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What to Watch This Month: Shop Around the Corner

Wowza!

The shop Around the Corner (1940)

Turner Classic Movies seems to have designated The Shop Around the Corner as the Xmas movie for the network. Year after year they seem to book it during the December holiday season, and this year has it scheduled for both Dec. 16 and Dec. 24. This perfect Ernst Lubitsch picture has certainly failed to transcend generations to become known as a key Xmas movie, being overshadowed by obvious oldies such as White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. The flick nevertheless is set during the holidays and is a perfectly family appropriate movie.

The Shop Around the Corner is set in Budapest, but the location is negligible and could as easily be based on a shop in any big city. Nearly all of the action occurs in said shop where our protagonists will meet, fall in instant hatred of each other and then pursue romances with their pen pals.

The appeal of the story goes beyond the romantic characters, though, as we get to know the other shop workers as well as the shop owner and his folly in purchasing mass quantities of a music box that he cannot sell.

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

Many movies over the years have used the plot device of boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other, boy and girl fall in love, but in The Shop Around the Corner the story feels so much more natural and less predictable. It is easy to get swept into the romance and to fall in love with the character you initially detested.

If two showings of The Shop Around the Corner were not enough for viewers, TCM has also scheduled In the Good Old Summertime to air Dec. 18 and 24. This musical version of a nearly identical story is set in the opposite time of year and stars the perfectly cast Judy Garland and Van Johnson. I would probably describe it as my favorite Van Johnson movie in addition to being perfect for Garland.

I have always leaned toward the musical version as my favorite, probably because I am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart when it comes to romantic roles. That is not to say he does not go beyond my expectations in the Lubitsch original, but Johnson seems to me more captivating in the later edition. Xmas Eve offers the perfect opportunity to compare them for yourself. Let me know what you think.

  • The Shop Around the Corner is set for 10 a.m. E.T. Dec. 16 and 8 p.m. Dec. 24.
  • In the Good Old Summertime is set for 8 p.m. ET Dec. 18 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.
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Dancing Lady

Ring a Ding Ding

Dancing Lady (1933)

     I saw Dancing Lady for the first time probably more than a year ago. I distinctly remembered this movie as being sort of an odd role for Clark Gable but utterly loving how romantic he was in it. What I did not remember about the movie was its title and that Joan Crawford was the one receiving those romantic attentions. What does that say about her performance?

      Gable plays Patch Gallagher who is a Broadway musical director. He slaves to get shows put into production, making his cast of dancers labor endlessly, while taking orders from the purse-holding producer Bradley (Grant Mitchell).

      Crawford meanwhile plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who is arrested when her place of employment breaks into a riot. While at night court, she is spotted by bored millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). He bails her out and takes her for a meal but cannot seem to convince Janie to date him. He does, however, help to fulfill her dream of having a legitimate dancing job. He uses his monetary influence to get the gal a meeting with Bradley, who instructs Patch to put the girl in the chorus. Upon seeing her audition, however, the director puts Janie in the lead.

      Janie and Patch on and off butt heads and have their romantic near-misses while Janie is publicly attached to Tod. The boyfriend has arranged for the girl to be compensated during rehearsals and is helping to ensure the financial backing for the show. Janie is stuck on her dream of stardom, however, and agrees with her beau that if the show is a success they will split, but if it is a flop, she will become his wife. Tod therefore takes the steps necessary to close the show.

      In many of the Gable-Jean Harlow (and other) pictures we see the man balancing two women and choosing the one who suits him best. In Dancing Lady, the romantic arrangement is the opposite, with Crawford doing the choosing. Gable also takes a toned down approach to his usual masculine, take-what-I-want attitude and although drawn to Crawford’s lips, always turns away before he can interfere in an established relationship. Perhaps the artistic background for his character in Dancing Lady is what softened his role. Gable really makes the flick worth watching.

      Crawford –and Tone, for that matter– really could have been played by anyone. The two were on the verge of a romantic relationship off-screen, and although Tone is his usual charming self, he proves despicable in his actions. Crawford was ingrained in the flapper/showgirl roles at this point in her career, so she gives her standard fare on screen. This judgement is not to say she put on a poor performance, just one that was not memorable for me, blending into the many others she did at this time.

