So Big (1932)

Dullsville

So Big (1932)

So Big (1932)

Pulitzer Prize winning novels don’t always produce award-worthy movies. Case in point: the 1932 version of So Big. One can see why writers, directors and actors are attracted to award-winning books, but too often something happens between the first reading of the source material and the final editing that results in a lackluster final product.

So Big is the story of a young school teacher who marries and then must fight to save the family farm to secure the future of she and her son. Barbara Stanwyck plays the young woman in this William Wellmandirected version. She is propelled into the school teacher role in a one-room school house farming town after her gambler father is killed in the big city.

This Selena immediately wins the affections of the adolescent boy belonging to the family that has offered her lodging. Roelf (Dick Winslow) is forced to work on his father’s cabbage farm and cannot attend school, but Selena shares books that feed his desire for greater knowledge. Although other family members laughed at Selena’s first comment of the cabbage fields as “beautiful”, Roelf agrees and draws her a picture indicating so.

Roelf is upset when Selena attracts the attention of the most handsome man in town, Pervus, played by the not-so-handsome Earle Fox. The two eventually marry and have a 10-pound son, Dirk. Around this time, Roelf leaves home to find himself a better life. Not so much later Pervus gets sick and dies, leaving the farm work to Selena.

The years pass and Dirk (Hardie Albright) is now a young adult, living in the city, working as an architect’s assistant. His mother made the most of the farm by planting the newly popular asparagus vegetable. Her country home is large, and she was able to send her boy to college where he earned his architecture degree. But Dirk is dissatisfied with his $35 per week salary. He dreams of a fancier life and attempts to fulfill that dream by going around with a wealthy married woman. The dame offers to persuade her husband to hire Dirk as a bond salesman, thus giving Dirk the glamorous life he hoped for.

Selena is naturally disappointed in her son’s desires and personality. Somewhat mirroring her own feelings is the young painter Dallas, played by Bette Davis. Dirk meets her in his office where she is hired to draw an advertisement for the firm. He falls heavily for her, but she is less impressed by him, saying she instead prefers men with rough hands, who have fought for their livelihood.

Dallas leaves for Europe only to return in time to celebrate the return of Roelf (George Brent), now a famous sculptor. She accompanies both Roelf and Dirk to visit Selena, who is overjoyed at seeing Roelf again. As those two stand beside the window, Dallas tells Dirk that his mother is beautiful. End of movie.

Although So Big starts as a movie about the struggles of a young woman to make a place for herself, having lost a comfortable city existence afforded by her father’s unsavory mode of employment. She recalls her father’s advice and makes the most of life, never complaining. When we jump ahead in time, however, the movie switches gears to focus on Dirk, who has become a greedy, lazy man deserving of little respect. We see the movie almost become a romantic tale of Dirk and Dallas, but the picture offers no resolution. We expect to see Dallas choose between the two young men –and we naturally expect her to prefer Roelf– but the movie closes with no conclusion of the romance or of Dirk’s shitty approach to life. Roelf’s presence should drive home to both Selena and Dirk what a disappointment the latter is, but we never get to that point.

Besides being unromantic and uninspiring, So Big is incredibly slow and boring. One finds it hard to find much life in any of the characters. Bette Davis and her platinum hair jump off the screen for the short time she appears there, and George Brent at least doesn’t play his usual self, but Barbara Stanwyck disappoints. Despite her unending optimism, Selena is a depressing character to watch. Either her life circumstances are unappealing or she is pathetically old looking, making us pity her.

  • So Big is set for 11 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.

Secret Bride

Dullsville

The Secret Bride (1934)

The Secret Bride (1934)

Barbara Stanwyck is a good example of an actor who is remembered by history as being a real standout performer with many phenomenal movies and roles to her name while still having a list of disappointments on her resume. The same can be said of many stars that eventually rise to a position where they can be choosy with their parts, but everyone has to make a living to start with.

Like Ladies They Talk About and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Secret Bride is an easy film on Stanwyck’s list to ignore. At just over an hour in runtime, the movie is horribly rushed, eliminating any chance for a natural ebb and flow of action.

