver comedic lines that get us through it. The uncertainty is scary, the anxiety evident right away. You immediately root for these ladies, long before you even know what they’re fighting against.

Yep, it’s a romantic comedy.

Maybe it’s the smart, quick wit in the Phoebe and Henry Ephron script…


…or the fabulous mid-century styles and design…


…or maybe it’s Joan Blondell‘s sarcastic humor as Peg Costello (she’s sooo good)…

…or maybe it’s that oh-so-special Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn chemistry.

It’s a lot of things. Especially one of my favorite movies. It frustrates me when it’s supposed to, but makes me laugh and laugh again to alleviate the frustration. Then, Katharine Hepburn’s snort-laugh comes in and makes me laugh some more. As I write this today, I cherish those giggle-scenes more than ever…

Right away, first scene, I’m hooked. Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) grabs me from a real life crummy day and plops me down in the middle of his intriguing meandering through a gorgeous wood-tiled, mid-century big-city office. As he weaves his way mysteriously through the offices and hallways of the Federal Broadcasting Company my head fills up with the hows and whys of his strange behavior and just like that, I’ve forgotten the perfectly crummy day I was having – and Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are front and center! Where they should be.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is a fountain of knowledge. Today, we’d call her Google. It’s her job to know a lot and she does it well. There doesn’t seem to be much she doesn’t know and she knows exactly where to find what she doesn’t. This “electric brain” of Sumner’s isn’t gonna be any kind of match to her, right?

Richard Sumner (Tracy) is a man obsessed with learning everything he can to ensure the success of his “electric brain” invention – to the point that he’s oblivious to everything else.

Even when he asks Bunny to lunch. Instead of taking her to a nice restaurant, he takes her to the the roof of the building for cold sandwiches. They have lunch on the roof of a skyscraper. In December. In New York City. The only thing on Sumner’s mind is getting more information to improve the performance of his “electric brain.” During the lunch, as Bunny shivers, Sumner smugly tries to stump her with trivia and math. I guess to prove that his “electronic brain” is a better choice than a human to handle the questions the ladies face in the research department. Nice try, Sumner, but Bunny doesn’t flinch. However, she is confused as to why he took her to the rooftop for lunch, especially on a freezing-cold day. Confusion and cold aside, confidence still oozes from Bunny. Without missing a beat, she answers every one of Sumner’s questions off the top of her head, in between shivers and bites of her sandwich. She easily answers every question and riddle he throws at her even though by this point it’s obvious she’s more worried about what this “electric brain” will mean for the job she loves. You can feel Sumner’s admiration growing for her with every question he asks. The chemistry between these two….well….It’s wonderful.

Bunny’s confidence lacks in just one place: her relationship with Mike Cutler (Gig Young), her boss and long-time boyfriend. After all the years they’ve dated (“six…no, seven!”), Bunny just can’t get him to commit, no matter how hard she tries. Yet she keeps trying. And hoping.

In the funny scene in Bunny’s apartment where she’s having dinner with Sumner while they’re both in bathrobes, (they get stuck in the rain and go into her apartment to dry off), Mike barges in. He’s far from happy at what he sees. Sumner laughs at Mike and Bunny as they argue, and we finally we see a little bit of that professional Bunny confidence bubble up with Mike. It’s about time.

At this point, Desk Set is a full blown love triangle with the added suspense of the invasion of the “electric brain.”

I am crazy about the Bunny Watson Hepburn has created in Desk Set. She’s inspiring, has a great job, funny, oh-so-smart and struggles with insecurities despite it all. This is a woman I want to drink that champagne with at the Christmas party. Actually, I wanna drink champagne with all these women. This movie feels good to spend time with no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

 

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.” – UCLA Law Professor, Michael Asimov

Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden was directed by Otto Preminger for Columbia Pictures in 1959. It’s based on a real murder case that happened in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P)…

…and the entire film was shot on location close to where it took place, in Marquette County.

