Cimarron

Gasser

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

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Penny Serenade

Gasser

Penny Serenade (1941)

If you have seen the fabulously funny My Favorite Wife, then like me you might be duped into thinking Irene Dunne and Cary Grant‘s presence in Penny Serenade also promises a plethora of laughs. You’d be wrong though. Penny Serenade is a compelling story and is well acted, especially on Dunne’s part, but if you sit down expecting a comedy, you will be greeted with a deluge of depression.

The story is told in flashback as a sad Dunne as Julie plays records that take her back to when the songs were first heard. The primary tune is one that caught the ear of Grant’s Roger as Julie simultaneously caught his eye. The man enters the record store where the young woman works and finds a way to get her alone in a sound booth for the rest of the day. There the romance begins.

We move through their relationship that progresses into a hasty New Year’s marriage ahead of newspaperman Roger’s transfer to China for a several-year stint. Julie eventually joins him and finds he has purchased a nice home for them … on credit. She is already pregnant but that will not last when an earthquake shakes their home apart, leaving the woman infertile.

Roger’s next move is to buy a small-town newspaper, and he moves the wife into the home above the printing presses. Family friends press the couple about adopting a child and eventually both spouses relent. They take in baby Trina, but the paper goes under during the adoption trial period and, without income, the orphanage must repossess the child. In his most dramatic show of the flick, Roger emotionally persuades a judge to allow them to keep the girl.

Trina grows up to age 6 (Eva Lee Kuney) when she participates but does not appear in the Xmas pageant. She plays an echo and moves bits of scenery about. She is promised the role of an angel for the following year but will fail to fulfill that destiny.

Penny Serenade in many ways is hard to watch. Grant’s Roger is obnoxiously foolhardy (at least for a frugal viewer such as myself), and we sympathize with Julie who will express her concerns but not put her foot down. The story follows the growing together and apart and together and apart of this couple. Dunne does a great job of wearing her emotions on the surface and has always been an equally talented dramatic actress as she is a comedic one. Grant, on the other hand, really is at his best in comedies. He does, however, finally prove to us that he actually cares about the kid in his plea to the judge, which is truly a scene worth witnessing for the Cary Grant fans out there.

I cannot deny that Penny Serenade is a good movie, but it does turn me off in some ways. It is hard to convince oneself to watch such a gloomy movie, no matter how well acted –and I’m not trying to suggest this is “Romeo and Juliet” depressing– but the couple’s moments of happiness are quickly chased with distress. I additionally am such a fan of My Favorite Wife that I cannot help but compare the two and put Penny Serenade in last place.

No Other Woman

Dullsville

No Other Woman (1933)

     Money (and its counterpart of greed) has been indefinitely linked with sin, and the movies have often told us tales of financial success bringing forth opportunities for infidelity. Thus is the case with No Other Woman and my upcoming review of Boom Town. The former is a roughly constructed tale of a factory worker and his wife and their rise to great fortunes through a friend’s invention. The latter addresses the ups and downs of an oilman and his wife as their level of success changes.

     What both pictures have in common is that they introduce towards each film’s end an additional female character whose interest in the male lead is primarily greed-based. Irene Dunne as Anna reluctantly marries factory worker Jim Stanley (Charles Bickford) despite having ambitions of leaving the dreary town in which they live. The couple end up supporting a friend who has found a way to use waste from the factory to create a permanent dye. The business takes off with Jim as the brains of the operation and the couple rises to great prestige.

     Jim’s powerful position, however, offers him the opportunity and excuses necessary to carry on an extramarital affair in New York City. The shallow woman (Gwili Andre) has Jim entranced with her sex appeal and works to pry her lover away from his wife and young son. Anna is unfortunately aware of the affair but refuses to grant her husband a divorce when he asks for one. The case therefore goes to court where Anna sits by and allows the opposing party to paint a false story about she having extramarital relations. Ultimately, Jim will send himself to jail and in the process destroy the value of his company’s stock. Only poverty can return the couple’s relationship to its origins.

     Stories about young love and the dutiful wife who stands by while her husband philanders are pretty common plots. They most often end with the man coming to his senses and returning to his original love and often giving up the lifestyle that elicited the external attention. No Other Woman does not put the story across in the best way. The production quality is low and Bickford is totally unlikable from the start, which makes the audience unable to accept Anna’s undying love for him and unwilling to wish for the couple’s reunion.  Dunne is sweet as ever as the unhappy wife and totally sympathetic while Andre makes herself perfectly despicable.