Stanwyck is Ruth Vincent, daughter of the state’s governor. She marries in a town hall the state’s Attorney General Robert Sheldon (Warren William), but before the couple can announce to her father the exciting news, Sheldon is informed that the governor is implicated in a bribery scheme.

Governor Vincent (Arthur Byron) had pardoned John Holdstock, and the latter’s secretary, Willis Martin (Grant Mitchell), is caught by Robert’s investigator depositing $10,000 into Vincent’s personal account. A short while later Holdstock is found to have killed himself. Both Robert and Ruth believe in the governor’s innocence, but they want to prove it before a legislative investigatory committee can impeach him. In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, the couple commit to keeping their marriage secret.

Keeping the nuptials under wraps does not become a problem until Ruth witnesses the shooting of Robert’s investigator Bredeen (Douglas Dumbrille) from Robert’s apartment window. She did not see the shooter but she knows the direction of the shot clears Bredeen’s girlfriend and Robert’s secretary Hazel (Glenda Farrell) of the crime. Ruth insists on staying out of the investigation because it would raise questions as to why she was in Robert’s apartment late at night. At last, however, she must come forward and admit their marriage in court, potentially ruining her husband’s career.

Stanwyck give the performance we would expect of her but does not blow anyone away. William is equally satisfactory in his part, but the story is difficult to appreciate. It is impossible to unweave the crime oneself, and as the action rushes along, we conclude with one character confessing every detail of the convoluted crime. Ruth and Robert seem to be genuinely in love, an accomplishment for the actors, but that has nearly nothing to do with the story, which is essentially a crime mystery. Perhaps the plot would have been more compelling it had analysed the effect on the newlyweds of the investigation. The emotional trauma and rift it could cause would be more dramatic than a complex crime story.

  • The Secret Bride is set for 2 p.m. ET Dec. 13 on TCM.

Ladies They Talk About

Dullsville

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Prison sure was different in the 1930s. Sure, men still had cells with bars on them and bunk beds within, and apparently marched everywhere they went, but for women, the penitentiary was like a mini community but one from which you could not leave. In Ladies They Talk About we get a surprising look at what imprisonment meant for female offenders. Barbara Stanwyck spends most of the story behind bars after assisting a bank robbery for a load of gangsters.

Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor could have fought to maintain her innocence in the crime, but a man from her home town –now a big-time political preacher in the big city– falls for her. Their kiss inspires Nan to tell David Slade (Preston Foster) the truth about the robbery, which he finds staggeringly upsetting. She therefore admits her crime to the district attorney and away for two to five years she goes.

In the clink she gives up her fur and fine dress for a plain frock, although not a uniform. The women in here have made themselves a comfortable lifestyle, complete with beauty shop services, rocking chairs and a socialite with a lap dog. The cells are private apartments with windowless doors, which the girls have adorned with photos of their favorite celebrities. Nan keeps a picture of Slade to remind her of the hatred she feels for him. Her newly found arch enemy inside, however, keeps several photos of the man out of adoration.

Nan refuses to see Slade, who writes to her regularly and stops by every visiting day. Around the same time she learns that the man is actually trying to help her get an early release, she has also been contacted by her former partner in crime, Lefty (Harold Huber). Two other members of the gang have been pinched and reside in the men’s prison on the other side of Nan’s wall. They have a plan to dig their way out, with her help.

Upon seeing Slade for the first time, Nan allows for the reestablishment of their romance and slips a letter to Lefty into the man’s pocket. Slade later finds the note and drops it into the mail. But Lefty is in local lock-up and his forwarded letter gets opened by the warden, who then traces it back to Nan. She assumes Slade ratted on her.

Ladies They Talk About is interesting to the degree it shows some version of life inside a women’s prison. On the other hand, however, it tries to drive some sort of romantic yarn through the plot even though Stanwyck’s character has shown only loathing or tolerance for the man who unreasonably adores her. Stanwyck’s performance is lack-luster. At the start she shows shades of bad acting in instances when Nan is herself putting on a show for the authorities. This is nevertheless frustrating to watch.