      I should note that Fred Astaire appears playing himself and dancing opposite Crawford. Also working as stage hands are the Three Stooges, whose presence is amusing in and of itself. To think, Joan Crawford worked with the Three Stooges!

Ziegfeld Girl

Gasser

Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

 
     Lana Turner‘s Sheila is picked by Mr. Ziegfeld when he spots her operating an elevator. She happens to already possess the poise necessary to walk gracefully down a flight of stairs with a book balanced on her head. Hedy Lamarr‘s Sandra is at the theater while her husband Franz (Philip Dorn) auditions as a violinist. He does not get the job but Sandra does land employment. Judy Garland as Susan gets approved for a cast spot after Mr. Ziegfeld follows through on seeing her in a father-daughter vaudeville act. The three women become friends but their involvement in the follies will impact their lives differently.
 
     The plot puts the greatest emphasis on Sheila who gets the most attention from audience members. She is dating Jimmy Stewart as Gilbert, a truck driver working toward the responsibility of hauling a larger load, which would hopefully precipitate the couple’s marriage. Sheila’s newfound attention, however, has her meeting a lot of wealthy men, one of whom she permanently goes around with in exchange for a lavish apartment and loads of shoes and furs. Sandra’s love life is also toppled by the success of the show. Although she loves her husband, he disagrees with the woman supporting him and the two split up, with Sandra moving into a boarding house. The woman takes up with a married singer in the cast thinking it will be a safe platonic relationship; although, the man has other plans. Lastly, Susan struggles with separating from her performer father (Charles Winninger) but manages to impress the casting director with her spectacular singing and gets a bigger place in the show. Her love life is marked by Sheila’s younger brother Jerry (Jackie Cooper), and the two have a standard young-person courtship.

Lana, Hedy and Judy

 
     Ziegfeld Girl is one of those instances when Garland found herself feeling rather inadequate among the stars of MGM. The studio was generally known for having the most glamorous actors on its roster and Garland failed to meet the standard. I previously mentioned Louis B. Mayer’s nicknames for the girl, and her casting alongside the exotic Hedy Lamarr and stunning Lana Turner only emphasized her insecurities. Nevermind that her character is essentially relegated into adolescence –despite Garland being only two years younger than Turner– while the other stars battle with big-time romantic turmoil.  
 
     The Sheila character in Ziegfeld Girl not only screws up her love life but spirals into alcoholism, which eventually impacts her career and threatens her life. The character was originally depicted as dying before the film’s close but initial audiences reacted poorly to that ending. The movie instead shows the woman in a dying state before action switches to the stage and the film closes on a high note, although with Sheila’s fate ambiguous. The picture also seems to have a major flaw in terms of costuming. If the plot is meant to take place in the 20s, the fashions are reflective of the 40s when the movie was made. The follies ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1931.
 
  • Ziegfeld Girl is set for 10:15 a.m. ET Jan. 25 on TCM.
 
Sources: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark, TCM.com

Piccadilly Jim

Ring a Ding Ding

Piccadilly Jim (1936)

     I was nearly jumping for joy last week upon discovering the movie Piccadilly Jim because not only does it star love-of-my-life Robert Montgomery but it is based on a P.G. Wodehouse story, an author I greatly admire and one capable of cute romance with an abundance of witty dialogue.

     Montgomery plays the title character whose real name is Jim Crocker. Piccadilly Jim is the pen name he uses for his political cartoons published in an English newspaper. Despite being American, Jim resides in England and enjoys a life of too much drinking and too little work. When his butler Bayliss, expertly played by Eric Blore, wakes Jim at the “crack of dusk”, he is informed his father is awaiting an audience with the party boy. The relationship between Jim and father James (Frank Morgan) is a comical reversal on the typical father-son set-up. James is there to ask for his son’s help/approval in marrying a woman. Because this father –a Shakespearean actor who continually has his quotes completed by Bayliss– is less well off than his son, he needs the financial and phony prestige his son presents to convince his girlfriend’s sister that he is a decent mate who can put up a dowry.

     The woman in question Eugenia, played by Billie Burke –for those Wizard of Oz fans, you will note this is a coupling of Glinda and the Wizard– and her sister’s family is a set of wealthy Americans who made their millions through a process to turn cloth scraps back into standard material. The meeting between Eugenia’s family, the Petts, and Jim does not go over well, however. Not only is he late, but they discover that despite James’ description of his son as a serious artist, he is in fact a lowly cartoonist. Not only that, but he has been fired from his job.

