The Big Let-Down: THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (Warner Brothers 1947)

You would think THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS is just the type of movie I’d love. It’s a Warner Brothers pic from the 1940’s, it’s got Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck , there’s mystery and murder, a Gothic atmosphere… and yet, I didn’t love it, or particularly like it, either. For the first three-quarters, it’s too mannered, slow-moving, and (the cardinal sin) boring for my tastes. Things do pick up a bit towards the end, with Bogie menacing Babs alone in that gloomy mansion, but the denouement failed to satisfy me.

There are a number of reasons why the movie just doesn’t work. It was filmed in 1945, but held back two years by the studio for some reason or another (reports vary). Director Peter Godfrey, a Stanwyck favorite, just wasn’t up to the task of creating much suspense. Then again, the screenplay by Thomas Job practically gives everything away early on, so much that there’s really no suspense to be had. We already know Bogie poisoned his first wife to be with Barbara, and once he takes up with Alexis Smith and Stanwyck falls ill, we know exactly what’s going on. In the hands of, say, Alfred Hitchcock , perhaps we’d have a different, more suspenseful film, but Godfrey’s plodding direction fails to deliver the goods.

Then there’s Bogart, a fish out of water among all the Gothic trappings. I love Bogie, he’s one of my favorites of the classic era, but he just doesn’t feel like he belongs here as an artist with an insane streak. I could see someone like Errol Flynn (who costarred with Stanwyck in Godfrey’s similar CRY WOLF that same year) or maybe Paul Henreid (who was announced for the role during pre-production) pulling it off, but Bogie’s just flat-out not right for the part. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS sometimes gets lumped in as a film noir (as it seems too many films do these days), but it’s a far cry from that stylistic genre. It’s more a Gothic mystery, and doesn’t make the grade in that department either, thanks to Godfrey’s mishandling of the material and Bogart’s weak performance.

The supporting cast doesn’t help matters much. Ann Carter, who was brilliant as the lonely child in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, is stiff and wooden as Bogart’s daughter Bea. Nigel Bruce goes for laughs as Stanwyck’s doctor, but doesn’t achieve any. Alexis Smith is okay as Bogart’s next conquest, but isn’t given a lot to do except look good. Anita Sharp-Bolster (MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS ) gives the best performance as the housekeeper Christine, a decidedly minor role. THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS certainly looks good, with Anton Grot’s set design and Peverell Marley’s cinematography helping a bit, and has a great dramatic score by Franz Waxman . But looks aren’t everything, and I can think of dozens of films starring Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck I’d rather watch than this tedious, tired film. I bet you can, too.

Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

Benny’s From Heaven: Jack Benny in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945)

horn1Jack Benny claimed 1945’s THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT killed his movie career. After rewatching it, I can’t understand why. This comedy/fantasy is just as good as any Bob Hope or Red Skelton film of the era. Yet the critics of the time savaged it, and Benny spent the rest of his life cracking jokes about what a turkey the movie was. I disagree, and think THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT deserves a second look.

Continue reading “Benny’s From Heaven: Jack Benny in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945)”

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