None of the other characters offer anything special. Foster is milquetoast and oft-criminal Huber is in so few scenes as to make his presence nearly unnoticeable. Dorothy Burgess as Susie –the Slade-lover, Nan-hater– attracts some degree of interest. She looks like a less interesting Tallulah Bankhead and is as obnoxious as she is meant to be.

There are plenty of other flicks in which to see Stanwyck playing the hard-boiled blonde or brunette and/or the sex pot, but Ladies They Talk About should not be sought out for that reason. Sit down with Baby Face instead.

  • Ladies They Talk About is set for 2:15 p.m. ET Dec. 20 on TCM.

Breakfast for Two

Gasser

Breakfast for Two (1937)

     The romantic concept underlying Breakfast for Two is a novel one, and although not executed to the best extent, the idea of a woman who professionally attacks a man with the intent to win over his heart is a great one. This brief romantic comedy of little more than an hour in length plays more as a television show that did not have sufficient time to develop the romance between its characters.

     Herbert Marshall as Jonathan Blair is the careless owner of his family’s shipping business, which is on the verge of bankruptcy while the young man enjoys all the spoils of a wealthy bachelor’s life. We start the film with Jonathan waking after a raucous night to discover a young woman has spent the night in his room. This Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck) had brought the drunk home only to be trapped in his room by the large dog that growled at her every attempt to leave.

     Jonathan is intrigued by the woman and sends her flowers after their breakfast for two is interrupted by the arrival of another young woman after the man’s heart, actress Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell). Receiving the gift and hearing from her banker about Jonathan’s irresponsible handling of his company, the wealthy Val decides to stay in New York and declares she will make the man her husband. To do that, however, the smart girl starts buying up stock to the Blair company until she is a majority shareholder. Jonathan is outraged to see the business leave the family’s hands and all the more so that this woman is the one to do it.

     Val also moves into the Blair mansion, but the move inadvertently sends Jonathan to live in Carol’s apartment. The man’s financial circumstances also result in his intention to marry the actress. With Jonathan’s valet, Butch (Eric Blore), helping in her scheme, the wedding is twice interrupted. The first is by a ridiculous clan of noisy window washers who keep disrupting the justice of the peace’s (Donald Meek) attempts to wed Carol and “Joe-Nathan”, and the second is by Butch’s presentation of a wedding license allegedly fulfilled on the drunken night Jonathan and Val met. Our couple get their reconciliation after some physical rumbling and the company is restored to the family that built it.

     Breakfast for Two is a quick, fun romp laced with humor eliciting mainly from the character actors of Blore and Meek. Blore’s Butch appears in most scenes and even though playing his typical part of servant, he embodies a much larger role here than in most of his films. Stanwyck brings plenty of levity to the movie as the young and fun woman who seeks to build her target into a respectable man who will fight for his company. Marshall, as usual, derives most of his laughs from witty dialogue, but he and Stanwyck look good as a couple. If more time had been devoted to developing true emotion between the characters, I think it could be a stellar piece. As it stands, however, much of the motivation is skimmed over to the final product’s detriment.

  • Breakfast for Two is set for 10 a.m. ET July 27 on TCM.

Meet John Doe

Ring a Ding Ding

Meet John Doe (1941)

     Gary Cooper was a wonderfully diverse actor. He could just as easily play the confident and tough lawman, lover or soldier as he could let Director Frank Capra break him down into an apologetic everyman. That is how we find him in Meet John Doe, a movie that also presented me with the least sexual Barbara Stanwyck I have ever seen.

 
     Like the small-towner in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Cooper plays a nobody who becomes more than a somebody, which essentially makes this picture a combination of the aforementioned film with A Face in the Crowd. Like the former, our leading man is manipulated/discovered by a female reporter and like the latter the protagonist becomes a national symbol with masses of followers.
 
    When the wealthy B.D. Norton (Edward Arnold) purchases The Bulletin, Stanwyck’s Ann Mitchell finds herself fired like many others at the newspaper. She’s required to write one last column before she heads out, however, so she fabricates a letter from a reader who says he will jump off town hall on Christmas Eve because he is fed up with the ills of society. The item becomes a sensation and Ann and her editor Connell (James Gleason) are forced to find someone to act as this John Doe or be humiliated by a rival paper.
 
