Where does the time go? February’s half over and I’m only just getting on to my Douglas Sirk season – sorry to be slow, but hopefully I’ll still manage to fit in a few reviews! The earliest film included in the 7-DVD UK/region 2 Douglas Sirk Collection is the charming, bitter-sweet Has Anybody Seen My Gal? This is a small-town tale in gorgeous Technicolor (though sadly a bit faded on the DVD), as typical of Sirk, but, since it is a comedy, the mood is rather lighter than in many of his films. Unusually, it’s also a sort-of musical, with occasional brief bursts of song and dance, although none of them really come to much. This is a period piece, set in the 1920s, and it’s full of loving observation and beautiful sets and costumes to create the mood.
Top billing goes to Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson, who went on to work with Sirk on several better-known films – but make no mistake, this is Charles Coburn’s film all the way. In his mid-70s when he made this movie, the comedy great dominates throughout, and playing the lead rather than a smaller character part gives him the chance to show more layers to his grumpy but kindly screen persona. Once again, he plays a grandfather type loaded with money, as in earlier comedies like Bachelor Mother – but his wealth certainly doesn’t seem to be making him happy. As the film opens, he is pining away in bed, nursing imaginary ailments and making the lives of his employees a misery as he barks out cruel but witty one-liners.
Coburn’s character, megabucks industrialist Samuel Fulton, confesses that he was a loser in love as a young man, when the girl he wanted to marry, Millicent, turned him down and chose a much poorer man instead. After hearing of her death, he decides he’d like to make her family his heirs – but first he wants to find out if they are worthy of his millions. He therefore decides to go to their small town posing as a poor man himself (he comes up with the brilliant alias “John Smith”), become their lodger and observe them at close hand.
Samuel/John soon discovers that the Blaisdells are generous and down-to-earth – everything he’d dreamed of. What’s more, his beloved’s granddaughter, Millicent (Piper Laurie) is a dead ringer for her namesake grandmother. He promptly arranges for them to receive an anonymous gift of $100,000, to see how they will handle riches. Unfortunately, the answer is… very badly. The mother, Harriet (Lynn Bari) has already shown slightly snobbish tendencies, and now goes into overdrive She insists that husband Charles (Larry Gates) must sell his drugstore, moves the family into a mansion and breaks off Millie’s engagement to poor soda jerk Dan (Hudson), in the hope that she can marry her off to rich but creepy Carl (Skip Homeier) instead. Ludicrously, Harriet even decrees that younger daughter Roberta (Gigi Perreau, who is wonderful throughout) will have to get rid of her beloved pet mongrel, Penny, and have two French poodles instead! (See ‘dogs in movies’ blog The House of Two Bows for a great take on the dog story in this film.)
I’m left wondering if there are any films where characters come into money and it actually works out well for them. I can think of several films involving a lottery win or a big inheritance, and,as far as I can remember, in all of them the money brings misery and destroys lives. Can anyone think of an exception to this rule?
People suddenly changing their lives and pretending to be something they are not are themes which repeatedly crop up in Sirk’s movies, often with painful results – and, despite the light tone, the pain is there in this film too. The Blaisdells find themselves struggling to live up to a rumoured wealth much greater than their one-off windfall, while a despairing Millie drifts ever closer to marrying Carl instead of true love Dan.
Ironically, though, even as Samuel’s money is wrecking the lives of the people he wanted to help, he himself is having a whale of a time in his new role as the impecunious “Gramps”. He has much greater freedom to do what he wants and even discovers an unsuspected talent for working as a soda jerk alongside Dan. However, the film avoids making working life look too idyllic, as a penny-pinching new boss takes over at the drugstore. Martin Quinn (Forrest Lewis) constantly orders Dan and Samuel around and is always trying to work out if they might have been slacking for 30 seconds while he wasn’t looking.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this movie, including all kinds or quirky and surprising moments. The whole cast is great, including the dog – and Rock Hudson and Piper Laurie make an appealing couple, with an enjoyable scene where they go to a silent movie together (Laura La Plante’s Hold Your Man). There’s even a brief glimpse of a young James Dean as a customer at the drugstore, eating an enormous sundae with multi-coloured dollops of ice cream. But the film’s biggest pleasure is Charles Coburn’s performance – once again proving that he was a character actor who could easily take on star roles.