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.

Dead Ringer

Gasser

Dead Ringer (1964)

     In the midst of her Baby Jane/Sweet Charlotte phase of psycho old lady characters, Bette Davis revisited her experience playing a twin, but this time with even darker intentions than her characters in A Stolen Life had. Dead Ringer would ultimately be a movie Davis described as failing to achieve plausibility, despite changes to the original script to try to reach that goal.

     Davis plays sisters Edie and Maggie who have not seen each other for 10 years following Maggie’s marriage to the wealthy Mr. De Lorca, whom Edie was in love with. The two reunite at the man’s funeral and Edie joins Maggie at her lavish mansion where the widow acts utterly unaffected by her husband’s death.

     It was Edie’s understanding that Maggie and Mr. De Lorca married because the woman was pregnant, but the De Lorca chauffeur tells her no child was born to the couple. On top of that frustrating revelation, Edie learns she is being evicted from the bar she owns because of three months back rent due. Under the circumstances, Edie invites her sister to her apartment above the bar and kills her –staging it as a suicide– and then trades clothes and thus lives with the woman.

     Playing her sister’s part is not easy task, but the biggest hiccup in the ruse is the boyfriend from her former life, Detective Jim Hobbson, played by Karl Malden. Jim keeps visiting the new Mrs. De Lorca and naturally is intrigued by the similarities. Edie keeps him at bay, however. The murderess is finding ways to get around any detail that might give her away to friends and servants until she meets Maggie’s lover, Tony (Peter Lawford). It does not take this gold digger long to realize what Edie has done, and he works to blackmail her. Jim gets involved in the case that eventually leads Edie to realize both Tony and her sister had murdered Mr. De Lorca. Yet another death occurs before the police come calling for “Maggie” in her husband’s murder.

     The story for Dead Ringer was a nice concept along the lines of what can one do when both her identities are responsible for murder. My biggest hangup is that with any identical twin I have ever known, I could always tell the difference between the siblings. The same must be true of those closest to the two women, especially those who have spent 10 years apart and theoretically should have been subjected to different environmental circumstances that would at least have them wearing different dress sizes.

     Paul Henreid stepped behind the camera to direct Dead Ringer, and he did not do a bad job on that front, but the story had its flaws. Whenever the two Bettes appear on screen simultaneously, Henreid either used a divided screen technique whereby the actress never crosses to the side of the set occupied by the “other” Bette. This would allow Bette to perform one part at a time and the film to be combined. In other instances body doubles were used to provide the back of one Bette or the body of one wearing a dark veil.

     Dead Ringer is the sort of movie to watch out of curiosity and for the acting’s sake. The story might not be terribly realistic, but it is fun. It is a great pick for Bette Davis fans.

Advise and Consent

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Advise and Consent (1962)

     The movie Advise and Consent is about exactly what the title says: the U.S. Senate’s power to “advise and consent” on a presidential appointment to a certain administrative position. This process and the general proceedings of at least state-level government have become all too familiar to me in the last two years as I have been a reporter covering state government. I have seen the Ohio Senate use its advise and consent power to essentially fire someone who had been doing a job for many months but because of a scandal, the pick by a Democratic governor was not longer fit in the eyes of the Republican Senate. I, too, have been watching from afar as the U.S. Senate presently stalls on approving an Ohioan picked by President Obama to direct a new consumer protection bureau because lawmakers do not like the agency itself.

     So even though Otto Preminger‘s Advise and Consent takes place 50 years ago, the procedure still seems a bit like I was sitting at work, yet that did not negate its impact. In this fictional account, a president, played by an older Franchot Tone, has selected Henry Fonda‘s Robert Leffingwell to be his secretary of state. The selection raises much turmoil as Leffingwell has made a handful of enemies in the Senate, chief among which is Charles Laughton‘s Sen. Cooley. A special committee is formed to consider the appointment and is chaired by young Sen. Anderson (Don Murray). During the hearing, Cooley sits in and berates Leffingwell with questions about his involvement in a communist group while a college professor. He even brings in a witness who testifies that he saw Leffingwell at these meetings, but the appointee fires back by questioning the witness into admitting he had a mental breakdown in the past and indicating the address of these supposed Red meetings is actually a fire station.

     Things get hairy, however, when Cooley starts digging into this new evidence and Chairman Anderson’s wife receives threatening phone calls. The chairman is being blackmailed into pushing the approval ahead and his fate is to be a bleak one. As the story progresses, it is nearly impossible to determine from one minute to the next whether Leffingwell will be confirmed as SOS.

     The plot of Advise and Consent is packed full of heated exchanges. It’s 140 minutes are filled to the brim with a wide smattering of characters that are, frankly, difficult to keep track. Unlike other Congressional movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, much of the drama takes place away from the Senate floor. In fact, it is interesting to view how government works, with a majority of empty seats in the chamber when much of its business takes place. It is easy to pick protagonists and villains, although they are not all from the same party nor even on the same side of the argument as it pertains to Leffingwell. I am not sure Preminger’s telling of the story either glorifies or condemns the confirmation process for appointees but is more focused on painting the drama that could surround what is often such a quick and thoughtless process.