     In interviewing a host of down-and-out men who come forward claiming to be the letter’s author, Ann and Connell agree John Willoughby (Cooper), a former small-time baseball player, is the perfect fit. They put him up in a hotel and hide him from the world while Ann gets to work writing more of “his” letters about his outrage against society to run in the paper. John is eventually put on the radio, reading a speech Ann wrote using inspiration from her deceased father’s diary. The man is a sensation and John Doe Clubs start popping up around the nation.
 
     John is upset that the whole persona is a lie but he cannot deny the good it is doing through these clubs that involve neighbors accepting each other and working together for the common good. Publisher Norton is even sponsoring these clubs around the country, although it is easy to see he must have something sinister in mind.
 
     That something is a run for president, and Norton plans to have John endorse him at a big rally for the clubs. Ann writes the speech but is stuck in moral turmoil as her involvement in the ruse has brought her a significant increase in salary. John plan to reveal the whole scheme to the rally crowd, but Norton puts out papers revealing the fraud before he can speak, thus making him the object of the mass’ rage. Although he had never intended to jump from town hall as the fictional John Doe said he would, the real one sees it as a way to reunite his followers.
 
     Meet John Doe is not without its romance. Although Stanwyck’s character is solely career focused, John cannot help but be fascinated by the woman. She resists him until the end, all the while be showered with gifts from Norton’s nephew. Nevertheless it was strange to see Stanwyck in a role that was neither sweetly romantic nor severely seductive. This brunette version of the star does a fantastic job of pulling off a massive ruse all while convincing us she is a pure and admirable person.
 
     It goes without saying that Cooper is great. He had by this point in his career such a rugged face that he could be perfectly believable as the ragged, dirty bum we first meet and as handsome, romantic personality he becomes. UnlikeA Face in the Crowd, his character never becomes power crazed but instead fights the urge to run away from his new life, much like his Mr. Deeds character.

The Girl from Missouri

Dullsville

Girl From Missouri (1934)

     I was excited to come across a pairing of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in a romantic flick as I enjoy Harlow and find Tone quite charming, but their pairing in The Girl From Missouri produced poor results on the acting front.

     Both Harlow as Eadie and Tone as Tom gave amateurish performances in this story of a girl who wants nothing more than to marry with her virtue in tact. Eadie leaves her home in Missouri because the booze joint her mother and step-father run will eventually create a fate similar, I suspect, to that which befell Barbara Stanwyck‘s character in Baby Face. In New York with her pal Kitty (Patsy Kelly), the two work as chorus girls while Eadie plots how to land a millionaire husband. Performing at the party of one such wealthy gent, Eadie wrangles a suspiciously easy proposal from host Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), who gives the girl ruby cufflinks to make into an engagement ring. Once she is out of the room, Cousins shoots himself over financial trouble, thus explaining his willingness to “marry” the dame. Eadie and Kitty rush into the room and are held there as police search for the missing rubies. Another millionaire, T.R. Page (Lionel Barrymore), who somehow knows the girls are innocent of the theft, sneaks the gems out of Eadie’s stocking and returns them to the girl later.

     The next day, Eadie is on the hunt for T.R.’s hand in marriage and follows him to Palm Beach after he gives her some dough on which to get by. There she runs into Tom, who happens to be T.R.’s son, but she does not know that at first, so she resist him. Despite everyone’s suspicions, Eadie is not a gold digger but merely someone who wants a proper chance in life for her children. When Tom locks her in his room one evening and tries to put the moves on her, she convinces him that she is on the level about being “clean”. They love each other but Tom has had sex on the brain more so than marriage. When he does come around to the idea, his father superficially agrees to the union but conspires with the district attorney and newspapermen to frame Eadie not only for stealing the rubies but for having an affair with a stranger.

     So the concept is Eadie is a girl who everyone thinks is a hussy but who really just wants to get married without compromising her virginity. Her forward approach with men and flashy looks suggest just what everyone thinks, but her words are the only thing insisting otherwise. She is supposed to be in love with Tom, but neither actor convinced me. Tom is first introduced as on the phone with a sweetheart whom he quickly hangs up on when he spots Eadie, so naturally we think he is a playboy. Indeed, all he really wants from the blonde is a good time until he finds out she is “pure”, which is apparently all it takes to be marriage material, never mind the social boundaries or her continually deteriorating reputation.

