Getting to Know Peggy Dow: Harvey and Beyond

source: IMDb

The L.A. Times headline in 1951 read: “Peggy Dow Sketches Future as She Quits Hollywood to Wed”

Many people recall how Grace Kelly famously married Prince Rainier of Monaco and from thenceforward left her stirling Hollywood career behind out of a sense of love and duty. That’s how the narrative was written anyway.

At least in the case of Peggy Dow Helmerich, it was never about sacrificing her career for the sake of her family. She wouldn’t have had it any other way, going on to raise 5 sons with her lifelong husband, Walt Helmerich, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What makes it such a lovely story is how she left behind the “Hollywood Dream” and lived a lovely life of contentment outside of the West coast rat race. Far from being a wasted talent that could have been, she simply reallocated her talents becoming synonymous with the arts in Oklahoma. And there’s nothing more admirable than raising a family.

In recent days, I got interested in Helmerich’s career. She is still with us today and before COVID days, she still made a decent amount of public appearances in her hometown as well as graciously agreeing to be interviewed by the Jimmy Stewart Museum, among others. It’s been a cache of wonderful information about old Hollywood and her part in it, but it’s also given me a greater estimation for the woman herself.

I felt compelled to acknowledge her, not only as a bright Hollywood talent with some enjoyable films to her name (including Harvey), but also as a lovely human being. I’m not sure if Mrs. Helmerich will ever see this, but hopefully, it can act as an introduction to those who aren’t as familiar with her.

Although she was only in Hollywood for several years, coming off university at Northwestern, she was touted at Universal-International as a rising starlet and her contemporary portfolio suggested as much.

In 1950, she was not only featured prominently on the cover of Life Magazine, but she also presented Edith Head her first Oscar at the Academy Awards for costume design. Famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper rated Dow highly, writing that she “Endowed Roles With Zest and Impact.” In 1951 she even accepted an award from Harry S. Truman in laud of Bright Victory, and its portrayal of servicemen.

If there was a beauty to actors being salaried to specific studios, it meant they had the opportunity to be in a slew of movies and therefore take on many different roles in an extremely short span of time. Peggy Dow only worked for a couple years at Universal-International and still found herself in 9 movies. Here are some of them.

Undertow

It’s not a pretty picture, but in an era saturated with noir, Undertow does give a fairly prominent role for Dow as an intrepid schoolteacher who meets a reformed criminal (Scott Brady) in Reno and shares a flight with him, only to later provide him asylum from the Chicago mob. Against the run-of-the-mill plot of a wanted man exonerating himself, Dow ably showcases her charms with warmth and a touch of class. The only question remains how will Brady end up with her since he already has a bride-to-be already waiting in the wings? It all works out in the end and boy gets girl.

Woman in Hiding

It’s a superior picture starring Ida Lupino in trouble, Stephan McNally as her treacherous southern boy of a husband, and Howard Duff plays the genial foil, providing support in her time of need. The title is straightforward enough and Dow’s part is pretty small, but it’s a juicy bit. She plays a scorned southern belle who gets slapped around during a cabin rendezvous and still manages a conspiratorial tone later on. Although it wouldn’t become the norm, it certainly would have aided in not totally typecasting her if she had wanted to stay in Hollywood.

The Sleeping City

It’s a mostly forgotten noir set in a hospital with Richard Conte as an uncover agent investigating a mysterious murder. With the sweet and diffident Colleen Gray as a nurse, it’s a bit difficult to know where Dow will fit into the picture. Sure enough, she shows up at the tail end as the heartbroken wife of a dead man brought in for questioning. All it amounts to is sharing a walk and talk with Richard Conte. That’s about the extent of it. Thankfully, the best was yet to come!

Harvey

Dow stated in interviews she actually didn’t want to feature in Harvey as a nurse because she was earmarked to play an Indian princess in some western opposite Van Heflin. It was her agent as well as her beau at the time, Walt Helmerich, who both encouraged her to take the part from the hit play now starring James Stewart. Time certainly has looked kindly upon that decision.

