A Ticket for Thaddeus & It’s a Most Unusual Day

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It has been some time since I enjoyed the half-hour “Screen Directors Playhouse” movies created for television airwaves in 1955 and 1956. The shows used big-time directors and often big-name actors to create the mini movies and many have proven to be quite good.

Among the great ones is Director Frank Borzage‘s “A Ticket for Thaddeus”, a drama about a Polish immigrant and his fear of law enforcement. It is evident from the first few minutes that this Thaddeus (Edmond O’Brien) connects all uniformed men with the Nazi soldiers who took him to a concentration camp when he lived in Poland. His wife (Narda Onyx), who was not sent to a camp, assures him America is different, but his fear persists.

After picking up an old dresser for repair, the carpenter collides with an oncoming car that has swerved into the wrong lane of traffic. The other driver, Bowen (Alan Hale Jr.), sees his convertible considerably damaged and accuses Thaddeus of trying to run from the scene because he did not initially stop. Thaddeus is terrified when Bowen says he will call the police and insists the accident was his fault and that he will pay for the damage. When the police arrive, the Polish man is handed a request to appear in court.

Thaddeus assumes the worst –that he will be sent to a concentration camp. He finishes his work on the dresser and packs his suitcase, leaving a note for his wife expressing his expectations. When he appears in court, Thaddeus tells the judge he is guilty, but a police officer provides evidence from the scene of the accident that proves Bowen was driving well over the speed limit and had crossed the center line. Thaddeus is sent home.

The extent and absurdity of Thaddeus’ fear of uniformed men and what he believed his fate to be are comical on paper, but the way O’Brien plays the part gives and entirely different mood to the episode. His performance is stellar and we feel his fear and sympathize with his past and the resulting phobia. The ending is somewhat touching in his exchange with the judge and the spilling of his suitcase of clothes he brought to accompany him to a concentration camp. It is easy to laugh and say, how ridiculous that he would think such things happen in the U.S., but it’s very sad at the same time.

Half-hour TV movies directed by Hollywood's best.

On a much lighter note is Director Claude Binyon‘s story of a romance as recalled through the songs of Jimmy McHugh –“It’s a Most Unusual Day”. The story is told in a manner reminiscent of Penny Serenade with the couple listening to the songs at a night club and recalling in flashback certain parts of their relationship. Fred MacMurray plays husband to Marilyn Erskine. The songs recall their early relationship in college when MacMurray’s Peter confesses a desire to marry Margie.

Next we see the effect of the Great Depression on the couple after two years of engagement. Peter wants to transition from being an auto mechanic to something bigger, and in the next flashback we see him running a trucking company and being seduced by another woman. The story goes on in this fashion until the couple’s son arrives to join them for dinner. We learn he intends to propose to the girl he as brought and the parents initially object to the lack of financial stability their boy can offer. He then reminds them –as the flashbacks have also done– that they also started their life together on the down and out.

The biggest hindrance to “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is MacMurray’s age. He was 48 when the episode aired, and so the flashbacks to his days as a college football player and young mechanic are difficult to see as anything other than a skit put on by the older versions of the characters. Erskine make the transition a bit easier with sometime age-appropriate attire and changing hairdos, but she comes off as not liking her husband all too much.

The best part of the episode are the songs. McHugh –who appears in the episode behind the piano and introducing the songs– was responsible for a number of well-known ditties including “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer”, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”, and the title song.

Run, Girl, Run

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When trying to work my way through the lists of movies in which my favorite stars appear, I find myself unendingly frustrated by the often extensive number of pictures made before 1929, ie. the silent era. Silent films, although regularly featured on TCM, nevertheless are low on the priority list in terms of availability to the public. Even worse are the silent shorts, which stars like Carole Lombard tallied up quickly in the early days of filmmaking. TCM thankfully came through for me in playing that star’s Run, Girl, Run, 30-minute short she made under producer Mack Sennett. Lombard was a part of his company and learned the ways of comedy under his tutelage. Read more about it at

Lombard, with her glorious good looks, plays here as she often did, the pretty girl with a boyfriend. She attends a girls’ boarding school that focuses on athletics, particularly track and field, and might be the star runner among her other lofty titles. Despite being in the glamorous role, Lombard still manages to solicit some laugh from us, but the majority of comedy credit lies with costar Daphne Pollard as the coach.

Pollard is short and small but makes clear to the audience right off that she is not one to be trifled with. The actress uses great physical comedy to elicit the majority of the movie’s laughs, such as when running toward a hurdle her sweater inches its way down until it has the effect of a potato sack.

