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Archive for the ‘Spring Byington’ Category

The Devil And Miss Jones

15 Feb

The Devil And Miss Jones – directed by Sam Wood. Proletarian Comedy. 92 minutes Black And White 1941.

★★★★★

The Story: A group of department store employees, protesting for a union, unwittingly take into their fold the owner of the store.

~

Gee whiz, what are you waiting for! Get on your pony and order up this proletarian comedy with Charles Coburn as the millionaire who spies on his employees, and Jean Arthur, the store clerk who unwittingly befriends him.

This kind of story was a staple of the age of The Golden Age: My Man Godfrey, The Lady Eve, most Frank Capra Comedies of the era, and any story where some penniless person gets to be the spouse of the boss’s favorite child: You Can’t Take It With You, The Bride Came C.O.D., It Happened One Night, Vivacious Lady, and a spate of screwball comedies from the era.

It was a great age for comedy, and, boy, do they still satisfy. They hold true now more than comedies made now, because the difference between the rich and the poor, the plutocrat and the working stiff are, once again, as marked now as then.

Charles Coburn can really play anything. He never shortchanges a role. He is never without resources. His person exudes a comic potential with every breath. He doesn’t need a situation; he is a situation. Watch him, as the children’s shoe clerk, fumble right and left, the look on him of dignity lost in the face of the preposterous. He is one of the great film character stars of the era; he can carry a film, as he does here; he can steal a film, as he does here.

But check Jean Arthur out as she creates three different ways, to clobber him over the head with the heel of a work boot. Everything she does is open, intentional, and sparse. She is incapable of a false move. Or an unappealing one.

Robert Cummings’s forte was light comedy, and he is at his best moment in his acting life as the rabble-rousing love interest of Jean Arthur. Watch his scenes on the beach and in the courtroom. Everything he says uses the forward energy which was his milk.

All these actors are at the top of their game. They don’t mug; they don’t gesticulate or exaggerate; they don’t reach for laughs or wring them to death. This kind of acting is called comedy of character and is played with the bodies of the performers as personalities, not clown bodies or situation comedy bodies. It’s not entertainment of gag or guffaw. It requires the great fluidity of perfect willingness. Master acting is required. Coburn was nominated for an Oscar and was to win one not long after for The More The Merrier.

The picture moves forward on roller skates. The camera is held by the great Harry Stradling Sr. And the writing is brilliant, surprising, and real: Norman Krasna. Treat yourself. Indulge yourself. Let yourself go. Place The Devil And Miss Jones before you.

 

Dragonwyck

26 Sep

 

Filmed by the great Arthur Miller. Dragonwyck – Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Gothic Melodrama. A farm girl comes to live in a mansion whose married Byronic owner rolls his eyes at her. 103 minutes Black and White 1946.

* * *

Gene Tierney – a farm girl? – never. She’s too snooty. Look at the tricksy way she has of lowering her eyelids. Of course, the girl is a dreamer which is what sets her off to leave the sheep herd of her father, played by Walter Huston in one of his Duel In The Sun–Sadie Thompson religious fanatic roles. Anne Revere, an actress I do not admire much, plays the stalwart mother, also once again. The first thing you notice about them is that their aprons look just-off-the-rack, and that disease prevails throughout. The sets are brilliant but they are suborned by the film being over-costumed as though the things were built for one of Betty Grable’s musicals there at Fox. When no expense has been spared, vulgarity is usually the consequence. Connie Marshall does a fine job, in this her last film, as the food-addict wife; Spring Byington is interestingly cast against type as the cracked housekeeper; Jessica Tandy shows up just great as a gimpy maid, and Harry Morgan in one of his 130 film roles does fine by a rabble-rouser. Glenn Langan, a leading man I had never seen before, is lovely, chosen perhaps for his height, 6’5”. For the real lead in the film is that six foot four of toad, Vincent Price. I remember when the film first came out and how attracted I was by its grandiose title: Dragonwyck. But I declined to go, because I knew, even then, that Gene Tierney was an actress of imperceptible interest and that Vincent Price had no authentic authoriity. And besides people always said Vincent Price was a terrible ham. Well, why did they say that? When you look at this performance, you see an actor who is razor thin, with very long legs that look super in the straight trou of the 1840s and especially in that floor-length dressing gown. In execution of the part, Price never gesticulates, he scarcely moves, except to walk, so he is not throwing himself about. He is not of the bent wrist school of acting, the pre-Pickford silent screen school of acting. His voice is barely modulated, hardly any outward emotion is expressed on his face, and, as was the custom in Hollywood acting of his era, no subtext at all is perceptible. Why is he a ham then? A ham is someone who is overdoing it. A ham is someone who is pigging out as though all scenes were his. Is Price really doing that? Nope. And yet he is a ham. It is part the fault of his use of his voice. Vincent Price’s voice is cobalt velvet upon which a raw egg has been broken. And with it he overacts incontestably, not because he is extravagant with it but because he is the reverse. He overacts by overacting underacting. He overacts by maximizing minimization. He always makes less more. He reminds me of Orson Welles who was always and in everything a radio actor, an actor vain about his voice and in slavery to it. He, like Price, makes everything he does, macabre – which is to say humanly hollow. Price went on to make many pictures, but Dragonwyck is Price’s favorite of all. And he actually has scenes of genuine romantic attraction and a death scene that is quite touching. Filmed by the great Arthur Miller, it is Mankiewicz’s first directorial effort, to be followed by All About Eve, Suddenly Last Summer, Cleopatra. His writing style is canny; his directorial style is plain, but the film is goulash. Leave it to heaven.