Now 70 years on and Harvey is still a beloved classic about a whimsical man who converses with an invisible rabbit and sprinkles a bit more pleasantness into the world. It would not be a stretch to say I would have never known Peggy Dow without Harvey. It’s not a flashy part, but what comes through is her beauty and natural courtesy gelling so nicely with Stewart’s characterization as Elwood P. Dowd. It just makes me smile, and she does too. It still holds up for me.

Bright Victory

It comes in the fine tradition of many of the war rehabilitation movies, in this case, following a soldier returning from WWII without his eyesight. He struggles to put his life back together with the help of his doctors and the tough love of his buddies. Dow got her biggest chance this time opposite Oscar-nominated everyman Arthur Kennedy.

She plays a warm and virtuous woman who sees through a vet’s gruffness, treating him decently because she sees all he’s had to overcome. After getting off on the wrong foot, they build a comfortable rapport. The only problem is that he already has a beautiful fiancee (Julie Adams) waiting for him. Thankfully, she’s hardly a terror, but the way the cards fall, Kennedy still ends up with the girl who has waited faithfully for him. It’s a joyous crescendo in a movie that certainly has admirable intentions promoting empathy and racial tolerance. Dow shares some tearful moments opposite Kennedy that are absolutely heart-rendering.

You Can Never Tell

At its heart, it’s a goofy fantastical comedy that has a bit of the DNA of the Shaggy Dog or Angels in the Outfield. A dog is bequeathed a giant fortune, quite peculiar, only to kick the bucket, quite suspicious. He’s reincarnated as a Dick Powell private eye prepared to get to the bottom of his own murder. Far from a villainess, Peggy Dow is his faithful caretaker who is next in line to the fortune. However, in all her good-nature, she doesn’t know someone has their designs on her (and the money). It’s ludicrous and fluffy if altogether harmless entertainment, enjoyable for what it is.

I Want You

This movie shares some similarity to Bright Victory in that it evokes an earlier classic in The Best Years of Our Lives. In fact, Samuel Goldwyn was trying to match his earlier success bringing back Dana Andrews in a story examining the effects of war on three generations of a family in Middle America. Robert Keith is the father and WWI vet whose eldest son (Andrews) went off to WWII, leaving behind his wife (Dorothy McGuire). Now, with the current conflict in Korea, the next in line (Farley Granger) is to be sent off.

He’s a brash young man involved with his car and girls. His best girl happens to be Peggy Dow. She’s been off to college, gained education, experience, and breeding. Her father is not too keen about her hometown beau, and so he has an uphill climb to woo her back. There are several facets to the movie, and if it was allotted more time to tease out its themes with greater nuance, it might be more well-remembered today. The meaning certainly is there if it’s not executed to a tee. Regardless, the performances carry a genuine warmth, and it’s a delight to watch the young love of Granger and Dow breeding between them. What a shame this would be Dow’s final time in the Hollywood spotlight!

Beyond Hollywood

We will never know what Marnie would have looked like if Princess Grace had come out of retirement to work once more with Alfred Hitchcock. And the same might be said of Peggy Helmerich. She was married and already a mother of her first when Hollywood tried to coax her back one last time in 1956.

It wasn’t just anyone either; it was one of the industry heavyweights in William Holden. He was set to play a pilot. No, this wasn’t another Bridges of Toko-Ri, but a picture called Toward the Unknown. Ultimately, the former actress passed on the opportunity and never looked back!

In an interview with Tulsa World she recounted how Dick Powell actually gave her some sage personal advice:

“Why would you want to stay in this business?’ I thought he was crazy, and I told him, the same reason as you: I’m an actor. But it turned out that he was fascinated with Walt because Dick was fascinated with business. He told me: You get married to Walt, and you come back to Hollywood, and this is what’s going to happen: It won’t work out. He asked me to come up with five happy married couples in Hollywood that we knew, and we had a hard time doing it.”

