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.

 

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

Four New To Me Classic Movies This week

Viva Las Vegas, 1964

Viva Las Vegas. Directed by George Sydney for MGM in 1964.

The pandemic has me doing things I wouldn’t normally do. Like watch Elvis movies. I’m surprised that, so far, I’ve enjoyed what simple fun they can be when I give them my undivided attention.

Viva Las Vegas opens with us being introduced to race car driver, Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Seems he’s trying to qualify for the Las Vegas Grand Prix there, but he needs a new engine in his car to do it. I assumed that would be the plot. Wrong! We lose sight of that story line pretty early in the movie. Too bad, it might have been interesting. Lucky does spend the rest of the movie at jobs that are supposed to pay him enough money to buy that engine, but it seems like no one really cares about that anymore. Writers and director anyway. Instead, the whole movie now focuses on Lucky’s relationship with Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret). It’s the typical boy gets girl, loses girl, gets girl back, plot. But, for me anyway, it’s filled with mid-century eye candy and stellar acting (just kidding, there’s no stellar acting), that I can’t stop watching. Even I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 85 minutes with Viva Las Vegas. The 1960’s Las Vegas style  that fills up my eyes in every single scene feels magical after three months of quarantine. The lights, decor, hotel swimming pools and dance floors, wardrobes, etc., etc……it’s all beautiful, colorful and pleasing. Elvis and Ann-Margret are beautiful too. I love that in some scenes they are the only two people onscreen dressed in yellow while all the others wear darker, drabber colors. I get it, they shine through this way, but they would have without it. They’re singing and dancing makes sure of that. If you like Elvis music, there’s a lot of it here. Ann-Margret’s dancing made the movie for me. Even though the plot was a yawn, and the script less than worthy, it was still a fun trip into 1960’s Las Vegas. And boy oh boy does it look like fun.

Elevator to the Gallows, 1958

Elevator to the Gallows. Directed by Louis Malle for Rialto Pictures

Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is in love with his boss’s wife, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). Simon Carala (Jean Wall) is in their way of a life together, so they’ve concocted a plan to murder him, making it look like a suicide. Julien uses a grappling hook and rope to climb to the upper floor where Mr. Carala’s office is in the building they work in. No one saw him and he murdered his boss. It worked. Instead of using the grappling hook and rope to get back down to street level, he takes the elevator instead. As he’s getting into his car in front of the building, he notices that he forgot to take down the grappling hook and rope. So in a panic, he leaves the car running and rushes back in to take the elevator to go up and retrieve it. While he’s in the elevator, the superintendent of the building, who doesn’t notice him, shuts the power off to the building for the night.  Tavernier is stuck in the elevator and can’t escape. He realizes he left his car running in front of the building and fades into the reality of his situation. In the meantime, his car, along with his gun, is stolen.

We’re just getting started.

This is the best new movie I’ve seen this week. Honestly, it’s the best new to me classic movie I’ve seen in a while. Elevator to the Gallows is a French film that tells its story, in this case, with English subtitles. This unique suspenseful drama, coupled with terrific writing and acting, kept my mind busy from the first scene. I keep telling myself for some reason that good, light-hearted comedies are what the doctor ordered for me right now, but this movie proves that spending time with a riveting, engaging, dark, dramatic movie can be just as helpful. An escape is an escape, right? This movie is that and so much more. Bonus: the Miles Davis soundtrack is fantastic.

I loved this one!

The Doughgirls, 1944

The Doughgirls, 1944. Directed by James Kern for Warner Brothers.

I don’t care how many years it was on stage or how many laughs were on screen. With this cast, (and I sincerely I love them all!), I expected so much more. Like a plot.

I don’t even want to talk about it……

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939 – Directed by Gregory LaCava for RKO

Fifth Avenue Girl is that light-hearted comedy I’m drawn to right now. It stars Ginger Rogers and Walter Connolly, and reminds me an awful lot of Easy Living, 1937, with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold, (the other well-to-do businessman and father that shows up in so many late 1930s comedies).

In the opening scene of Fifth Avenue Girl, Millionaire Timothy Borden (Connolly) meets unemployed and hungry Mary Grey (Rogers) in a park. Borden is distraught. His business has problems, his wife, Martha (Verree Teasdale) is out with a playboy, his kids ignore him…and, it’s his birthday. He’s lonely and depressed and somehow convinces Mary to help him celebrate his birthday at a nightclub. The next morning, everyone’s surprised that Mary has slept in the guest room for the night. Timothy notices that this piques Martha’s interest in him again so he hires Mary to stay at the house as an employee so they can go out on the town every night to hopefully gain Martha’s affections again. Meanwhile, Mary, though not thrilled with the situation, has a positive effect on other members of the household too. But not before complications arise with various family members and love interest struggles. Of course, Mary gets caught in the middle of it all. It’s funny and fun to watch. Ginger Rogers as Mary is terrific. I still like Easy Living better, but this one will do too.

