Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)

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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and their first in Technicolor. Charles Vidor, not usually associated with the sagebrush genre, directs with a light touch, even having some of his characters break the Fourth Wall on a couple of occasions. Robert Carson’s screenplay has a sense of humor and a definite touch of playfulness to . But don’t misunderstand, THE DESPERADOES is not a parody, the story’s taken seriously, and there’s plenty of action including a barroom brawl and a wild horse stampede. It just doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s the key to its success.

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Randolph Scott is stalwart as always as the hero sheriff. By this time, he was already well-established as a Western star. This was his first film for producer Harry Joe Brown, and the pair would collaborate on a series of oaters in the late 1950’s that are among the genre’s best (THE TALL T, RIDE LONESOME, COMANCHE STATION). Most of those were directed by Budd Boetticher, who worked as an assistant director on this film.

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A still-wet-behind-the-ears Glenn Ford plays the good/bad guy Cheyenne, alias ‘Bill Smith’. Ford was definitely on his way up in movies and, after serving in World War II, hit the jackpot with his role in another Vidor directed film, GILDA. Claire Trevor as The Countess does her patented bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold routine as Ford’s ex-gal, while Evelyn Keyes is her rival for his affections. Keyes would also win her man in real life, marrying director Vidor later that year. Edgar Buchanan had his loveable scoundrel part down pat by this time, a role he later perfected on TV’s PETTICOAT JUNCTION. Williams is goofy as ever, Hall as weaselly as ever, and there are fine bits by Raymond Walburn as a ‘hanging judge’ who loves his work so much he builds his own gallows, and Irving Bacon as the local bartender whose saloon gets wrecked more than his patrons.

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The movie features some gorgeous Technicolor shots of Kanab, Utah’s beautiful landscapes by DP George Meehan, though most of it was filmed at the famed Corriganville Western Ranch. Familiar Faces like Joan Woodbury, Glenn Strange , Chester Clute, Francis Ford , Charles King, and a host of others dot the landscape as well. The cast of pros in gorgeous Technicolor and good-natured humor make THE DESPERADOES a must for classic movie lovers, even those non-Western fans among you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, pardners.

 

Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)

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I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he keeps winding up back in Hollywood, where he meets a girl (her name is never given) in a diner, a disillusioned young actress about to leave Tinseltown behind.

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After the pair get arrested for stealing a car, which is actually his in the first place, Sullivan reveals his true identity to her, taking The Girl to his palatial estate. She’s angry at first, having thought him a real hobo, but when he’s determined to continue his odyssey she becomes equally determined to join him. From there they hop a freight train and live among the homeless souls, dining in soup kitchens and sleeping in a crowded shelter, learning how the poor and desperate souls live. Having gathered enough material, the director decides to hand out $1000 in fives to the street people in gratitude.

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Then the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as Sully gets rolled by the same bum who previously stole his shoes, and dragged onto a train leaving the station. The unfortunate crook drops the ill-gotten dough and is run over by an oncoming locomotive. The studio execs believe the dead man is Sully, who wakes up concussed and confused, charged with trespass and atrocious assault, winding up in a prison work camp run by a brutal overseer who doesn’t take any guff.

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Everything turns out okay in the end, as Sullivan finds a way to be freed and discovers making comedies isn’t so bad after all. Joel McCrea is flawless as the idealistic, earnest director, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to this conclusion: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan”. Sturges punctures the pretentiousness of Hollywood elitists who think they can save the world, suggesting that maybe what the world needs more of is a good, hearty laugh. The fact remains while comedies do big box-office, they get very little love come Oscar time. The great screen comics of their respective eras have rarely been rewarded for their efforts, usually settling for a lifetime achievement award after they’re way past their prime, while “relevant” dramas get all the accolades. Myself, I’d rather be entertained than preached at.

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Veronica Lake  shines as The Girl, showing a flair for comedy as the struggling starlet. She’s the perfect match for McCrea, with comic timing that’s just right. Tons of Familiar Faces parade on the screen, like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn,  Porter Hall Byron Foulger , Eric Blore, Torbin Meyer, Esther Howard , Almira Sessions, Frank Moran, Chester Conklin, and Dewey Robinson, many of whom appeared in subsequent Sturges films as a sort of stock company. A shout-out goes to Jess Lee Brooks as a black preacher who allows the prisoners to attend his church for a movie, leading the congregation in a stirring rendition of ‘Go Down, Moses” (that’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan  at the organ). Ray Milland also appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

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SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is social commentary disguised as screwball comedy, or maybe vice versa. Its rapid-fire dialog, great sight gags, and satirical skewering of Hollywood makes it a must-see for film fans. It carries a timeless message, and that is, as Donald O’Connor would say, “Make Em Laugh”! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more Preston Sturges films in the future, because we all need to stop and have a good laugh these days.