Anatomy of a Murder is the story of a jealous husband who’s on trial for killing the man that “allegedly” raped his wife. Laura Manion (Remick), the accused’s wife herself calls local attorney, Paul Biegler (Stewart) and begs him to take the case to defend her soldier husband (Gazzara). Biegler reluctantly decides to take it, in part because it’s getting a lot of attention in the U.P. which he thinks might finally get him the business that will let him make the money he needs to fund his fishing trips, and, pay Maida (Arden), his assistant…but mostly fund his fishing trips, despite Maida’s demands.

“You’re fired” – Biegler

“You can’t fire me until you pay me!” – Maida

It winds up being a whirlwind courtroom drama filled with clever ploys and constant bickering between Biegel and the “big city attorney from Lansing,” Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). It’s a heavy, riveting movie that’s as much about the human condition at that time as it is about a serious crime. Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) does an excellent job of keeping the attorneys in line and even provides a little brevity just when we need it the most:

“One judge is quite like another. The only differences may be in the state of their digestions or their proclivities for sleeping on the bench. For myself, I can digest pig iron. And while I might appear to doze occasionally, you will find that I am easily awakened, particularly if shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” – Judge Weaver.

 

The film is based on the bestselling novel from 1958 by Robert Traver, the pen name for John D. Voelker, The book is based on an actual case of Voelker’s in the U.P. where he was the defense attorney in a murder trial. Voelker was also a prosecutor in the U.P. and was later appointed a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Voelker said he used a pen name when he wrote his novels because he felt it would be inappropriate for a sitting judge to also be a crime novelist. Eventually he retired from the bench to concentrate on his passion for writing novels.

John D. Voelker is the attorney who Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, is based on. Anatomy of a Murder spent 65 weeks on the best seller list and Illustrated two of Voelker’s passions: the law, and fly-fishing. (On a side note: Voelker became close friends with Joseph N. Welch, the actor who portrayed Judge Weaver, during filming. It was a friendship that would last their lifetimes).

While the town and place names are fictitious in the movie, they are closely based on places along U.S. highway 41, Michigan state highway M-28 and Marquette county highway 550. The street scenes in the movie were filmed in Marquette and Ishpeming. The courthouse scenes were all filmed at the county courthouse in Marquette. The Thunder Bay Inn, where the bar scenes were filmed used to be called the Big Bay Inn at the time, but is now, you guessed it, The Thunder Bay Inn. (Big Bay, Michigan has a little bit of a tourist shrine devoted to the movie and it’s worth a stop if you’re up that way), and the trailer park where the Mannions lived is an actual campground in Michigamme. All of these places are still there.

Anatamy of a Murder director Otto Preminger was known for films like Laura of 1944, and the film noir Fallen Angel of 1945 as well as other high-profile adaptations of novels and plays. He had a tendency to direct films with themes that were taboo and therefore on the radar of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who approved and rated movies. There’s no doubt Preminger was an expert at defying the censors with this movies – In 1953 he directed The Moon is Blue, its storyline was about losing virginity was the reason it couldn’t attain MPAA approval. The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) couldn’t get MPAA approval because of its drug addiction plot. In 1962, Advise and Consent, didn’t get MPAA approval because it touched on homosexuality.

In Anatomy of a Murder, the taboo subject this time was rape. And boy are there frank discussions of rape and sex in this movie. It is said that the censors of the day objected to anything and everything that related to sex and rape but in the end, Preminger only made one concession in the film: he allowed them to substitute the word “violation” for “penetration,” which allowed the movie to be released with MPAA approval.  Many other “questionable” words were left in the script.

Once again, Judge Weaver eased us through a little of it:

“There’s a certain light connotation attached to the word ‘panties.’ Can we find another name for them?” – Judge Weaver

“I never heard my wife call ’em anything else”. – District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West)

“Mr. Biegler?” – Judge Weaver

“I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.” – Paul Biegler”

That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?” – Judge Weaver.