Solid Gold Cadillac – 1956

Laura Partridge is a smart, down-to-earth actress who doesn’t have much luck in her acting career.  When a neighbor she sometimes made soup for and played cards with, passes way and leaves her 10 shares of stock in the International Projects company in his will she finds her niche. Having stock in this billion dollar company instills the pride Laura has always wanted to feel. She likes the importance it conveys and lives up to it throughout the movie.

Laura takes the responsibility of being a stockholder very seriously and puts her power to work.

Solid Gold Cadillac is a 1956 romantic comedy that stars Judy Holliday as Laura Partridge and Paul Douglas as Ed McKeever. It’s adapted from the Broadway play by George Kaufman and Howard Teichman. This is one movie that fits perfectly into my quest for good stories right now that make me feel good and laugh out loud. It’s mostly Judy Holliday that provides both here. What a pleasure it is to be in this movie’s world of a passionate, intelligent female, great writing and good over evil. The movie is directed by Richard Quine and produced by Fred Kohlmer Productions for Columbia pictures.

It’s a black and white movie until the final scene – that’s shot in Technicolor.

Bonus: George Burns narrates and he doesn’t think any of the board members are worth a quarter….or a dime….or a nickel…or anything at all. (He’s funny as ever) But he does like the founder of International Projects, Edward McKeever.

The movie opens with Laura exercising the power of her 10 shares of stock at a stockholder’s meeting. It doesn’t take long for her to stand up and question everything, including the board’s outrageous salaries. They don’t like that. I love it. I admire Laura’s immense curiosity and fear of nothing. She stands up in front of everyone and asks question and after question of these men, without missing a beat. She pushes the board members more and more and makes them admit in front of shareholders that they make $100,000 a year for very little work. She concludes, also in front of everyone, that the Chairman of the Board works about 10 hours a year for a salary of $175,000. By the time she’s done with them, they’re exposed as the greedy fools they are and it’s wonderful. She’s not intimidated or impressed by them in the least.

The founder of International Projects, Ed McKeever (Douglas) is at this meeting too. It’s his last stockholder’s meeting. Though he doesn’t seem interested in anything that’s going on except for his lunch. McKeever built the company from the ground up, but has recently sold all of his stock and given up his position as Chairman of the Board so he can try something new. Like Laura, he needs a more fulfilling purpose, so he decides to serve his country in Washington, D.C. instead. The remaining board members couldn’t be happier about that because they’re sure McKeever will get the company a lot of big government contracts to support their big spending on booze and women. Life will be good for these greedy “dopes.” So they think. They didn’t plan on Laura Partridge.

Laura’s the only thing in that meeting piques McKeever’s interest.  Afterwards, they wind up meeting at the counter of the building’s cafeteria and McKeever offers her a ride home. They talk, we listen and observe how much they have in common despite their different places in life. The chemistry is clear, but neither pays attention to it. Yet.

Meanwhile, Laura keeps attending stockholder’s meetings and questioning everything. Exposing the Directors’ greediness isn’t why she keeps asking questions, she’s more interested in protecting the small shareholders, it just happens as she does it. The Directors really are “dopes.” The power of those 10 shares of stock Laura has is driving them nuts. She must be dealt with before she destroys their perfect plan!

So, they hire her.

The Board offers Laura $75 per week, but she holds out until they agree to $125 per week. She knows what they make, after all, and she’s no dummy. She’s given an office with her name on the door, a secretary, the title, “Director of Stockholder Relations” and no responsibilities. She’s giddy. For a minute. As it turns out, having all the impressive things that make her look important isn’t enough for Laura, she needs to be doing something that is important.

Amelia Shotgraven (Neva Patterson), her secretary, is initially there to spy on Laura for the board but the two become quick friends instead. Amelia is inspired by Laura and is valuable to her mission as Director of Stockholder Relations. Laura pledges to contact all the other small shareholders of International Projects to communicate with them, and to show them a respect they’ve never seen before from the company. She knows it’s important to give them company news, and just keep in touch with them. It’s what she wanted as a stockholder and now she can to give it to them. They adore her for it.

Watching Laura fall in love with Edward McKeever when he returns to the company for a visit, is not unexpected, but their chemistry thrills us anyway. Judy Holliday’s toughness as Laura, with the teddy bear quality Paul Douglas creates with McKeever works well. It seems like an unlikely love connection, but it’s spot on for me. There’s rocky times ahead for this relationship and the viewer can’t help but root them on.

The board fires Laura’s secretary, Amelia, because she wouldn’t spy on Laura the way they’d hoped. When Laura finds out, she gives up and sends a resignation memo to one of the board members, Clifford Snell (Fred Clark). It doesn’t feel like something Laura would do. Before the resignation makes it to Snell, she learns something that stops her cold.

It seems the new board member that replaced McKeever accidentally puts one of International Projects’ own companies, Apex Clock Company, out of business. Laura’s mad as hell and staying put.

“Someone’s got to keep an eye on these big geniuses.” – Laura tells Amelia.

Selling power tools with a swimsuit model…really?

The board schemes left and right to make money. When McKeever doesn’t come through with those government contracts like they hope, they start to panic. Things turn ugly and the movie takes off.