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

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The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

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The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

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Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

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All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!

Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

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Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

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The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

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The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

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Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!

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!

 

Hillbilly Deluxe: MURDER, HE SAYS (Paramount 1945)

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George Marshall has long been a favorite director of mine. Though he excelled in all genres (particularly Westerns), it’s his comedies that first caught my attention. Marshall guided W.C. Fields through his first for Universal, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (with radio foils Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy), did some of Bob Hope’s best films (THE GHOST BREAKERS, MONSIER BEAUCAIRE, FANCY PANTS), and directed MY FRIEND IRMA, the debut of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, later teaming with the pair for SCARED STIFF. He’s also responsible for the classic comic Western DESTRY RIDES AGAIN with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and the remake with Audie Murphy. But his wackiest comedy is undoubtably the off-the-wall MURDER, HE SAYS.

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This black comedy gem stars the underrated Fred MacMurray as Pete Marshall, pollster for the Trotter company (“Like the Gallup Poll, but not as fast”), sent to tiny rural Potowanamie to find missing coworker Hector P. Smedley. He rides his bicycle to the home of the Fleagle family, a murderous gang of hillbilly outlaws led by the whip-cracking Maw Fleagle Smithers Johnson. Falling into a hole, he’s taken to the dilapidated old house, meeting Maw’s homicidal twin dimwits Mert and Bert, Maw’s latest husband Mr.  Johnson, and crazy daughter Elany. Gun-toting Grandmaw Fleagle is dying (the brood has poisoned her, causing her to glow in the dark!), and she’s harboring a secret- bank robber son Ollie Fleagle stashed $70 Grand somewhere, and the only clue is a nonsense song that only his daughter Bonnie will recognize.

Grandmaw kicks off, leaving the lyrics to the tune on a sampler she gives to Pete. Then brazen Bonnie shows up, having escaped from prison, clutching a cigar in her teeth and gun in her hand. Only it’s not Bonnie, it’s Claire Matthews, whose father was falsely imprisoned in the robbery and wants to find the loot to clear him. The Fleagle brood attempt to kill Bonnie/Claire with poisoned gravy on her grits, winding up with Mr. Johnson’s untimely demise instead. Soon the REAL Bonnie shows up and the game’s afoot…

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This premise sets up a heapin’ helping of slapstick gags and goofiness, with MacMurray showing off his comic skills to good advantage. He mugs, double-takes, pratfalls, and tosses off one-liners with the best of them (there’s even a quick quip referencing his noted saxophone playing!). The scene where he tricks the doltish twins by pretending to converse with the ghost of Hector Smedley is a comic highlight, as is the riotous ending in the hay barn. If you’re only familiar with Fred MacMurray for his dramatic roles, gentle Disney comedies, or the long-running MY THREE SONS, watch him put his clowning hat on, he’s a delight!

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Equally delightful is Marjorie Main as Maw, a warm-up for her Ma Kettle role, only this hillbilly matriarch is deadlier than a rattlesnake. Whether killing a fly on the wall with her whip or slyly commenting on her home décor (cattle skulls, quipping to MacMurray, “Pretty, ain’t they?”), Main broadly plays this grotesque caricature of motherhood to the hilt. Peter Whitney  in a dual role as twins Mert and Bert made a living off playing no-account white trash types. Helen Walker (NIGHTMARE ALLEY ) acts tough impersonating killer Bonnie, vulnerable as Claire, and is more than a match for MacMurray. That perennial slimeball Porter Hall shines as Mr. Johnson, Jean Heather (who costarred with MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY) is loony Elany, and Barbara Pepper (who’d later play Arnold’s “mom” Mrs. Ziffel on GREEN ACRES) is the real escaped con Bonnie.

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MURDER, HE SAYS benefits from Marshall’s fast-paced direction, it’s 91 minutes flying by faster than the train to Potowanamie. It’s full of physical schtick, in-jokes, and demented black comedy that classic film lover’s will eat up like Maw’s grits… just make sure you pass on the gravy!