‘When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.”  – Mr. Dancer.

“Most French words are.” – Judge Weaver.

Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for seven Academy Awards and its Duke Ellington soundtrack won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack album.

The American Bar association rated Anatomy of a Murder as one of the twenty-five best legal dramas ever made. I know it’s the best one I’ve ever seen. The fact that it all takes place and is filmed in the U.P is a bonus for me. We’ve spent a lot of time on road trips up there because of my huge crush on Lake Superior. We’ve taken the route in the movie dozens of times, always paying attention to the film’s locations….and while it’s fascinating and a lot of fun to know I may have walked the same sidewalks Jimmy Stewart once did, it’s the beautiful scenery that takes my breath away every time. Road trip!

This post is my entry in the Celluloid Road Trip Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Sources:

Northern Michigan University
Life In Michigan

Now, Voyager (1942) Based on the Book by Olive Higgins Prouty (1941)


Starring Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid
Directed by Irving Rapper
for Warner Brothers, 1942

Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) is a frumpy, worthless, irrelevant human being. At least that’s what her vicious bully of a mother, Mrs. Henry Vale (Gladys Cooper) has convinced Charlotte to believe. Hell, this woman has the entire house living in fear, not just her children, but the butlers and servants too. She’s a real piece of work….

Charlotte was doing well living up to what Mrs. Vale told her she was too. Until one day, when her mother asked Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains), to come and help her daughter get over her “condition,” (which Mrs. Vale has already determined was a nervous breakdown). Dr. Jacquith was quick to see what was happening and knew what he had to do. He used kindness and encouragement…and a stay at a sanitarium…to help relieve Charlotte’s pain so she could start to live.

Charlotte wasn’t used to being treated this well, but with Dr. Jacquith’s help, she begins a transformation that saves the rest of her life.

As it turned out, time away from the old bag was exactly what Charlotte needed….

Now, Voyager
by Olive Higgins Prouty
340 Pages
Houghton Mifflin, 1942
Triangle Books 2004 Paperback edition: ISBN: 1558614761 (ISBN13: 9781558614765)

Both book and movie document Charlotte’s transformation. Both are satisfying, (especially for some of us that have mothers similar to Mrs. Henry Vale) and both reveal the same life lesson. I’m glad I read the book before I ever saw the movie though, because I felt like I knew Charlotte better than the movie let me get to know her. That’s not to say Bette Davis isn’t brilliant as Charlotte, of course she is, but we’re just closer to Charlotte and what she’s feeling in the book. For me, that was a good thing. Even though the movie follows the book closely, there’s more details in the book that took me to another level of closeness to Charlotte and how she dealt with her feelings. There’s no doubt that the book allowed me a greater appreciation for her…and for the movie.

As I write this, I’m tired. I’m worn out from the stresses of the last year and I can’t imagine having the strength and energy Charlotte exudes in this journey of self-discovery she’s on. She desperately wanted to feel better and even though she was afraid at first, she found the energy to overcome the fear and go for it. Davis makes this energy infectious and inspiring in the movie. I’d first seen the movie years ago, but after watching it again recently it sparks an energy in me that I had all but given up on.

On the outside chance you’ve never seen the movie or read the book, I don’t want to give away too many more story details here because this story is worth discovering without me butting in with how it affected me. Just know that it did. In a very good way. I suspect both Now, Voyager the book and the movie might be a story we all relate to in different ways, because the basic issue is insecurity and overcoming the damage it can do.