So in the end, a truncated Hollywood career seemed like a small price to pay for lifelong happiness. As alluded to already, Dow gladly turned her faculties towards raising a family with her husband of over 50 years Walt Helmerich as well as investing in her community. It’s no coincidence that the University of Oklahoma school of drama is named after her as well as a prestigious Distinguished Author Award.

However, more then any of this, whether it’s through her screen roles or the interviews that she gave, it’s obvious that Peggy Dow Helmerich is a classy, warm-hearted individual. When asked what she wanted to hear from God when she arrives at Heaven’s gate, she responded, “Come in.”

I’m not sure if I will get the pleasure of making your acquaintance in this lifetime Mrs. Helmerich, but I certainly hope I might get the privilege of seeing you in the next. I will tell you how much Harvey impacted me and how pleasantness really can go a long way in this world of ours. I think you exemplified that as well as anyone else. I wish you all the best.

What I Learned About Peggy Dow

Peggy Dow Helmerich hasn’t been a Hollywood starlet for about 70 years. However, she still delights fans years later in her movies including Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart in one of his incomparable performances.

I recently took a look back at some of her other movies that saw her starring alongside generational talents like Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, and Arthur Kennedy.

Here are just a few of the fascinating things I picked up along the way. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

  • She attended Northwestern and was classmates with the likes of Paul Lynde and then Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, and Cloris Leachman, who were a couple years older.
  • Her name was shortened for the screen from Peggy Josephine Varnadow to Peggy Dow.
  • She was a part of Universal’s class of young players including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, and Piper Laurie.
  • When she was in Hollywood she lived in the Hollywood Studio Club, which was created by Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille to help young actresses. Other tenants included Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Rush. 
  • The first car she bought in California was a green Chevrolet hatchback.
  • She was an acquaintance, from her Hollywood days, of Colleen Townsend Evans.
  • She was on the cover of Life Magazine in August of 1950.
  • Along with Joanne Dru, she presented Edith Head with her Oscar at the 1950 Academy Awards.
  • She initially wasn’t too keen on playing a nurse in Harvey since she was slated to play an Indian princess in a western opposite Van Heflin (It was probably Tomahawk).
  • She received an award from Harry S. Truman in Washington D.C. on behalf of the film Bright Victory.
  • She was asked to come back to Hollywood in 1956 to star opposite William Holden in Toward The Unknown where he was set to play a test pilot. She ultimately declined the part.

Until next week, here are some stills from Peggy Dow Helmerich’s films:

Charles Drake and Dow in Harvey

Jesse White, Dow, and Drake in Harvey

Dow with Jimmy Stewart

Dow with Dick Powell in You Can Never Tell

Dow with Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory

Farley Granger and Dow in I Want You

The best in-depth interview with Mrs. Helmerich can be found in the Voices of Oklahoma from 2009. There are a lot of great details featured if you’re interested.

She also did a lovely telephone interview for the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

For more contemporary newspaper columns, check out the following:

Scott, J. L. (1949, Oct 02). Peggy dow, who scored that way, sees TV as surest gateway to motion picture success. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

HEDDA HOPPER: CONTE AND PEGGY DOW ‘WEB OF CITY’ STARS. (1949, Oct 21). Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

REBA AND, B. C. (1950, Jun 08). Peggy dow’s small fry party stresses fun and participation. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Hopper, H. (1950, Dec 10). Peggy dow endows roles with zest and impact. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Schallert, E. (1951, Nov 18). Peggy dow sketches future as she quits hollywood to wed. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

Station West (1948): Starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer

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First impressions suggest Dick Powell doesn’t fit the boots of a western hero as he did the fedoras of noir. Like Bogart or even Cagney, his physique isn’t imposing and yet he makes up for it with a wry wit. Running off his mouth as he often does fits the cynicism of noir.

