The Country Girl (1954)

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Yet another example of the prevalent trend of turning plays into film adaptations, director George Seaton took Clifford Odett’s eponymous work and plugged in three stars to carry the weight. Without question, the allure of The Country Girl is purely the trifecta of stars it assembles. Yes, it’s stagebound but the talent is certainly present.

William Holden is sturdy even intense when he needs to be as stage director Bernie Dodd, intent on recasting his new play The Land Around Us after his initial choice didn’t pan out. It’s a tough break but if they get it together, there’s still enough time to right the ship before the opening. He willingly takes a chance on a has-been named Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) even fighting for him despite the criticisms of his producer. He has visions of what the man was and could be again, not the pitiful mess standing before him.

Holden slides relatively easily into the role based on prior expectations. This might be due in part to his work with Billy Wilder. The dark edges of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Stalag 17 (1953) create almost a seamless continuity that fit with this narrative as well.

It’s the other two names on the marquee who might well surprise some viewers. It has song and dance like High Society (1956) made two years later, but this is an entirely different beast, functioning as an embittered drama more than anything else. Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly appear as you’ve rarely seen them before, if ever.

Elgin, for one, is a hopeless alcoholic, his confidence is shot, and he and his wife live in a humble flat getting by on his demeaning work doing radio jingles. It’s a far cry from the audience he used to command. I’ve never seen Crosby in anything so daring, even detrimental to the image that he cultivated his entire career.

The man puts up a happy-go-lucky facade for everyone else as his wife sees him slowly deteriorating from nerves and alcohol abuse behind closed doors. But by being a people pleaser he’s constantly tearing up his wife’s reputation with his lies. Because this is a story where the wife gets turned into a villain.

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But Grace Kelly stands bravely in opposition to the tall tales her insecure husband spins about her in the presence of others. Because it’s true he has projected all his fears and shortcomings onto her. She is in most regards everything he is not. There’s nothing flashy in her portrayal. It’s not the usual image of Grace Kelly, alluring elegance head to toe. The ultimate shorthand comes when we are introduced to her wearing glasses, those objects meant to conceal beauty behind their frames.

This is a movie of all sorts of misconceptions and little white lies cultivated by Elgin. He is the source of all the marital strain and hopelessness in his life, failing to let go of past trauma and bounce back. Critics make or break it for him. His skin is paper thin and his liver is getting doused night after night. The only chance he has is the stability of his wife and even she is brought to her breaking point. No thanks to him.

The most interesting theme making its way through the story stems from Bernie as he takes on righteous indignation against Mrs. Elgin, a woman he believes to have sucked her husband dry of all he has to offer. His continual clouded judgments are a testament to seeing only what he wants to see. Because the man is always the truth-teller and always right. It is the female who causes strife and selfishly stretches the truth due to insecurities and petty jealousy. It’s an easy enough narrative to write and for a man to swallow, horribly regressive as it is. But it’s just this version of the story that unearths these underlying biases.

Upon reevaluation, Mrs. Elgin is a far more nuanced and stalwart woman than Dodd would have ever given her credit for. He’s also rightfully humbled in the realization he made a grave error in judgment.

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By the picture’s end, he’s in love with this woman he once wrote off — the faithful wife of his star — and that could be the final twist of The Country Girl. He really wants it. She shares an affection for him too, no doubt. But that’s just it. She is a loyal wife and stays by her husband’s side in his successes just as she did throughout all his failures. We look at such behavior and through a modern lens, it seems needlessly sacrificial.

What does she owe him? Why should she forego what makes her fleetingly happy for a man who gave her more heartache than joy as of late? Is this just another instance of the subservient woman being kept down? These are certainly valid opinions. However, one could make the case more vehemently still this woman, this country girl, is driven by a sense of goodness, of sacrificial love, and a moral framework allowing her to perceive the situation with immense lucidity. This is a way she might bless her husband.

If marriage is to still stand for anything, we would expect the same from her husband if ever the tables were turned. That he might be willing to reciprocate for her someday. In this regard, it’s a moving reminder of the bonds of matrimony. Grace Kelly though less extravagant gives one of the most quietly assured performances of her meteoric career which blooms into a boon of emotional sensitivity. She never ceases to captivate.

3.5/5 Stars

THIS IS MY POST IN THE 4TH WONDERFUL GRACE KELLY BLOGATHON PUT ON BY THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA AND THE FLAPPER DAME! 

