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Feature: Late Summer Reading

I might have a backwards way of selecting my literature. Whereas the modern reader is apt to watch a movie because he liked the book that inspired it, I, on the other hand, am searching out reading material based on movies I enjoy. People often say the books are better than the movies in most of these circumstances, so perhaps my approach will result in the discovery of great books.

The novels I have recently been hunting are based on movies I have here blogged about: Piccadilly Jim and The Saint series. I have been most optimistic about locating the former, as it seems to be available to a degree online. The latter I have held little hope for because the series of stories seems to be out of print, largely, though also sporadically available online.

During this past week and a half while on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, I stopped in every bookstore I came across to inquire about these items. All returned negative results except one. Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, might be the largest such retailer in the country. It occupies one square block and at least three stories of retail space. I asked the man at the desk about “Piccadilly Jim” and was told it was not in stock but to otherwise checkout the impressive P.G. Wodehouse collection. I did so, was impressed, and had a last minute impulse to check alphabetically on the chance the title I sought was there. Indeed it was, to my vast excitement!

I then took it upon myself to look up “The Saint” books by Leslie Charteris. The computer said at least one was available, but to my surprise, a whole shelf was lined with a variety in the series. Unable to properly choose where to begin, I selected the four hard covers in stock (to my pocketbook’s dismay). They include the first in the series, “Meet the Tiger”, a version printed in 1940.

I’ve already delved into “Piccadilly Jim” and am finding it wildly different from the movie version starring Robert Montgomery. Some of the changes made for the movie I perceive to be a means to play to the actors’ strengths, such as by altering Eugenia from a strong wife into a ditzy wife-prospect under her sisters thumb, ala Billie Burke. I also recently caught a few moments of a modern movie of the story that had me utterly confused because it differed so much from what I recalled of the Montgomery version. I think in actuality it is more true to the novel.

So my love of Wodehouse is being furthered through this new find and I can’t wait to delicately make my way through the ancient hardcover Saint books. Hunting for a piece of literature history is certainly more thrilling than picking up a readily available classic at Barnes and Noble. Hooray for independently owned bookstores!

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Forsaking All Others

Gasser

Forsaking All Others (1934)

     I think we all remember Joan Crawford for the roles in which she played commanding women, perhaps because she was one off screen, but when she was still fiddling about with basic romantic comedies, she was not foreign to the lovesick-gal-chasing-after-a-lover-type roles, as was her part in a well cast Forsaking All Others. Here we also find Clark Gable in a role we will not remember him for because he takes the part of a man regimented to best friend status as he pines for the girl set to marry the third member of the trio. In that third role, Robert Montgomery does shine forth in his standard a-cad-that-one-can’t-help-but-love character.

     Crawford as Mary is readying herself for tomorrow’s wedding ceremony with childhood friend Dillon (Montgomery). Making the occasion complete is the return of Jeff (Gable) –another childhood friend– from Spain who arrives ready to propose to the young woman until he learns the “joyous” news of the impending marriage. During what should have been a bachelor dinner, Dill instead gets held up by his last girlfriend Connie (Frances Drake) and the man never shows. Dill also fails to show at the church the next day, and Jeff eventually receives a cable indicating the groom has instead married his ex.

     To get away from the embarrassment, Mary heads off to a cabin in the New York wilderness. When Jeff visits with her mail, she finds she is invited to a party hosted by Dill and Connie –an attempt by the latter to upset the jilted bride. To prove her recovery from her last relationship, Mary attends, with Jeff on her arm. It is at the party that Dill discovers ashamedly his wife’s evil plot and confesses his enduring love for Mary. The two attempt to take up an affair and head out on a fun-filled adventure into the country to what would have been their honeymoon house. The trip is marked by comedic disasters and the couple are rained into the house for the night, but Mary refuses to go to bed with the man. Connie seeks a divorce because of the seeming infidelity and the story comes full circle to the wedding of Mary and Dill, at least momentarily.

     All characters in Forsaking All Others are likeable, even Montgomery whose Dill cannot seem to synch his physical and emotional impulses with his own logic. The story does a great job of convincing us that Mary wants no one but Dill and so should we root for their reunion even if Jeff has stood by as the more sympathetic male lead. Gable wears his emotions on his face for the camera while concealing them from the other characters, which is not something we often see with him. The Jeff character is also joined by comedic sidekick Shep (Charles Butterworth) who lends much of the comic relief and witty dialogue. Billie Burke is also on hand as a woman who considers Mary her daughter and is intertwined in all the rumblings.

     Forsaking All Others is nothing special in the realm of romantic comedies, nor in the careers of its players, but it is a delightfully enchanting love story that will give one the warm fuzzies, if that’s what is sought in a movie.

Dinner at Eight

Ring a Ding Ding

Dinner at Eight (1934)

     I did not know going into Dinner at Eight just how depressing it was going to be. The presence of Jean Harlow and Billie Burke in particular among the all-star cast had me expecting a comedy, as it seems dinner-centered movies are apt to be. But the meal in this flick does not materialize until after the picture’s close, so the story instead follows the events that lead up to it.