Myrna Loy – Being and Becoming

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming
by James Kotsilbas-Davis and Myrna Loy
372 Pages
Alfred Knopf, Publisher, November 1987
ISBN 13-978-0394555935

Do you read a lot of biographies? I don’t. Especially those from the classic movie actors I love and admire so much. I know. It’s just that I’m terrified that they’ll disappoint me and I hate disappointment. I am a chicken when it comes to these things. God forbid these people don’t live up to their characters we’ve grown to love so much, right? Well, Myrna Loy is my all-time favorite actress and this was a problem when I discovered her autobiography years ago. Because I adore her so much, hers was the last autobiography I ever wanted to read. I read it anyway. Four times now since the late 2000s…and counting. As it turns out, it ALWAYS feels good to “be around” Myrna and her thoughts with this book. Her down-to-earth honesty and genuine enthusiasm shine through here, just like it does when she’s on screen. Not only does she live up to Nora Charles and all the other parts she played, she illustrates what a wonderful human she was. Not by bragging about it mind you, but by simply documenting all she’s lived through and experienced. This is one autobiography that’s worth reading again and again. And I do.

Being and Becoming is Myrna Loy’s autobiography. It’s a chronological book with four sections of black and white photographs that come from her early life in Montana to the apex of her acting career in Hollywood to her life in New York City. Her voice in her writing here is what I have always thought of as ‘typical Myrna,’ – thank God – entertaining, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and down-to-earth. This is an inspiring story of a Montana farm girl who conquered Hollywood and ruled it for years as the “perfect wife” and “queen of the movies.” Seriously, moviegoers voted for Myrna in 1936 as “Queen of the Movies,” the same year they proclaimed Clark Gable “King.” That seems right.

Being and Becoming feels like an honest account of a life that just happened to occur in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The story takes the reader on quite a ride filled with names we all recognize and details that are fun to know. From Hollywood History to an account of her activism and charity work during World War II, this is a perfect read not only for a Myrna Loy fan, but a history buff too.

Myrna shares thoughts and anecdotes about a lot of her movies and many of her costars. There’s some especially interesting stories about William Powell, James Stewart, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and more. There’s quite a few quotes from them about Myrna sprinkled throughout the book too:

“…When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles and microphones. We weren’t acting We were just two people in perfect harmony. Many times I’ve played with an actress who seemed to be separated from me by a plate-glass window; there was no contact at all. But Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best…” – William Powell

I love knowing that’s how William Powell felt about her. He oughta know, he made 14 movies with Myrna, including all six The Thin Man movies. There’s no question that Myrna’s career was built on playing the “perfect wife” to Powell and several others. Though she played wives before them it was the Thin Man series with William Powell that solidified the perfect wife persona:

Nick Charles (Powell): “You don’t scold, you don’t nag and you’re far too pretty in the morning.”

Nora Charles (Loy): “All right, I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, musn’t be too pretty in the morning.”

Myrna says about the perfect wife moniker she carried:

“Some perfect wife I am, I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children and can’t boil an egg.”

Everything in this book is spirited and enjoyable to read. She’s never upset about anything as she tells her story, even though there were tough times. She never gossips, never complains, never shows any vindictiveness. In fact, she points out that she “never had time for such things.” She simply tells it like it was. In Being and Becoming Myrna has given us a front row seat to what was going on during the studio era as the movies we love were being made. It is exactly what I hoped it would be and so much more. When I reread it now, it’s a place for me to be that feels good, just like every one of her movies, and I cherish that.

“One of the great charms of cinema” – from Myrna’s New York Times obituary on December 15, 1993.

and

“A woman who has the courage to stand up for her convictions.” – said Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio when he read a W magazine interview with Myrna into the Congressional Record.

Her response to the Senator:

“Well, I guess I was raised to do that by pioneers who valued such attributes. I could ask for no greater tribute.” – last paragraph of book.

Standing There Is A Man With Movie Star Eyes

“Standing there is a man with movie star eyes,” is a line from the song Dreamtime from the album Three Hearts In the Happy Ending Machine (1986) by Daryl Hall. I’ve been happy to have it parked in my head for months. As far as I’m concerned, it can stay there forever because it’s a catchy, up-tempo song and that lyric constantly reminds me of these guys:

William Powell
Tony Curtis
Gary Cooper
Frank Sinatra
George Raft
Paul Newman
Tyrone Power
Cary Grant
James Stewart

These are photographs I’ve saved over the years and have no idea where I got them. I wish I had that information now. If you know more about any of them, please let me know!

