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20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Gasser

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

     The year was 1932. The Production Code was only starting to strangle the contents of films, Bette Davis was still sporting the platinum blonde look and playing sleazy roles, and Spencer Tracy was kind of young-looking. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was one of those films that like many of those to come under the iron fist of the Code would have no choice but to punish the criminal, no matter how likeable he was.

     I learned about this code restriction from reading about the struggles Alfred Hitchcock had with several of his films. He often wanted villains or anti-heroes to get of scott free, but the big wigs in the Hayes Office required those who commit a serious crime to be punished for it, whether through the penal system or via suicide. For that reason, several Hitchcock bad guys kill themselves or get a comeuppance the director would rather have avoided.

     In 20,000 Years in Sing Sing we have a criminal serving his time, but he ultimately pays a mortal price for another crime he did not commit. As Tommy Connors, Tracy is some sort of hoodlum with pull in New York, but when he moves into Sing Sing for armed robbery, he is surprised to find his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) is unable to secure either a release or at least a comfy stay. When issued an oversized uniform, Connors gets riled and starts throwing his fists around. The warden (Arthur Byron) agrees to let him off on the uniform requirement, allows him to wander around in long underwear, then assigns him to the ice house.

     When a small group of inmates plan an escape, Connors is all for it until he realizes the bust will go down on a Saturday –his jinx. He backs out at the last minute and the plan goes awry, resulting in two dead inmates and one who eventually gets the chair. The warden knows Connors had the option of trying for the escape and their relationship improves knowing he opted not to.

     Throughout his time in prison –a stint of five to 30 years– Connors has been visited by his girlfriend Fay, played by Davis. She has been allowing the lawyer to flirt with her in the hopes she can motivate him to get Connors set free. Fay and lawyer Finn get into a bad car accident and the girl thinks she is going to die. The warden learns of this and allows Connors to go see her provided he return to the prison that night. Connors has every intention of doing so until he runs into Finn at Fay’s place and the two get into a tussle. Fay shoots Finn from her bed but Connors absconds with the weapon. The incident might not have been a problem had not a curious cop been following Connors and heard the whole thing. It takes a couple weeks, but Connors does return to prison, stands trial and is convicted of the crime.

     Tracy gives a great performance. He had a wide range of personalities he could play and did a great job of presenting the tough guy with enough sense to know when to stop fighting. His character undergoes a bit of a transformation away from the arrogance the outside world laid upon him and toward the humble status of an every man no better than the next. Davis, too, gives a swell portrayal of a loyal girlfriend truly in love with her inmate beau. Never have I seen so much smooching in a film from this era. The character was not one we would see Davis play starting a few years hence, but she certainly proves there was no role she could not master.

  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is set for 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

It’s a Great Feeling

Gasser

It's a Great Feeling (1949)

     I’ve never really been sold on Doris Day as an actress; however my vocabulary on the subject is limited. I would not say that It’s a Great Feeling –her third film– really showed her in the best light, but the flick itself is somewhat intriguing. Self reflexive pictures are not much of a rarity, with many titles from the thirties and forties showing us the backstage drama of theater and movie production. This movie, however, takes it to a new level.

     With the exception of some side characters and the producer role, Day is the only character who does not play herself. It’s a Great Feeling depicts the efforts of two actors —Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan— to convince the producer of their picture to hire an unknown actress/singer looking for a break. Besides screen tests, the story involves no actual filming of their feature, “Mademoiselle Fifi”. Instead, the duo try to have producer Arthur Trent (Bill Goodwin) discover Day’s character on his own by planting her as an elevator operator, cabbie, optometrist’s assistant, etc. Each time she comes into contact with the man, however, she flutters her eyes, quivers her smiling lips and emits a bizarre squeaking sound. Trent gradually loses his mind as he cannot understand why he keeps seeing the same woman everywhere he glances and fails to pick her up as a potential actress. Meanwhile Carson and Morgan are unsuccessfully vying for the protagonist’s affections.