     Besides Burke’s character of Mrs. Millicent Jordan, who is the dinner’s hostess, none of the characters’ stories have anything to do with the affair, other than that they are all set to attend it. Set in the heart of the depression, we watch sadly as all suffer their personal disasters. Millicent’s husband Oliver, played by Lionel Barrymore, owns a shipping company that will cancel its first voyage because it carries too little cargo to be worthwhile. He has solicited the help of the prosperous Larry Packard (Wallace Beery) and asks him to hold some company stock until a loan can be repaid. Also in town from England is the down-and-out stage actress Carlotta (Marie Dressler), with whom Oliver was once in love and still admires. She holds some of the company stock and wants to unload it because of her own financial troubles, but Oliver begs her not to for fear of losing control of the firm.

     Millicent has meanwhile invited Packard and his floozy wife Kitty (Harlow) to the dinner at her husband’s request and in needing to fill some empty seats. Kitty pounces on the opportunity to schmooze with classy people, while Packard only agrees because the dinner is being thrown for an influential English couple. Kitty is having an affair with a Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) whose wife, we discover, knows of his indiscretions. The couple are also attending the meal. Lastly, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans) will be joined by her fiancée at the occasion but is secretly in love with an actor more than twice her age: John Barrymore‘s Larry Renault. This drunkard is trying to make a go at stage performing because the advent of sound has made him undesirable in Hollywood. He learns, however, that his career is essentially ended.

     Although some of the characters’ affairs overlap, all their plights are separate. Despite a love for Larry being Paula’s trouble in the face of a forthcoming wedding, Larry’s problems are totally absent the girl. Possibly the only person not facing doom is Harlow as Kitty. She merely sees the dinner as a social step-ladder and she has not yet learned the doctor is returning his devotion to his wife. Kitty quarrels and physically fights with her husband but is confident that a cushy future awaits her.

     Dinner at Eight did lend itself to three particular comedic moments. Just after Millicent learns the important English dinner guests will not be attending, daughter Paula tries to confess her decision to break the engagement for her actor lover and husband Oscar says he is not feeling well (he is dying) and wishes to rest as the others go to the theater. Millicent flies into a frenzy as she shouts about how no ones troubles are as bad as hers, given the aspic has been destroyed, one servant in jail the other in the hospital, and the guest list is now two people short of a traditional party. The other two laughs come from Harlow. Once at the party, the guests awkwardly speak about their like or dislike for Florida. Kitty says she cannot lay out in the sun because of sensitive skin and never exposes that skin then turns away from the camera displaying a totally bare back. Just prior to the film’s close, we get this exchange:

Kitty: I was reading a book the other day.
Carlotta: (Shocked, stopping in her steps) Reading a book??
Kitty: Yes. It’s all about civilization or something. A nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy says that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?
Carlotta: Oh, my dear. That’s something you need never worry about.

Carlotta’s suggestion is pretty blatant, and serves to end the movie on a positive note as all individuals funnel into the dining hall, laughing and in good spirits.

     Dinner at Eight, based on George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, is such a tragic collection of stories that portray the various impacts of the Great Depression. Particularly, this story highlights the fall of successful and wealthy individuals who have never known dire straits. Although it is not a pick-me-up, Dinner at Eight offers fantastic performances by all involved. Of particular note are both Barrymores: Lionel as a gaunt, dying man and John as an arrogant alcoholic. Burke also lends occasional comedic relief as the energetic party planner and is most endearing.

  • Dinner at Eight is set for 6 p.m. ET Nov. 9 on TCM.

Piccadilly Jim

Ring a Ding Ding

Piccadilly Jim (1936)

     I was nearly jumping for joy last week upon discovering the movie Piccadilly Jim because not only does it star love-of-my-life Robert Montgomery but it is based on a P.G. Wodehouse story, an author I greatly admire and one capable of cute romance with an abundance of witty dialogue.

     Montgomery plays the title character whose real name is Jim Crocker. Piccadilly Jim is the pen name he uses for his political cartoons published in an English newspaper. Despite being American, Jim resides in England and enjoys a life of too much drinking and too little work. When his butler Bayliss, expertly played by Eric Blore, wakes Jim at the “crack of dusk”, he is informed his father is awaiting an audience with the party boy. The relationship between Jim and father James (Frank Morgan) is a comical reversal on the typical father-son set-up. James is there to ask for his son’s help/approval in marrying a woman. Because this father –a Shakespearean actor who continually has his quotes completed by Bayliss– is less well off than his son, he needs the financial and phony prestige his son presents to convince his girlfriend’s sister that he is a decent mate who can put up a dowry.

     The woman in question Eugenia, played by Billie Burke –for those Wizard of Oz fans, you will note this is a coupling of Glinda and the Wizard– and her sister’s family is a set of wealthy Americans who made their millions through a process to turn cloth scraps back into standard material. The meeting between Eugenia’s family, the Petts, and Jim does not go over well, however. Not only is he late, but they discover that despite James’ description of his son as a serious artist, he is in fact a lowly cartoonist. Not only that, but he has been fired from his job.