Road to Rio (1947)

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My dad has been and forever will be a fountain of pop cultural knowledge. I learned the little I know from the best, the difference is, he lived through most of it. Still, I must admit, at times I didn’t believe some of these touchstones of yesteryear when I was a kid. How could anyone have actually written a song called “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and what in the world does “You’re in the Groove Jackson” mean? They can’s possibly be real.

Of course, for those more enlightened than I was back then, you would have already known that both these fantastical things were in fact true. Alan Sherman was quite the nut and the same goes for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In that roundabout way, we get to the Road Picture that I’ve always cherished at least a little bit because of one particular gag. But let’s start closer to the beginning.

The wonderful thing about the Road films is the very fact that their two bozos know exactly who they are and they never stray from those characterizations from one picture to the next, even if the schemes change as do their names. There’s the same self-referential jabbing and fourth-wall-breaking executed in a way that later films would pick up on too. People loved Hope and Crosby and they enjoyed their onscreen buddy-buddy just as much. By the looks of it, they always seemed to be having as much fun as the audience and that’s the key. It’s contagious comedy.

I’m inclined to think that some of the greatest comics are the ones who come up with the lines on the spot. But whether or not Hope and Crosby actually ad-libbed any of their verbal jabs, to their credit, they had a complete handle on their personas and so every phrase comes off as genuine.

They’re always trying to pull off some get-rich-quick scheme only to wind up in some wild locale completely broke.  We’re always provided the enjoyment of Crosby’s ever-present condescending pet name “Junior” for his partner in crime. Because he takes on the mantle of the idea man and Hope unwittingly ends up doing the dirty work, in this case, a circus bicyclist up on a trapeze.

Crosby is also always playing the easily duped gentleman — a real sucker for the ladies — who’s not above throwing his pal to the lions except when it really counts. Plus you have to throw a little crooning in there to make all the ladies swoon a bit. We get an appearance by the All-American songstresses The Andrew Sisters performing “You Don’t Have to Know the Language” with Bing.

Still, everyone knows all that is “happening” in the world circa 1947 is in Rio so there the boys go as stowaways, of course, after getting chased out of town by an angry circus promoter. That’s what all the great comics do. Namely, The Marx Brothers, who were consequently also directed by Norman Z. McLeod in Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932).

Our two bunglers now aboard a slow boat to Brazil meet the ever-present Dorothy Lamour, the bodacious beauty in all their movies, as a grateful knockout, a damsel in distress. But something dastardly is going on as the gorgeous woman is caught in the hypnotic clutches of Gale Sondergaard who has a couple hired cronies (one played by a personal favorite Frank Faylen).

There are some real laugh riot moments not least among them watching the pals don their stuffiest British accents as they sway on the ship’s deck to snag an easy meal from a seasick patron or our heroes dressed to the tee doing their best impression of the samba. Of course, you have some tried and true favorites like “Patty Cake” or Hope’s sardonic one-liners such as affectionately calling his trumpet “Grable-bait.” Look it up if you don’t get it.

But the showstopper is the formation of their groovy band Americain made up of our hapless heroes and three Brazilian street musicians who earn a crash course in English. Composed of three universally accepted phrases: “You’re in the Groove Jackson,” “This is Murder,” and “You’re Telling Me.” Presto they’re Americans in a pinch and what follows is “Who’s on First” light.

The final charade is to break up an ill-fated marriage with a bit of safecracking and they bungle it immaculately.  The greatest surprise of all is that Hope actually gets the girl (like Road to Utopia) except this time he gets a little help.

3.5/5 Stars

Sons of the Desert (1933)

sons of the desert 1Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. 

When I was a kid Laurel & Hardy were a mainstay of the local lending libraries and I viewed many of their pictures from Bonnie Scotland to Flying Deuces to Saps at Sea.  I’m not sure if I can make that point enough. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy and a lot of Road Movies with Hope and Crosby. Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed those comedies which got played over and over in my household. But the point is you only see a limited number. That being said, I never got the opportunity to see of Sons of the Desert until a few years back and it’s yet another quality comedy in the Laurel & Hardy hall of fame.

The film opens with a powwow of the Sons of the Desert society with its many members waiting with baited breath for the proceedings before they are rudely interrupted by two malcontents. None other than our lovable heroes who sheepishly wade through the crowds. They’ve made their presence known and never let up from thenceforward.

