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Little Women (1949)

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Little Women (1949)

      Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women” has found its way onto the big screen at least five times since the creation of motion pictures and we have probably not seen the last of it. Although I have seen three of these, I cannot quite decide which is the best of them. The 1949 version starring June Allyson differentiates itself in some ways from the other versions and in particular expands the part belonging to Elizabeth Taylor.

     In this Little Women Taylor plays Amy, who at 12 is the youngest of the March sisters in the book and in other incarnations of the movie. But at 17, Taylor’s already voluptuous body belies the youngest character’s age and visually appears to be the second-youngest sister. Beth, who is meant to be the second youngest sister, is played by Margaret O’Brien who was five years younger than Taylor. The choice of Taylor as Amy is logical in that she is meant to be the daintiest and grow to be the prettiest of the March girls, but the dying of her hair blonde does not favor the actress whose dark eyebrows defy her hairstyle.

     We all know that the story creates a deep friendship between main character Jo (Allyson) and neighbor Laurie (Peter Lawford) that essentially ends with Jo’s rejection of his marriage proposal. Amy then is meant to grow into a lovely young woman who captures Laurie’s fancy and becomes his wife. The downside to Taylor’s presence here is that Laurie could just have easily fallen for her at the film’s start as later on as her appearance changes only in the slightly finer clothing she dons.

     But moving away from the, perhaps, annoyance that is Taylor in Little Women, Allyson must be applauded for her fantastic portrayal of tomboy Jo, who is ever after equality for women. Her boldness ignites the friendship with Laurie who has moved in with his wealthy grandfather in the home next door. We see a lot of Laurie, more than in other movie versions, as he lets no class boundaries block his relationship with the girls and Jo in particular. His grandfather, Laurence Sr. (C. Aubrey Smith), is also quickly repainted from a grumpy old man to a generous friend who gives Beth his piano and supports the family through the girl’s illnesses.

     I perhaps never found it more heart wrenching than when Winona Ryder‘s Jo rejects the proposal from Christian Bale‘s Laurie in the 1994 Little Women. I did not experience the same emotion in the 1949 version. I would not say that Allyson nor Lawford poorly acted their parts but perhaps Jo is so masculine here that it is hard to imagine her as a marriage candidate. I typically also find myself heartbroken in watching other versions when Jo goes on to fall in love with the German she meets in New York, but I did not feel that way in this instance. This Professor Bhaer, although played by the Italian Rossano Brazzi, is handsome enough and affectionate enough to warm us to him as Jo’s suitor.

     Also joining the cast is Mary Astor as mother Marmee who is thankfully in few scenes as she brings little to the part and at times delivers the dialogue poorly. Janet Leigh plays oldest sister Meg and is appropriately polite and beautiful in her role. Despite the great cast, Allyson really stands as the best part, as well she should. This might not be the best filmed version of Little Women but it is nevertheless entertaining.

  • Little Women is set for 3:45 a.m. ET Sept. 8 on TCM.
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Morning Glory

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Morning Glory (1933)

     I am a little puzzled by 1933’s Morning Glory. It was the source of Katharine Hepburn‘s first Oscar win, but the film itself is quite underwhelming and borderline bad. I also perceive this as something that had Hepburn done it later in her career, the Academy would not even have sniffed in her direction come awards season.

     Hepburn is Eva Lovelace, a young woman from a small town in Vermont who seeks a career on the New York stage. She received positive reviews in small productions at home and is highly convinced of her talents, if only she could get a break. Eva is also supremely talkative. She makes fast friends with an older actor while in the office of a Broadway producer and before he can get a work in edgewise demands he give her speaking lessons for free until she can afford to pay for them. This man, R.H. Hedges (C. Aubrey Smith) introduces the girl to the producer Louis Easton, played by Adolphe Menjou, and a playwriter Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Before departing the office where she is told there are not parts for her, Eva walks right into Easton’s office and says her farewells to the bigwig and Joseph.

     We jump to some months later when Hedges finds Eva in a diner drinking coffee, clearly her only sustenance for the day. She’s wearing the same dress we saw before but claims that she has been in and out of work on the stage. Apparently, Easton had given her a try in a small role in which she failed “to make good.” Hedges ends up taking the young woman to a party at Easton’s home where guests are celebrating the successful debut of a play written by Joseph. At this party, Eva gets drunk before fatherly figures Easton and Hedges can get a plate of food to her and while out of sight from Joseph, who has clearly taken a shine to the girl. Once sauced, Eva pets Easton’s head, puts on two Shakespearean performances and passes out at the producer’s feet. A servant is instructed to put Eva in “the” bed.

     In the morning, Easton reveals to Joseph he has “gotten involved” with a girl and needs his pal to deliver a note or possibly an envelope of money to the dame. When Joseph learns the chick is Eva, he is upset and tells Easton of his feelings. Coming down from her slumber, the aspiring actress talks to Joseph about her ambitions for a happy, successful life with Easton before departing.

