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Little Women (1949)

Gasser

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.

Mogambo

Ring a Ding Ding

Mogambo (1953)

     Twenty-one years after Clark Gable made the exotically set romantic triangle drama Red Dust, he made it again. Gable’s rubber plantation owner in Indochina moves to Africa to a job in exotic animal sales for Mogambo. Replace Jean Harlow‘s slutty prostitute with Ava Gardner‘s wealth-chasing show girl, and Mary Astor‘s devoted surveyor’s wife with Grace Kelly‘s devoted anthropologist’s wife, and tada! You’ve got Mogambo.

     The remake of the fantastic 1932 drama is not to be disparaged, however. Gable engages in two entirely separate movies that strongly stand the test of time on their own merits. The women, too, bring their own flavor to each character as Kelly’s unfaithful wife is more sympathetic than Astor’s, and Gardner is more emotional in her feelings for the protagonist where Harlow was more vengeful.

     In Mogambo, Gable is Victor Marswell who runs a big game trapping company in Kenya and sells the animals to zoos. Gardner’s Eloise Kelly shows up on the plant because she was expecting to meet a maharaja, who has in fact stood her up. She hangs on until the next scheduled boat several days later and in the process finds time to get under the skin of and please Vic.

     Kelly sets to leave just as Donald (Donald Sinden) and Linda Nordley (Kelly) arrive to study the behaviors of gorillas. Kelly’s boat gets stuck in the mud down river, however, and she returns to the ranch. Linda is an entirely different sort of woman from Kelly –a refined sort– and she fascinates Vic. When Donald has a bad reaction to a vaccine, the illness affords time for the two to get better acquainted. It also give Linda time to wander the ranch and get cornered by a black leopard, only to be saved by Vic. The two share a moment when it looks as though the man will kiss the married woman, but she flees into her room at the last instance. Kelly, nevertheless witnesses this passage and comes to her own conclusions about the state of her own relationship with Vic.

     Everyone on the ranch opts to safari with the Nordleys as they enter dangerous territory to view the gorillas. Kelly makes a pill of herself with snide comments and innuendos, the true meaning of which only Donald seems to be oblivious. Vic and Linda’s relationship advances with a kiss and possibly more, and the man prepares to tell Donald he intends to steal his wife away.

     Mogambo is full of danger, probably more so than Red Dust. Wild animals –and hostile natives– both pose a threat to the trio of unexperienced travellers and provide amazing footage for the film viewer. It must have been thrilling to work on this movie and be friendly with giraffes, baby elephants, and baby rinos.

     It has been a while since I have watched Red Dust, but for me Mogambo did more to create sympathy for the wife character than the previous version. In the former I found myself rooting for Jean Harlow, whereas here I sided with Grace Kelly, which might be a reflection on my personal feelings for the actresses (I like Gardner less, and to that point must note she had an abortion during filming without telling then-husband Sinatra because she did not want it to get in the way of her career). I felt Mogambo spent more time developing the relationship between Vic and Linda than the earlier version and that Ava Gardner’s character resigned herself to their affair, something Harlow’s characters never seemed to do. Both women give fantastic performances and both were nominated for Oscars. Gable is his usual strong, brooding self, but he glues the plot together.

Source: My Father’s Daughter: A Memoir by Tina Sinatra

What to Watch Thanksgiving: Musicals

Musicals tend to be very family friendly fare, which is possibly why Turner Classic Movies has sprinkled several throughout the day and night Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. At the top of my list is Judy Garland‘s great Meet Me in St. Louis.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I feel like the plot of this story of a large St. Louis family in 1903 does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. The narrative is marked by the romances of Garland’s Ester with the neighbor boy and sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) hopes her long-distance boyfriend will get around to proposing. The family as a whole also struggles with the idea of moving to New York as a year goes by.