Not that it can’t have a place in the old west as well, but with other actors, it feels like second nature and yet when he gets off the stagecoach, it really does feel like he has just entered western country for the first time.

As the film evolves, it plays a bit in his favor because this is a version of the West suited for his talents. Granted, The Tall Target (1951) is not a western, but in that film, Anthony Mann made a bit of a Civil War-era noir with a similar milieu. However, unfortunately, by reputation, Sidney Lansfield is no Mann so I’m not sure the material is ever injected with a similarly visceral and engaging energy.

Events simply happen, characters interact, and there is a resolution. Thankfully Station West serves up one major plot twist, suggesting there is more than meets the eye in this out-of-towner who all but picks a fight with a soldier boy in the local saloon.

Maybe Haven is more Phillip Marlowe than we were initially led to believe. Regardless, he’s immediately taken by the local lounge singer, since the quizzical look of Jane Greer does that to people. He is quite forward in looking to make her acquaintance and ends up having a run-in with the local muscle (Guinn Williams).

There are moments where the fighting between them feels genuinely frenetic blended with hokey shots that look horribly fake. I’m not sure what to feel but for the sake of the story, Haven is now a big shot and news gets around about him. It’s all just a smokescreen; he wants to investigate a suspiciously missing shipment of gold.

Still a few years away from his much-deserved starring stint on Perry Mason, Raymond Burr plays a relatively uncharacteristic Lilly-livered loser. I love Burl Ives as much as the next fellow, however, his ballad singing feels forced and frankly, inorganic. It breaks up the scenes in a strange way as he keeps his guitar handy, welcoming guests to his very stingy hotel.

What remains to be seen is the identity of Charlie, the person who has their hand in all the town’s major dealings. Our snooping hero has a feeling discovering this information along with staging another gold run might get him some much-needed leads.

It’s not quite a black pool forming around him, but he does get whacked over the head in the middle of a gold run. It’s another added complication in the mystery to settle who is masterminding these robberies. It might be a testament more to the cut of the picture I saw. Regardless, Station West winds up a bit disjointed.

The payoffs are barely satisfying, and there’s never much of a motor to the picture’s action even amid the burning of a warehouse and some gunfire. Qualms about Powell’s performance aside, the greatest disappointment was Jane Greer. It just never feels like she has anything interesting to do even as her part has inherent possibilities. The opportunities afforded feel wasted. Then again, it could come down to chemistry, and it’s hard to top what she was able to conjure up with Robert Mitchum in not only Out of The Past but The Big Steal as well.

3/5 Stars

Footlight Parade (1933)

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Though it still came out in the middle of The Depression, there is a sense that Footlight Parade does not confront the contemporary issues head on and maybe that causes it to lose some potential power. Because, in a sense, it’s a period piece even if that period is only a few years prior when talking pictures were taking the world by storm. Of course, many audiences will be far more acquainted with Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which arguably did much the same and even a better job in its homage than this effort.

Likewise, a bigger bankroll for the pictures at Warner Bros. meant they got longer which is some ways isn’t all that advantageous. As far as stories go, this one is pretty much on par with its predecessors (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) though, rather surprisingly, the cast doesn’t run as deep.

Now we have James Cagney, of course, and what makes Footlight Parade deserving of a special side note is the fact that it would serve as the Warner Bros. gangsters first chance to hoof on screen. Because he wanted to prove that he was more than a thug and boy was he ever, even if the picture never really stretches him. Above all, he’s Jimmy Cagney, through and through.

John Wayne makes a picture-within-a-picture cameo in The Telegraph Trail which is shown to Chester as a demonstration of the imminent reality. Silent pictures are totally on the way out and this new attraction will grab audiences away from the stage. With the changing industry goes Chester’s livelihood. His galling wife isn’t too understanding calling for a divorce rather than wait around for him to be completely destitute.