I have some stunning eyes from our favorite classic actresses too.  (I’m looking your way Bette). I’ll round those up too one of these days…

Who has your favorite movie star eyes?

Three Films, Same Story, Loads of Fun

The Front Page (1931), His Girl Friday (1940) and The Front Page (1974)

I love all three of these movies. His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell was the very first classic movie I ever saw. I was 12 or 13 years old, spending the weekend with my wheelchair-bound grandmother on their farm, as I often did. Grandma loved these old movies. LOVED them. She’d watch any black and white movie that came over the air on the local PBS station at any time they were on…and she watched a lot of them. I’m so grateful to have been a part of that love! I’ll never forget that day I first saw His Girl Friday, my very first classic film I ever saw it was an autumn Saturday afternoon with a lot of sun that threw a glare over the itty bitty 13″ screen of their black and white TV. Grandma pulled up to the kitchen table in her wheel chair, and I sat in the chair next to her as we watched the movie on that little TV that lived on the cart Grandpa made just for it so Grandma could watch it comfortably. We had a blast. She said before it started, “I think you might get a kick out of Cary Grant.” I was so young, but she was right. I did not want this movie to end. I was instantly hooked on His Girl Friday  that day…and these movies…for life. I’m more grateful than ever that I have a memory like this that I get to keep with me always. I will always be aware of where my love for classic movies comes from….Grandma.

Oh, Grandma’s all time favorite actress? Myrna Loy (Mrs. ((Nick)) Charles). Grandma rocked.

All three of these movies share the same plot: an always pushy, often obnoxious, newspaper editor goes through scores of shenanigans to keep his top reporter from quitting the paper and running away with the love of his/her life. Walter needs his reporter to promote readership and make more money! He sees an in for his cause when Hildy can’t help himself/herself but be intrigued by the latest criminal caper. Let the chaos begin! Every version of the movie is a screwball comedy with a heavy dose of farce and they’re all worth spending time with if you want to laugh. All three of them include rapid-fire dialogue given to us by excellent actors that are a pleasure to be around. The movies were all based on the story written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Three cheers for them! Yes, there were several TV shows and a play or two that were all based on this same story, but these movies are exactly what a classic films fangirl like me loves the most.

1931

The Front Page, 1931 from United Artists, stars Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns and Pat O’Brien as Hildy Johnson. It was directed by Lewis Milestone for United Artists. This version of the film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Actor for Adolphe Menjou, Best Director for Lewis Milestone and another one for Best Picture.  This one has the distinction of being the only pre-code version of the story. I was THRILLED to see my all-time favorite character actor, Frank McHugh here as one of the reporters.

1940

His Girl Friday, 1940 from Columbia Pictures, stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It was directed by Howard Hawks for Columbia Pictures.  This is the only one of the three movies where Hildy (Russell) is a female version of the powerhouse reporter that Walter would do anything to keep even though she desperately wants to quit. Ralph Bellamy is nothing short of loveable here as Hildy’s fiance, Bruce Baldwin. He can keep up with Cary Grant’s demeanor pretty well! Intimidating as he is….(wink)

In the 1974 The Front Page, it’s Jack Lemmon who plays Hildy to Walter Matthau’s Walter Burns. And oh yeah, Billy Wilder directs this version. The movie was nominated for a Best Picture Golden Globe in 1975 and Both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes in 1975. Anytime Matthau and Lemmon appear together, I’m in. I love watching them both, especially when they’re onscreen together. Together, they are always able to create the magic that is the epitome of what I love about these movies. Shhhhh, don’t tell Grandma, but this one’s my favorite.

