Counselor at Law (1933)

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The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.

We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.

It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.

John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.

Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.

This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.

As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.

But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.

One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.

But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.

Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.

4.5/5 Stars

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Here is a Cary Grant and Myrna Loy vehicle that makes a comedy out of the morning drudgery and cramped quarters of domesticated life in that pearl of a city, New York. It’s a satire of the All-American Dream with the wry commentary of Melvyn Douglas guiding us through the raucous adventure.

He positions the story as such, the main confidante and best friend of advertising executive James Blandings (Grant) and his wife Muriel (Loy). Any given morning in their apartment involves early morning duels over shutting off the alarm clock for a few last seconds of slumber. Then, there’s the fighting over mirror space and closet space and drawer space.

But they’re true Americans singing “Home on the Range” in the shower. Singing in the shower seems to generally be a hobby of Cary Grant as he would do it again in at least one other picture. Meanwhile, their prim daughters are attending a progressive school and filling Mr. Blandings breakfast conversation with unwanted social significance.

All he wants is to drink his coffee and read his paper in peace and intact. He’s granted neither luxury. But these are only symptoms of the problem. They have a lovely home in a lovely city with two lovely daughters and a terribly lovely marriage. They’re just hemmed in on every side. And at work, he’s been slammed with the advertising campaign for “Wham Ham” which seems a living nightmare.

It’s Mrs. Blandings’ idea to consider a renovation while Mr. Blandings isn’t too keen on bankrolling interior designing and home redecorating courtesy of one Bunny Funkhouser. Instead, they mutually agree to purchase a quaint Connecticut home with real “character” that coincidentally no one has had the courage (or the naivety) to even try and buy.

But attracted by the “convenient” commute of 50 minutes, a little Revolutionary War History about General Gates’ horse, and their own dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, they commence the biggest undertaking of their lives.

The Hackett Place could very easily be the prototype of the Haney Place years later in Green Acres. In fact, this film made me yearn for the rustic folks from Hootersville and the construction craziness of Extreme Home Makeover from year’s past because it evokes both.

Rather than deal with it as is, the Blandings knock it to the ground and sink their first wad of cash in the mammoth project. The first of many. But they are hardly attuned with what remodeling entails and the complications never seem to end nor do the bills which come one after another.

While I was secretly hoping that Dreamhouse would be an update on Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920) with Grant showcasing his usually brilliant physical antics, what we got instead is a household comedy full of incessant complications.

While I probably would have enjoyed the former even more, there’s no doubt that this film is worth it for the Cary Grant and Myrna Loy dynamic. It’s that ability to bicker and joust and fight and still have the innate capability to make up and have the audience enjoy every minute. If the film had been made years later it would have been called Mr. and Mrs. Blandings Build Their Dream House. This is without question a joint effort of marital madness and reconstruction.

For those who cherish glimpses of the past available in the present, the Blandings home can still be seen on the property of Malibu Creek State Park in California. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Blandings still live there. Sadly, they vacated the premises some time ago. The commute from Malibu to New York City was probably too much for them.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Hud (1963)

Starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon de Wilde, the film revolves around a principled, old Texas rancher (Douglas) who has the help of his orphaned nephew Lonnie (de Wilde) and his troublesome son Hud (Newman). Most of the film reveals the conflict between the father and his impatient and often immoral son. On the other hand Lonnie looks at his uncle with admiration. Then the cattle ranch is jeopardized by the possibility of hoof and mouth disease. When not working Hud goes wild in town and after one such night in a drunken stupor he is berated by his father and then makes advances toward the house keeper (Neal). Ultimately, the news about the cattle finally comes and the aftermath leaves Mr. Bannon dead, the housekeeper gone, and Lonnie on the road, with Hud all alone on his ranch. The primary actors were all very good and the black and white cinematography was especially striking.

4.5/5 Stars

Being There (1979)

Starring Peter Sellers, the film revolves around a gardener named Chance who gains all his social skills from watching television. When his unknown elderly employer dies Chance is forced out of the only world he knows and he just begins to aimlessly walk through Washington D.C. In a freak accident, he is hit by a limo taking a parking space. In a miscommunication he finds himself going to the residence of an influential couple to get medical attention with them thinking his name is Chauncey Gardiner. He quickly gains their admiration because he has such a calm demeanor and Chauncey quickly becomes a respected confident of the sickly Ben Rand. Chauncey even finds himself meeting the president and giving him sagely advice about garden work which is interpreted as an allegory for the economy. The pithy statement finds itself in the president’s speech and there is a buzz about this mysterious figure named Chauncey Gardiner. This new found fame leads to Chauncey ending up on television for an interview and the American public is captivated by his simplistic wisdom. As Ben begins to slowly die, Eve becomes even closer to Chauncey in her grief. At Ben’s funeral, the president gives a speech and those carrying the coffin decide Chauncey should be the potential candidate for president. At the same time Chauncey is walking nearby in a forest by a lake and then in a final dreamlike moment he literally walks on water off into the distance. I think Peter Sellers should be lauded for his performance because he could be comedic and then play it straight like in this film. He is like a cross between Harvey and Forrest Gump with a love of T.V. I must say though that the bloopers at the end take away from the illusion that is created by the film as a whole.

4.5/5 Stars

Ninotchka (1939)

e937e-film_ninotchkaStarring a cast including Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas with director Ernst Lubitsch, the film opens in Paris with three quirky Soviet Russians. They are sent to sell some jewels and at the same time to marvel at the capitalist society. Their curt, robotic, and serious comrade arrives to help them. She meets a Parisian playboy and seriously hopes to learn about his society.  However, after he finally makes her laugh the two of them become romantically involved. A jealous duchess manipulates the situation and Ninotchka is back in Moscow. She is reunited with her friends there but still is somber because she is no longer with her love. That changes quickly enough though. Lubitsch gives us another witty comedy that plays off the conflict between ideologies and cultures. Garbo, Douglas, and the three Russians are all likable characters that help make this film fairly good.

 

4/5 Stars