However, Cagney’s able to capitalize on his newest doozie of an idea that comes to him after a mundane visit to his local drugstore. He translates it to talking pictures. He pitches it to his two boob bosses and they bite on his vision to develop live “prologues” that can then be showcased in movie theaters all around, making them lots of money. It’s a good idea but their closest rival Gladstone has already jumped on the wagon. It’s no small coincidence that Chester’s longtime assistant jumps ship and conveniently leaves behind another parasite to swipe ideas.

The one person who stands by him through everything is his loyal and lovestruck secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who nevertheless uses her acumen and street smarts to keep the utter insanity of his current work life tolerable. With the wolves primed to devour him, she’s just as feisty, out to protect his interests (and hers as well).

In the end, Chester smells a rat and puts the studio on lockdown as they race against the clock to churn out the three numbers they need to showcase to their potential backer, Mr. Apolinaris, who, despite ongoing indigestion, is a generally agreeable audience.

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Ruby Keeler is hidden behind a pair of specks to play up unwarranted stereotypes in a generally uninteresting role. Meanwhile, Dick Powell and his huffy patron have little to do. You understand why Powell wanted a different career trajectory because there’s nothing to stretch him.

His patron’s bubble-headed brother, played by Hugh Herbert calls to mind later types paraded in front of the screen by Billy Gilbert. He relies on her sway, otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his position as the resident content watchdog who constantly badgers Chester only to get the brush. Frank McHugh cultivates his gray hairs exasperated as the dance choreographer continually bombarded by incoming stressors on the eve of the big performances. He’s teetering dangerously on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

When the first line of an audition is, “show me your legs” and obviously it’s only for the gals, it just rubs the wrong way. There’s also an inherent sense that there needed to be more dancing and less plot, as much as I would follow James Cagney to the moon and back, figuratively speaking. Even “Honeymoon Hotel’s” repetitive cadence gets tedious and it feels more cutesy than a prime showing of Berkeley’s usual visual inventiveness. It’s the same issue I had with earlier numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park.”

However, the subsequent waterfall number gets us back to his element, by some unimaginable feat, we end up at a lavish pool gilded with finery. In an instant synchronized swimming was born (or at least promoted) and for some inexplicable reason, those overhead shots capturing the unified motion and shapes of the swimmers still blow my mind even today like a huge crowd creating shapes at a football game. What we receive is sensory overload of gestalt principles executed beyond what could possibly be imagined in terms of meticulous intricacy.

With “Shanghai Lil” Cagney gets in an excuse for a choreographed brawl which he handles ably and we do see him dance. It’s difficult to put into words completely but it seems a very sturdy approach with his feet working hard while his torso remains all but inert. It’s like there’s business on top and a party going on down below which gives him a fairly unique mechanic on the floor, resurrected from his earlier days in vaudeville.

What comes last is an ending meant to rival Gold Diggers fo 1933, still impressive but not nearly as meaningful. The “Shanghai Lil” trades out the stirring nationalism and triumph of the human spirit to cater to a number about a Chinese streetwalker played by Ruby Keeler in yellow face. Even with a turn toward the patriotic, it just can’t quite compete. But as always, it’s hard not to simply fall back on Cagney and praise him for guiding the picture with that surehanded tenacity of his that sees us through to the end.

4/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

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Rene Clair makes no justifications for his flights of fancy and it’s true that the stuff is unabashedly whimsical to the zenith. He made a reputation for himself in his native France for his playful cinema and for the decade or so he was in Hollywood (1935-1945) he continued much in the same vein. Most people would say it came with lesser dividends though some of his more memorable offerings included I Married a Witch (1942) and this film, It Happened Tomorrow.

Again, it involves highly unconventional orchestration like he was all but accustomed to in his comedies. It’s nary for everyone. In fact, it probably relies too heavily on its nifty bit of novel storytelling involving a journalist who begins to receive the following day’s news in advance. He can predict the future and it proves advantageous for grabbing the scoop and betting on the horses among other trifles.

