Saturday, April 26, 2014

Three Stars in Films About Class

Jean Arthur, If You Could Only Cook

"If You Could Only Cook" (1935) was a new film for me.  Jean Arthur is out of work; she meets Herbert Marshall while sitting on a park bench going through the want ads.  She mistakes him for someone also looking for a job, but he's really an auto magnate.  She finds an ad looking for a married cook and butler couple, and intrigued, he agrees to pretend to be her husband so she can get the job. 

Jean Arthur, "If You Could Only Cook," 1935.
There's comedy in the fact that he's wealthy, and pretending to be a butler; and the fact the guy they work for is actually a mobster.  As in many of these comedies there are a few cliched complications that would be easily solved if the characters just talked to each other.  When he shows her some of his drawings of experimental cars, she tries to get him a job at a rival auto company, who immediately recognize the drawings and arrest her for theft!  And Marshall also keeps secret his pending marriage to a boring socialite.  Eventually it takes the meddling of the mobster they work for to force them together. 

Ultimately this isn't really a movie about class; there is little commentary on the reasons for Arthur's plight, or how poorly the down and out are treated.  It's interesting, though, that the mobster is accepted as a member of the upper class, despite his criminal background.  Old money, new money, it doesn't really matter in America in the 1930s.  As long as you had it!

Carol Lombard, My Man Godfrey

Carol Lombard "My Man Godfrey," 1936.
I love how Carol Lombard is something of a mess in "My Man Godfrey" (1936) trying to prove herself to her more sophisticated sister.  It's clear she has the bigger heart, but she also has misconceptions about why people suffer and what they need to get out of "Skid Row."  I'm glad she gets reunited with William Powell at the end of the film and she gets to see that "forgotten men" just want to work - they just need the opportunity to do so.

Comparing this role to what she did in films like "To Be or Not To Be" we can see what a great actress she was, especially in comedies.

Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

Katherine Hepburn, "The Philadelphia Story," 1940.

I was aiming for Tracy Lord, Goddess in this sketch from "The Philadelphia Story" (1940).  She's so perfect as a representative of the upper class who needs to see that flaws in people aren't a sign of a flawed soul, a common misconception among those who were born to comfort.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney and Men of Boys Town, 1941

Turner Classic Movies ran a full day of Mickey Rooney films last week to honor his long career.  I caught a few scenes from an Andy Hardy film, and watched some fun moments in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."   I've seen many of these films before and I'm always impressed by the energy and honesty Rooney brought to all of his roles, both serious and slapstick.
Mickey Rooney
New to me on this day of otherwise familiar films was "Men of Boys Town," a 1941 sequel to the hugely popular and quite well known "Boys Town" from 1938.  
Rooney reprises his role of Whitey Marsh, the tough kid who eventually comes around to Father Flanagan's (Spencer Tracy) idea that "there are no bad boys."  Whitey turns a new leaf at Boys Town, winning Father Flanagan's respect and the friendship of his peers.

"Men of Boys Town" takes place a few years after the original.  The home for boys is under financial pressure, and Father Flanagan is being asked to relinquish control to some well-heeled patrons.  One of those patrons takes Whitey under their wing; Whitey then goes to live with the family, providing some comic scenes where the rough-and-tumble young man tries to keep up in his new world.  He stumbles through a formal dance, pulling at the collar on his tux, and he struggles at golf, which he calls a sissy game.  I think it's a little cruel that Whitey's new dad makes fun of Whitey as he struggles at the tough sport, but it's a sign of things to come.

When Whitey tries to help a young boy in trouble with a gang, Whitey ends up in jail; and his new family let's Whitey get sent back to a masochistic reform school.  Whitey's new patron, it seems, doesn't agree with Father Flanagan's philosophy that there is no "bad boy."  Some people are just born bad and can't be helped, he tells Whitey.  Whitey refuses to agree - so Whitey gets sent off to reform school.

It's the scenes in the reform school that are the most striking.  Boys are harshly, physically punished, forced to walk in lines like crabs, beaten by the guards, even isolated in solitary confinement.  When another boy dies in his cell, Father Flanagan comes to investigate, and it's only through the Father's strong will that he gets past the bullying guards and cruel warden.  These are great scenes, showing that all it takes to get past a bully is often just strength of character.

Father Flanagan finds Whitey and hears his story, and is proud that Whitey tried to help another boy; instead of being ashamed, the Father is proud; he would have been ashamed if Whitey hadn't tried to help.  He then works to free Whitey and the other boy, and then to get the reform school system investigated.

The subplot eventually gets sorted out, Whitey's patrons give money to the school and his new dad turns a new leaf, learning something from Whitey about kindness and forgiveness.  It's a very typical, if slightly cliched, ending, but expected with this genre.  Again, what makes this film stand out are the scenes of the harsh reform school, and how Whitey tries desperately maintain his morals in such a terrible environment.  It reminded me what a great actor Mickey Rooney was, and that there are still many of his films I have yet to enjoy!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Two Favorite Parodies

Sleeper, 1973

Woody Allen, "Sleeper," 1973.

I forget, sometimes, that when I was first introduced to Woody Allen's "early, funny films" as a teenager in the 1980s that his films were barely 10 years old.  Watching them now they seem not dated, but definitely reflective of a certain time. 
I loved "Sleeper" when I first saw it.  It's a great send-up of the sci-fi genre as well as 1970s counter culture.  And I love when Diane Keaton does a Marlon Brando impersonation.

The Princess Bride, 1987

Cary Elwes, "The Princess Bride," 1987.
I dressed as The Dread Pirate Roberts for Halloween one year.  "The Princess Bride" is easily one of the best films from the 1980s.  Great script with memorable, funny dialogue; enchanting performances from a huge cast of supporting characters; and one of the best sword fights ever caught on screen.  Did I mention my date the year I was The Man in Black, my date went as The Princess Bride?