Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Montgomery. He just doesn’t have a charisma or a delivery that I much care for so as far as carrying a whole picture I’m not quite sold.

Still, with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, it all seems to work and it’s funny and clever in ways that would cause Hollywood to strive for storytelling that looked to think outside the box. Of course, the irony is, a new box gets created for people to work inside — a new style or sub-genre — but there’s little question that Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels very much the first of its kind. If not, I stand corrected.

It’s a story effortlessly built around quirky inventiveness. There are fantasy elements here that feel very much akin to the likes of Stairway to Heaven (1946), Random Harvest (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (both films from 1943 and 78).

Heaven is depicted as a kind of celestial processing center where human beings are plucked away from their life on earth to begin a new afterlife. Through intervention, by angelic beings, lovers can all but forget one another only to have some deja vu feeling that they’ve been together before.

And further still, the ideas of the heavenly and angels entering into everyday life soon became a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood much in part to this picture. Without it, there’s a possibility that classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the Bishop’s Wife (1947) would not have been conceived in their most remembered forms. After all, what would those films be without Clarence or Dudley? Or what would this one be without Mr. Jordan for that matter?

Elaine May must have thought the story was ripe for more exploration too when she penned Heaven Can Wait which expanded a great many of these ideas only in a different context.

Unequivocably this rendition proves to be far from a one trick pony, taking a main conceit that admittedly seems absurd at first — even gimmicky — and turning it into a fantastical comedy with continual possibilities.

Imagine just for one moment that a feisty boxer, Joe Pendelton (Montgomery), preparing for his next big bout flies to the site of the fight only to have his plane malfunction en route. He looks like a goner but he’s pulled from the aircraft too soon by 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). In fact, it’s 50 years too early, his date with the afterlife is not until 1991 (In case you were wondering, Montgomery actually passed away in 1981). Being the bullish personality that he is, Joe’s not going to sit by when he had such a good thing going on earth.

The genial Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) grants his wish and inserts Joe back into life but they must find him a new body — you see his previous one has already been cremated which makes for added complications.

We plot his journey between two distinct individuals and their bodies and aside from the opening plane crash, a few puffs of smoke, and a few parlor tricks, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on any amount of special effects. For all intent and purposes, things are normal as they’ve always been. It’s just the parameters that have changed. Namely the fact that Joe can see Mr. Jordan and no one else can. First, he’s Bruce Farnsworth formerly a crooked magnate who was murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover.

Boy, are they surprised when he turns up again. Mr. Jordan and the audience see Montgomery but the others see and hear the man that they think they’ve done away with. Still, coaxed by Mr. Jordan, Joe or Farnsworth, turns this man’s life around, taking ownership of his past indiscretions and helping the father of a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) who was accused of fraud.

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Meanwhile, Joe, err, Farnsworth still has his sights on his previous shot at the boxing ring. It all comes off rather odd to those who used to know his alter ego but he calls up his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) and he’s finally able to convince him of his true identity due to his beloved saxophone always in tow.

Finally, it looks like he’s on the road that he wants but alas complications ensue. He finds himself falling for Ms. Logan and circumstances are such that he must find another body. He settles on a straight-arrow named Murdoch and subsequently gives the fighter a second chance in the ring while hiring on Max to be his coach so he can still actualize his dreams.

Mr. Jordan leaves Joe in this moment, seeing he has a version of the life he always wanted and the celestial being conveniently removes all of Joe’s memories of a previous life. Of being a man named Joe Pendleton. It makes for some goofy comedy with Corkle and supplies one budding meet-cute with Ms. Logan.

While the theology is probably sketchy at best, it’s a good-natured, comic interpretation of the afterlife that serves the world of the film well. The only thing in question is the ethical nature of angels removing human memories but surely Claude Rains knows what he is doing.

James Gleason is an absolute riot as the one human privy to the whole gag only to look like a complete nutcase when questioned by anyone else who is “normal.” He easily puts you in stitches and Edward Everett Horton has his flustered indignance down pat. He made a career out of it after all.

4/5 Stars

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

ride-the-pink-horse-1Films Noir often find their hooks in lurid titles but also in metaphor. Ride the Pink Horse fits into the latter category as pulled from the pages of Dorothy B Hughes and adapted by Ben Hecht & Charles Lederer. The horse can be taken in the literal sense as one of the wooden animals that go round and round on the local carousel but there’s some symbolism in this opulent creature. In some distant way, it’s the fantasy of a different life that every man seems to crave when he doesn’t have it. But still, he strives and grinds to get closer and closer to it. More often than not he does not succeed in finding so-called contentment.

Whether you get that sense from actually watching Ride the Pink Horse is up for debate, but it’s a film that deserves more limelight for its numerous assets. Robert Montgomery is not necessarily the most agreeable lead at first as Lucky Gagin, a war vet who travels to the New Mexico tourist trap of San Pablo to end some unfinished business for a friend.

