The Gorgeous Hussy

Dullsville

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

It probably comes as no surprise that the star of a movie called The Gorgeous Hussy is Joan Crawford. I think the term hussy was probably used quite regularly to describe the star’s off-screen behavior, but the movie is not as scandalous as the title might suggest. This work of historical fiction is set in 1823 Washington D.C. and places Crawford’s hussy among several government notables of the time.

Crawford plays Peggy, daughter of an innkeeper in D.C. where several lawmakers stay while in the capitol. She has grown up around the men and so Virginia Sen. John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) has a hard time thinking of the girl as a woman. This reluctance causes him to spurn her when she enters his room late one night to declare her love.

The rejection leads Peggy to accept the advances of a sailor “Bow” Timberlake (Robert Taylor). The couple marries but Bow is called back to duty on the U.S.S. Constitution and dies before ever returning home.

Peggy has been good friends with Andrew (Lionel Barrymore) and Rachel Jackson (Beulah Bondi) for a number of years and begins to hang around with the politician up through a rough campaign for president, which he, of course, wins. The campaign involved a lot of gossip and harsh words against Rachel, who first married Andrew before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. With Jackson as president and Rachel having passed away, Peggy is in classy company but the rumors about her begin to mount.

Randolph returns to D.C. after five years in Russia and has resolved his feelings about Peggy to the point he does want to be with her, but the relationship will not last. Jackson objects to a union between the two and instead convinces Peggy to eventually wed Secretary of War John Eaton, played by Crawford’s one-time husband Franchot Tone. The rumors and “pot house Peg” references culminate in backlash from Jackson who asks his entire cabinet to resign because of their demands Peggy be sent away from Washington for the various scandals she has caused. Being the bigger person, Peggy bows out of the capitol scene.

I think filmmakers run a risk when inserting fictional characters into real historical situations. It is one thing to have fun with history and change aspects of real events for a laugh, but a drama in the same vein is not nearly as fun. If one ignores Crawford’s character in The Gorgeous Hussy, the movie does have some interesting historical aspects, such as the horrible mud that was slung at Rachel Jackson. The movie also becomes a bit predictable in terms of which relationships we know will be unsuccessful for Peggy, given that John Randolph never married someone with her name.

Crawford’s performance is fine, but uninspired. She is a woman with conflicting romantic emotions who is pursued or admired by nearly every man around her. We cannot, however, enjoy the movie as a “what might have been” romance between Peggy and Randolph given the historic requirements. I found it difficult to enjoy any of Peggy’s romantic interludes, which just added junk to what could have been a decent historical recollection of Jackson’s election.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Wowza!

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

Despite being such a great romantic lead, Cary Grant spent a portion of his career playing very convincing family men. Grant is probably the husband and father we all might prefer to have, as he often played these parts subtly fighting for his position as man of the house while still convincing the women around them that he revered them. In Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Grant takes charge of his family’s living circumstances only to be tripped up at every step along the way.

As Jim Blandings, Grant and his family live in a good-size apartment in New York City where he works in the advertising business. Despite living his whole life in the cramped metropolis, the man is starting to get fed up with sharing a tight bathroom with is wife Muriel, played by Myrna Loy, and the lack of closet space in part because of his two daughters. Seeing an ad promoting a country life in Connecticut, Jim makes up his mind to buy a home there instead of let his wife remodel the apartment for $7,000 on his $15,000 annual salary.

The city slickers get duped into buying a run-down “fixer upper” type home for $10,000 that has so many problems it ultimately must be demolished. The couple draw up plans for a new home with an excessive number of closets and bathrooms at a price tag of $11,000. Mishaps galore ensue that continually add to the cost of construction. The bills are driving Jim mad and the couple almost pulls out of the plan but a sketch of the proposed home is too perfect to walk away.

In the midst of this work is family friend and attorney Bill Cole, played by Melvyn Douglas. The man continually advises the family against their initial efforts but supports them regardless. In one scene when the skeleton of the home is in place, Jim and Muriel hear a pounding sound just after the workers have left the site. They ascend to the second floor where they find Bill had become locked in a closet and was there pounding a bucket against the floor. Mr. Blandings insists this special closet made just for him works perfectly. He goes in, closes the door, and comes out. Wanting to illustrate to Muriel the simplicity of an exit, he invites her in, and all three become trapped inside. Jim breaks the window in the small room to secure their freedom just as the door creaks open on its own.

As the hardships of homeownership surmount the family, Jim is struggling at work because of a new account for Wham brand ham. He spends a torturous night at the office trying to find a new slogan. Meanwhile, Bill has been forced to stay the night in the new home because bridge flooding has trapped him in Connecticut. The storm has also trapped the Blandings kids at a neighbor’s house. Muriel assures us from the get go we do not have to worry about an affair, but a jealous Jim is not so convinced in the morning. The house might cost Jim his job, send the family into bankruptcy and destroy a marriage, but the Blandings will endure.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House reminds me of The Money Pit that also dealt with a couple’s endeavors to repair an old house. The latter is the sort of movie that can be too frustrating for some people to watch. This classic, however, is more tolerable because it brings more heart and spots of happiness to the screen and drives its characters to a lower degree of madness.

The best part of the movie is the witty dialogue and wonderful acting by Grant, who brings back shades of the screwball era in which he prospered. Loy stands in as the ever-devoted wife, who is not beyond making a financial mistake here or there. Douglas is charming and has his fair share of comedic lines as he watches the mistakes of his friends bite them in the ass.

Mr. Blandings is certainly among my favorite Grant movies. It helps that Loy is there to back him up, but the man really stands out as the star of this comedy.

  • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is set for 8 p.m. ET Sept. 4 on TCM.

Feature: What to Watch Saturday–Ninotchka

Wowza!

Ninotchka (1939)

     It is possible that still to this day I would not have seen Ninotchka had it not been for its appearance on one of those lists of the best movies ever made or movies you have to see. I bought it as part of a Greta Garbo box set some time before that list crossed my path, a box set that seven years later still has several untouched DVDs. But I am lucky/glad the circumstances led me where they did because Ninotchka truly is one of the best pictures ever made.

     This Best Picture/Writing/Actress-nominated movie will play at noon ET Saturday as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. It might not have won in that oh-so-competitive year of 1939, but it has maintained a place in cinema history nevertheless.

     The tag line for the Ninotchka promotions was “Garbo laughs” because it was one of the few lighter roles she did in sound. When you start into the movie, however, you will be befuddled by that reference because as this Russian officer Ninotchka, Garbo fails to smile for the front third of the flick. The Swedish star plays the heavy who enters France to find out what is taking three bumbling Russian officials so long in selling some royal jewels. These Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) have discovered the wonders of a capitalistic society and all the luxuries it offers and are in no hurry to return home.

     Ninotchka will resist the lure of the romantic and decadent city of Paris even when she finds the kisses of Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, delightful. It is an absurd hat that will turn her, however, and when she breaks down into laughter, we know Mother Russia’s spell has been lifted.

     Ninotchka almost seems scandalous in how heavily Garbo’s character pushes the message of the evils of capitalism and the glory of communist Russia. One can forget all that, however, when the leading lady starts living life to our own delight. Garbo is so charming as the naive adult entering such a luscious society, but she also plays the brutally stoic role perfectly. Douglas, meanwhile, could not be more charming. I feel like as an actor he largely failed to make his mark or distinguish himself from the mass of similar leading men, but he really is swoon-worthy here. I find the duo particularly enthralling in a late-night scene in Leon’s apartment after “little father” the butler has been sent home. Garbo’s growling of “again” as a request for another kiss is hilarious, endearing and unexpected all at once.

     And if you have never heard of Ninotchka and the title has you bewildered in terms of pronunciation, no worries. By the end of the picture you too will be shouting “Ninotchka, Ninotchka, Ninotchka!” and possibly asking your significant other to “salute”.

     It might be worth noting on a down point that Ninotchka was remade into the 1957 musical Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. My first disappointment with that film is that it did not actually feature the jazz standard “Silk Stockings”. Secondly, it is a tragic disappointment story and performance-wise when compared with its origin movie.

Salute!

 

Fast and Loose

Ring a Ding Ding

Fast and Loose (1939)

      The success of The Thin Man movies clearly proved that audiences did not need a blossoming romance tacked onto their mystery thrillers and that a devoted husband-wife set up was just as appealing. A trilogy of “Fast” movies were the result in 1938 and 1939 as MGM sought to capitalize on the complaint that too much time elapsed between the release of each Thin Man picture. 

     Fast and Loose starring Robert Mongtomery and Rosalind Russell was the second of three films featuring mystery-solving booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane; however, each film featured different stars in those roles. For the first, Fast Company, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice filled the parts. The last, Fast and Furious, featured Franchot Tone and Ann Southern as our married sleuths. I have not seen the other two flicks, and while I think the leading men in all three would be great as Joel, I do believe I picked the best actress to play the devoted wife.

     Montgomery’s Joel is very much like Nick Charles in his reluctance to engage in crime solving using his extensive powers of rare book knowledge. In Fast and Loose he is unaware he will be engaged in such crime-solving until he is knee-deep in trouble. The Sloanes visit rare book collector Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) to broker a deal for a absent-minded grocer who seeks to purchase a rare Shakespeare manuscript from the cash-strapped man. The couple stay in the house overnight when Joel is alerted to a crash that turns out to be someone knocking out family friend Vincent Charlton (Reginald Owen), who was examining the manuscript in the dark at the house safe. The manuscript is found nearby but the question of forgery starts to surface as we learn the Torrent librarian has a prison record related to forgery. Next, Nicholas Torrent is murdered at his desk and Joel finds himself an on-and-off suspect in the case all while trying to solve it himself.

      The difficulty comes in the mass amount of suspicious characters. Joel’s friend Phil (Anthony Allan) who is secretly dating the Torrent daughter, seems rather shady and possibly in cahoots with the Torrent son Gerald, played by Tom Collins. Meanwhile, Gerald makes contact with a “hussy” –as Garda calls her– and the gambling joint owner with whom she pals around. The librarian with a felony record, who has disappeared, looks like the sure culprit, but he is later found stuffed into a suit of armor, dead. Joel’s meddling also earns him a nudge off the roadway by another car, driven by goons of the gambling heavy, and he begins to worry about his wife’s safety. In true Nora Charles fashion, however, Garda is a tough broad who talks big and enjoys watching her husband sock the bad guys.

     I typically complain in films like this that there are too many characters to keep track of and remember their names, which can make figuring out the story rather difficult (ala The Big Sleep). Fast and Loose did a fantastic job, however, of making clear the names of each character so when they are referenced later I could understand about whom they were speaking. This is also a nearly impossible mystery to crack, but we thankfully get a summary of the events at the close of the film with the revelation of the murderer, a technique also employed in The Thin Man.

     Montgomery makes a great detective. He would further prove this when he directed his own Lady in the Lake years later, playing a full-blown private eye. The man has never had trouble on the charm front and proceeds through his mystery-solving work with all the ease of a pro. Russell is very enjoyable as the loving sidekick. She is quite down to earth while fitting in with the lofty society in whose company the couple finds itself. The two leads also have good chemistry. They seem like a comfortable married couple and the romantic basis of their relationship comes to the surface each time Garda becomes jealous of the company her husband keeps.

     As long as one does not compare Fast and Loose too closely to The Thin Man, a marvelous time is sure to be had. One would not think the subject of rare books could work as the backdrop for a thrilling murder mystery, but it does. Who knew a person could take a background in manuscript sales and use it to work as a police consultant? Only in the movies, I suppose.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 508 other followers

%d bloggers like this: