My Christmas Present to You: THE GREAT RUPERT Complete Movie (Eagle-Lion 1950)

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THE GREAT RUPERT is one those movies I used to catch frequently on my local public access channel; it seems like it’s been in public domain forever. Producer George Pal uses his Puppetoon magic to animate Rupert, a plucky dancing squirrel who’s “almost human” forced to forage for himself when his trainer is evicted for not paying his rent. A homeless, penniless family of circus performers, the Amendolas, move in by fast-talking landlord Dingle’s son Pete, who falls head-over-heels for daughter Rosalinda.

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The miserly Mr. Dingle keeps his cash stashed in a hole in the wall, which is where Rupert stashes his nuts. When Mrs. Amendola starts praying for a miracle, Rupert starts tossing the worthless (to him) moolah out of his hidey-hole, and she believes it’s “money from heaven”. Soon the town begins to gossip about where the Amendolas are getting all this loot, and the local cops, IRS, and FBI begin to have their own suspicions…

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Jimmy Durante’s  jokes are older than him, but his singing and schtick are always a treat. Pretty Terry Moore was fresh off acting with another animated animal, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. The cast of pros like Tom Drake, Queenie Smith, Frank Orth, Chick Chandler, and Frank Cady (GREEN ACRES’ Mr. Drucker) keep things light, as does Irving Pichel’s direction. Full of more corn than a Nebraska field, here’s the sentimental Yuletide silliness of THE GREAT RUPERT. Enjoy watching, and have a Merry Christmas!

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

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This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

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Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

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Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

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22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

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Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.

Christmas Surprise: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (Allied Artists 1947)

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I’d never heard of IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE until it’s recent broadcast on TCM. This unsung little holiday gem was a TV staple for decades before being pulled from viewing in 1990, only resurfacing in 2009 when a small but dedicated band of classic film fans put the pressure on to see it aired once again. And I’m glad they did, for this charming, unpretensious comedy boasts a marvelous cast, an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and a Frank Capra-esque feel without a lot of the Capra-corn.

Capra himself was scheduled to direct it back in 1945, but instead he chose to make another Christmas film you may have heard of, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Veteran Roy Del Ruth obtained the rights, and IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE became the first release of Allied Artists, the larger budgeted, more prestigious arm of Monogram Pictures (and you know how much I love Monogram movies!). The film was cast, shooting began, and the movie was released- in Easter season! I’m not quite sure why a movie based around the Christmas season was released on Easter, but it didn’t matter, as moviegoers packed their local theaters, and Allied Artists had a huge hit on their hands.

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The story: When “industrial wizard” Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world”, goes south to Virginia during the winter months, hobo Aloysius McKeever and his dog Sammy appropriate the property. McKeever meets Jim Bullock, a homeless vet evicted from his room because O’Connor bought his building to put up another skyscraper. McKeever invites Jim to stay with him until he gets settled somewhere.

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O’Connor’s headstrong 18 year old daughter Trudy, still depressed over her parent’s divorce, runs away from boarding school and heads to the family mansion. She’s caught by McKeever and Jim, who think she’s a thief trying to steal a mink coat. When she overhears the two talking about the reason they’re in her home, she plays along, calling herself ‘Trudy Smith’ from Dubuque, Iowa, one of fourteen children with an alcoholic father who beats them all regularly.

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Trudy falls for Jim, and while they stroll down the street they run into a couple of Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey and Hank, and their families, currently all living in their car due to the housing crisis. Soon all nine people are squatting in the O’Connor homestead, and Jim comes up with a plan to turn a former Army camp into housing for homeless veterans. O’Connor tracks down Trudy, but she persuades pop into playing along so Jim won’t think she’s a spoiled little rich girl. He does for a time, but soon gets fed up with the situation and threatens to call the police, forcing Trudy to call mom Mary in Palm Beach, who arrives and gets in on the charade by posing as an Irish cook!

Got all that so far? Good, but there’s a catch: unbeknownst to each, O’Connor is bidding on that same Army property as Jim, causing more complications. But you just know everything’s going to work out in the end; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, and that’s what Christmas movies do! Producer/director Del Ruth wraps things up neatly with a bow on top, and screenwriter Everett Freeman sends us all home happy in the end (his script lost the Oscar to another Yuletime classic that year, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!).