     Next up is a montage of some small-town productions to which Eva has been relegated because of her Broadway failures. Somehow, however, she has also been cast in a bit-part for Joseph’s new show. When the leading lady (Mary Duncan) makes severe contract demands before the curtain opens on the first show, she is ousted and Joseph puts Eva in, where she gives a roaringly good performance. The movie concludes with Hedges and Easton warning the girl not to be a “morning glory” that fades away quickly after coming into the spotlight. Joseph then declares his love, but Eva does not want it. The scene fades out on Eva yelling how she is not afraid to be a morning glory and will spend all her money on extravagant things.

     Hopefully I conveyed in my synopsis the sort of sloppiness of this story. Firstly, I found it bizarre how a Broadway producer would behave so caringly for some nobody actress, hundreds of which pass through his office daily. Most theater-based movies depict the lofty producer to which no one can get close enough for a chance. Here, Menjou comes off as a man unnaturally fatherly toward what seems to be a talentless child. Unlike most movies about girls looking to become stage stars, Eva does not show promise or make a smash right off, which makes it also unlikely that the characters would keep giving her chances or thinking she has something in her. As for the closing sequence with congratulations being overshadowed by stern warnings not to quickly become a has-been, well that was harsh. And Hepburn’s declaration that she will be frivolous with her fame is also a what-the-hell moment. The romantic plot with Fairbanks is also poorly conveyed. We know right off he will love Eva because that’s just what happens in these movies, but one never really feels like anything solid exists there.

     Morning Glory was Hepburn’s fourth film, although it was released with two others in her second year in Hollywood, so she did well to take an Oscar so early. She also won critical acclaim for Little Women and Christopher Strong that year. Her performance here is a good one and highlights how different she was from other actresses with her funny voice and unique face. There were only two other nominees in the Best Actress category this year, but because I have not seen Lady for a Day or Cavalcade, I cannot surmise why Hepburn might have beat out the other two. Hepburn certainly gave grander performances down the road that make Morning Glory look like nothing special, but as a new star on the scene, I can understand why Hollywood was mesmerised.

Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry

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Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)

     Some movies are more important for their meaning in cinema history than for their actual stories or performances. I would say Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry falls into that category as it was the first pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, a couple who would do 10 pictures total together. MGM spotted as soon as filming started the great appeal of the two together, and all of their follow-up roles together would be for that studio.

     The Garland-Rooney headliner films include most of the Andy Hardy movies in which, much as in real life, Judy would play the girl next door who cannot seem to draw the romantic attention of Mickey who was the real focus of those movies. Rooney and Garland knew each other before doing Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, however. They attended the same acting school for kids in Hollywood. Garland was 15 in this film, Rooney 17, and she was still in an awkward phase of adolescence that presented problems for Louis B. Mayer who had hired her to an MGM contract. She was stuck in between cute kid and sexy young adult, which resulted in her sitting on the shelf for a while before the studio could figure out how to use her. Mayer also had the MGM commissary on strict rules to only feed her chicken broth because her favor for sweets had her figure anything but curvy, as one can see in this film. Mayer would also put Garland on diet pills, which combined with her mother’s regiment of uppers to make her shine in auditions (started at age 9, I believe) and downers to get her to sleep, could be blamed as the groundwork for her lifelong pill addiction.

     Returning to the movie, Rooney plays jockey Timmy Donovan who can win any race on any horse. Garland is Cricket West, daughter of the owner of the boardinghouse where Donovan and a slew of other jockeys live. Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry does not start out about them, however. We first follow Roger (Ronald Sinclair) and Sir Peter Calverton (C. Aubrey Smith) as they voyage from England with their horse Pookah that they plan to run in a big race in America. Early on they spy Donovan as the jockey they want, but the boy is so arrogant it takes some trickery to get him in the saddle. Donovan becomes pretty loyal to the foreigners and teaches Roger to ride as a jockey.

     When Donovan’s estranged father calls for him claiming to be sick and asking his boy to throw a race riding Pookah so he can win the money for an iron lung, the jockey follows through. The shock of the loss, however, kills Sir Peter with a heart attack leaving Roger and his stable-hand sort of stranded in the U.S. with no money. Roger plans to sell Poohah because he does not have the entrance fee for the big race. Figuring out his father’s scam, Donovan demands some of the winnings to put Pookah in that race, but further interference by the low-down father reveals the jockey’s dishonest loss in the last race and he is barred from riding. Luckily, Roger learned enough about jockeying to make a go of it.

     Garland’s role in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry is pretty negligible. She sings one song, “Got a Pair of New Shoes”, and just acts as a side character to the drama between the boys. Rooney is his usual, great self, but Sinclair, in a role intended for Freddie Bartholomew, is kind of dreadful. I found him very annoying and easily saw how Bartholomew would have been a better fit.

     There are also a couple scenes with Rooney and Sinclair that if taken out of context would suggest a sexual relationship between the characters. I’m sure audiences thought nothing of it at the time, but images of the two of them riding a horse together combined with a follow-up scene when Rooney continually pulls Sinclair’s pants down so he can rub his thighs is suggestive by today’s standards. Just a funny note.

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