     I think it might go without saying that the performances in Advise and Consent are superb. An older Laughton really stands out as the southern Senator who has spent more time in the chamber than probably any other in the film. He is unpleasant and unreasonable but in a way unlike all of his other villainous characters. I was surprised to see Franchot Tone’s name associated with the president role as I know him best for his plethora of light-hearted romances, but he plays an amiable –and ill– president well. His health condition prevents the character from engaging in any grandstanding speeches or getting heated over the situation, which is absolutely doable for Tone. Gene Tierney also makes a return to the screen after a seven-year hiatus for poor mental health as Washington socialite Dolly Harrison; Peter Lawford plays bachelor Sen. Smith; and Walter Pidgeon is perfect as the president’s advocate in approving the appointment, Sen. Munson.

What to Watch: Friday

The royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton holds no great appeal for me unlike many in America, however, the grand event, set for Friday, brings with it a cinematic celebration of sorts on Turner Classic Movies. That evening, the channel will air a number of royal-themed films, all of which happen to be good flicks.

Royal Wedding (1951)

First up at 8 p.m. ET is Royal Wedding starring Fred Astaire, Jane Powell and Peter Lawford. I have never been in love with Astaire but usually watch his films anyway. This one, however, is among my favorites. Astaire and Powell are a brother and sister musical duo on tour in London for Elizabeth II’s wedding. Powell meets Lawford and the two have an adorable romance. Meanwhile, Astaire tries to court a dancer. The musical contains the famous “Dancing on the Ceiling” number whereby a trick of simultaneously rotating camera and set make it seem as though Astaire is actually walking on the walls and ceiling (the same effect was used in certain scenes of 2010’s Inception). This is also the first solo directing credit for Stanley Donen.

Roman Holiday (1953)

 
Next on the schedule is Roman Holiday airing at 10 p.m. Given that Audrey Hepburn is my favorite actress, I naturally love this flick directed by William Wyler. It was her first major role and she won her only Best Actress Oscar. Hepburn plays Princess Ann who runs away while visiting Rome and is rescued by American reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, after sleeping pills have her adopting a street-side bench as a bed. The young princess explores the city anonymously, although Bradley has figured out who she is. No one could have played the free-spirited Ann like Audrey.

The Glass Slipper (1955)

A new take on a classic princess story, Cinderella, is the subject of the 12:15 a.m. airing of The Glass Slipper. Leslie Caron plays the pauper who is lucky enough to attend the prince’s ball. This flick is not as great as the previous two, but it is a nice live-action musical with one of the greatest musical stars of France: Caron. It also offers a realistic take on the fairy godmother character, who is a crazy old lady that fell from a prominent position in society after “reading too many books”.

The Swan (1956)

Finally, if you can make it to 2 a.m. you will be entreated to a romantic Grace Kelly flick that predicts her eventual royalty. The Swan casts Kelly as a princess whose family has fallen out of the good graces of a greater sect of the family that includes the queen. To save the family, Kelly’s Alexandra must win over a distant cousin (Alec Guinness) and marry him. The trouble is, she is in love with her tutor (Louis Jourdan). It is one of the less memorable of Kelly’s roles but a great one anyway.

 

It Should Happen to You

Gasser

It Should Happen to You (1954)

      I have not necessarily been a fan of Judy Holliday, but she changed my mind in It Should Happen to You. She does a great job of playing a somewhat ditzy, vain, dreamer who seems to be oblivious to romance as she endeavors to “make a name for herself”.
 
      Holliday plays a non-native New Yorker Gladys Glover who just lost her job as a girdle model over a matter of “a quarter inch”. She runs into Jack Lemmon‘s Pete who is shooting documentary footage in Central Park. The two chat about how impossible it is to meet nice people in the city, completely ignoring that they have both proved an exception to the rule. Taking some vague assurance from Pete that she will make her dream of fame come true, Gladys opts to use the $1,000 she has saved to purchase three months of advertising space on Columbus Circle.
 
     Peter Lawford comes in as Evan, who works high up in his family’s soap company and who desperately wants the Columbus Circle spot Gladys purchased. The young woman is unwilling to budge, but ultimately scores six billboards throughout the city in exchange for her one. She also scores several dates with Evan, whose motives seem to be about getting the gal to bed. Meanwhile, Gladys’ friendship with Pete has blossomed as the man has moved into her building. He is utterly frustrated over his inability to share his romantic feelings for the woman, who is distracted by her new-found fame.
    
     I have to wonder how strange it must have been in 1954 for someone to become famous for doing nothing. Contemporary society is plagued by reality show stars and celebrities famed only for having a sex tape. Gladys’ popularity, however, is shrouded in mystery. The billboard merely feature her name, nothing more, so when giving her name to a department store clerk, she is first “recognized” and hounded by fans. When a TV show host speculates over who Ms. Glover is, the woman calls him up and ends up with an agent who books her TV show appearances.
 
     This was Jack Lemmon’s second film and his first leading role. He plays his usual quirky self, although one who is less nervous than in some of his more famous spots. I always find the man enjoyable to watch, and I do not think anyone else could have played the role in the same manner or in a way as appealing. For a moment toward the start of the movie, the viewer might be convinced this will be a story of the nice guy versus the rich, handsome guy in acquiring the girl’s affections, but It Should Happen to You is not like that in the least. Lawford’s character, although seeming to gain ground, never stands a chance against Gladys’ love for fame. Pete also suffers a position second to the attention Gladys has gained, but is able to provide a happy ending after smacking the protagonist back to reality.
  • It Should Happen to You is set for 6:30 p.m. ET Feb. 18 on TCM.
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