 

The Last Hurrah, 1958 – Based on The Book By Edwin O’Connor

 

“Politics is not the most diplomatic thing to discuss.” – Frank Skeffington

I first noticed The Last Hurrah on iMDb when I was looking for Frank McHugh movies I hadn’t seen yet. (Oh how I love Frank) This was one of them. At the time, this movie was tagged as a comedy on iMDb, (with Frank McHugh starring as Fetus Garvey) so I jumped in with both feet. I mean, Spencer Tracy AND my buddy Frank? Of course I’m in! It didn’t take long to realize that this is not a funny movie. It’s a dark, old-fashioned, political drama. Politics was the last thing I was in the mood for, but I gave it a shot anyway…

…I know now that I needed this time with Spencer Tracy. He made the movie for me.

The Last Hurrah was directed by John Ford for Columbia pictures in 1958…

Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay that was based on the book written by Edwin O’Connor in 1955. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list in 1956. I hate to say it, but I liked it better than the movie. In the book we were allowed to get to know the characters better and the story dug deeper and was more detailed.

The plot of both the book and movie follows Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), a devoted, life-long politician as he embarks on what he thinks will be his final campaign to be re-elected mayor (of a city that’s never named). He knows he’s “on his way out” and calls this campaign his Last Hurrah. Frank Skeffington is down-to-earth and genuinely (we think) cares about the individuals in his city. Oh, it’s obvious he’s corrupt around the edges…he is a politician, after all. And he clearly knows his way around a campaign like this one. He’s shrewd but likeable, political but reliable. In the book, Skeffington was the former governor of the state they’re in (it’s never named in either), but there’s no mention of him ever being governor in the movie. There are those that claim the city never named in the movie is based on Boston and that Frank Skeffington is a loose caricature of Boston’s Mayor James Curley.

Frank’s son, Frank Skeffington, Jr. (Arthur Walsh) is, shall we say, worthless. He’s a playboy that could care less about politics, let alone his father’s campaign. Instead, Frank, Sr., bonds with his nephew, Adam Caufield (Jeffrey Hunter) which adds a level of ‘interesting’ for me. Adam writes about sports for the local newspaper. It’s Adam’s publisher, Amos Force (John Carradine), that asks him to cover Skeffington’s Last Hurrah. The story brings uncle and nephew together at a good time in both of their lives. The thing is, Force hates Skeffington. As history would have it, Frank Skeffington’s immigrant mother was fired for stealing left-over food when she was a maid in the home of Amos Force’s father. Oh boy. The tension! (And not all that believable) Force believes Frank, Sr. is the worthless one and he backs his unimpressive rival, Kevin McCluskey (Charles Fitzsimmons). Annnnd this causes more tension between Force and his writer, Adam.

Director John Ford was a Westerns guy, as we all know, and I kind of felt like maybe he didn’t care a lot about the subject of this one? Something wasn’t clicking here for me. Spencer Tracy grabbed me and kept me with the story, but I found myself wishing the director would have made more of an attempt to explain some things. (no spoilers). It was a watchable, even enjoyable, movie most of the time, but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. Even though it’s chock-full of Ford’s usual troupe like – Donald Crisp, Wallace FordJames Gleason, Ricardo Cortez, Basil Rathbone, Pat O’Brien AND FRANK MCHUGH! They just weren’t around…..enough.

As Frank Skeffington maneuvers his way through opposing view points we get a glimpse into the story of one city’s mid-century American political climate. It’s not pretty, and it sure isn’t funny. Spencer Tracy made it a decent movie for me. Without him, he, not so much.

Sources:

A Tribute to Jeffrey Hunter
Wikipedia – New York Times Fiction Best Sellers, 1956

Perry Mason – The Warren William Years, 1934 – 1936

First, let me just say that I think we owe Erle Stanley Gardner a big thank you for the 52 Perry Mason books he wrote between 1933 and 1973.