After an initial scene of the girl athletes training, evening arrives and Lombard’s Norma attempts to sneak out to meet her sweetheart. The coach catches her in the hall, brings the young woman into her room, and after some arguing, strips the girl and puts her to bed. To ensure she will not escape to the beau outside, the coach holds Norma’s hand as they fall asleep. The boyfriend, however, helps Norma to replace her hand with an inflated rubber glove, which has the coach duped until the dean awakes her.

Following the night’s shenanigans, the girls face a rival school and the coach feels the pressure of the dean’s threat to fire her if the team loses. Norma narrowly loses one race because she powders her nose en route but pulls through in the end.

I find that photographs of Lombard from early in her career often do not look like the woman we came to know through the talking picture days. That is also the case in Run, Girl, Run, which required some eye squinting to determine the lead was in fact Lombard. Although the picture shown on TCM had new intertitles, the actual film was of a fair quality also hindering my ability to make a positive ID.

Run, Girl, Run was a fun movie even if Lombard wasn’t the best part. I like it better than Matchmaking Mama that had enough other characters for Lombard to get a bit lost on screen.

Shoulder Arms

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Shoulder Arms (1918)

The Little Tramp has never looked so well kempt as when he is in uniform, but Charlie Chaplin‘s daring war comedy Shoulder Arms risked offending audiences at the time. Ready for release in 1918, World War I was not quite over and Chaplin was advised that audiences might not want to see him make light of the serious subject. Others said Americans needed the pick-me-up, and so Chaplin went through with the scheduled release on Oct. 20 that year. It was very well received.

Forget the usual raggedy slouch pants and scruffy derby hat the Tramp usually wears, Chaplin’s character this time wears slightly oversized uniform pants and a jacket a size too small. His shoes are their usual oversized sort, and the helmet of “Doughboy” is not far from his usual chapeau either.

Shoulder Arms opens on Doughboy in training and having a hard time holding his weapon properly or turning about face. He is often scolded by his superior officer for walking pigeon-toed, which naturally brings all the silliness possible to a march. Going for a nap, Doughboy next takes us to the trenches “over there.” A nice tracking shot follows Chaplin as he strolls obliviously through the trench and back, with explosions happening just behind him all the time –indicated audibly by a slide whistle and drum-cymbal crash.

The troops have a decent underground bunk room where Doughboy sets up his back-scratching cheese grater and finds his feet might be too long for the bed. The bunk room is decent until the rain starts pouring in. By the time Doughboy gets leave to rest, his bed is underwater. This does not phase him as he fluffs his soaked pillow and pulls the submerged blankets over him. His snoring neighbor gets disrupted, however, when Doughboy’s annoyance at the noise results in a wave of water sloshing over the other soldier’s face.

The rest of this 36-minute short includes Doughboy’s leaving the trenches for the field of battle –where he disguises himself as a tree– only to end up finding Edna Purviance’s character and taking refuge in her home. As can be expected of the tramp character, his bumbling ways result in his capturing the top German foe and delivering them to his superiors.

Chaplin is his usual great self, bringing us a character who behaves so nonchalantly while disturbing everything around him. Chaplin often had his Tramp behave in this way where he goes about some unnatural activity with the greatest of ease. In this case it was getting into an underwater bed. In The Kid it was preparing a meal in the manner that poverty dictated he must. These straight-faced scenes offer great amusement in both the well-rehearsed movement of the star as well as the absurdity of the activities. Watch the entire movie here:

Source: Robert Osborne

Hard Luck & The Bell Boy

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Hard Luck (1921)

Hard Luck is a Buster Keaton gem released by Metro in 1921 before it became one of the Ms in MGM. The short-subject flick was lost for about 60 years before it was refurbished although not in its entirety, depending on the source of your version.

Buster starts out having just been jilted by a lady and seeing no hope for life henceforth. He attempts to be hit by a trolley that stops just short of him before stealing some rope to use as a noose. He cannot seem to get the mechanics on hanging himself right before a couple police officers come after him. When noticing a waiter’s bottle of “poison” on a shelf, Buster then tries to do himself in by oral means but is unaware the bottle is just disguised booze.

Now drunk, Buster wanders into a dinner with the high hats that run the local zoo. They need a man to hunt down an armadillo to complete the facility’s collection, and Buster takes the job. Fishing for his dinner during this expedition, Buster uses the fish he catches to hook increasingly larger versions until he ends up with nothing. The man next wanders into a country club and its fox hunt. Seeing a new lady he likes, he joins the hunt, or tries to. Using his acrobatic skills, Buster has to find creative ways to board his horse, of which he is repeatedly knocked off. His next adventure involves fighting some wanted criminals while in a saloon.