     The story is a bit scatter-brained as the trio endeavor to force discovery of the young unknown onto their producer, instead of just offering her up themselves (Carson is directing the picture). The songs are pretty good, made better by Day’s lovely singing voice, but the best entertainment the flick offers is in its cameos. Not only does the film’s director David Butler show up to decline directing “Mademoiselle Fifi,” but so do King Vidor, Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. Because the film is set primarily on the Warner Bros. lot, we are entreated to a variety of the studio’s stars at the time: Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, Jane Wyman and the prettiest and youngest Patricia Neal I have ever seen, and the list goes on. I particularly enjoyed Joan Crawford‘s spot during which she starts an uproar that concludes with her slapping both Carson and Morgan. In response to “what was that all about,” she says “I do that in all my pictures.”

Cinematic Shorts: White Christmas

Ring a Ding Ding

White Christmas (1954)

     I generally am not much of a fan or celebrater of Xmas and I particularly dislike the classic songs that accompany the holiday from November onward. So for me to be fond of a film with the December tradition in the title is a bit of a rarity. I discovered White Christmas, oddly enough, during a summer showing a couple years ago at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, where classic movies are projected on a big screen at the electric pleasuredome for a couple of months each year. I sought it out through a growing admiration of Bing Crosby and found my loyalty to the actor supremely rewarded.

     What I enjoy greatly about White Christmas is that although the holiday found its way into the title, the movie is not at all about it. The plot happens to take place around Xmas and the most famous song from the film happens to share the title, so thus we have White Christmas. It follows two army pals (Crosby and Danny Kaye) who went into show business together and a scheme to brighten the existence of their former general, who now owns a floundering country inn. Along the way they take on a sister act with Kaye’s character, Phil, instantly falling for Vera-Ellen‘s Judy. An adorable, complicated romantic plot develops between Crosby’s Bob and Betty, played by Rosemary Clooney.

     The picture is bolstered by the music of Irving Berlin, who ranks among my favorite song-writers. Outside of “White Christmas”, the movie also offers the goofy “Choreography” number and seasonal tunes such as “Snow”. In fact, I have “Sisters” stuck in my head as I am writing this. It is a fabulous soundtrack, and I would argue that Bing Crosby should be the only person permitted to sing the title tune — that mellow baritone voice of his compliments it perfectly. White Christmas was also how I came to adore Clooney (who, if you’re wondering, is the aunt of George). Her character is supposed to be the dowdier of the two sisters, but standing next to anorexically thin Vera-Ellen, Clooney’s curves make her the more appealing of the duo from my standpoint. Nevermind that her voice is absolutely awesome. Just try sitting through the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” number and tell me you don’t love her.  

Sisters?

  • White Christmas is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 16 on AMC.

Cinematic Shorts: Mildred Pierce

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

      Mildred Pierce was the first Joan Crawford movie I ever watched, and it truly turned out to be the perfect introduction to the legend. Crawford won her only Best Actress Oscar for what was her first film with Warner Bros. after leaving a lengthy career with MGM. My first reaction to the woman was, “Golly, she’s gorgeous!” Having spent up until two years ago knowing Crawford only as the Faye Dunaway persona in Mommy Dearest I was a bit off base in my expectations.

     Mildred Pierce is also an excellent example of the type of roles for which Crawford was known as well as a mild reflection of her real life. The story follows a woman who pulls herself out of the lower class through a successful restaurant business, much as Crawford was raised by a lower class single mother and made her own success through acting. Crawford’s title character tosses men aside as the film goes along, also similar to the actress’ wanton relationship with men, all while spoiling a daughter who ultimately competes with her for the opposite sex.

     The film came out on the heels of what I consider to be the textbook example of film noir, Double Indemnity. In fact, DI star Barbara Stanwyck angled for the role of Mildred Pierce but lost it when Crawford impressed director Michael Curtiz with a humbling, voluntary screen test. Mildred Pierce certainly has a noir feel, though I did not identify it as that genre when viewing it. The black-and-white film is full of shadows — and murder, of course — among other aspects that can lead to its classification as such.

     I found Mildred Pierce to be a great starter Joan Crawford films, so for anyone who has not witnessed the cinematic icon, I would recommend it.

"I'm sorry I did that... I'd of rather cut off my hand (than slap you)."

  • Mildred Pierce is set to air at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, 1:30 a.m. Dec. 1, and 12:45 p.m. Jan. 7 on TCM.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

Life with Father

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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.

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