     There is a cute scene when Tom throws a drunk Eadie in the shower and gets in himself, hat suit and all, and tells her they are going to get married immediately. The moment seems romantic and sexy, but it is cut short before anything profound can be said. This might have been the result of Production Code restrictions. The Girl from Missouri was the subject of many re-shoots and re-editing because of the decency code that was now in full enforcement. The title too underwent many changes before landing on the bland Girl from Missouri. At first it was “Eadie is a Lady” based on a popular song at the time, the lyrics of which suggested the opposite of the title. The Hayes Office also felt the option of “100% Pure” suggested otherwise, and also nixed “Born to be Kissed” as too suggestive.

     Despite the code restrictions that perhaps dampened the quality of the story, the actors have no excuse for their performances. Harlow is a poor crier and both she and Tone had moments of lousy acting that is not present in most of their work. It just goes to show you cannot pair two good-looking people together and expect magic.

Source: Robert Osborne

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Ring a Ding Ding

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

     Although made in 1982, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid could be claimed as 50% classic film. The Steve Martin spoof on old detective dramas uses footage from about a dozen black-and-white movies spliced in with new footage. I first saw this movie in an Intro to Film course and fell in love. It’s full of Martin’s early stupid humor while also showing a real appreciation for old Hollywood.

     Martin is Detective Rigby Reardon, who is approached by Rachel Ward‘s Juliet Forrest to investigate the murder of her father, a scientist and cheese enthusiast. The plot that follows is inconsequential as it is as complex as The Big Sleep –clips of which are used throughout– and is neatly summed up by both the villain and Reardon at the end of the picture, ala The Thin Man and other mysteries.

     Rigby’s mentor is Marlowe, with whom the protagonist consults primarily via telephone, and who is played by Humphrey Bogart in segments from three of his films. The detective also pays visits to several familiar faces, such as Ray Milland in a snippet from The Lost Weekend, Bette Davis in Deception, Cary Grant in Suspicion, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Joan Crawford in Humoresque, among others. Martin also dresses in drag to attract the attention of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. The unsettling part is, from behind, there is little difference between Martin and Barbara Stanwyck from the original clips. Martin again dons a dress to masquerade as James Cagney’s mother from White Heat.

     Writers on the movie George Gipe, Director Carl Reiner and Martin developed the story based on the classic clips. The idea came from one designed by Martin that proposed the use of a classic movie clip. That concept transformed into doing an entire movie using such pieces. After watching old films and pulling particular over-the-shoulder shots and appealing dialogue, the writers then merely juxtaposed the dialogue until they came up with a suitable story. Some clips were clearly used just as an excuse to insert them and do not actually further the plot, but are funny nonetheless.

     Although the cinematographer consulted the filming styles from the old flicks, Martin avoided them altogether. He said he did not want to give a performance reflective of Bogart but something of his own. The result was great as I do not think Martin would have been as funny if he had taken himself more seriously.

     As someone who enjoys both Steve Martin humor and classic films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is just the epitome of fun for me. I was not familiar with all of the movies featured therein, but I certainly enjoyed figuring out the ones I did know. Thankfully the end credits spell it out for the viewer.

Source: Universal Studios

Remember the Night

Gasser

Remember the Night (1940)

     Although Remember the Night is a fairly heartwarming Xmastime story, it does not necessarily have a happy ending. This first pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who would make possibly the most famous film noir in history, Double Indemnity, is a story of compassion and romance but with some rather bleak moments along the way.

     Stanwyck plays Lee Leander, a thief with record who just prior to Xmas is on trial with MacMurray’s DA John Sargent against her. John moves for a continuance, however, because he knows the jury will acquit her based on the time of year. Feeling poorly about sending the young woman to an Xmas meal in the clink, John pays her bail, which results in the woman being deposited on his doorstep. He agrees to get her dinner and while they dance the couple discovers they are both from Indiana, which is where John is headed to spend the holiday. He opts to carpool the woman to her home town on the way, but when they arrive a cold reception from Lee’s mother and a glimpse into her poor upbringing leads John to take her to his home instead.