Subsequently, the film begins rolling out a red carpet full of tropes upon tropes. But no one can shame Clair for sticking to his own whimsical abstractions and if you do allow it to invade your space you might just find yourself taken with its jungle gym-like acrobatics through time.

It starts 50 years ahead of our story with the golden anniversary of a couple talking about a small matter that happened years before. Then we fall back to the 1890s where Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell) has the monotonous distinction of penning obituaries for the local paper before finally being promoted to reporter by his grouchy editor Mr. Gordon.

But then something far more miraculous happens. Lawrence doesn’t realize the implications at first when Pop, a veteran newspaperman with a near-saintly demeanor, becomes Lawrence’s guardian angel. To speak in known references, he might very well be this movie’s Clarence. His true gift is offering his young colleague the following day’s headlines.

They involve, of all things, updated classified adds, irregular snowfall and then an Opera House Robbery — offering the first moment of realization that Lawrence might have something extra special in his grasp. Simultaneously he becomes, enamored with the clairvoyant half of a niece (Linda Darnell) and uncle fortune telling duo.

Not until reading a little further into Linda Darnell’s history did I realize just how young when she made it big in Hollywood. Like her finest efforts, she dazzles with that bright-eyed concern next to Dick Powell. Though he would begin the redefinition of his career shortly with his introduction as Philip Marlowe and upcoming hardboiled fare, there’s still time for something light. He carries it with his usual assured comic energy as the headlines continually drive him into action.

One night he’s saving a girl from jumping off a bridge — his own girl in fact — to make a prophecy come true and then the next morning he’s tipping off the suspicious police chief on where to capture some wanted bank robbers.

Lawrence is now the talk of the town and the go-to writer for the paper with his uncanny nose for news. Soon he’s asking for Sylvia’s hand in marriage though a momentous misunderstanding leads her uncle to insist on a shotgun arrangement. If that’s the case he gladly takes the poison. But to bankroll their happy future together he bets on sure thing after sure thing at the racetrack. After all, he can’t lose. Or can he?

If you could know when you were going to die would you know or is ignorance really bliss? The movie begins its downward spiral after Lawrence’s winnings are swiped and it is foretold that he will die the same day in a hotel at 6:25pm on the dot.

Flimsy physical comedy takes over as we plummet toward the inevitable despite Lawrence’s vehement attempts to derail fate. He still winds up in the lobby of the St. George Hotel, within the very confines where he is destined to be gunned down. Like clockwork, everything unspools toward that exact end. The most exasperating thing is he saw it all coming and could do nothing to stop it.

But with a knowing wink, Clair flips the conceit on its head and that’s the story’s flash of momentary brilliance because we see as the narrative gets back around how things can work out in such a convoluted but somehow logical fashion. The paper reads: Lawrence Stevens is Dead. Of course, we know he’s alive. But the movie manages to make the headline ring true. You can have your cake and eat it too.

3/5 Stars

The Tall Target (1951)

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To set the scene our storytellers enlist an opening crawl that runs over the unmistakable strains of train noise. The year is 1861. The event being dramatized is the alleged Baltimore Plot and our hero is New York policeman John Kennedy (Dick Powell).

Despite being common and coincidental I can’t but help to acknowledge the bitter irony of our protagonist’s name. But he is not here to thwart a plot against his own life but a man with a much longer shadow.

His in-depth report warning against an impending threat to Abraham Lincoln on the road to his inauguration in Baltimore is dismissed by his superior as alarmist drivel. Nevertheless, the man finagles a way onto the Baltimore-bound steam engine finding an agreeable ally in Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolph Menjou). Kennedy once guarded Lincoln for 48 hours and yet in this perilous hour, he will go great lengths for the same man. However, we will soon find out that not everyone feels that way. He’s a very polarizing figure.