What to Watch: New Year’s Eve

If you are like me and are fortunate enough to have New Years Eve day off, TCM has an impressive line up of great classic films to entertain you all day and night long. In essence, the day is comprised of Cary Grant and Marx Brothers marathons, which means Dec. 31 is loaded with laughs, romance and more laughs.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I am not sure I would advise anyone to get up early on the day you are supposed to stay up late, but if you’re out of bed by 6 a.m. ET, Bringing Up Baby will get you laughing early on. The cute and absurd tale is of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and a trained leopard. The opposites incidentally attract plot is full of slapstick and antics that worked so well between the two pros. It, like most films shown Friday, is a requirement for all classic movie fans.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

Next Grnat is paired with the fabulously funny Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife, airing at 8 a.m. ET. This movie really sold me on Dunne. She is the perfect goofy counterpart to comedic roles Grant played before turning gray, that is to say the more physically silly ones. In this scenario, Dunne returns from years lost at sea just after her husband marries another woman. Grant certainly loves Dunne more than the new broad, so he’s in a tricky situation that Dunne revels in making worse. It kind of has a similar ring to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which chronicles a married couple who discover their union is not legal. Oh, how fun it is to see the propriety of days gone by face the fact that a duo already has intimate knowledge of each other.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another love triangle presents itself in The Philadelphia Story, set to air at 9:30 a.m. ET.  I have mentioned before that I am partial to the musical version of this story, High Society, but that does not preempt the importance of this movie, which re-teams Grant and Hepburn as ex-spouses and adds Jimmy Stewart as a reporter on scene to document Hepburn’s marriage to a new man. The film was written with Hepburn in mind and in effect reversed her Box Office Poison title. The story does a great job of making unpredicatble with whom the woman will end up, although it makes apparent that her fiance is not the winner. This film features the classic moment when Grant, standing outside Hepburn’s door, pushes her down by the face. I once heard someone say that if that move had been perpetrated by any other actor, the move would have been vicious. Grant, however, could get away with anything.

Arsenic & Old Lace (1944)

My favorite slapstick movie is probably Arsenic and Old Lace. At 1:45 p.m. ET Grant will go through a night of familial trauma just after being married to a girl who hardly shows her face in the picture. When Grant discovers his elder aunts have been poisoning lonely men and burying them in the basement, he goes just about as daffy as his uncle who fancies himself as Teddy Roosevelt. Add in criminals Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre and Grant finds himself in such a mess that one cannot but roll with laughter. This flick is pretty good example of Grant’s slapstick charm and a requirement for all of his fans.

The Bachelor & the Bobby-Soxer (1947)

It is probably logical given their comedic talents that Grant and Myrna Loy would be a great pairing. They come together in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer at 3:45 p.m. ET. I have never been one to pursue Shirley Temple, but as a teenager, she really can be quite appealing. The story is teenager meets playboy meets judge. As both a person of law and older sister to Temple, Loy is none too pleased with her sibling’s infatuation with Grant. In order to cure the girl of her crush, Grant is required to “date” her but in the process falls in love with Loy. The movie is a really cute, sweet, funny time and offered great roles for the leads.

North By Northwest (1959)

I will admit that North By Northwest is not among my favorite Hitchcock movies, despite its popularity. Between the length of the film airing at 5:30 p.m. ET and the use of Eva Marie Saint — who has yet to impress me — as the female lead, it just does not call to me from the DVD shelf. The story, however, is pretty great. It utilizes the “wrong man” storyline Hitchcock used often. Grant is mistaken for a spy and essentially learns the ropes of such a profession as he tries to free himself from opposing forces. Saint’s role in the plot is fun as it slowly reveals itself, but the best entertainment might be what happens in the woman’s room on the train when Grant is hiding out. The macguffin in this one is a roll of microfilm, by the way.

From 8 p.m. through to 7 a.m. or so New Year’s Day, The Marx Brothers will take over the screen. As the recent review would indicate, I have only seen Duck Soup, but I have the rest of them set to record so I can pace myself while discovering more masterpieces. Among the line up are:

  • Animal Crackers (1930) at 8:00 p.m. ET
  • Monkey Business (1931) at 9:45 p.m. ET 
  • Horse Feathers (1932) at 11:15 p.m. ET 
  • Duck Soup (1933) at 12:30 a.m. ET 
  • A Night at the Opera (1935) at 1:45 a.m. ET
  • A Day At The Races (1937) at 3:30 a.m. ET
  • Go West (1940) at 5:30 a.m. ET

Life with Father

Ring a Ding Ding

Life with Father (1947)

     I never thought I would see the day when I could dislike William Powell. The star of such great comedies as My Man Godfrey and the Thin Man movies could never be an outright asshole, or so I thought. In Life with Father Powell’s persona as the head of family is revealed in full before we ever see the man. The start of the film is seen from the perspective of a new maid in the 1880s homestead whose nerves at pleasing the specter of father, Clar(ence) Day, lead to a variety of comical bumblings and her quick departure from employment.