Those books, about lawyer Perry Mason’s cases, have been stretched and pulled into over 271 TV episodes from 1957-1966, over 100 hundred more movies and TV episodes in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and now, another Perry Mason series in 2020 on HBO, currently running on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.

I’m addicted to all of them (except the HBO series but only because I haven’t seen it yet. Fingers crossed!). I love Perry Mason.

I admit, it’s the Raymond Burr Perry Mason episodes from the 50s and 60s that I love the most. But, these first four movies from the 1930s starring Warren William are a close second. They’re all short and satisfying with engaging plots and an attractive chemistry between Warren William…..and most of the other actors on screen. These movies are fun.

Warren William Krech was born December 2, 1894 in Aikin, Minnesota. His career started in the theater before he ended up in silent movies. He made three of those before taking on the new “talkies.” Warren William was a leading man in the pre-code days of Hollywood, and wound up as Perry Mason from 1934-36 for Warner Brothers. He’s  a terrific Perry – suave, smart and he has a subdued kind of confidence that fits Perry’s persona perfectly. I wish there were more Warren William Perry Mason movies.

Mr. William passed away on September 24, 1948 in Hollywood from multiple Myeloma.

Warner Brothers did six Perry Mason movies. Warren William starred in the first four:

The Case of the Howling Dog, 1934

The Case of the Howling Dog was directed by Alan Crosland and written by Ben Markson. This is the first movie in the Warner Brothers Perry Mason series.

The howling of the dog means a death has occurred…according to millionaire Arthur Cartright (Gordon Westcott) anyway. He insists that Perry help him draw up his will in response. Yeah. It gets complicated, but it’s an engaging plot from start to finish. Bonus! Mary Astor plays a significant role here as Bessie Foley.

The Case of the Curious Bride, 1935

The Case of the Curious Bride was directed by Michael Curtiz (director of Casablanca, 1942) and written by Tom Reed.

Perry’s ex-girlfriend comes to him for help when she learns that her first husband is still alive. That’s a problem because she remarried after she thought he was dead. Perry goes to talk to the first husband about it, but finds that now he really is dead. Murder AND Bigamy. In just 80 minutes, they resolve the whole thing. Due in part to the introduction of Spudsy Drake (Allen Jenkins) to the mix no doubt.

The Case of the Lucky Legs, 1935

Do you see that on the poster? “1935’s Thin Man” ??? Let’s not get crazy here Warner Brothers…..

As the owner of the Mrs. Charles blog that’s named after Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies, I object! Get Perry Mason on the line, dammit!

The Case of the Lucky Legs was directed by Archie Mayo and written by Brown Holmes and Ben Markson.

No, it is NOT 1935’s Thin Man. Not even close. But it tries. And that makes it tiring for me.

The Case of the Lucky Legs involves a murder of the con man who promotes the Lucky Legs contest. This guy always leaves town before paying the prize money to the winner of his contests. He does it again here. But, in this case he winds up dead. Seems someone has stabbed him with a surgeon’s scalpel. No worries, Perry and Spudsy Drake are on it.

By now, I’m missing the courtroom drama I’m so used to (and love) in the 50s and 60s TV show. There’s hardly any courtroom scenes here, BUT, the banter is entertaining and smart…

…but NOT The Thin Man. There is only one Thin Man. Ugh.

The Case of the Velvet Claws, 1936

Directed by William Clemens and written by Tom Reed, The Case of the Velvet Claws is Warren William’s final Perry Mason movie before moving on to early movies in The Lone Wolf series of at MGM. Perry and Della get married in this one! Of course the honeymoon was, um, postponed by a murder.

You got it, Perry and Spudsy Drake (Eddie Acuff this time) will get this taken care of over the course of 63 minutes. It’s amazing.

Sources:

WarrenWilliam.com –  A wonderful, comprehensive website devoted to Warren William.
iMDB
Perry Mason on HBO in 2020
Wikipedia