It Happens Every Spring (1949)

It_Happens_Every_Spring_VHSDoes this film glorify those who cheat and deceive taking advantage of others through the advances of modern science? Certainly not! Well, maybe a little but this is one of those ludicrous stories that never makes a pretense of being real life or a moral tale for that matter. It’s just a zany story that’s actually quite rewarding to be a part of.

At its core is a middling college researcher. He’s in love with a girl but not rich enough to offer her much of anything. What’s more intimidating is that her father is the dean of the school and Vernon’s tireless amount of research is getting him nowhere fast. Another seemingly trivial detail remains that every spring he gets obsessed with baseball and becomes distracted in his lectures, in his lab, and in life in general.

If you want to think about one of Disneys live-action classics, it’s easy to draw some similarities between this film and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). In the latter film, flubber is used for an advantage on the basketball court. Here it’s all about baseball.

Vernon Simpson (Ray Milland) discovers the extraordinary characteristics of his new substance methylethylpropylbutyl quite by accident when he rolls a dampened baseball by a block of wood only to have the two repel. His eyes almost pop out of their sockets when it works time after time. The implications are simple. He can harness this discovery to make it in the MLB and S.T. Louis has aspirations for a pennant but needs pitching. This is his chance to realize his dreams.

The film admittedly doesn’t explain much about why Vernon is infatuated with baseball. Perhaps it was enough that most Americans still were taken with it since it was “The National Pastime.” Regardless, he hurriedly gets a leave of absence from work and provides a cryptic message to his girl not to worry about him.

His baseball career as chronicled by the film is a meteoric rise that totally revels in its completely ludicrous nature. He walks into the clubhouse talks with the manager (Ted De Corsia) and the teams head executive (Ed Begley) who doubt this adamant thick-headed nobody who brags he can win 30 games. Boy, does he shut them up and they’re glad he did.

Most everything is textbook as far as a film about a science researcher playing major league baseball and using a miracle substance to win ballgames can be. His girlfriend thinks he’s involved with the mob. He tries to keep his true identity a secret under the pseudonym King Kelly, and he begins to form a bond with his veteran bunkmate and backstop Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas). I’ve always been a fan of Paul Douglas as an actor because he plays his characters straight with a gruff yet palpable sincerity. It’s little different here. Milland though hardly an American bred on stickball nevertheless is a charmingly scatterbrained lead.

I didn’t realize it until now but I’m rather fond of science fiction baseball comedies. It breaks every rule of baseball. It’s absurd. There’s so much to call into question and yet I don’t want to. But just for the fun of it all, let’s look at a few obvious inaccuracies from It Happens Every Spring.

King Kelly would never get a win if he came into a game that his team was already winning and yet he asks for $1,000 in compensation for such an appearance. Furthermore, it looks like he’s committing a balk about everytime he winds up. And if he’s not then baserunners would be stealing on him all day because he never pitches from the stretch. He’d be an easy target.

Believe it or not, Kelly actually doctoring the baseball, secret formula aside, definitely is not all that ludicrous. Pitches such as the spitball and scuffball were famously used in the games early days. Pitchers like Burleigh Grimes, a personal favorite of mine, made a living off the pitch and though the spitball, in particular, was outlawed in 1920, pitchers like Grimes were grandfathered in. He continued throwing it until 1934.

Still, that didn’t completely deter later pitchers from using it like another Dodger great Preacher Roe and then Gaylord Perry in the modern era. As long as you didn’t get caught there was no recompense and the same can be said of Kelly. Again, we’re not glorifying cheating. Don’t get any ideas.

3.5/5 Stars

Three Smart Girls (1936)

three smart girls 1

Here is a comedy born of a certain time and age when they made such trifles. It’s the kind of plot where you can read it off in a single sentence but it’s further cushioned by cutesy moments and musical asides. Where growing girls say “Mummy” and “Daddy,” always fussing and screeching and bickering over this or that.

It could all get tiresome and too sugary if it weren’t redeemed by how very pleasant it is in reflecting adolescence. Yes, you could even call it absolute claptrap but there’s something special thrown into the concoction: Her name is Deanna Durbin.

Perhaps I am overstating her significance and making her stake larger than it possibly could be but I’d like to think on the contrary. Deanna Durbin is presented as “Universal’s newest discovery” and what a find she was. Beginning a run of many successful box office hits continuing up on through the war years, she was a beloved part of Americana.

Here was a teenage girl who with a voice and a carefully groomed persona helped salvage an entire studio and became so well-known and admired that by 1941 she would be the highest paid woman in America and the entire world, bar none, at the age of 21 (Look it up for yourself but don’t quote me).

Three Smart Girls is a film that means the very best and Henry Koster guides it along this path of sunshine and cheerfulness. There are numerous moments that say as much as Penny (Durbin) floats along with her two sisters (Barbara Read and Nan Grey) on a lake riding lazily on their sailboat in Switzerland while she knocks out a tune. Maybe it’s the girls squealing as they make use of their father’s exercise equipment and we watch Durbin repeatedly swing toward the camera until her face completely fills up the frame.

But I’ve put it off long enough. Here is my one sentence of exposition. The Three Craig girls make it their mission to go to New York and break of their father’s (Charles Winninger) engagement to a young gold digger so he can get back with their mother (Nella Walker). It’s a noble project and it also has the touches of an early Parent Trap (1961) which takes obvious inspiration from this picture.

The girls bring their flurry of teenage drama into their father’s bachelor lifestyle as well as subsequent heartbreak and tears that do finally give way to marital bliss (of course they do).

There seems to be a paradox to Deanna Durbin’s appeal. She had the feisty sass of a younger girl and the voice of an older one that sweeps you off your feet. It’s the kind of voice that I must admit sounds dubbed at times. That cannot conceivably be her singing!

She makes a line of hardened cops do a double take when she breaks out into an opera number in the police station trying to pull off a little white lie that’s she’s a Parisian songstress. It almost works too.

Ray Milland is wonderfully witty as the rich young gentleman who finds himself pulled into the girl’s charade on a miscommunication. In fact, it’s easy to prefer him in these lighter roles to his more dramatic turns that sometimes leave him looking like a stuffy cad. He can be quite charming actually. Mischa Auer also shows up but unfortunately isn’t given much to do.

But in the end, this evolved very much into Durbin’s film anyways and she does well to oblige the audience while her sisters are happily saddled with eligible young men and her parents get back together. They’re all a happy family again and there Penny is standing at the center of it all smiling broadly.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Dial M for Murder (1954)

Dial_M_for_Murder1

Dial M for Murder is talky and more dialogue-driven than a great many Hitchcock films but that’s partly because the environment is more conducive to that kind of storytelling as much as the fact that this murder story is adapted from a popular British stage production.

Like Rope (1948) or even Lifeboat (1944) before it, Dial M for Murder is for all intent and purposes a chamber piece that essentially takes place on one set: the drawing room of Tony and Margo Wendice.

But quite similar to its predecessors you also get the sense that Hitch approached this picture with a certain perspective and turned it into a technical puzzle to be solved. In typical Hitchcock fashion, he underlies even scenes that are seemingly stagnant with interesting accents. His frame is constantly filled in the foreground lending a certain depth to the picture that we can easily imagine as utilizing cutting-edge 3D technology.

Aside from his work with his frequent director of photography Robert Burks, he also put some obvious restrictions on himself in terms of location. Several of his decisions are fairly daring. Instead of having a whole courtroom sequence he elects to shoot it in a highly stylized fashion that while far from realism, still gets the essence of the story across in a matter of a few minutes.

However, he also has a sequence where two men are talking and the frame is broken up by a lamp and it takes the typical shot-reverse-shot paradigm and makes it more interesting. The same goes for the disconcerting high angles that he uses in multiple instances to depict the action unfolding as first the two accomplices plan out the ensuing events and then the police come onto the scene to investigate.

His preoccupation with the “Perfect Murder” crops up once more as a retired tennis player living off the fortunes of his beautiful young wife decides to murder her to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Her infidelities with an American mystery novelist and minor acquaintance are the pretenses for his actions — a perfect way to get all her money for himself.

But this isn’t a picture working on a moral level. As is often the case, Hitchcock seems far more invested in the mechanics of the actual murder and whether or not it can actually be pulled off and what it would all look like.

Tony (Ray Milland) soon has an old college chum embroiled in his plot with a healthy bit of blackmail and he has everything set up perfectly to get Margot (Grace Kelly) to stay at home while this phantom man will sneak into their flat and murder her. But it will come off as a freak accident and that will be the end of it. However, being a fighter, Grace Kelly doesn’t give up without a struggle and her husband now must cover all his tracks and events unfold much differently than he was expecting.

Milland plays the typically witty and rather sophisticated Hitchcock villain who is in one sense charming and extremely prone to moral turpitude. Grace Kelly is stunning as always and a sympathetic figure as the wife who finds herself the victim of a grisly attack and subsequently accused of a murder no thanks to her husband helping to dig her grave. Though it’s not her best performance next to such startling revelations as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), there’s no question that it helps to solidify her incomparable partnership with Alfred Hitchcock.

Robert Cummings role as a crime author is a necessity because it makes his spot-on guesswork certainly not plausible but more interesting. Because he’s simultaneously dreaming up a scenario and ironically convicting Milland with his cockamamie stories which are surprisingly close to the truth.

John Williams reprises his stage role and turns Dial M for Murder into a bit of a Columbo episode of ‘how is he going to catch him’ because this works best to Hitchcock’s advantage since he’s not necessarily interested in the shock but introducing the audience into the entire plot so they become invested and stringing them along with all the proceedings. In such a way, the suspense and the subsequent payoff can be as memorable as possible.

When Milland walks through the door at the end of the picture, it’s an unextraordinary, even everyday action, but Hitchcock has imbued that single event with so much meaning. As an audience, we are sitting with baited breath waiting to see if the key will turn in the lock. This is a film that ultimately is indebted to the rotary phone if only for its title. But it’s hard to beat Hitchcock and the future Princess Grace of Monaco.

4/5 Stars

The Big Clock (1948)

TheBigClock.jpgWith its rather dreary title aside, The Big Clock is actually an enjoyable thriller that works like well-oiled clockwork. It’s true that oftentimes the most relatable noir heroes are not the hardboiled detectives, although they might be tougher and grittier, it’s the hapless everymen who we can more easily empathize with. Bogart, Powell, and Mitchum are great but sometimes it’s equally enjoyable to have someone who doesn’t quite fit the elusive parameters that we unwittingly draw up for film-noir. Ray Milland is a handsome actor and he was at home in both screwball comedies (Easy Living) and biting drama (The Lost Weekend). He’s not quite what you would describe as a prototypical noir hero.

In some fascinating way, The Big Clock falls somewhere in the middle of those two reference points and to explain the very reasons it becomes necessary to start from the beginning. In fact, our story opens in a cold open that’s foreboding, shadowy and tense. The reasons being we don’t quite know yet and that’s how we get to know George Stroud (Milland), a workaholic chief editor of a crime magazine. He’s got a lovely wife (Margaret O’Sullivan) and a kid but, really, he’s married to his vocation. He’s never even been on a proper honeymoon.

And the reason for all this is Mr. Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) the newspaper magnate with the vice-like grip and enigmatic way about him. He’s very practical in how he shows his displeasure (docking pay and firing employees at will) and it also allows him to exercise complete control in all facets of his business. That and the fact that his life is constantly on schedule, perfectly epitomized by the giant clock that has become the emblematic tourist attraction of his empire.

It’s a fascinating reflection of modern times circa 1940s Hollywood with international communication, journalists, and media conglomerates helping the world to function on a national level with mass media. Oddly enough, the story hardly conjures up Citizen Kane but instead the crime-filled frames of While the City Sleeps.

This film functions on two layers due to the fact that someone has been murdered. The blame is being pinned on a phantom man who looks strikingly like our hero, but simultaneously, the evil lurks close at hand. And things begin to fall into place. Strout is called upon to close in this criminal but only he knows that the man they are trying to capture is him. It’s complicated by the fact that, conveniently, he’s also the only one who knows for sure of his own innocence. After all, he would have known if he murdered someone. Here lies the tension as the film comes full circle back to its beginning – back to its climactic moments. Now we comprehend what’s at stake.

But what sets The Big Clock apart is the satisfaction in every little human interaction. The many characterizations are surprisingly lively and are at times fit more for a comedy than the darkened hallways of film-noir. Rita Johnson takes well as a bit of a femme fatale while Laughton pulls off his role with a certain sphinxlike iciness. Meanwhile, Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester delivers a scene-stealing performance as an eccentric artist who finds herself at the center of this entire investigation because of one of her very outlandish (and incriminating) paintings. And as every noir needs a thug, a menacing, mute Harry Morgan carries the mantle as is necessary–thank goodness he got promoted to M*A*S*H in due time. Everyone else, from the bartender to the elevator girl, to bar regulars all have wonderful moments to shine and show some personality that fills out the frames of the narrative.

