The First (Animated TV) Noel: MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (UPA 1962)

Before Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and The Grinch, nearsighted cartoon star Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus ) headlined the first animated Christmas special, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL. First broadcast on NBC-TV in 1962, the special is presented as a Broadway musical, with Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Directed by Chuck Jones acolyte Abe Levitow , it features songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (FUNNY GIRL), and a voice cast that includes Morey Amsterdam , Jack Cassidy , Royal Dano, Paul Frees (of course!) , Jane Kean, and Les Tremayne. And yes, that is Magoo’s fellow UPA cartoon stablemate Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim! Besides 1938’s Reginald Owen version , this may very well be my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas classic! So here’s my Christmas gift to you all, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL in its entirety!:

 

   Merry Christmas from Cracked Rear Viewer!

 

Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)

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I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary tonight. But Diane has followed him, and he blows Mary off as the two end up going out for a night of dinner and dancing. Diane tells him her father was a novelist, and remarried after her mother was killed in the London blitz. She asks a lot of questions about Frank, who confesses he was once a race driver before the war, dreaming of the day he can open his own garage to work on sports cars like Diane’s fancy Jaguar XK.

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Next day, Diane meets Mary for lunch. She tries to play coy, offering Mary a grand to help Frank achieve his dream of opening a  garage. But Mary ends up fighting with Frank, and he takes a job as the Tremayne family chauffeur. Catherine pans on investing in Frank’s garage, but before she can, she and her husband are killed in a suspicious auto accident. Frank is questioned by the police and before you know it, the two are on trial for murder.

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To go any further would spoil the plot for those of you who’ve not seen ANGEL FACE. I’ll just say there are lots of twists and turns to come, and that the ending will hit you with full force! It took me by surprise, which is pretty hard to do. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) crafted a marvelous screenplay, and Otto Preminger directs with style. Preminger was one of film noir’s top directors, having lensed the classic LAURA, as well as WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and WHIRLPOOL (all of which are sitting in my DVR, waiting to be reviewed!) The director was responsible for the controversial (at the time) THE MOON IS BLUE, and top-notch films like RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (one of the first mainstream movies to deal with heroin addiction), and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. But by the Sixties it seemed Preminger’s time had passed, and films like HURRY SUNDOWN and the excruciating SKIDOO bombed t the box office. Preminger also acted in film and TV, most notably as the Commandant in STALAG 17 and as the chilling villain Mr. Freeze on BATMAN. Preminger died at age 80 in 1986, no longer a Hollywood A-lister. His film work is worth rediscovering for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Jean Simmons plays Diane, the ANGEL FACE of the title. Her character, like the best femmes fatale, is both beautiful and deeply disturbed. Diane’s a scheming, pathological liar, willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Simmons is one of the screen’s great beauties, a talented actress whose films include David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Olivier’s HAMLET, THE ROBE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and SPARTACUS. Robert Mitchum’s Frank isn’t very likable here, easily seduced by Diane. It’s to Mitchum’s credit that he does manage to elicit some sympathy for Frank, considering how he dumps Mary so unceremoniously, then expects her to take him back with open arms. It’s a tricky role, but our boy Bob is more than up to the task.

The supporting cast features solid actors like Leon Ames, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Mona Freeman, and Jim Backus. A special Cracked Rear Viewer shout out goes to Bess Flowers in the tiny role of Ames’ secretary. Miss Flowers didn’t do many speaking parts; she was known as “Queen of the Hollywood Extras”, appearing mainly in background scenes in over 800 film and TV appearances! Her list of credits is WAY too extensive to go over here. Her best known and largest role is probably as the rich wife who hires Moe, Larry, and Curly as interior decorators in the 1938 Three Stooges short TASSELS IN THE AIR.

