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

Ring a Ding Ding

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.

Alice Adams

Gasser

Alice Adams (1935)

     History paints Katharine Hepburn as anything but a delicate, girlish sort, and the woman is often discussed as an ideal feminist. In Alice Adams, a young Hepburn does indeed embody a sort of feminist part, but it is hidden beneath so thick a mask of social properness and female expectations it is nearly unbearable.

     Alice belongs to a family consisting of a nearly invalid father whose job is being held at the pharmacy while he recovers, a brother who gambles and is otherwise socially disagreeable, and a mother who wants her daughter’s dreams to come true so much that she pushes the family into untenable situations.

     At the film’s start, Alice is preparing to go to a dance at the home of the small town’s upper crust family. The young woman hopes no one will recognize her two-year-old dress and makes a corsage of picked violets when purchasing one proves unaffordable. Her date is her unhappy brother, whose ugly truck prompts Alice to request he park it in the street lest anyone see her exiting it.

    At the social affair, Alice walks about with the air and poise of a well sought-after woman, but finds she is the only one left without a dance partner. She eventually subjects herself to dancing with an oafish fellow with whom she earlier would have been too proud to be seen. Just as her situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for us to watch, the handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) asks an introduction with Alice and engages her in a spin around the floor. Arthur is from a wealthy family and is allegedly engaged to the party’s hostess Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). All while dancing, Alice rattles in soft and gay tones about the semi-fictional life she pretends to live. When the dance is over, Alice feigns a full dance card to meet Arthur’s expectation that they are not able to share another dance, despite his desire to. The girl then retreats home, separating her brother from the gambling he was conducting with the servants in the coat closet.

     Alice is smitten but knows her social and familial standing is not adequate for the likes of Arthur. Nevertheless, she runs into him on the streets of the town and allows him to walk her home while she again runs her mouth about fanciful things. When they reach her house, Alice tries to walk on by to disguise her shabby dwelling, but the mailman gives her away. Arthur is utterly unphased by any embarrassment Alice thinks she has suffered before him and asks if he may come around some night, to which the girl agrees.

     The flowers wilt in their vase as days pass and no Arthur appears. When he does make his debut, the house is in less than pristine condition in Alice’s eyes, so the two retire to the front porch. There Alice again spins yarns of a life not quite her own as she attempts to flirt and offer herself as a suitable mate for the socialite. This activity continues for weeks until finally Alice and her mother (Ann Shoemaker) agree it is time he came around for family dinner.

     As Alice has become ever more in love with Arthur, her mother has observed how the family’s financial difficulties negate her romantic efforts. Alice has not been invited to a dance because of her social standing, and must make an excuse as to why she cannot attend with Arthur. The Adams patriarch Virgil (Fred Stone) once developed with a partner a formula for a perfect glue. That partner died and the pharmacy owner took the formula with long-lost promises to produce it for the men. Mrs. Adams thinks Virgil should turn the discovery into a business to better support the family, but the man thinks doing so would betray the boss who has been so kind to him and his family. A final push by mother, and Virgil moves forward and sets up a factory.

     The night Arthur comes to dinner is near disaster with sweltering heat, a tardy brother and a hired maid who is inept with serving. When Arthur leaves, the pharmacist J.A. Lamb (Charley Grapewin) arrives to tell Virgil off about the glue formula. He says he is opening his own factory next to the Adams plant and intends to run him out of business. Sour words are exchanged, and Alice finally takes matters into her own hands. She explains why her father decided to open the factory and his true feelings of respect for the employer. Her properness falls away with every word as we see the true woman beneath. Arthur is unknowingly sitting on the porch and has heard the entire situation.

    The tragedy of Alice Adams is that the character shows very little of her true self. She is not a particularly masculine sort underneath, but she is far from the delicate flower she puts before Arthur time and time again. It is frustrating to believe Arthur could tolerate Alice’s fakeness and still be interested. The man theoretically should have seen through the mask, but he could not have known that what was beneath would be something he would like. The entire romance seems improbable from the start. When Arthur approaches looking for a dance, I was expecting the gesture to be a cruel joke.