But more importantly than their entrance is the solemn oath they take along with the legions of others, resolving to show up at the annual convention in Chicago no matter the obstacles in the way. For Stan and Ollie that’s means getting their wives to let them attend or better yet pulling the wool over their eyes because that’s a lot more entertaining from a comedic perspective.

Chance events like meeting relatives and sinking ocean liners are really inconsequential insertions into the already nonsensical storyline. After all, if something’s already absurd what’s the difference if it gets even crazier? The bottom line is that Sons of the Desert keeps Stan and Ollie at its center and they don’t disappoint getting into mess after mess as they always do.

In this particular iteration, a bit of the battle of the sexes is going on although there’s no way either of these men can dominate their wives and that’s the funny part. Ollie’s the instigator, blustering his way into the scenario with his typical overconfident ways, dragging Stan along with him and getting them both into a heap of trouble. They’re up on the roof in the rain without a paddle or any prayer of keeping dry. And in precisely these types of moments, you see the irony of Ollie’s catchphrase. Stan might unwittingly add to the chaos but Ollie is the instigator of every mess.

They try and exert their dominance and when that doesn’t work they try deception, putting on a false front for their spouses. And when that doesn’t work they run and hide, snivel and beg for forgiveness. Either that or get all the contents of the kitchen cabinets hurled their way. In the end, Stan has a fairly amiable homecoming but Ollie can’t say quite the same thing.

Some memorable moments involve Stan snacking on wax fruit and trying to string along some flimsy lies about how they “ship hiked” across the ocean, highlighting his perpetual struggle with the English language. Meanwhile, Ollie is trying his darndest to fake an illness with Stan’s help and the boys end up hiding out in the attic away from their wives before they’re forced to sneak down the drainpipe in the pouring rain. They can be conniving buffoons but there’s also very rarely a moment when we’re not on their sides.

As if having each other was not enough already, they always have the backing of the audience. They give us that same gift of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd or The Marx Brothers or Tati or any of the other great comics. They give us laughter in droves. The mode isn’t all that important. It’s simply the fact that they too have a timeless ability for evoking giggles.

3.5/5 Stars

White Christmas (1954)

58e88-white_chrismas_filmMany times I feel like a broken record (this time playing a Christmas tune), but White Christmas is one of those classics that I never get tired of. It is so ingrained, so integral to my childhood memories, that I have difficulty analyzing it or finding fault.

Wonderful, visceral films stop being something that must be thought about and simply become an all out experience. That’s what White Christmas is for me. A full blown Christmas experience courtesy of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney Vera-Ellen, Dean Jagger, director Michael Curtiz and of course Irving Berlin.

I mean this as a compliment, but at a basic level, I always thought of White Christmas as a Christmas-like version of Singin’ in the Rain. We have a talented and dashing leading man in Crosby (Bing Crosby) and his mischievous and hilarious partner in crime (Danny Kaye). They are never better than during their parody of the sister’s act (It’s a priceless gem of a moment). Although, there is constant chemistry throughout the film thanks to the bickering and back and forth between two buddies.  Similarly to Singin’ in the Rain, you also have big spectacles, lavish sets, great songs, dancing, and constant quotability. It brings out the most reluctant of crooners and even the guys with two left feet. But what about the story?

White Christmas follows those two war buddies as they make it big as a boffo double act. Along the way, they help out a pair of sisters as well as their washed-up former commander General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who owns an inn in snow-less Vermont. Although, it’s lacking in business,  it’s the perfect locale for matchmaking, acts of kindness, and misunderstandings courtesy of local innkeeper and resident eavesdropper Emma (Mary Wickes). But what we end up receiving is a joyous romance with plenty of Christmas cheer and sentiment to go around.


Bing Crosby’s pipes are as good as ever (“Count Your Blessings”) and Danny Kaye can make his voice crack like no other. Vera-Ella has a talented pair of legs and Rosemary Clooney can carry a tune in her own right opposite Crosby. Whether it’s “Snow,” “Sisters,” or the eponymous track, there’s so much to offer. Weather any slow sections and you will be rewarded thanks to the even-handed direction of Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), paired with the ever memorable compositions of Irving Berlin. Now go spend the holidays with your kith and kin. Vermont must be nice this time of year, all that snow.

4/5 Stars

Have Yourself a Very Movie Christmas!