Bess Flower with The Stooges
Bess Flowers with The Stooges

So is ANGEL FACE better than the two previous Robert Mitchum films I’ve reviewed this week? As a film noir, the answer is yes. It’s dark and downbeat, like the best of the noirs, with that foreboding sense of doom inherent in the genre, right up to the powerful ending. But for me personally, I prefer the anarchic spirit of HIS KIND OF WOMAN, which takes the genre and turns it on its ear. Like I said earlier, it depends on your point of view.

Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

Little Girl Lost: Marilyn Monroe in DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (20th Century Fox, 1952)

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Marilyn Monroe’s status as America’s #1 Sex Symbol saw her cast in lots of light, fluffy roles during the course of her career. But when given the chance, she proved she was more than just another pretty face. Marilyn’s acting chops shine like a crazy diamond in the 1952 film noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.

Marilyn plays Nell Forbes, a young woman new to New York. She’s obtained a babysitting job through her uncle, an elevator operator at a ritzy hotel. Nell’s an attractive woman, but right from the start we can tell there’s something slightly off about her. She seems haunted, her voice and mannerisms have a wounded quality. After putting her little charge Bunny to bed, Nell begins trying on the mother’s jewelry and kimono. She goes to the window when she hears a plane fly by, strangely attracted to the sound.

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In the hotel lounge, singer Lyn Leslie has broke off her relationship with pilot Jed Towers. Lyn wants more than Jed’s willing to give. Jed is a commitaphobe, the kind of guy who wants to have his cake and eat it, too. She calls him cold and callous, and she’s right. Jed’s a humorless, uptight male, and a bit of a prick. He goes to his room to drink alone, when he spies Nell across the way. Feeling frisky, Jed calls the room and strikes up a conversation, finally wrangling an invitation from her. As Nell applies lipstick, we see the scars on her wrists from an apparent suicide attempt. Jed goes over, and Nell tries to act sophisticated. She becomes infatuated when he tells her he’s a pilot. Bunny wakes up ,and Nell’s ruse is spoiled.

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Things go steadily downhill, as Jed leaves, and Nell becomes more and more unhinged. Her boyfriend had been a pilot that was killed on a flight to Hawaii. The suicide attempt led her to three years in an institution, and we discover she’s only recently been released. Nell’s tenuous hold on reality comes crashing down after Jed rebuffs her, and the film kicks into high gear as Nell sinks deeper and deeper into her madness.

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I won’t spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it. Instead, I’ll just tell you Marilyn Monroe is outstanding as Nell. Her vulnerable qualities at the film’s beginning give way to a creepy yet heartbreaking performance that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Nell is in turn clingy, violent, a practiced liar, and ultimately pitiable. Her loose grip on reality, coupled with her obvious bipolar traits, make Nell a danger to both herself and those around her. It’s a bravura showcase for Marilyn, one she rarely got, and she takes the ball and runs with it as the tragic Nell.

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Richard Widmark (The Swarm) is unlikable at first as Jed, but softens during the events of the movie. It’s a tricky role, but Widmark pulls it off. His ex-girlfriend Lyn is played by Anne Bancroft in her film debut. Elisha Cook Jr (Born to Kill, Blacula) is back in noir territory as Nell’s Uncle Eddie, giving another fine performance. The supporting cast features Jim Backus, Lurene Tuttle, Verna Felton, Don Beddoe (The Face Behind The Mask), and Donna Corcoran as Bunny. British director Roy Ward Baker is better known for his Hammer horrors (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, SCARS OF DRACULA, DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) than film noir, but does a good job leading the cast through a solid script by David Taradash (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), based on the novel Mischief  by mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong.

But it’s Marilyn Monroe’s show all the way. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is, along with 1953’s NIAGRA and 1960’s THE MISFITS, a chance to see her in a rare dramatic role. As much as I love her in musicals and comedies, I admire her even more in films that show her depth as an artist. It’s no wonder that, over fifty years after her untimely death, Marilyn is still popular from one generation to the next. She was THAT talented, and DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a must-see for fans of both her and the film noir genre.