     I cannot see myself ever watching Alice Adams again. Hepburn’s performance was great and MacMurray was thoroughly handsome and semi-romantic, but the whole flick set me on edge. Hepburn’s persona made me squirm because all I wanted to do is smack her and tell her to be herself. She doesn’t exactly set a good example for young women who think of themselves as socially inadequate.

Above Suspicion

Gasser

Above Suspicion (1943)

     At first blush, Above Suspicion seems to be a spy comedy of sorts, given its star of Fred MacMurray and original casting of William Powell and Myrna Loy. As the plot progresses, however, the audience finds itself steeped in the treacherous landscape of Nazi espionage. 

     The picture starts out on a light-hearted note as MacMurray, nearly always a funny guy, walks out of an Oxford chapel with Joan Crawford on his arm. The newly married couple have their honeymoon interrupted almost immediately by an assignment to essentially act as spies during their Germany honeymoon and track down a missing agent. Crawford’s character’s response to the proposition is one of sheer delight at the prospect of spy life, but that jolly approach will not last too long.

     MacMurray is Oxford professor Richard Myles and Crawford is his bride Frances. Their first honeymoon stop is France where the two attend a cafe –with Frances in a rose-adorned hat– and spill their drink. They next utter a code line to signal their contact to meet them later. The next stop is a restaurant where their contact does not speak to the couple but leaves a map of Southern Germany filled with clues in Richard’s coat pocket. The young couple revel at translating the dots and holes into an indication of their next step.

     The first top in Germany is a book store where a man tells them where to find their next contact. Instead, the suspicious hotel staff point the Myles toward a concert where a German officer is shot by their hotelmate Thornley (Bruce Lester), who was also once engaged in similar spy work and had is fiancée tortured to death in the process. The couple next move on to a remote mountain village where they track down a chess collector who happens to be the man they are looking for. Unfortunately, another man is masquerading as the professor they seek and has the spy tied up. The Myles’ manage to escape, return for the Professor Mespullbrun (Reginald Owen) and make another clean escape. Their work is far from finished, however, and the most difficult tasks have yet to come with Conrad Veidt‘s Seidel to help them along.

     Never before have I seen Crawford so cheery as in Above Suspicion. She is in the height of her career and yet her character’s persona has a young energy to it that makes her highly appealing as a wife character and protagonist. It is worth noting, however, that in a scene where Frances is meant to have been beaten about the face, a close up of the actress provides favorable lighting that makes her appear more beautiful than at other moments in the film. Crawford was good at getting her way on aspects like this. Even when her characters were meant to appear worn down, she made efforts to look beautiful (see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the makeup and false breasts she uses to amp up her appeal).

     As mentioned, this picture was originally meant for a Powell-Loy repairing to get them out of the Thin Man setting that had become their mainstay together. It was Loy’s departure from MGM, however, that resulted in the recasting of the Above Suspicion. Speaking of cast members, Veidt makes his final screen performance here before dying from a heart attack later in 1943. The German film star, who like many of his contemporaries fled the country upon Hitler’s rise to power only to be cast as Nazis in American films, nicely rounds out his career by playing a German working for the good guys. His character begins rather ambiguously, and like many other aspects of this movie, one has trouble discerning whether he is sinister or an ally. Veidt made fewer than 30 films during the 50 years of his life, but left an indelible mark on cinema history.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine, TCM.com

True Confession

Ring a Ding Ding

True Confession (1937)

     I mentioned before that the first on-screen pairing of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray was a bit lack luster on the latter actor’s part, but when the two reunited two years later for True Confession they had something better going on. Lombard still far outshines her male counterpart but MacMurray at least is a more seasoned comedian by this point, which helps to back the hilarity the actress brings to the screen.