The songs in Meet Me in St. Louis are among the reasons to watch the flick. Many famous numbers we still remember today are just as enjoyable out of the context of the film as they are in. Among them is the title song, the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” that was filmed in one take and Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This picture marks the first encounter of Garland and Director Vincent Minnelli. The two feuded on set until Garland viewed the daily rushes and discovered how beautiful Minnelli was making her look. The young star had all kinds of confidence issues about her appearance, some of which stem from Louis B. Mayer’s pet names of “ugly duckling” and “my little hunchback.” The woman had also been reluctant to take the part that returned her persona to that of a teenager because she had finally found success in adult roles, such as For Me and My Gal. The new-found chemistry between the star and director led to a marriage in 1945 and four subsequent films. Despite being gay, Minnelli would father Liza with Judy before the two divorced in 1951.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a great way to see Judy in one of her best roles and to sing along with the family to the memorable songs.

Musicals scheduled on TCM for Turkey Day include:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis at 10 a.m. ET.
  • The Music Man at 1:45 p.m.
  • Anything Goes at 8 p.m.
  • Shall We Dance at 3 a.m.
  • Flying with Music at 5 a.m.

Source: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark

Palm Beach Story

Gasser

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

     So ends the three-part incidental series on movies about married life. Couples in No More Ladies, Love Crazy and The Palm Beach Story consider divorce but none follow through, which is the happy ending we expect in a romantic movie. The latter, however, might offer the most illogical reason for seeking separation, one the wife claims is based on, what else, logic.

     Claudette Colbert, queen of the screwball comedy, and Joel McCrea, who has a special place in my heart for Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, are shown rushing to the altar at break-neck speed while some woman who looks like Colbert is tied up in a closet and a maid repeatedly faints. That all occurs in the opening credits, and with no explanation of what happened with those side characters, the story line begins five years down the road.

     Tom and Gerry Jeffers (wait, I’m picturing a cat and mouse all of a sudden) are about to be evicted from their Park Avenue flat because Tom cannot seem to make an income as an inventor. Luckily, an old bean magnate who is considering renting the unit decides to give Gerry a bit of his giant wad of cash to cover the rent and other odds and ends. Now that the couple is financially on the level, Gerry feels it is the proper time to mention splitting up. She thinks Tom will be better able to live the life of a penniless engineer or something without having to care for her. Plus she has grand plans to settle down with some wealthy chap she has yet to designate. Gerry flees Tom’s refusal and heads toward Palm Beach where an easy divorce can be processed. She makes her way by train, despite being broke, on the good graces of an Ale and Hound Club.

     The group of hunters manages to get drunk and shoot up the club car, which is when the train conductor opts to disconnect the unit, with Gerry’s things inside. Enter: Rudy Vallee‘s John. The gentleman offers to buy the ticket-less woman “the few things” she needs and take her by boat the remainder of the trip. She soon learns he is one of the wealthiest men alive after he buys her several thousand dollars worth of clothing, handbags and jewelry. John wants to marry Gerry, and John’s sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), want to marry Tom once he arrives in Palm Beach (also by the generosity of the bean magnate).

     As one can plainly see, this plot is already severely complex, similar to Love Crazy. It works to convey unrealistically the emotional result of one half of a relationship fighting for love’s sake and one who does not care. Gerry thinks she is doing the practical thing for both of them, and even works her boyfriend for cash to cover Tom’s bizarre airport construction plan, but the word “love” never crosses her lips to my recall. Her affection for her husband is only ever conveyed in physical intimacy, which of course is a lousy basis for a marriage. These movies perhaps act as sequels to the endless number of films that follow the typical romance between couples that end in quick, and perhaps ill-advised, jaunts down the aisle.

     In The Palm Beach Story Astor is her most funny in the role of a princess who can ramble for hours. McCrea plays a superb serious straight man for whom one’s heart breaks while watching him pretend to be Gerry’s brother and stand idly by while another man woos her. As in Love Crazy, a snappy, easy ending allows for a happy conclusion for all parties and explains to a point what the hell happened in that opening sequence.



     The Palm Beach Story is possibly most enjoyable for its wardrobe by designer Irene, who also provided Joan Crawford’s gowns in No More Ladies. Irene masterfully supplied most of the fabulous female attire during this era and was a preference of Crawford’s. Colbert’s character most memorably fashions an outfit from a blanket and men’s pajamas, but all of her ensembles herein are not to be missed.

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