The picture is meant to close on Keaton, his character having been let down by another woman, jumping from a high dive only to land beside the pool, making a deep hole. The version aired on TCM indicated three minutes of the picture went missing and all we were left with is an intertitle saying “A year later” and a still shot of Buster with Chinese wife and children. You can see the missing footage in the version available on YouTube, although it is certainly of lower quality than the rest of the picture.

     Bell Boy from 1918 is my first exposure to Roscoe Arbuckle, and this flick that pairs him with Keaton and other acrobatic actors was a lot of fun. The set for this hotel where the action takes place reminded me considerably of Keaton’s The Haunted House, and I kept waiting for the massive stairway to convert into a slide. Both Fatty Arbuckle and Buster work as bell boys at this sort of slapdash lodging where the elevator is operated by a horse outside pulling on a rope.

The two have their mishaps and gags working with a man who looks like Rasputin –who through Arbuckle’s shave-and-haircut work becomes Ulysses S. Grant and Abe Lincoln– and in flirting with the new manicurist. The two are pretty well matched with Al “Fuzzy” St. John as the hotel desk clerk, who is just as athletic as Keaton. There are all sorts of leaping and slipping and prying Buster’s head from the elevator.  It is hard to do anything but praise these short films because they are so entertaining without having to keep the audience engaged with an enthralling plot for more than 30 minutes. We are not here to see the resolution of the romantic story but to take in the gags.

The House I Live In

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The House I Live In (1945)

     I am not sure whether it is really worth giving the 10-minute short The House I Live In a rating as it is not something one can really grade. The only reason I sat down with this quickie is because I’m such a Frank Sinatra fan that, naturally, I need to indulge in any chance I can get to see his work.

     Sinatra plays himself as we open on a scene of him recording a song in a studio before he takes a smoke break and wanders out to an alley. There he finds a group of boys who have chased another kid into a corner and clearly plan to give him a beating. Sinatra intervenes and learns the outcast is disliked purely for his (unnamed) religion. The crooner proceeds to tell the boys they are Nazis because only Nazis care about a person’s religion.

     Sinatra sort of proceeds to call the bullies jerks and other names before heading back to work, which prompts his singing to the boys of “The House I Live In,” a ditty about all the things that make America what it is, most especially the people.

     The short won a Special Oscar for Best Tolerance Short Subject –seriously– and a Golden Globe as Best Film for Promoting International Good Will. It was among the many patriotic films being pumped out by studios during the war to promote America’s allies and the cohesiveness of the country’s people. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Curiously, The House I Live In writer Albert Maltz would later be blacklisted during the McCarthy era as was Composer Earl Robinson, who wrote the title song.

     Sinatra comes off as harsh when disparaging the boys, which really sends a broader message to the public in general about picking on those who are different. If only celebrities today would make TV spots calling homophobes and those who think all muslims are all terrorists a bunch of assholes. I am being a bit facetious, but perhaps we can learn by Sinatra’s message and song of tolerance as the world never seems to be without its prejudices.

Source: TCM.com

Final Tribute & Brush Roper

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     My latest foray into the 1955-56 television series Screen Directors Playhouse involved a rather pointless drama and decent, if not annoying, comedy. In The Final Tribute Larraine Day as small-town nurse Joyce Carter narrates the story of the new doctor in town. This Dr. Kent (Dan O’Herlihy) is young, cold and unsympathetic with his patients, yet they flock to his professional ways. In doing so they somewhat abandon the town mainstay, Dr. Walton (Thomas Mitchell) whom Joyce describes as being as taken for granted as the post office.

     Joyce gets a job as a nurse alongside Dr. Kent, and we find minor romantic tension between them. At one point getting flustered, Joyce attempts to speed away in her car but the vehicle lets her down and she is stuck accepting a ride home from Dr. Kent, along with dinner. Dr. Walton arranges with Dr. Kent to take the house calls he receives at night because the young man refuses to help people in an unnecessary panic.

     When an accident involving a dump truck and a school bus sends loads of injured kids to the doctor’s office, everyone pitches in –including Joyce who had recently quit in a huff– and Dr. Kent refuses to rest. The town later names him their person of the year, but, in revealing Dr. Walton has been making all those house calls for free, he passes the award to the old man. This again warms Joyce’s heart.

     For me Andrew Stone‘s The Final Tribute felt rather pointless. If it is meant to be a romantic plot, it fails to give the necessary exigence to Joyce’s occasional hatred for the man and gives us little to believe she should be attracted to him. If it is meant to show us that a cold-hearted man like Dr. Kent can do a kind thing like giving his award away, it fails because he seems to be rejecting the town’s affection as he begins his speech about why his colleague better deserves the tribute. The plot contains neither a clear villain or hero. The bus accident would have made a better climax than the doctor’s rejection of the award.