It’s that time of year again to dust off those old videos and tune your TVs to some Christmas classics. Whether it’s oldies like It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas, or more recent favorites like Home Alone and Elf, these films spread Christmas cheer for all to hear. As always Charlie Brown knows the real reason for the season. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Scrooge (1935)
Remember the Night (1940)
Holiday Inn (1942)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
Holiday Affair (1949)
A Christmas Carol (1951)
White Christmas (1954)
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
The Little Drummer Boy (1968)
Frosty the Snowman (1969)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970)
Scrooge (1970)
The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)
The Gathering (1977)A Christmas Story (1983)
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Scrooged (1988)
Christmas Vacation (1989)
Home Alone (1990)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
The Santa Clause (1994)
Elf (2003)
Prep & Landing (2009)

Road to Morocco (1942)

58f0c-roadtomorocco_1942Starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour in this third installment in the Road Series, this film has the boys floating towards Morocco as castaways. They finally reach land, hitch a ride on a camel, and just like that they are off on the Road to Morocco. They wander the streets looking for food at first then Jeff (Crosby) sells Orville (Hope) for money. Little does he know that Hope has been taken to the castle of a beautiful princess (Lamour) to be married in order to fulfill a prophesy. Jeff finds out soon enough and he tries to win the affections of the princess as well, but trouble arrives in the form of the jealous suitor of the princess. He takes the girl and the two lovebirds are left to chase after mirages in the desert. They are imprisoned, but after a daring escape they come up with a comedic solution to turn a visiting sheik against Kasim (Anthony Quinn). In the chaos both Jeff and Orville get away with a girl of their own. This has to be my favorite road picture. The title song is great, Hope has some great one liners, Crosby croons nicely, Aunt Lucy makes an appearance, there are talking camels, Hope tries to win an Oscar, and I love it when the three stars sing together in the desert.  Unfortunately the film is stereotypical, but as far as the Road pictures go it is a good one.
 
4/5 Stars

Road to Utopia (1946)

Starringc0cc6-roadtoutopia_1946 Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour in this fourth Road picture, this film begins in the present with an old marry couple who gets a surprise visitor. Then the story flashes back to the turn of the century where two lowlifes commit murder in order to steal the map to a gold mine. However, the police are on their tails so they duck into a vaudeville show where Duke (Crosby) and Chester (Hope) are performing. Eventually the two con men decide to part ways, but they double cross each other only to end up heading for Alaska on the same ship as the two killers. Through a bit of luck they get the map and take the place of the two killers, but trouble follows close behind them. The daughter of the man who was killed (Lamour) is intent to get the map back and she is unknowingly working with some undesirables. As always happen both hapless adventurers fall head over heels for Sal, who wants to get close to them for the map. However, the map is in two parts and then Sperry and McGurk are on the loose again. Duke and Chester’s real identities are revealed to Sal and now the trio must hightail it, with two killers and a multitude of others looking for them. Miraculously they escape by sled, but only two can get away so Duke heroically holds off the pursuers. This Road film is probably one of the best and all the stars are in fine form in Utopia.

4/5 Stars

 

Road to Zanzibar (1941)

3bcc4-roadtozanzibar_1941This is the second installment in the Road Series and it follows two con men who must go on the run which leads them to Africa. Crosby is pulled into saving Dorothy Lamour from a life of slaver. Little do the hapless con men know what her true motives are. They travel on a safari together and a midst the song and comedy love creeps up. Both believe Lamour has her eyes on them but then they figure out what is really going on and they head off on their own. However, all too soon they are captured by cannibals and it looks like they will become shish kabobs. That’s when a little game of “Patty Cake” comes in handy and in the end everyone is reunited. There are some choice moments in this Road Film but I think it was one of the weaker ones.

3.5/5 Stars

Road to Singapore (1940)

2e545-roadtosingapore_1940This is the Road film that started all with the brilliant comic pairing of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. The two bozos both skip out on obligations and relationships back home and together they hightail it to Singapore. There they both fall head over heels for the same girl despite having vowed to give up women.  Together the trio hide from their respective pasts. However, with barely any money  they must muddle through with cons. Everything comes to fruition at a native marriage ceremony where Mallon’s father and fiancee catch up with him. In the end everything works out as it always does and Singapore was only the tip of the iceberg. The film works based on the chemistry of the leading trio and the ad-libbing and various gags such as “Patty-Cake.”

3.5/5 Stars

"You’re Telling Me"

One of the most memorable scenes from the Road movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. “You’re Telling Me” from Road to Rio (1947)