This is my contribution to the Golden Boy Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Please visit and read the other postings, about a wide range of films starring William Holden.
One of William Holden’s earliest roles was as George Gibbs in a poignant screen adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about American small-town life, Our Town. This is a film well worth seeing, with a good director, Sam Wood, and a cast including Martha Scott and Frank Craven, who had starred in the original Broadway production, as well as character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Beulah Bondi and Guy Kibbee. It also has a stirring and atmospheric score by Aaron Copland. However, there is a big but!
Before getting into discussion of the film itself, I’d urge anybody setting out to watch it to learn from my mistake and be very careful about the print you choose. Unfortunately, this is one of those movies which has fallen out of copyright and into one of the lowest circles of public domain hell. There are dodgy copies around where the picture is grey and shaky and the surface noise is so loud you can hardly hear the dialogue or music. Worse still, some of these duped copies have huge chunks of the film missing. After initially starting to watch a truly dire copy, I belatedly realised it had a running time of only 75 minutes instead of 90 and gave up. Fortunately, I then found a complete version in reasonable condition, free to watch, at The Video Cellar YouTube channel, but I’d be interested to hear if anyone has seen a good DVD or Blu-ray of the film.
This is my contribution to the They Remade What ?! blogathon being organised by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please do visit and read the other postings.
Frank Capra first made his fairy tale of New York in black and white in the early 1930s. Then he returned to it 28 years later for a more light-hearted, star-studded Technicolor remake – which turned out to be his last full-scale film. As a fan of movies from the pre-Code era, I fully expected to prefer the 1933 version of this story, starring May Robson in the lead role. And I did, yet I also really enjoyed much of the 1961 version, where Bette Davis steps into Robson’s shoes. I watched the two more or less straight after each other – but did see the 1933 version first. I was surprised to learn that there has actually been a second remake, Miracles (1989), directed by and starring Jackie Chan, which moved the story to 1930s Hong Kong – but I haven’t had a chance to see that one.
So what’s the story? Street seller “Apple Annie” ekes out a living selling fruit to passers-by on the streets of New York. But she’s embarrassed about her poverty and doesn’t want her daughter, who has been educated abroad since early childhood, to know the truth about her life. So Annie “borrows” notepaper from a swanky hotel and writes letters describing a lovely society lifestyle for herself, to delight young Louise.
It all seems to be going well, until Louise writes to say that she is engaged to the son of a Spanish Count – and the couple are about to pay a visit. Annie is in despair, until gangster Dave “the Dude”, who regards her apples as his personal lucky charm, comes to the rescue. He arranges for her to borrow a flat in the hotel and pose as a society lady for the period of Louise’s stay. But can Annie carry off such a daring deception?
I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple – starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.
It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”
James Cagney and Loretta Young
The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!
I was keen to see this movie because I’m trying to see all of Cagney’s films – and, as this came next after The Crowd Roars, which is one of my favourites, I may have been expecting too much. To me this boxing movie, directed by Roy Del Ruth, feels a bit rushed and ragged round the edges, and it’s easy to see why around this time Cagney was getting fed up with Warner forcing him to make one quick movie after another, and repeatedly casting him as a hoodlum. In this movie they even give his character the name “Jimmy” (something they did again in the gangster comedy Jimmy the Gent), which can’t have helped him to avoid typecasting.