This is my contribution to the Mary Astor blogathon being hosted by classic movie blogs Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, running from May 3-10, 2013 – please do visit the other blogs taking part.
The Mary Astor film I’ve chosen to write about is And So They Were Married, a little-known romantic comedy from 1936, where she plays a divorced mother thrown together with widowed father Melvyn Douglas at a snowbound ski resort over Christmas and New Year. It’s not available on DVD, but can currently be seen on Youtube, and is also due to be shown on TCM in the US at 11.15pm (ET) on Wednesday, July 3. While not a masterpiece, this is an enjoyable family film and could also be a fun alternative to better-known Christmas movies to bear in mind when the next festive season arrives.
The scenery, filmed on location at Donner Pass in California, is beautiful, and Astor and Douglas make a great couple, even if at times they could do with sharper dialogue. This will be a fairly short posting and this isn’t the sort of film where you need to worry about spoilers – though, in any case, as the New York Times review pointed out: “And So They Were Married gives away nearly all the story it has to offer in one titular burst of generosity.”
I knew that Mary Astor found herself pushed into mother roles later in her career, but I hadn’t realised she started to play this kind of part quite so young, while still at the height of her beauty. She was just 30 when And So They Were Married was released, and looks very young to be the mother of Edith Fellows, who was 13 (although her character is said to be nine). However, even if the casting is a slight stretch, Astor’s relationship with her screen daughter comes across as warm and natural, showing the way forward to her later mother roles in better-known films like Meet Me in St Louis.
If there’s one murder mystery where nobody cares whodunit, it has to be The Thin Man. Why waste time puzzling over clues when you could be enjoying William Powell and Myrna Loy, and their portrayal of glamorous detectives Nick and Nora Charles? The scenes everybody remembers from this sparkling pre-Code comedy-drama are all about Nick and Nora – and, of course, their wire-haired terrier, Asta.
For the uninitiated, the film centres on supposedly retired private detective Nick Charles, who has given up the day job to concentrate on enjoying life with his rich wife. Or so he thinks – but, inevitably, when the couple leave their San Francisco home and visit his native New York to stay in a grand hotel suite there over Christmas, the festivities get mixed up with solving one last crime. Which will lead to plenty more “last crimes” in a series of sequels. There is a fine supporting cast, including Maureen O’Sullivan as a lovelorn young girl and Nat Pendleton as a comic detective, and the murder mystery is well done in itself, leading up to a scene round the dinner table where Nick brings all the suspects together before revealing the killer. However, it isn’t what anybody remembers the film for. Few people even remember that the phrase “The Thin Man” is actually supposed to refer to a character involved in the murder mystery, a complicated tangle about an eccentric scientist suspected of killing his ex-lover, and not to William Powell.
Latter-day screwball comedy Eternally Yours was made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and has a superb cast. There are three actors who later won Oscars, not only leads Loretta Young and David Niven, but also Broderick Crawford as the hapless “other man”. Also featured are great silent film actress Zasu Pitts, doing a comic turn, and C. Aubrey Smith, Eve Arden, Hugh Herbert and Billie Burke in small roles. And there’s a good director, Tay Garnett, who went on to make The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years later. Don’t expect too much, though – this is not a masterpiece by any means and I’d have to say it sags in the middle, after a great start.
Any fan of classic romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy, all the same, just as long as you steer clear of the dire public domain DVDs on the market from companies you’ve never heard of. I rashly bought one of these and found the film almost impossible to watch, with dreadful picture and sound quality, and a lot of bewildering jumps in the story. It later transpired that this was an incomplete version with many scenes missing (including some of the best ones!) so that the plot made little sense. Fortunately there was a more complete version on Youtube (around 90 minutes), with much better sound and picture. This may not be perfect, and still has one or two jumps, but, when I watched this, suddenly the film was immeasurably improved from the butchered version I’d originally seen. I note that the US TCM website also has a DVR version available which may be better yet.
MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.
As a fan of 1930s films, I was really looking forward to seeing this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. However, I must admit I was rather disappointed with this very short film (just 69 minutes), which cuts out a great deal of the story, including most of its darker elements. Remarkably, this is a version where nobody really seems to be poor. Instead, there is a lot of MGM glamour, including Ann Rutherford improbably cast as an elegant blonde Ghost of Christmas Past, plus some lavish Hollywood snow scenes thrown in. I can see that this adaptation was aimed at a family audience and this is why it has cut out so many of the scary/disturbing elements, but unfortunately this means it has in effect plucked out the heart of Dickens’s story.
I’d heard a lot about Lionel Barrymore’s great performances as Scrooge on radio, and decided today to listen to his most famous audio version of A Christmas Carol, broadcast at Christmas 1939 as part of Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse series.