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Heaven Can Wait

15 Apr

Heaven Can Wait – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Sophisticated Comedy. Standing before Satan to see if he qualified for the flames, an old roué reviews his long love-life. 112 minutes Color 1943.

* * * * *

Watch and learn. How does a director get a laugh from an audience by a scene in which nothing is seen but a closed door? All who direct comedy, all who like to watch it and care to wonder how it is done, sit, please, at the feet of the master. This is the Lubitsch Touch at its peak of charm and engagement. The story is a continental pastry of the kind that Lubitsch specialized in, but the war was on, so it’s all transported to New York City. It doesn’t work nearly so well as Budapest would have, but never mind. It extends one man’s entire love-life-time, in periods ranging from the romantic past, whenever that was supposed to be, to more-or-less the present, whenever that was supposed to be. Here as elsewhere, Lubitsch’s collaborator, the invaluable screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, brings us into the ruthless realistic room of sophisticated comedy once again and sets the tone. (Be sure to play his priceless comments on Special Features.) We have of course Charles Coburn to begin with who is a master of the style, indeed a master of all styles, and can do no wrong. Louis Calhern brings his magnificent carriage and his magnificent everything into the role of the roue’s father, towering over Spring Byington’s superb carriage. Dickie Moore plays Ameche as a teen hottie and I’m so glad for him. Gene Tierney is, for once, really good, because she is not forced to force. She plays a character written to triumph by throwing all her lines away. Don Ameche, whose masculinity no one could question, plays it for the fool lying behind his masher, a choice which carries the film perfectly. Laird Cregar is tops as the devil sinking that splendid galleon of an actress Florence Bates. Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette are unthinkably cast as Tierney’s parents, which is a comic spectacle in and of itself. The difficulty with the material is that the persons of the script are essentially dealing with the  jilts and joys of infidelity, a habit of Ameche’s which, this being America and not Hungary, cannot go uncondemned. However, take a deep breath and dismiss all your moral and immoral scruples and sit back and imagine it is once upon a time, and enjoy once again another of Lubitsch’s tribute to life itself.

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Roxy Hart

04 Feb

Roxy Hart – Directed by WIlliamWellman – Comedy. A cunning, dim-brained doxy tries to get away with murder while everyone else in the country is getting away with murder. 75 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

One of the funniest movies I have ever seen: an out-and-out American farce on American promotion, it’s relation to American justice, and the relation of both of them to American sex appeal. Adolph Menjou and Ginger Rogers head a cast of brilliant supporting performers, among whom we have Lynn Overman, Spring Byington, Sarah Algood, William Frawley, and George Montgomery. The piece is so well-written that all Sarah Algood has to do is stare fixedly at a newspaper and say the word “Children” for me to fall off my chair laughing. William Wellman directed it, whom one does not mainly associate with comedy, but, boy, he didn’t miss a trick here. He’s well aided in the editing to tell the story smartly. As to the actors, nobody misses a trick, either. Watch Ginger prepare to faint by hoisting up her skirt over her knees. It is based on a stage played called Chicago, and it eventually became a musical called Chicago, which can be credited for its big energy and color, plus the sacred bosom of Queen Latifa singing “You Gotta See Momma Every Night Or You Can’t See Momma At All”, but the delights of Roxy Hart itself, which is actually filmed closer in time to the Roaring Twenties, bring forward all the gum-snapping smart-alecky attitude of that era and also of the times we live in now, with its easy remorselessness and eye-rolling acceptance of Madoff and The Money Boys. Wall Street today is so crass and unregenerate you gotta laugh. They’re getting away with it — the Civic Conscience reduced to a political cartoon in the papers. So here — except the cartoon goes on for over an hour. Rent it. Sit back in your seat. Ya gotta love it. Ya just gotta!

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