     I had a difficult start with Life with Father because Powell’s character is so off-putting as a man who has to have everything his way and be in control of all circumstances within the home and without. Add to that the dreadful red hair and mustache and you have just about lost me. That is until I realize what is going on has less to do with father and more to do with Irene Dunne‘s mother figure. It might take the viewer a time to discover whether Vinnie Day is a ditz who cannot seem to keep track of the money she spends or a clever woman who knows just how to manipulate her husband to keep him from destroying their happy family.

     A particularly enjoyable moment comes when Dunne explains to her husband that because their son returned a $15 pug statuette to the store and brought home a $15 suit, that none of his money was actually spent. While Powell insists that he either paid for the pug or the suit, Dunne assures him he could not have paid for the pug because they do not have it, and he could not have paid for the suit because it was gained by exchange of the pug. The conversation is nonsense, but Dunne plays it off with an almost air-headed reasoning that somehow soothes her husband to quiet.

     Also in the picture is an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor, who plays a love interest for the eldest son, Clarence Jr. Because he shares a name with his father, a comedic thread works its way through the plot wherein Powell continually accepts the boy’s mail as his own. He is bewildered by a letter from a female he does not know who purports to have sat on his lap. Powell’s blood pressure rises at the accusations while the son prods him to continue reading, playing dumb to the letter being his.

     I was drawn to Life with Father because of the pairing of Powell and Dunne, both great comedic actors. Although I was not convinced of it at first, I was surely rewarded for my faith in their talents.

Feature: Shopping Spree

     I am going to diverge from the usual review post to share the stack of classic movie DVDs I purchased today. It should be known at the outset that I essentially refuse to buy a DVD unless its $10 or less, which is why most of my lot these days comes in the pre-viewed form from places such as today’s vendor: Half Price Books. Oh, what would I do without that place! Now to find a place for them all.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

First up is 1936’s The Petrified Forest. This was Humphrey Bogart‘s screen debut in which he played the same role as he did in the stage version. Bogie, born in 1899, did extensive theatre work before heading to Hollywood, which in part explains why he never really looked young in movies. Leslie Howard and Bette Davis also star in this flick, and I understand Davis was a bit of terror on the set, having just begun her bitch stage. This is a fantastic story about a diner, a fugitive and the desert. I’d give this either a Ring a Ding Ding or a Wowza!

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Next in line is Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. This is my favorite of Garson’s work in movies I’ve seen so far. It is a touching story of an English family during World War II. The flick won Best Picture for 1942 and rightfully so. As she deals with family members in the military, a home partially destroyed during an air raid and an enemy soldier visiting her home, Mrs. Miniver provides the backbone for stabilizing all that is going wrong around her. I’m going to agree with the Academy on this one and give it my first Wowza!

Beat the Devil (1954)

In Beat the Devil a band of con artists go after a bogus uranium mine. The cast includes Bogart, a blonde Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida, whose name I always associate with her lusty chest  more than anything else. I honestly don’t remember much of this film other than I thought it was good. It is written by Truman Capote , which is usually promising, and directed by John Huston, a plus for any adventure picture. The best my memory can do for me is to suggest a midline rating of Gasser.

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was the first James Dean movie I ever saw, and I was instantly caught by his talent. The Academy nominated him for Best Actor for this one. I find it hard to sum up the quality of Dean’s acting other than to say it is breathtaking and haunting. His emotions always seem to come off so raw. In East of Eden he, as usual, is a somewhat ostracized character trying to gain the approval of his father (isn’t he always trying to gain someone’s approval?) This one’s a really enjoyable, emotional piece, so I’ll have to go with Wowza!

Penny Serenade (1941)

Finally we come to Penny Serenade.  I’m pretty certain I have not seen this one, but I could not resist the pairing of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. The two make a great comic pairing (see My Favorite Wife) but this one appears to be a drama. I like the two enough to want to see how they pull off a story about a couple who endure hardships and find themselves nearing divorce.

Sources: Bette and Joan: A Divine Feud, The Ultimate Bogart by Ernest W. Cunningham.

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