I’ve come to the not so startling conclusion that anything Mann touches turns into noir which I readily agree too. Much like Reign of Terror (1948) before it, the director transforms this antebellum train thriller into a reconstruction of history painted in tight angles, smoke & shadows, and coiled with taut action. We grow embroiled in his composed world of greasy close-quartered combat with grimacing faces and flying fists. Far from being constricting these elements are where the story thrives, trapped in corridors and hidden away in side-compartments with the characters that dwell therein.

Because moving through such a space forces Kennedy to brush up against so many individuals. A conductor (soon-to-be blacklisted Will Geer) who is trying to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible only to be inundated by troublemakers and drama. A young mother (Barbara Billingsley) who tries to control her antsy son. An incessant windbag constantly worrying about her prized “jottings” and all she’s going to inquire to Mr. Lincoln about. A southern gentleman sounding off in his dismay with the countries future. You get the idea.

Despite the vague difference in context, it’s quite understandable to place The Tall Target up against another film from the following year The Narrow Margin (1952). Rather than try and decide which one is superior, it’s safe to say that both excel far beyond what their budgets might have you suppose and they utilize the continual motion of a train to an immense degree because in that way the narrative is almost always chugging along to a certain end.

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Ruby Dee has a meager but crucial part in The Tall Target that I deeply wish could have been more substantial. In fact, in an early version, the established star Lena Horne was supposed to play the part of the slave girl Rachel.

Though the movie doesn’t have too much time to tackle the issues at hand, with its limited runtime it does attempt some discussion in terms of African-American freedoms and the southern relationship to such an ideal as asserted in the 13th amendment. The dichotomy I’ve always heard repeated is that “the North loved the race but hated the individual. Southerners hated the race, but love the individual.” It’s a vexing sentiment that we somehow can see playing out here.

Ginny Beaufort (Paula Raymond) a proper southern belle notes that she grew up so close to Rachel treating her like a sister. So close in fact that she never even thought about giving the young woman her freedom. Meanwhile, her younger brother Lance is involved in more than he is letting on. The mystery is not in his objective — he’s made his sentiments fairly clear — he despises Lincoln. Rather what matters is who his compatriots are and how they plan to go after the future president.

For me, the illusion was broken in the final moments because up until that time the picture has kept its eponymous hero masked. He is the Tall Target and nothing else. When we see him somehow the mythos around him is broken and he becomes another actor more than the idea of the man we know as our 16th president.

Regardless, Anthony Mann’s effort, while not well received in its day, is another picture packed with exuberance. It gives us grit and intrigue aboard a train and like the best thrillers, it uses every restriction to keep the tension palpable while throwing around enough diversions to keep us in our seats.

3.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

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The people making the decisions, at least some of them, undoubtedly knew that this title implied some sort of sordid melodrama, a Douglas Sirk picture anyone? And yet I do admit despite the emptiness in the title, there’s some truth to its implications. Hollywood often is this gaudy, outrageous, maniacal monster looking for people and things to gorge itself on.

Except this is no Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Ace in the Hole (1951) for that matter. It’s not quite as biting or even as tragic or twisted as Wilder’s films but that’s what comes with having Vincente Minnelli at the helm. But rather than critique that decision in any way I think someone like Minnelli thinks about such a picture in a way that Wilder never would. That in itself makes for interesting creative deviations.

First, the camera setups feel impeccable, like a Hitchcock or Ophuls, finding the perfect moments to bring attention to a shot and the precise instances to sit back and allow things to unfold. It’s utilizing a bit of a flashy framing device like a Letter to Three Women (1949) or All About Eve (1950) but in this case, it relates the story of one Hollywood producer through the eyes of the people who worked with him.

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is a man whose father was one of the most hated men in Hollywood and also one of the most successful. Jonathan buries his father and with hardly a penny to his name looks to rise out of the ashes his dad left behind. He just might make good too. So as such, it’s another exploration of Hollywood top to bottom, starting very much at the bottom.