     John’s mother and aunt embrace Lee until the lawyer reveals she is a thief he plans to convict in a couple of days. That’s no problem until the two start to fall in love, and Mrs. Sargent sees Lee as a threat to her son’s honest upbringing and hard work. Ultimately, Lee pleads guilty either to avoid corrupting John or to do the honest thing, and the film ends with her in jail saying John must wait to marry her if he feels the same way once she has paid her debt to society.

     Although MacMurray would be cast against type in Double Indemnity, he plays his usual good guy in Remember the Night. Stanwyck, however, plays a similar bad girl or devious type she would also personify in The Lady Eve, which along with this film was written by Preston Sturges. She also sports the same dark hair color as she does as Eve, which is my favorite of her looks. She worked well as a blonde, but I find her particularly striking with the dark locks.

     Remember the Night is a cute, romantic holiday film with good acting, but it is not particularly memorable. Better to hold out for Double Indemnity.

Source: Robert Osborne

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Dullsville

The Bitter Tea of
General Yen (1933)

     I have mentioned before how casting westerners to play exotic and foreign roles was prevalent in early movies and fairly disgraceful, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen is another example. At least in this film only the male lead is a false “Chinaman” played by Nils Asther, a silent picture leading man of Denmark origin who played mostly side roles in talking films. He personifies a Chinese warlord who holds an American missionary captive while he tries to win her affection. Barbara Stanwyck plays the woman, who came to China to marry a childhood friend (also American) she had not seen in three years. General Yen rescues her from a mob scene and takes her to his palace.

     As I watched this mediocre flick, I felt as though this plot had been done before (or again, as the case may be), and in fact, it largely reflects Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (and possibly other incarnations, but that is the only version I know). An evil creature forces a woman to live in luxury while he tries to convince her to fall in love with him. She cannot leave and eventually succumbs to amorous feelings. Although Yen is not a beast, he is monstrous in his military tactics — executing lines of prisoners outside the woman’s window one morning.
     (SPOILER [although you shouldn't care because this movie is lousy]) Unlike the beast in the animated film, Yen cannot magically become a normal human at film’s end. In fact, once Stanwyck’s Megan is offered her freedom (as happens in B&B), she declares in all her Stockholm Syndromed glory that she could never leave him now.  The thought is absurd given this man is a brutal killer and has never really shown himself to be romantically viable. Megan’s feeling seem to be based entirely on a dream she has early in the film where Yen as a Max Schreck-style vampire attacks her only to have another Yen rescue her. Luckily for all involved, Yen opts to permanently free Megan by doing himself in via poisoned tea, hence the title. (End SPOILER)
     The Bitter Tea of General Yen is surprisingly directed by Frank Capra, who gave us such memorable features as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Arsenic and Old Lace. He already had 21 films under his belt, but apparently this picture came early enough in his career that we cannot fault him. He would not make the Best Picture-winning It Happened One Night for another year. I also must make mention of the hilarious movie poster shown above. There is nothing remotely that racy going on at any juncture in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and I don’t think Stanwyck has ever been that well endowed. Nevertheless, perhaps it convinced audiences to flock to the theater on false pretenses. Surely they were disappointed.
  • The Bitter Tea of General Yen is set for noon ET Dec. 15 on TCM.
     

What to Watch: Wednesday

I wanted to make a quick note about a great, seductive comedy set to air at 8 p.m. ET tonight, Oct. 27 on TCM. The Lady Eve is a great flick with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda involving a woman scam artist who falls for her mark. Stanwyck’s character goes so far as to reappear in Fonda’s life at a later point in the movie and claim to be an entirely different person.

Check out how Stanwyck so innocently seduces Fonda in this clip. The good stuff starts about 1:30 in.

I had a great time watching this one and recommend it for anyone with time tonight. Can’t catch it? It’s back on at 3:45 Nov. 14 and 1:30 p.m. Dec. 15.

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