     What ultimately results in the Pett’s  rejection of James as a suitable husband leads Jim to develop a comic strip based on the family called “Rags to Riches” and makes fools out of the Petts, or Richwitches as they are known in the strip. The family is oblivious, however, because they are back in the U.S. and the comic runs only in England.

     While all the father drama is occurring, Jim has spotted a beautiful American girl who happens to be seeing a Lord Priory (Ralph Forbes), but that does nothing to dampen Jim’s determination to land her. The girl, Ann (Madge Evans), is willing to accept the man’s advances, but is devoted to her current beau. Jim spends several months frequenting the places he had seen Ann and does not learn until months later she had been in America, but is back in town again. The trouble is, Ann is niece to the Petts and that family’s return to England has brought with it many a jeering and cackling onlooker who recognizes the family as the Richwitches. Jim manages to conceal from Ann that he is Piccadilly Jim as he spends the remainder of the story trying to woo her away from a profitable but loveless marriage to Priory.

     My only complaint about Piccadilly Jim is that it did not contain enough of the Wodehouse-esqe dialogue I would expect from one of his stories. Every now and then I could spot a fast-paced or otherwise dryly hilarious string of phrases, but otherwise it did not necessarily feel like his type of story. What I did enjoy immensely was seeing Montgomery in a romantic role again. It seems I have subjected myself mainly to his war and otherwise nonsexual roles as of late. The romantic plot is certainly very adorable and is the rare time Montgomery plays a man genuinely in love, rather than a cad looking for another fling.

     The story on the whole is full of laughs. Eric Blore, who often plays a servant or other nervous character, was perfect as the butler, and Frank Morgan garnered the usual laughs, especially as he masquerades as a Russian count. The Pett family also has a young boy, Ogden (Tommy Bupp), who spews nonstop snarky lines, trips unsuspecting strangers, and draws mustaches on marble busts and antique portraits. I had a lot of fun with Piccadilly Jim  and highly recommend it.

Cinematic Shorts: The Divorcee

Gasser

The Divorcée (1930)

     The Divorcée makes for a great study in film history. It not only illustrates the liberal sexual subjects able to be portrayed in the time before the Production Code banned anything seemingly indecent, but it shows all too well the double standard of infidelity between men and women in the 1930s. Additionally, Norma Shearer appears in the type of role that she seemed to own during those pre-code days.

     The film begins with the intensely enamored couple Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) deciding to get married, much to the chagrin of womanizer Don, a role perfect for Robert Montgomery. Three years later as the couple prepare to celebrate their third anniversary, Jerry learns her husband has been cheating on her. She manages, whether deliberately or not, to sleep with Don, her husband’s best friend. Although she reveals the affair to Ted, she does not say who the man is, and a slimy Don has fled the country to avoid any trouble.

     Although Jerry is willing to forgive Ted’s longtime indiscretion with another woman, Ted is appalled by his wife’s behavior and the two divorce. Jerry now lives life to the fullest with all sorts of men, but prepares to settle down with Paul (Conrad Nagel), who had loved her before her marriage. The trouble is Paul is married, and at the last minute his wife begs to retain him. Jerry and Ted manage to find a happy ending, although one might question to the extent either can be happy given the lives they have lived in the meantime.

     Although Norma Shearer began her career in nice-girl sorts of roles, she managed to use her marriage to MGM Production Manager Irving Thalberg to land the spicy spots for which she would come to be known. The story goes that Shearer had sexy pictures taken of herself, which she provided to Thalberg as proof she could embody such roles. Specifically she was angling for The Divorcée, the first in a long run of racy flicks and one that garnered her the Best Actress Oscar.

     I must add that as much as I love Montgomery and have accepted with open arms the many womanizing and otherwise selfish romantic roles he plays, he was a bit weasly in The Divorcée. As much as I was rooting for Shearer to hook up with him, I hoped it would be permanent, not an awkward day-after situation in which Don had clearly gotten what he desired an now wanted out and away from the danger of an angry husband. I’m sure that was the intention of the role, and he played it well, but I need a redeeming picture to get him back in my good graces.

Source: Robert Osborne

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