Via Google, I found a website which claimed to have the show available for streaming. However, after listening for a while, I realised that the website in question (I won’t link to it to avoid further confusion!) had got in a muddle, and the programme labelled as being the 1939 broadcast was in fact the one broadcast the previous year, 1938 – when Barrymore was unable to take part and the 23-year-old Welles stepped in to play Scrooge as well as being the narrator!
It’s an astonishing double voice performance by Welles. He is unmistakably speaking in his own voice for his introduction, which includes him reading out the Nativity story, but sounds convincingly elderly and gruff as Scrooge. Indeed, at first I readily accepted that it was Lionel Barrymore, since he achieves a voice which is quite similar. Possibly even more remarkable, in the flashback sequences where he plays the young Scrooge, Welles sounds not like himself, but like a younger version of the elderly voice he has been doing for Scrooge – and the story’s emotions come across strongly in all his voices. I was interested to find that Joseph Cotten plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred – he appeared in many of Welles’ radio productions before starring with him in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Anyway, I’m glad to have heard this version, which keeps a lot of Dickens’ language and is compelling listening, even though it isn’t the production I set out to hear! I do still hope to listen to the Lionel Barrymore version before too long, and here is a link to The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a site which has both the 1938 and 1939 dramas available for download, correctly labelled! They are also currently being streamed at Wellesnet, until January 1 2013.
A Christmas Carol has been produced on the radio many times over the years, with Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge regularly for many years. His brother John stepped in to play Scrooge in 1936 when Lionel’s wife had just died, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a surviving recording of John’s performance in the role. Laurence Olivier also played Scrooge on radio on one occasion. Here’s a link to the first half of a two-part article about the various old radio versions, with lots of fascinating illustrations. I’d definitely like to listen to more of these radio productions, and also to more of Welles’ other radio shows – he did adaptations of many classic novels and films, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers.
I must admit that, overall, the 1933 version of Oliver Twist is one of the weakest Dickens films I’ve seen. It is nowhere near the quality of David Lean’s famous adaptation, or even of the 1922 silent film starring Jackie Coogan which I reviewed here recently. I’m glad to have seen it, and think it has one or two powerful sequences, in particular towards the end of the film – but in general it is a disappointment, and I’m only going to write a brief review.
The film was made by a Poverty Row studio, Monogram Pictures, and does not have the production values of Dickens films made by larger studios. Its budget must have been a tiny fraction of the money spent on the great MGM films of 1935, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Despite being only around 70 minutes long and losing much of the novel’s plot, the film, directed by the little-known William J. Cowen, seems painfully slow and stilted much of the time. (It may have originally been longer, as some characters are listed who don’t actually appear in the film.)
“I’d wish you a Merry Christmas,” snaps Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) as she walks past a drunken Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), staggering through the falling snow. “But it’s plain to see you’ve had it already.” However, Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) has compassion, and drags him into a Christmas night church service - where she whispers that she is lighting a candle for him. Earlier, Carton envied Darnay Lucie’s prayers and pity; now he has them too. It’s plain to see that she isn’t giving up on the wasted life of the lawyer just yet.
None of this is in Dickens’ novel, which indeed has no mention of Christmas at all. Yet it all adds up to one of the many memorable scenes in the 1935 take on his tale of the French revolution – and helps to build up a touching portrait of the relationship that might have been between Lucie and Carton, the central doomed romance of both novel and film.
I missed a day of ‘Dickens in December’ yesterday, so apologies for that to anyone who dropped by my blog and drew a blank, but I’m currently working on a review of the great 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities and will hopefully be back with that later today, or tomorrow!
In the meantime, just thought I’d post links, for anyone who has only been visiting my blog this month for the Dickens season, to the two reviews I did earlier this year of the other Hollywood Dickens movies released in that same year – Stuart Walker’s Mystery of Edwin Drood and George Cukor’s David Copperfield. (The fourth Dickens release of that year was the British Scrooge, directed by Henry Edwards, which I reviewed in the last few days.)
I’m not sure why there was such a flowering of Dickens movies in that one year – but there were also many other great classic and historic adaptations around that time, so presumably it was part of that whole picture.
The 1935 British film Scrooge, directed by Henry Edwards and starring Seymour Hicks in the title role, was the first sound version, but has tended to be overshadowed by Hollywood productions. However, I’ve just watched this version and really enjoyed it – Hicks was a celebrated actor, who was well-known for his portrayal of Scrooge on stage and had already played the character in an early silent movie, Scrooge (1913), later rereleased in 1926 as Old Scrooge. In the 1935 talkie version, he goes slightly over the top at times, especially towards the end of the film when he dances with glee. But, when playing such a larger-than-life character, there is nothing wrong with that. And this version does create the dark, cold atmosphere of Victorian London very convincingly, with a strong focus on the social message of Dickens’ novella.