Furthermore, John Seitz’s photography is on point, his camera roving with the necessary precision making for dynamic sequences while also developing the perfect tonalities of light and dark within the corridors of the mega news conglomerate. Director John Farrow is not all that well-remembered, but either way, The Big Clock stands tall as a quality film-noir that still somehow finds ways to be invariably funny. It’s a rare but still greatly welcomed combination.

4/5 Stars

Easy Living (1937)

easyliving1Easy Living is a sizzling screwball comedy propelled by a Preston Sturges script and the direction of Mitchel Leisen (a former costume designer). It finds humor in the stratified 1930s society and the so-called easy livings of the affluent. But it also has it’s fair share of rip-roaring slapstick. Really the whole plot revolves around a rogue fur coat.

J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) is the third most prominent banker in New York. His wife has a penchant for fur coats and his son John Jr. (Ray Milland) is fed up with his father’s constant criticism. He’s ready to leave the luxury and make a go of it on his own. Fed up with his wife and not all that pleased with his son, Mr. Ball tosses one of his wife’s sables off their balcony. Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is the unsuspecting recipient of the coat as she rides by on a passing bus. By chance, she and Mr. Ball strike up a conversation and they hit it off after he resolves to buy her a new hat, in lieu of the one that was ruined. Of course, the clerk gets the wrong idea about their little friendship and it has major repercussions.

Many folks want to get on her good side since they’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s connected to Mr. Ball. This includes the befuddled hotel owner Louis Louis, who offers Mary one of his finest suites and she has no idea what she ever did to deserve it. Of course, Mary crosses paths with John Jr. who is smitten with her right off the bat. But she has no idea who his father is.

A joke from him, relayed by Mary, ends up having overwhelming consequences on the stock market and it ends up spelling major trouble for Mr. Ball. But of course, father and son and Mary all wind up in J.B.’s office together as the comedy of errors finally synchronizes. Son finally proves his acumen to father and gets the job he desperately needs.  Mary has her guy now and Mr. Ball’s marriage is all intact.

easyliving3Edward Arnold is an absolute riot and at his pushy best as the affluent banker. Jean Arthur has always been one of my favorite comediennes. She has such a great voice for delivering quips; there’s a certain lilt to it that is always invariably funny. She’s also the perfect independent working woman like a Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. She’s no pushover. I knew Ray Milland for later films like The Lost Weekend or Dial M for Murder, but I saw here firsthand that he has some comedic chops. I also learned what an automat was and at the same time got treated with some top-notch slapstick. Thank you, Preston Sturges.

4/5 Stars

Dial M for Murder (1954) – Alfred Hitchcock

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings, this film tells the story of a married woman who has fallen for another man. However, her suspicious husband finds out and decides to have her murdered. Through a series of events he finds his murderer and sets everything up for the following evening. His plan goes awry and his wife lives so he must rush to cover up all his involvement. In the ensuing days Kelly’s character is accused of murder even though she was simply defending herself. She finds herself facing death and yet the clever police detective figures everything out. He realizes her innocence and traps Milland in his own plan. With the typical Hitchcock style and solid acting, this movie is full of many suspenseful moments and it became an early example of film making for 3D.

4/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945)

c5841-the_lost_weekend_posterStarring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, the film follows a former alcoholic writer as he goes on a binge, sinking into the depths of despair. With his brother gone and his girlfriend tied up with work, he finds himself frequenting bars across town and then wandering home to sleep it off. Amid the flashbacks of his past, nightmares, and a stay at the hospital, he finds his state becoming increasingly worse. His brother has given up on him and his often faithful girlfriend is on the verge. Finally, he decides to end it one way or another. Ultimately, with the support of his girlfriend he resolves to put “The Lost Weekend” down on paper so he can over come it. Director Billy Wilder does a wonderful job with this somber if not shocking story. Milland and Wyman both give very good performances which make this drama hit hard. The unearthly-sounding theremin is also very effective in the film’s soundtrack.

4.5/5 Stars