That’s part of what makes this story compelling as we watch an ambitious man claw his way from poverty row and B pictures using a joint partnership with another up-and-comer (Barry Sullivan) to slide his way into a gig as a big-time producer. It’s at these beginning stages where they succeed in making a name for themselves under producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).

For Sullivan, he is so closely tied to the business, it’s almost as if he’s wedded to the picture industry.  It’s both his life and obsession every waking hour. So when he’s done with one and waiting for the next he has what can best be termed, “the after picture blues.” He’s still trying to adopt his philosophy for women and apply it to his films — love them and leave them.

In passing, we get an eye into the bit players and the small-timers working behind the scenes just to make a decent day’s wage whether assistants or agents or pretty starlets moonlighting as companions at night. There’s even a very obvious current of sexual politics where women are naturally assumed to be at the beck and call of any higher up to pay them any favors. It’s the grimy, sleazy side of the business that continues to reveal itself in due time with connivers and drunks and suicidal wretches conveniently hidden by bright lights and trick photography.

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Further still, there are screen tests, meetings, rushes, and sound stages, makeup artists, and costume designers each a part of the unwieldy snake that makes up a film production. All the nitty-gritty that we conceive to be part of the movie-making whirly gig churning out pictures each and every year. They say if it’s not broke then don’t fix but what if it is broken and no one is fixing it? I write this right in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ousting due to a laundry list of accusations against him.

One of those involved in this beast receives a stellar introduction of her own. We meet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) with her feet hanging down from the eaves of an old mansion that belonged to her deceased father. She like Shields comes from Hollywood royalty and she like him is also looking to get out of her father’s shadow.

Jonathan is derisively called “Genius Boy” and maybe he is but opportunistic might be a more applicable term. Still, when he makes his mind up, he cannot be stopped and when he deems this smalltime actress will be his next star, he makes it so.

The same goes for novelist turned screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) who Jonathan is able to coax out to Hollywood albeit reluctantly and works his magic to get him to stay along with his southern belle of a wife (Gloria Grahame) who is completely mesmerized by this magical land out west. Again, Jonathan turns his new partnership into a lucrative success but not without marginalizing yet another person.

One of the most interesting suggestions made by the film is not how much Jonathan ruined his collaborators — alienated them yes — but he really helped their careers. In some ways, it reflects what happens with great men who are lightning rods and always thinking about the next big thing. They’re obsessed with ideas and connections, finding those relationships that will lead to power, wealth, acclaim, and awards. Any amount of honest-to-goodness friendship goes out the window.

But for all those who felt slighted, there’s almost no need to feel truly sorry for them because they bought into this industry with its promises and they bit into the fruit. Sure, their feathers got ruffled and their egos bruised but it goes with the territory.

For everything we want to make it out to be, it’s a tooth and claw operation and those who get ahead usually are the most ruthless of the bunch. Whether we should feel sorry for them or not is up for debate. But maybe we should because a mausoleum full of Academy Awards means nothing. A life of power will be ripped from you the day you die as will the wealth, elegance, and extravagance. It will all be gone. Then, you’re neither bad nor beautiful. You’re simply forgotten. In that respect, this films has meager glimpses of a Citizen Kane (1941) or even real-life figures like Orson Welles and David O. Selznick.

Except in the sensitive hands of Minnelli, this picture is neither an utter indictment of Hollywood nor does it take a complete nosedive in showing how far the man has fallen. It even reveals itself in the performance of Kirk Douglas who while still brimming with his usual intensity chooses to channel his character more so through the vein of charisma.

So if we cannot love or admire his dealings there’s still a modicum amount of respect we must hold for him. Everyone comes out with a shred of dignity and the film’s end is more lightly comic than we have any right to suppose. But then again, we’re not in the moviemaking business and they are.

4.5/5 Stars