But the camera gives the sense of constantly tailing Montgomery as he makes his way through the surprisingly atmospheric streets of New Mexico. The on-location shooting is a credit to the film, in particular, the work inside La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe that gives a certain Spanish sensibility to the film through its very architecture. It has the type of color that you expect to find in a place like Rick’s Cafe or The Mos Eisley Cantina.

ride-the-pink-horse-2And it’s from these opening moments that we try to get a line on Gagin by watching his every move and word. He’s brusque and abrasive with almost crazed features — constantly suspicious, demanding, and sour. He had a little too much cyanide for breakfast (although he does like fruit cocktail). Just as we watch him with interest, his probing eyes case every joint and every person he comes in contact with. Because, if it’s not obvious already, he’s not come to San Pablo for R & R. He’s come to town to avenge his dead army buddy, who was double-crossed and put out of a commission by a very big man (Fred Clark).

Gagin’s looking to get Shorty’s due: $15,000. But he hasn’t thought it out a whole lot; he doesn’t quite understand what he’s up against as is often the case with rough and tumble noir heroes. It can be their undoing. Uncle Sam (Art Smith) is in one sense grandfatherly but there’s also a sly sparkle in his eyes that leads to some question to his motives. Does he really have Gagin’s well-being in mind or is there something sinister going on here? It’s too early to tell.

However, in a dive bar, Gagin meets the jovial local Pancho (Thomas Gomez in a particularly spirited performance) who quickly befriends the out of towner over drinks and simultaneously makes the audience like Gagin a little more by simple transference. We like Pancho right off and if Pancho likes this character then we might as well give him a chance. He makes him into an actual human being and that’s what he’s searching for too. Because, in truth, Gagin is wary of anyone and everyone. The people who are out to get him. The “dames” you touch only to get stung in return.

ride-the-pink-horse-3Just as there is a cultured femme fatale (Andrea King), her counterpoint is the tentative Pila (played sympathetically but rather unfortunately by Wanda Hendrix), who floats in to watch over Gagin even when he doesn’t want her around. She stays anyways.

A merry go round was utilized by Hitchcock a few years later in Strangers on a Train but in a different way. He used the frenetic energy to his advantage. In Ride the Pink Horse it’s the blatant juxtaposition that is telling. Something so pleasant and joyous as a merry go around takes a whole new meaning in the presence of violence.

A grand fiesta makes its way through town that culminates in the traditional burning of the effigy of Sasobra, The God of Bad Luck.  A dozen years later Sam Fuller would use a similarly lively cultural celebration as the climatic backdrop for The Crimson Kimono.

However, what stands out about Ride the Pink Horse is the idiosyncratic roads it traverses. It’s difficult to put a finger on it exactly, as it has glimpses of other films but there’s also nothing quite like it. The way the story progresses, what the characters find time to talk about, even the title, it’s all fascinating for its very uniqueness.

4/5 Stars

They Were Expendable (1945)

They_Were_Expendable_posterThere’s nothing very intriguing about a film entitled They Were Expendable. In essence, we already know what the conclusion of the film is, however it is important to understand the context of when this John Ford World War II docudrama was coming out. In 1945 the Nazis and Japanese had finally been quelled, and the Allies could look back at the sacrifices that had been made.

One such example was in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor. Despite being undermanned and without much support, the brave men in the navy wreaked havoc against the enemy trying to hold onto their strongholds as long as possible before being forced to evacuate. It is far from a glamorous moment in the war because the war seemed to favor Japan and our forces were made to flee. However, in those moments of distress and tragedy, bravery seemed to flourish and our resolve only greatened. General Douglas MacArthur summed up the sentiments of every man when he promised, “I shall return.”

That being said, John Ford’s They Were Expendable is not always easy to follow; it can feel slow and deliberate, however, it exudes a gritty realism that is hard not to appreciate. It certainly is patriotic, but it does not often over sentimentalize war with high drama. We see it for what it often is. It means smoke, explosions, shipwrecks, death. It means breaking apart friends, crews, and men and women who care about each other.

Part of that realism is probably helped by Ford’s work filming a documentary of the Battle of Midway and lead Robert Montgomery (who plays Lt. Brickley) also fought on a P.T. boat during the war. Although he was not ever in the military, John Wayne always has a knack for reflecting American ideals of grit and determination. That’s why he was made for westerns as well as war films. This time around playing the fiery but loyal Lt. Rusty Ryan. Donna Reed on her part has a rather small role, and yet it is an integral part because she represents the brave nurses who support the military. She is the lifter of morale, the girl next door, all these ideals that fit this pretty young lady from Iowa. It’s hard to know if she’s just playing herself or not.

At times it’s a hard film to follow because it often seems to jump or skip events. Maybe it happens in an attempt to cover more story or maybe Ford did not want to hold his viewer’s hand, I’m not sure. I do know that I am far less of an informed viewer about this time period or this moment in World War II history. It often seems like most of the limelight is given to mainland Europe and not the Pacific.

As much as I was drawing connections and finding similarities, this film is far from McHale’s Navy. The story is far more somber, more realistic, and at times depressing to watch. It’s the kind of film that could only be made after we had won. It affirms our American resolve and honors those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. That and the film’s beautiful low lit images make it worth watching. The cinematography makes numerous scenes far more interesting by layering characters in darkness and accentuating the shadows in a hospital corridor for instance. Rather than making everything feel stylized, it only helps to augment the realism that makes They Were Expendable a worthy testament of WWII.

3.5/5 Stars