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Victor Moore gets top billing as McKeever, a gentle soul of a hobo who’s wiser than his outward appearance lets on. Moore was a star of Broadway and early silent flicks who became a reliable character actor (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937, SWING TIME). He’s definitely an acquired taste, but is more than acceptable here. The young lovers are well played by Don DeFore and Gale Storm . I’ve told you about my long-time crush on Miss Storm here through viewing reruns of her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale had a lovely singing voice to boot, but for some reason Del Ruth chose to have her dubbed! Doesn’t matter, Monogram’s home-grown starlet shines anyway as Trudy.

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It’s Charles Ruggles who really made the film for me as the millionaire O’Connor. Ruggles’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and willingness to take a pratfall or two are a joy to behold, and the veteran comic character star walks away with the movie’s acting honors. Pre-Code darling Ann Harding (HOLIDAY, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS), always a welcome presence, has terrific chemistry with Ruggles as his former spouse. Young Alan Hale Jr (Gilligan’s Skipper!) plays Jim’s pal Whitey, and Dorothea Kent (a lovely lass) is his wife. Other Familiar Faces joining in on the fun are Leon Belasco, Edward Brophy, Chester Clute, Dudley Dickerson, James Flavin, John Hamilton, Charles Lane, George Lloyd, and Grant Mitchell.

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE will be on my Christmas watch list from now on, a delightful screwball tale the whole family can enjoy. Tired of the same old holiday movies? Give this one a try; you can thank me later!

 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a Christmas Classic (MGM 1938)

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Out of all the myriad movie permutations of the Charles Dickens classic over the years, this 1938  production still remains my favorite. The MGM treatment is in full effect, putting their glossy stamp on Victorian Era London and giving the production a high-polished look. Director Edwin L. Marin brings Hugo Butler’s tight script to life in just over an hour, keeping the story moving along swiftly  with no overblown padding. Marin was a competent storyteller whose steady hand guided everything from Bela Lugosi mysteries (THE DEATH KISS) to MGM’s Maisie series with Ann Sothern to Randolph Scott Westerns. A CHRISTMAS CAROL was produced by a 28-year-old tyro named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, later to become an Academy Award winning director ( A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, ALL ABOUT EVE), who did his own take on the story with 1964’s Carol for Another Christmas.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1843 you already know the story. Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean, rotten old skinflint who hates mankind in general, and Christmas in particular. He fires his clerk Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, even though Cratchit has a wife and six kids, including crippled Tiny Tim. He disinherits nephew Fred for getting engaged to the woman he loves. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley, who’s wrapped in chains and cursed to wander the earth for his sins. Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three spirits this eve, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and given a chance to change his miserable ways. The miserly old sourpuss repents, and learns to love both Christmas and his fellow-men.

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Lionel Barrymore was set to play Scrooge when he became ill. He was replaced by character actor Reginald Owen, who is wonderful as the crusty Scrooge. He blusters, bullies, and berates all around him, his favorite curse a dour “Humbug!”, and his turnabout into a warm-hearted human is a joy to behold. Owen dominates the screen in this, his only starring role. He appeared in over 80 films, lending his presence to A TALE OF TWO CITIES, MRS. MINIVER, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, and MARY POPPINS, among many more.

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For Gene Lockhart (Cratchit), this movie was a family affair. His wife Kathleen costars as Mrs. Cratchit, and 13-year-old daughter June makes her debut as one of the children. Yes, that June Lockhart, the one who played TV moms on the hit series LASSIE and LOST IN SPACE. Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim will melt even the coldest of hearts, and the Cratchit family’s anguish over Tim’s death will bring tears to your eyes. Barry McKay and Lynne Carver are fine as the lovers Fred and Bess. McKay’s best known as a star of British musicals with Jessie Mathews, while Carver was strictly a B player most remembered as Nurse Alice Raymond in a couple of DR. KILDARE films (with A CHRISTMAS CAROL’s original star Lionel Barrymore as cantankerous Dr. Guillespie).