     A western comedy, Director Stuart Heisler‘s The Brush Roper offered some relative humor and one amazing feat of chance. Western standby Walter Brennan plays Grandpa Atkins, a former cow roper who is relegated to the position of family farmer in his old age. When a couple of young cowboys (Chuck Connors and Edgar Buchanan) come along and say a prize bull has escaped, Atkins’ grandson Cowhide (Lee Aaker) volunteers the old man to beat the young ones to the reward money.

     Riding his old cow-roping horse Liver Pill, grandpa initially finds and ropes the bull but loses him when his saddle flies of the horse and he and it slide on the ground until the rope breaks. Next, using a stronger rope, Grandpa and Liver Pill follow the roped bull off a cliff. Although the secured bull lands on the ground, Grandpa and the horse are stuck in the branches of a tree. Grandma and the young cowboys arrive to cut the man down and hear his gloating.

     Brennan was the slightly annoying yet funny aspect of The Brush Roper. His predicaments and complaining are worthy of enjoyment as are the trick his horse seems to play on him. Cowhide tells the story in addressing the camera, which felt a bit unnecessary and showed off the boy’s acting weaknesses. Overall it was a well-constructed short story and had its humorous moments but is nothing to write home about.

Hot Cargo & The Titanic Incident

Dullsville

Sex and contraband. That’s the way to get ahead in “the Orient”, according to a January 1956 episode of the Screen Directors Playhouse, Hot Cargo. Yvonne De Carlo is Pearl, a bar waitress who deals with the advances of drunken men when her ship captain husband is away transporting cargo. When her good looks result in a brawl, Pearl becomes close with federal agent Joe Mahoney (Rory Calhoun) who shoots a man in self defense during the fight. Joe is in this foreign land rooting out ships carrying contraband, but he has an idea about making money off doing just that and convinces Pearl to offer the job to her husband.

When Pearl brings the subject up, however, the husband (Alan Reed) weeps and beats her silly. Nevertheless, the lovers push on with their scheme and have illegal goods loaded onto the husband’s vessel without him knowing it. When he finds out and lunges at his wife, Pearl shoots him dead but Joe takes the fall and gets off free and clear by being a cop. Their romance is not to have a happy ending, however.

The story for Hot Cargo was a bit weak. The story rushes along and when it nearly climaxes with the shooting of the husband, the audience is left questioning Pearl’s motives. The woman seems to genuinely care for her spouse, but instead of fleeing from the angry man through the door directly behind her, she shoots him before he is anywhere close enough to hurt her. This Tay Garnett-directed tale lacks all the sensuality and driving power of the man’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, although it reflects some of the nonsense of his A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The moral of the story seems to be: Teach a woman to shoot at your own risk. 

When The Titanic Incident came to a close my first thought was: That was an awful story. The trouble is not that it was poorly written or terribly acted just that it reverted to a rather evil conclusion. A married couple are aboard the mis-named SS Titanic (the actual vessel went by RMS Titanic) and are residing in separate state rooms because they are masquerading as acquaintances as part of a con. Susan (May Wynn) will attract the attention of a wealthy yet poor gambler Sir Hubert Cornwall (Phillip Reed) in order to introduce him to a poker game with her husband Paul (Leo Genn).

As Susan spends time with Sir Cornwall the man falls ever more in love with her, although his advances at times seem creepy. It is difficult to read the woman’s emotions as she reacts to his feelings but after the man seeks her hand in marriage she goes to her husband to declare she loves the mark. Susan informs us that theirs has been a marriage of convenience and she assumes the man will not stand in her way for true love. Unfortunately, Paul does love his wife and has been thinking about getting out of the scam racket, but even hearing that does not persuade Susan away from her new interest.

When the steamship hits the iceberg and the passengers are ordered to their life boats, Sir Cornwall gets socked out by another passenger but seeing Susan’s expression, her husband hauls the man onto the boat. As he climbs in, however, Paul and Susan spot a device attached to Sir Cornwall’s arm that allows him to cheat at poker. The two men start throwing fists as the lifeboat plummets into the water and they fly overboard, continuing the brawl in the ocean. The husband wins out and the discreet smile on Susan’s face as he climbs back on board is enough to think they are both monsters.

The Titanic Incident actually felt like quite a long story despite its actual run time. Director Ted Tetzlaff was perhaps misguided in making a picture about dishonest people aboard a vessel where the lives of more than a thousand people are already doomed. Although Susan might be mildly likeable, the men are not and the salvation of one over the lives of hundreds more is foul and insensitive. The action almost suggests that everyone was able to climb aboard a lifeboat. A more appropriate ending would be for one of the suitors to sacrifice himself by staying on the Titanic to allow the woman to have a happy ending.

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