Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
This tale of a drunken journalist is one of James Cagney’s rarest films, never released on video or DVD and apparently never shown on TV. It seems to be available only on the “grey market”. I was lucky enough to see it in brief segments on Youtube, but am editing (July 2009) to say that, sadly, it has now been removed. Since it’s so little-known, I wondered how good it could be, and was surprised at just how powerful it is. Another re-edit (April 2013) – a commenter had kindly left details of a site which had an unofficial DVD available, but this is now no longer available, so I have removed the comments to avoid confusion. I do hope this film will get an official release, as there is clearly a demand for it.
The opening 20 minutes or so, in particular, for me are Cagney at his best – almost as compelling as his performance in White Heat, made just a couple of years earlier. The rest of the movie doesn’t keep to quite that pitch, but it’s still well worth watching, with excellent performances by Gig Young and James Gleason and sharp, memorable dialogue. It was directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed Cagney in the gangster thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but for me this is probably the stronger movie of the two.
However, the problem with this film is in a way the same as with the much better-known Bogart and Raft movie They Drive By Night – that it starts off by giving a dramatic treatment of reality, showing a real issue facing the hero, but then spins away from the issue it’s just raised to come up with a far-fetched melodramatic plot. They Drive By Night begins with the exhausting workload of long-distance truckers, and ends with a film noir murder plot. Come Fill the Cup begins with a look at one man’s struggle against alcoholism, but turns into an also-ran gangster movie. Cagney himself was bitterly disappointed by this change of focus and the way gangsters had been worked in, just as he was trying to beat his typecasting. I’m wondering, though, if this plot was in the original book, by Harlan Ware – I can’t find a summary of its story anywhere, but did find the cover of a paperback edition on the net (unfortunately I seem to have lost the link), and it seems to feature the dancing girl Maria, who is involved in the film’s gangster plot.
Filmed in truly glorious Technicolor, this is probably the lightest of the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn movies I’ve seen so far. ( I only have a couple of the ones they made together still to go.) This time there’s no real sense of conflict – although obviously the romantic comedy plot brings up its share of misunderstandings – but more of friendship and shared humour, and sheer enjoyment of each other’s little eccentricities.
The film is directed by Walter Lang, with a script by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, based on a play by William Marchant. As so often with movies based on stage plays, the dialogue is beautifully crisp, but this one doesn’t feel too slow and stagey.
I enjoyed the scenes in the library over the Christmas period, where Hepburn is constantly answering the phone and saying: “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Back in the 1980s, there used to be a list of Santa’s reindeer up on the wall in the reference library at a newspaper where I worked, because this exact query came so regularly over the festive season.
In those days, and still more so in the 1950s, it seemed unlikely that a computer would ever be able to answer any random question you put to it. Now, of course, with the arrival of the internet, computers can do just that, and the science fiction has become reality.
Tracy is endearing as scatter-brained scientist Richard – wearing one blue sock and one brown one, and constantly looking as if he isn’t quite sure where he’s just been or where he should be going next. “I had a tape measure a minute ago – you didn’t see where I put it, did you?”
Hepburn provides the perfect contrast as quick-talking Bunny, with a memory at least equal to that of his computer. She might check her engagement diary for show, but you know she has it all by heart, and probably next year’s engagements too. I especially enjoyed the scene where Hepburn and Tracy eat a picnic in the cold while he fires questions from a prepared list.
Among the supporting cast, it’s fun to see Joan Blondell in good form as one of Hepburn’s colleagues, while Gig Young is suitably infuriating as Hepburn’s on-off lover Mike, an unthinking male chauvinist who has taken her for granted for years until some competition turns up.
I enjoyed the gentle, understated feeling to the whole movie – and, especially, the scenes where everyone is running around after Emmie the computer !