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The ghost of Jacob Marley was Leo G. Carroll, who later encountered ghosts of his own in the television version of TOPPER. Carroll is remembered by horror fans as the acromegalic doctor who let loose the giant TARANTULA in the 1956 thriller. He was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in seven of the Master of Suspense’s films, and later found a new audience as spy chief Mr. Waverly on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. If the Ghost of Christmas Past looks familiar to you, that’s because it’s pretty Ann Rutherford, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in GONE WITH THE WIND, and girlfriend of Andy Hardy in the long running Mickey Rooney series. The other two ghosts were Lionel Braham (Present), who gives a robust, jolly performance, and D’Arcy Corrigan (Future), who’s hooded, black cloaked face is never seen, silent as death as well. This apparition is particularly eerie, and used to scare the daylights out of me as a child.

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Franz Waxman’s musical score sets the film’s mood, going from dark in the beginning to spritely by film’s end. Sidney Wagner’s cinematography also adds to the atmosphere, and MGM’s ace set designer Edwin B. Willis outdoes himself. Jack Dawn was MGM’s answer to Universal’s Jack Pierce. His makeup jobs for Owen and the various ghosts are often overlooked by viewers, but they’re excellently crafted. Dawn’s work can also be seen in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (with Spencer Tracy), and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. The special effects crew deserve a round of applause too for their contributions to A CHRISTMAS CAROL (I can’t find any information on who they were… any fans out there know?)

Well, I’m off to wrap presents for my loved ones, and will be away from the keyboard for a few days. To all you dear readers out there, I’d like to leave you with the words of Ebenezer Scrooge after his conversion, and the sentiments of little Tiny Tim:

To all of us, everywhere, a Merry Christmas to all of us, my dears!”

“God bless us, everyone”

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Christmas Confection: HOLIDAY AFFAIR (RKO 1949)

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On September 1, 1948, movie star Robert Mitchum went to a house party with an acquaintance and two young women. The quartet was raided by LA police and arrested for possession of marijuana.  Local cops were out to clean up the Hollywood “dope scene”, and Mitchum was used to set an example. Sentenced to 60 days in jail, Mitchum and his bosses at RKO figured his career was over. But during all this hubbub, the studio reluctantly released RACHEL AND THE STRANGER, a Western with Loretta Young and William Holden that Mitchum finished before the bust. It was a hit with audiences, who cheered at the sight of the laconic pothead on-screen! Mitchum did his time, then went on to make THE BIG STEAL with his Out of the Past costar Jane Greer. It looked like all was forgiven, but RKO was still unsure, and tried to soften Mitchum’s image by casting him in the Christmas themed romantic comedy HOLIDAY AFFAIR.

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This lightweight holiday tale has Mitchum playing Steve Mason, an idealistic dreamer who we find selling toy trains at a large department store in New York City. Pretty young Connie Ennis (a 22-year-old Janet Leigh) pushes her way through the crowd to buy a train set for her son. She’s really a “comparison shopper” working for a rival store, and Steve sees through her right off the bat. She brings the train set home, to return tomorrow, but her precocious 6-year-old son Timmy (Gordon Gebert) peeks inside the box and thinks it’s for him. When she returns it the next day, Steve is supposed to turn her in for being a spy. But after they talk, he has a change of heart and lets her go, causing him to get fired.

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Connie’s a war widow dating lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), a practical guy who wants to settle down. Timmy’s not too crazy about Carl, at one point kicking him in the shins and saying, “You’re not my father!” Carl and Steve become rivals for Connie’s affections, and complications arise. But it’s all pretty harmless, and you know from the get-go Janet’s going to wind up choosing Mitchum over boring Wendell Corey, who’s got all the charisma of a doormat. HOLIDAY AFFAIR will make you smile, but it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. There’s some good moments, and it’s a rare chance to see Mitchum do romantic comedy, but this isn’t a can’t miss film. In fact, it didn’t do well at the box office,  and RKO put Bob back in noir territory with his next film, Where Danger Lives. It’s only when HOLIDAY AFFAIR began showing on television that it developed a devoted following.

Young Janet Leigh is lovely to look at, and showed glimpses of better things to come. I never cared that much for Wendell Corey, who seemed stiff and boring in most of the roles I’ve seen him in. He’s stiff and boring here, too. But little Gordon Gebert is swell as Timmy, a natural child actor who actually acts like a child. Harry Morgan (billed as Henry) has a small part as an exasperated cop, and gives the scene he’s in a boost. Director Don Hartman was primarily a comedy writer, with credits including some Hope and Crosby “Road” trips and two Danny Kaye vehicles (WONDER MAN, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN). Screenwriter Isobel Lennert was responsible for films like ANCHORS AWEIGH and EAST SIDE WEST SIDE. After being sidetracked by the House Un-American Activities committee (where she named names), Miss Lennert continued her career with PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES and FUNNY GIRL.