     Lombard brought all kinds of unique character traits to her role of Helen Bartlett, some of which were scripted and others that make me certain this part would have been entirely different if portrayed by another actress. We first see Helen scuffling up the stairs of her apartment building while muttering something repeatedly to herself before sitting down to the telephone in her flat and recounting some gossip to her lawyer husband (MacMurray) that could mean a case for the less-than-successful attorney. It seems the butcher’s son is charged with stealing a van full of hams. Having his scruples, however, means that lawyer Kenneth Bartlett will not defend a guilty party. The alleged thief says he did not steal the hams but will not be able to pay Kenneth until he gets money from selling the hams. Naturally, the attorney throws him out.

     We now have the groundwork for this ruthlessly honest lawyer and as we spend more time with Helen –an unsuccessful fiction writer– we find she is a compulsive liar, having duped a man sent to repossess her typewriter into believing her husband is insane and thinks the machine his baby. Looking to earn some money to support the family but wanting to hide the work from her disapproving husband, Helen takes a job with a rich man who needs a personal secretary four days a week, three hours a day for $50 per week. The deal is really too good to be true, which Helen learns as the man starts chasing her around his home office before she socks him in the gut and runs out.

     When Helen returns later with the moral support of friend Daisy (Una Merkel) to retrieve her hat, purse and coat, the police arrive immediately because it seems the man has just been shot dead. The confusion has Helen looking mighty guilty. She is taken to the police headquarters and as the detective begins to verbally construct his presumed sequence of events, Helen –story writer that she is– one-ups him with a better explanation of why she killed him, before again denying the crime. The police even find a gun in the Bartlett home with two bullets missing (Helen had fired them at a tree as research for her writing) and determine her gun killed the man.

     When Kenneth comes to his wife in jail he naturally presumes she killed the man as self-defense, and thinking that given the mounds of evidence against her make that explanation more likely than her innocence, Helen rolls with it. Here enters John Barrymore as the excessively creepy Charley, a mad man whom we quickly assume is the actual murderer. He follows the trial intently, sitting beside Daisy in court and noisily deflating a balloon throughout. He repeatedly insists Helen will “fry” but Kenneth gets the gal off. The now-successful writer-lawyer couple are enjoying a wealthy life when Charley decides he wants to claim the luxuries he naturally thinks belong to him, given he is the actual murderer.

     Lombard is possibly at her best in True Confessions, which I realize is a bold statement given the public’s general love of My Man Godfrey. Her character is so impulsive, often sticking her tongue into her cheek as a signal to us she has just thought up a doozy of a lie. MacMurray also has to hold her back as she attempts to throw things at the prosecuting attorney during the trial or threatens to beat him up. As I said, MacMurray –whom I generally consider to be a great comedic performer– pales in comparison to this woman, but as he should. The two characters are on the opposite sides of the spectrum in their beliefs and so too are the qualities of their personalities.

     Barrymore, who shows up about half way through, could have upstaged both the leads had he been given more screen time. In a purely comedic movie, he gives a dramatic performance that genuinely conveys the personality of a mad man. He makes no motion to gain a laugh deliberately, instead adhering to the sociopathic glitches for which his character calls. Barrymore also appeared with Lombard in 1934’s Twentieth Century in which the two play actors whose dramatic personalities lead to equally hair-brained action aboard a train. Also a very good watch.

The Princess Comes Across

Ring a Ding Ding

The Princess Comes Across (1936)

     For the first several minutes of The Princess Comes Across, you are likely to ask yourself why this part was not given to Greta Garbo. Carole Lombard as Princess Olga of Sweden gives a performance that seems highly influenced by the aforementioned Swedish star, with a deep voice resembling Garbo’s immensely. Give the movie about five minutes, however, and you will quickly learn why Garbo was not cast: Princess Olga is no princess indeed. She is a Brooklyn girl masquerading as royalty to get a Hollywood contract.

     So to start, we think we’re watching a romantic comedy about the princess’ attempts to conceal her true identity while aboard a ship destined for New York amidst advances from concertina player and bandleader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray). The plot changes, however, when the ship’s captain learns an escaped murderer is likely on board and a blackmailer (Porter Hall) is murdered in Olga’s room. The lady, who is now friendly with Mantell, fears that not only will her true identity come out but that it will implicate her in the murder (Mantell helped in moving the body to the blackmailer’s own room). To make matters worse, the ship is also carrying a convention of detectives from different countries, and they are masters at their trade.