The Board desperately needs those contracts to keep their free ride going. Laura knows it’s time to get McKeever back and right the ship for all those small shareholders that depend on those dividends. He doesn’t like his Washington D.C. gig anyway and after he learns of what they’ve done, he vows to come back and throw them all off the board and take his rightful place back. Laura is the savior here. It’s her plan and McKeever helps her achieve it. The Board throws up obstacles and resorts to some pretty shady antics to save their own skins. Taking Laura and McKeever to court is the beginning of the end and it’s not pretty. While this main plot is going on, there’s side stories too – Amelia falls in love with Jenkins, Jenkins gets fired, Amelia gets fired again. And saved by Laura, again. It’s so satisfying to see these “geniuses” go down for what they’ve done and to see the good we’re rooting for win. In the end, Laura is McKeever’s savior too. Judy Holliday makes this movie for me. Her strength, intelligence, sense of humor and relatable personality in this movie are endearing. This is such fantastic movie with terrific writing, and a lot of laughter thanks to Holliday’s perfect comedic timing. There’s a lot of good acting all around, but it’s definitely Holliday’s movie. Laura Partridge is a hero. Not just for 1956, but 2020 too.

 

The Solid Gold Cadillac.

 

 

In A Lonely Place – Based on the Book By Dorothy B. Hughes

TCM | Amazon

The movie In A Lonely Place, from 1950, stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. It was directed by Nicholas Ray for Santana Productions, Humphrey Bogart’s own company, and Columbia pictures.  It’s worth noting that Ray was married to Gloria Grahame when shooting started, but on the way to divorce when it ended. That seemed to have played a role in the adaptation from book to movie.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, by Dorothy B. Hughes….

IndieBound | Amazon

….which was originally published in 1947.

Both the film and book are noir; they both have a serial killer plot, a flawed male, a femme fatale and paranoia. Boy, is there a lot of paranoia. The movie leans more toward a love story, with some suspense elements, while the book is a flat out hard-boiled crime drama.  The characters are the same: Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and Sylvia Nicolai (Jeff Donnell), etc. and the plots are similar, but the endings are completely different.

Aaaaand that’s all I’m saying about that! I hate spoilers, and I’d hate to ruin either the book or the movie with one because both are worth spending time with.

In the book, we learn right away that Dix Steele is a veteran World War II fighter pilot that ends up in Los Angeles. In both the book and the movie, it’s obvious that Dix can’t recapture the feeling of power and exhilaration the war gave him. The frustration over this rules his life. It’s resulted in a pile of insecurities and a huge inferiority complex that he uses alcohol and anger to deal with.  In noir fashion, Dix is convinced that the “system” is against him. That goes for everyone; employers, friends, bartenders, bus drivers and especially women. He just can’t deal with the lack of respect, power and adrenaline taken from him when “the war crashed to an end.” Anger drives everything he does and he can’t control it.

“Without his uniform, he’s without purpose and dangerous.”  – Megan Abbott, Afterword of In A Lonely Place

Dix’s life after the war consists of one angry decision after another and a whole lot of alcohol. It’s sad to watch, thanks to what I think is one of Humphrey Bogart’s best performances in his career, and I’ve enjoyed almost all of them.

Laurel Gray meets Dix in the apartment building they both live in. (On a side note, this Spanish-style apartment building is amazing). One night, Laurel is questioned by the police about Dix’s whereabouts when a girl that had visited his apartment the night she was murdered. It didn’t scare her, in fact it made him more interesting to her, and “likes his face.” It’s obvious Laurel has had experience with broken men like Dix. While she’s skeptical of him at first, she’s sure she can save him. And then she falls in love with him.

Dix realizes after being in Los Angeles for a few months, that his best buddy from the war, Brub Nicolai also lives in there. Dix hopes seeing him might help bring those old feelings of exhilaration from the war back, so he calls him and sets up a visit. What he finds is a very happily married Brub who has settled nicely into his new life since the war. Of course, Dix is jealous. Dix calls the war, “the best years of my life.” Brub says they were his worst. Oh, and Brub just happens to be the detective that’s investigating the murders of young girls that’s terrorizing the city.

After being let down by Brub’s way of life and lack of love for the war, Dix turns his attention to Laurel. He tries desperately to recreate Brub’s life for himself with Laurel. For a while, we all believe he can do it.

“I was born when you kissed me, I died when you left me. I lived a few weeks while you loved me.” – he tells her.

We follow Dix through loneliness and excruciating anger. The contrast between Dix and Brub’s lives is stark evidence of the self-hatred that Dix has developed since the war and the consequences that occur because of it. He knows he can never be satisfied with a life like Brub’s, even though he so desperately wants to be. It wouldn’t be enough. Dix flirts with getting caught throughout the story, even that exhilaration would work, but it seems he catches his out of control behavior just in time, every time.

The story is a sad one. Bogart, as usual, is perfect and Grahame is convincing, as usual, as a smart and beautiful femme fatale.  Both the movie and the book give us an interesting psychological profile that can easily consume us.

The book and movie give us a different ending and both are fantastic.