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Robert Mitchum went on to a long and successful film career after his marijuana arrest and incarceration. Photos from the pot trial show Mitchum with co-defendant Lila Leeds, a 20-year-old bit player married to Lana Turner’s ex. Miss Leeds also did sixty days in stir, and upon release she chose to star in something called I SHOULDA SAID NO! (aka WILD WEED), an exploitation movie along the lines of REEFER MADNESS. The film, and the pot bust publicity, did nothing to further her acting career, and she tumbled into a cycle of more arrests, heroin addiction, and prostitution. Lila Leeds eventually found religion, and volunteered at local missions in LA. She died in obscurity in 1999.

Merry Christmas, everybody!!

 

Ho-Ho-Horror!: SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (TriStar 1984)

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Deck the halls with slaughtered bodies, fa-la-la-lala, lala-la-la!

What better way to spend the Yuletide Season than with SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, a movie about a psycho Santa running amok in Utah? This 1984 slasher shocker was directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr., usually associated with wholesome family fare like THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS, IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK, and ANCIENT SECRETS OF THE BIBLE. But Sellier occasionally dipped his toes into exploitation (THE BOOGENS, THE ANNIHILATORS), and hit the bloody nail on the head with this one. The movie was considered controversial in its day, and TriStar actually pulled it from theaters a week after its release due to protests from national PTA groups. Today, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is regarded as a classic of the slasher genre and holds up quite well next to fright films like FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

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We begin our tawdry little tale in 1971, with the Chapman family driving their station wagon to visit Grampa at Utah Mental Hospital. Gramps is catatonic until mom, dad, and baby sis leave the room. Then the creepy old geezer scares the beejeezus out of young Billy, telling him Santa Claus is going to punish him for being naughty. Billy’s pretty freaked out by this, but the worst is yet to come.

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An armed robber in a Santa suit (the always welcome Charles Dierkop) kills a clerk, and ends up with “thirty-one bucks? Merry fucking Christmas”. The crook pulls the old “broke down by the side of the road” routine, hoping to score, when who should pull up but the Chapmans. The killer Claus shoots dad in the head and rapes mom, slashing her throat in the process. Billy runs and hides, scared to death while Santa searches for him.

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Cut to 1974, where we find Billy and his sister at St. Mary’s Orphanage. Sister Margaret is sensitive to Billy’s fear of Christmas, but Mother Superior is an old-school ogre who thrives on punishment. When Billy’s caught peeping through a keyhole at two teens gettin’ it on, Mother Superior doles out the punishment with an iron hand, her mantra being “Punishment is absolute…punishment is good”. Holy Catholic guilt!!

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Ten years later, Sister Margaret helps Billy get a job at Ira’s Toy Store. Things go well at first, until Christmastime. When Mr. Simms’s Santa breaks his ankle ice skating, he recruits Billy to don the red suit and beard of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick. At the after-hours Christmas party, the employees get drunk celebrating. Billy follows two of them to the backroom, and catches them in fragrante delicto. This is more than he can handle, and he brutally murders them both. After slaughtering the rest of his coworkers, Billy leaves to go on a killing spree, creatively exterminating another sexually active pair (one of whom is cult movie queen Linnea Quigley) and some punks before heading to the orphanage, axe in hand and ready to “punish”.

Didn’t anyone think of sending Billy to a therapist? I guess we wouldn’t have a movie if they did. Robert Brian Wilson is outstanding as Billy, though the film’s (then) controversial nature kind of did in his career. Wilson got work on soaps and TV episodes, but by the 90s he was out of acting altogether. Seen today, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is fun, a big hunk of 80s Xmas cheese with boobs and gore galore. The movie spawned five (!) sequels and a 2012 remake, none of which capture the loopy spirit of the original. So snuggle in your beds with visions of sugarplums dancing in your heads this Christmas…

But you better watch out!!

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