     On the dead blackmailer is found a passenger list with three names noted: Mantell, Olga and another to which we are not entreated. The detectives, therefore, latch onto these passengers as their main subjects. When one detective announces he will reveal the name of the murderer later in the day, he is promptly killed before having a chance. Mantell happens to be the first to discover him. As the detectives threaten to call Sweden to dig into the princess, Mantel, who has by now figured out Olga’s true persona, offers to reveal the murderer himself. He does not actually know the culprit, but figures the killer will come after him if he suggests having such information.

     The outcome, and the identity of the actual murderer, is quite a twist and surprise. What is not surprising is the “princess’s” revelation of her actual origins and declaration of love for the bandleader, which makes for a sweet ending.

     I never imagined I would see Lombard in a murder mystery. Although The Princess Comes Across has some laughs, none come from Lombard (mostly from Mantell’s sidekick played by William Frawley. The film on the whole is quite serious and balances the murder with romance. Some great lighting in murder-related scenes gives almost a noir look to some of the shots. Lombard does quite well with the Swedish accent, aloofness and continual use of “we” instead of “I”. She is very stunning in her princess-afforded fashions, and her pairing with MacMurray goes over much better in this flick compared to their previous encounter in Hands Across the Table.

Hands Across the Table

Gasser

Hands Across the Table (1935)

     Marriage for money. This was a typical theme of many classic romantic movies, which seems to suggest the practice was a common one back in the day. Typically a good-looking girl is angling to move herself out of the chorus and into a mansion, or individuals from once-wealthy families need to land rich spouses to maintain their way of life. Hands Across the Table has both.

     Carole Lombard is manicurist Regi Allen who dislikes a life of scraping to get by and wants to marry for money, not love. Working in a salon on the ground floor of a hotel, Regi is called to the suite of a wealthy, but wheel-chair bound gentleman Allen (Ralph Bellamy), whose mood is lifted for the first time in a long stretch by the girl’s mere presence. The two start a close friendship as she does his nails every day. She explains her desire for a profitable marriage, and Allen is clearly in love with her, but she does not seem to notice.

     Upon leaving his room one day, Regi runs into some dope playing hopscotch on the checkered floor tiles. She thinks him a buffoon, but he is immediately interested in the dame. The bloke turns out to be Theodore Drew III, played by Fred MacMurray, part of a wealthy family. He next requests a manicure from Regi in her shop, but she is so nervous upon learning who he is, that he leaves with half his fingers bandaged, this after securing a date with Regi for that night.

     While on the date, Regi learns Teddy is engaged to a wealthy pineapple heiress, a marriage he must secure because his family fortune has been lost. When a drunk Teddy passes out in their cab on the ride home, Regi is stuck storing him on a cot in her apartment for the night. When she returns home from work the next day, Teddy is still there (he had no cab fare) and because he missed his boat to Bermuda, persuades Regi to board him at her apartment until he is expected home to his fiancée. There is no chemistry between the two as both are in the same marriage-for-money boat, that is, until their last night together when the feelings rise to the surface and both try to get their head around whether to take the leap into a relationship doomed to working-class status.

     MacMurray was fairly young in Hands Across the Table as it was his second film. I’ve always found the actor to be a great comedian, but here he was funny at times but awkward the most. In the scene when Regi does Teddy’s nails, MacMurray whispers all kinds of funny lines, but watching I felt as uncomfortable as Lombard’s character shakily scrubbing away at his cuticles. His delivery improves as the film goes on, but I frankly was rooting more for Allen to land Regi rather than Teddy. Regi says multiple times that a union between the two would only end in them hating and resenting each other, which I think is unfortunately true. Like many movies, however, the action ends before we can see the unhappily ever after scenario that is more likely than the happy one. Still, this is far from a bad film. It is fun and romantic, if not unsatisfying in some terms.

  • Hands Across the Table is set for 10 p.m. ET Aug. 28 on TCM.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 508 other followers

%d bloggers like this: