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Side Show

Dullsville side show

It seems rare that a really good movie comes out of a story about a travelling circus. The Greatest Show on Earth did it with aplomb, but monstrosities such as Berserk and I’m No Angel leave much to be desired. Then there are the horror movies, such as Freaks,  that achieved their aim well but certainly strayed from the joy we are supposed to associate with circuses. Add to the list of disappointments today’s review: Side Show.

Starring Winnie Lightner as Pat, the jack of all trades at the circus, the story follows the lives of circus sideshow employees as they travel among several towns. The movie only depicts the sideshows –those acts happening outside the big top in the open air and smaller tents of their own. Pat, who resembles a female Karl Malden, displays her important role among the cast of characters when she talks down the drunken owner of the circus, Pop Gowdy (Guy Kibbee). Finances are tight for the circus and some members of the crew aren’t being paid on time.

Pat is in love with Joe (Donald Cook), the “barker” who goes around shouting at patrons to view this or that act. It is clear, however, that Joe does not care as intensely for Pat, despite his promise of love. When Pat’s younger and more beautiful sister Irene (Evalyn Knapp) visits, Joe gropes her while “guessing” her weight before knowing who she is. The attraction is imminent, and Irene wants to stay on with the circus despite Pat’s wishes.

Pat is pretty naive of the budding romance –having hidden her relationship with Joe from her sister– and inadvertently advances it. She sends Irene off alone with Joe to distract him while she arranges a big birthday event. When the duo fail to return in time to see any of the festivities, she is sorely disappointed. It looks like Joe might end up marrying Irene, but he returns to Pat in the end.

The central plot of Side Show is the recounting of a troubled romance with a happy ending. The problem is at no point do we think Joe truly loves Pat enough to marry her. Nor can we picture Lightner as a very good romantic object. She is masculine both in look and in personality –basically running the circus. I found all of the characters difficult to sympathize with.

Adding some light to the cast is Charles Buttersworth who is just another hand at the circus. He is full of one liners, that although they get old, at least add some entertainment value to the movie. His character continually professes his love and desire to marry Pat, and frankly, I would have been happier seeing the woman choose him in the end –if that tells you anything about Cook.

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Feature: Caught in the ‘Tender Trap’

TCM will be playing one of my favorite Sinatra movies this weekend, The Tender Trap. The story is a cute comedy about perpetual bachelor Sinatra and the young woman who ensnares him for domestic life —Debbie Reynolds. The song “The Tender Trap” refers to “love” being the tender trap, but the movie is about marriage being that fate. For that reason I thought the movie a fitting title to use for part of the engagement photos Ryan and I had done last August at an old movie theater in Bexley, Ohio. I convinced the staff to change the marquis for us and below is the result. I couldn’t help but share it!

We’re getting married this October and are planning several Art Deco and movie elements to the festivities, which I’m sure you will appreciate, so I might be sharing more details in the future. Tender TrapPhoto by Chantal Stone Photography

Feature: 31 Days of Oscar

Each February I look forward to Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar and the opportunity it affords me in terms of completing my viewing of all Best Picture-winning movies. But TCM does not make its schedule around Best Picture winners, instead showing nominees and winners in other, sometimes obscure, categories.

I’m not opposing the channel’s approach; however, this year’s lineup provides only three of the handful of movies on my list that need checking off: The Life of Emile Zola, Cimarron, and The Deer Hunter.

I regrettably realized that as many as four of the other movies unchecked on my list are in DVD form on my shelf at home, having been long-ago purchases of my fiance’s. Perhaps this will be the year I tackle those. One can hope!

In the meantime, if you are looking for some insight into winners in the top Academy Award category, consult my list and follow the links to the variety of them that have been already reviewed here. Happy Oscar Season!

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.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies

Gasser

Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960)

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)

I have never really loved Doris Day as an actress and so do not often seek out her movies. In Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, however, she is ideally cast and stellar in her part. I think the star sort of grew into her attractiveness, as I tend to find her on the frumpy side in her earlier roles. In this flick, she is both sexy and a mother, a part that suited her well on screen at a time when she was reigning at the box office.

Day is Kate, mother of four and married to David Niven‘s Larry, all of whom live in an apartment in New York City. With all boys, Kate has perfected the art of child wrangling, thanks in part to a literal baby cage for the youngest. Larry has just left his position as a drama professor to become a prestige dramatic critic. The man promises his students upon his departure that he will not become like the other handful of critics who relish in the opportunity to tear apart a production because of the literary and comedic opportunities it affords.

The first play on Larry’s docket is one produced by his friend Alfred North (Richard Haydn) that happens to be horrible, a circumstance exacerbated by a sexy leading lady “who is no actress.” Alfred is very upset with Larry –as he expresses at the family’s kitchen table the next morning– and the actress is even more incensed. This Deborah Vaughn (Janis Paige) slaps Larry while he is out to dinner with Kate, and does so a second time for the camera.

The additional publicity leads Larry to write a column about how the show’s success is dependent on Deborah’s rear end. Not too much later, while at a party at which Kate finds herself exceptionally bored, Deborah sidles in to give Larry a glance and a chance to reconsider the value of her back side. From here a “friendship” forms between the feuding duo and Deborah begins her attempts to seduce the loyal husband.

In the midst of Larry’s success and transition into a writer of scathing reviews and attendee of snobbish parties, the couple are reminded of their intent to move to a home in the country. The transition comes rather forcefully when they are notified a new tenant will occupy their apartment in a matter of weeks because they indicated their intention some months ago not to renew. Larry is resistant to leaving the city because of the social status he has achieved, but the family nevertheless selects a dilapidated mansion in a small town.

Larry and Kate’s relationship is strained by the commute to and from the city for Larry’s work and the constant state of construction the home presents. Larry’s time away is regularly spent with Deborah.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is based on a book by Jean Kerr about her life with her husband Walter and their move to a suburban locale. Similar moves were becoming a trend for many families in the 1960s, so the subject material was apt. Although very amusing, the movie really could have been split into two –one about the strains on a marriage when the husband becomes consumed by fame and the desire to make people laugh and one about the strains on a marriage of moving to a suburban locale while maintaining a life in the city. In fact, the subject of moving to the country is mentioned at the beginning of the film and then not acted on until halfway through the picture at which point we have nearly forgetten about that conversation.

While Day is quite delightful as a capable mother and boy wrangler, deriving plenty of laughs from her interaction with the children, Niven is stiff. He is a suitable dramatic critic and pulls off the transition into an ass well, but his performance makes him quite unlikable in stark contrast to Day. I have never particularly loved Niven in comedies, as he relies on witty dialogue to drive the humor rather than any physical or facial affectations. But that is not to say the role of Larry did not necessarily call for someone on the straight-man side of things, he just does not become someone we root for.

Day managed to fit in a couple songs in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies despite it not being a musical. She throws in a few lines of “Que Sara, Sara” that she popularized in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and sings a song, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, while playing with children in a school yard. The title pertains to a scene in which one of the boys takes off with a bouquet of daisies and we later learn he ate them. The movie was also the last for actress Spring Byington, who plays Kate’s mother.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

City Lights

Wowza!

City Lights (1931)

City Lights (1931)

Only Charlie Chaplin could make a hit out of a silent movie after the transition to sound. City Lights was his first movie since talkies were invented. They had become the norm by 1929, but despite pressures to convert his flick to include audible dialogue, the star stuck to what he knew. Owning the studio helped Chaplin get his way and also gave him the freedom to do what he wished with his films and take his time in producing them.

The movie is not without some sound of its own, however. It had a recorded soundtrack –composed by Chaplin– that also includes sound effects. Poking fun at talking pictures, Chaplin employed saxophones to stand in for the speaking voices of two characters who are unveiling a statue. When the Tramp swallows a whistle, the soundtrack includes the tweeting it makes with every breath. Gunshots and the bell at a boxing ring are also incorporated into the prerecorded sound.

In City Lights, the Tramp constructs his adventure around a blind flower sales girl and a drunken millionaire. The man meets the girl (Virginia Cherrill) peddling flowers on the corner and is instantly in love. Later, the Tramp interrupts an “Eccentric Millionaire” (Harry Myers) as he prepares to drown himself. The Tramp tries to stop the drunken man from throwing in the river a large rock tied to a rope connected to the man’s neck. He fails and the two end up in the water and out and back in.

Now fast friends, the Millionaire and Tramp return to the wealthy man’s home and do some additional drinking. When the morning arrives, they are still drunk and the man tells the Tramp he may have his car. He also provides him with $10 to buy flowers from his sweetheart. After buying out her stock, the Tramp drives the blind girl home, leading her to conclude he must be rich. When the girl becomes ill and unable to work, the Tramp secures a job to help make her well. He visits her regularly when her grandmother is not home, and one day discovers without a $22 payment, the women will be evicted from their home.

The Tramp is able to secure $1,000 from his wealthy friend –who does not care for him when he is sober– but a snobbish butler (Allan Garcia), two thieves and the police send the Tramp on the run. The romantic nevertheless gets the money to his love and tells her to pay the rent and get her eyesight fixed with the remainder. He next goes to jail.

The ending of City Lights is one of the most touching endings to a film in movie history. In quite the contrast to the comedy of the rest of the picture, I became a bit choked up at the sweetly romantic final moments. The girl, now seeing and running a flower shop, runs into the Tramp and recognizes him by the feel of his hands. Chaplin affects the most adorable visage as he nervously faces the love of his life after so long apart. He says “You can see now?” She responds, “Yes, I can see now.” The double meaning is all we get to assure us that the girl is not offput by the dilapidated duds worn by our hero. As the viewer, we find ourselves as nervous as the Tramp in wondering what she will think.

Chaplin is a fantastic actor particularly in those closing, serious moments. All of a sudden the mood is changed and we’re grinning ear-to-ear for a reason other than laughter. The Tramp’s confidence is shattered outside the safety of the girl’s inability to see him, but his fictional wealth is no longer something she needs. Cherrill is even better than Chaplin. Throughout the picture she plays a convincing blind girl, but her power is shown best also in that end scene. She plays all the right emotions on her face so that we can understand what is occurring through the very little dialogue we have to explain it. Cherrill, unfortunately, did not make many more movies (but she married Cary Grant).

I don’t think I need to tell you City Lights is also full of laughs. Chaplin uses his physical prowess to construct some terribly amusing scenes. Best of all is a perfectly choreographed boxing match during which the Tramp hides behind the referee.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

Wowza!

The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.
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