     What ultimately results in the Pett’s  rejection of James as a suitable husband leads Jim to develop a comic strip based on the family called “Rags to Riches” and makes fools out of the Petts, or Richwitches as they are known in the strip. The family is oblivious, however, because they are back in the U.S. and the comic runs only in England.

     While all the father drama is occurring, Jim has spotted a beautiful American girl who happens to be seeing a Lord Priory (Ralph Forbes), but that does nothing to dampen Jim’s determination to land her. The girl, Ann (Madge Evans), is willing to accept the man’s advances, but is devoted to her current beau. Jim spends several months frequenting the places he had seen Ann and does not learn until months later she had been in America, but is back in town again. The trouble is, Ann is niece to the Petts and that family’s return to England has brought with it many a jeering and cackling onlooker who recognizes the family as the Richwitches. Jim manages to conceal from Ann that he is Piccadilly Jim as he spends the remainder of the story trying to woo her away from a profitable but loveless marriage to Priory.

     My only complaint about Piccadilly Jim is that it did not contain enough of the Wodehouse-esqe dialogue I would expect from one of his stories. Every now and then I could spot a fast-paced or otherwise dryly hilarious string of phrases, but otherwise it did not necessarily feel like his type of story. What I did enjoy immensely was seeing Montgomery in a romantic role again. It seems I have subjected myself mainly to his war and otherwise nonsexual roles as of late. The romantic plot is certainly very adorable and is the rare time Montgomery plays a man genuinely in love, rather than a cad looking for another fling.

     The story on the whole is full of laughs. Eric Blore, who often plays a servant or other nervous character, was perfect as the butler, and Frank Morgan garnered the usual laughs, especially as he masquerades as a Russian count. The Pett family also has a young boy, Ogden (Tommy Bupp), who spews nonstop snarky lines, trips unsuspecting strangers, and draws mustaches on marble busts and antique portraits. I had a lot of fun with Piccadilly Jim  and highly recommend it.

Everybody Sing

Ring a Ding Ding

Everybody Sing (1938)

I think I am pretty safe in saying if often takes actors that will become big stars a few years before they start appearing in highly entertaining productions. Judy Garland, who was recognized pretty quickly by MGM executive Louis B. Mayer as a goldmine, surprised me with Everybody Sing, which is a musical that not only contains a really entertaining cast and script but fantastic musical numbers as well.

By the time this film was released in 1938, Garland had three others under her belt, although those include Broadway Melody of 1938 (released in 1937), which featured Judy in a very small role, and Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, which I have previously reviewed as a mediocre spot for the youth. Everybody Sing was a great step forward as it offered the leading role to the teenager and would be followed in the same year by Garland’s first Andy Hardy movie and then another sour production in Listen, Darling.

What is most resounding about Everybody Sing is surely the cast. Garland as Judy Bellaire is mothered by Billie Burke who would become Glinda in Wizard of Oz, fathered by Reginald Owen, lives with maid Olga, played by Fanny Brice, and is friends with Allan Jones‘ Ricky Saboni. Judy is expelled from her girl’s school after being caught jazzing up some tunes in her vocal class, but when she returns home the girl is unable to get a word in edgewise to inform her self-centered family of the trouble. The father is a play writer, the mother is an actress who gets her current production’s lines mixed in with her personal dialogue, and her sister is absorbed in singing lessons and secret boyfriend/house cook Ricky. Only Olga and Ricky will hear of her trouble.

When Judy discovers that Ricky makes his real living singing at a restaurant, she immediately gets herself on stage and is adored by the audience. The family, however, is rather set on sending Judy to Europe to straighten her out and keep her away from the performing profession in which the rest of the family engages. Judy conspires with a voyage-mate, however, to have pre-written postcards mailed at each destination on the trip while she ducks off the boat and proceeds to live a secret life performing at the restaurant. A regrettable blackface performance ensues as part of this process.

In the midst of all this, Ricky struggles to maintain a romantic relationship with Judy’s sister, Sylvia (Lynn Carver), who has falsely gotten herself engaged to her mother’s stage partner Jerrold (Reginald Gardiner) to split up whatever romantic entanglement might be occurring there. Ultimately, all is resolved and the film closes on a major musical revue backed by Ricky himself and staring Judy and even the maid, Olga.

The Bellaire family reminded me very much of the Bullocks of My Man Godfrey except this bunch is theatrically inclined as a profession, not as a mere part of their insanity. The poor servants struggle to do their duties while dealing with their masters’ eccentricities. For instance, Olga desperately seeks to discover how many individuals will be staying for dinner because she has only four squab she must divide among what turn out to be seven eaters. Ultimately, the family gets spaghetti.

I had never seen Brice in a film before, although I recently watched Funny Girl starring Barbra Streisand, which is about Brice’s career and marriage, although a largely fictionalized account. The resemblance between Brice’s actual acting and the performance of Streisand is pretty strikingly similar. Although I found Brice to be quite comical and much like a female Chico Marx –although with a Russian rather than Italian accent in this case– she could get to be a bit obnoxious after a while. Still, I’m glad to have finally seen the comedienne first hand.

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