Harvey (1950)- Henry Koster

 ★★★★★

 

This post is my entry in the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, in which 20 different bloggers write about films that are connected to each other.Harvey 1950 To see the complete rundown of connected films be sure to visit our host at Classic Film and TV Café. I will be picking things up here from the always delightful Silver Screenings‘ post on the 1957 musical film,Bernardine”. Luckily for me, “Bernardine” was written for the stage by Mary Chase, who also happened to write the play as well as the screenplay for the deliciously entertaining James Stewart film, “Harvey” (1950). As it turns out, there is no better reason to talk about “Harvey” than to be connected by Mary Chase, because it is her writing that is the very heart and soul of this film.

For those who don’t know, or perhaps don’t remember, this enormously pleasurable movie is about the easy-going, free-spirited, and somewhat eccentric Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart). Harvey 1950He is a middle-aged man living in his family home with his widowed older sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), and her coming of age daughter, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne). Oh yes, he also lives with his best friend, Harvey, a six foot- three and a half inch invisible rabbit, or perhaps more appropriately, a pooka. In case you didn’t know, a pooka is a Celtic folklore creature, often large in size, that can bring good or bad fortune to those he visits. For Mr. Dowd, however, Harvey is more than a good luck charm or mythical hinderance. He is his best friend. They walk together, talk together, drink together, and entertain together. They are almost inseparable, and happy to be that way.

The conflict of the story comes when Veta has had enough of Harvey 1950Harvey, and decides to have her “insane” brother committed. She takes him to a sanitarium where, through a series of adventures and misunderstandings, Mr. Dowd becomes friendly (and helpful) with much of the staff (Peggy Dow, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway & Jesse White). The only remaining question is whether Harvey and Elwood can help those around them before they do their very best to “help” Elwood become more “normal”- at least the way they think he should be.

“Harvey” is a film that is funny and touching, but very serious as well. The warmth and tenderness of the characters is the driving force of the picture, and here is where Mary Chase and her story and words get their chance to shine. She had already won a Pulitzer Prize for Harvey 1950Drama in 1945 when the play became such a success, and the film translates her story so well.

Of course having Jimmy Stewart and Josephine Hull leading the way doesn’t hurt one bit. This film marked one of Stewart’s five Academy Award nominations, and Hull (in one of only six film appearances) won herself a well deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Together they are an unstoppable team, who almost effortlessly bring this extremely remarkable and usual story to life. Nobody could have been better in these roles, and time as well as other stage performances of the play, have only proven this point.

The popularity of “Harvey” has decreased somewhat over the years, but the acclaim has not.Harvey Everyone who takes the time to really put in effort and see this glorious movie the way it should be watched comes away better for it. After all, we could all use a little help from a pooka now and then.

Be sure to check out all the posts for this Build-Your-Own Blogathon. Up next, see how Caftan Woman connects “Harvey” to Anthony Mann’s wonderful film “T-Men” (1947).

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The Great Dictator (1940)- Charles Chaplin

 ★★★★★

&

My Hall of Fame

 

If there is anyone who can successfully make anything to do with either WWII or Adolph Hitler a joke, it would be Charles Chaplin- even if it came with his later regrets. The Great Dictator (1940)When the famous comedian decided to (almost single-handedly) create a satirical comedy-drama, poking fun at Hitler himself, as well as many others closely involved with Hitler, Chaplin knew he could do it successfully because he found humor where others did not. Years later, after the atrocities of the Nazi’s and their actions were known to the world, Chaplin admitted that he would never have made a film like “The Great Dictator” (1940) if he would have understood the truth behind what was happening in Europe. Whereas this attitude is understandable, the powerful message that this enormously important (and somewhat underrated) film has to offer, combined with Chaplin’s fearless performance, create a cinematic experience that is both hilarious at times, and heart-wrenching at others.

“The Great Dictator” opens during the great war, as an unnamed Jewish soldier (Chaplin in one of two roles) is fighting for his fictional country of Tomainia. The Great Dictator (1940)After a series of amusingly comedic blunders, he finds himself helping Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) into an airplane and flying secret documents to their commanding officer. They crash, just as the war comes to an end, but the Jewish man suffers from memory loss, and the next twenty years go by without him remembering anything.

Jumping forward to that time, it turns out that the Jewish man is in fact a barber, who runs a shop in the ghetto. (He looks similar to Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp, but also has many differences.) He returns to his work, next door to Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a laundress, who bond over a physical dispute with local stormtroopers. He is unaware that being Jewish is no longer acceptable, now that the notoriously brutal dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin) has begun his master plan of world domination.

The remainder of the movie is cut into two sections. One between scenes of the dictator, or “The Phooey” as he is called, as he stumbles about trying to take over the world with his cohorts, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and Herring (Billy Gilbert). The Great Dictator (1940)The other involves the Jewish barber and Hannah reeking havoc on Hynkel’s stormtroopers. Needless to say, there is a ton of laughs awaiting in both stories, and, as Hynkel and the barber look alike, everything is culminating toward an inevitable big finish.

Charlie Chaplin is a genius, in every aspect of the word. In addition to starring as both leading characters in the movie, Chaplin also wrote, produced, and directed. He even wrote the musical score along with Meredith Wilson (who later would give Chaplin the “creative” credit). “The Great Dictator” is completely his vision, and even though many stepped up and tried to take credit for contributing ideas, Chaplin is the one man smart enough and brave enough to pull it all together- and not just into a decent film, but into a true masterpiece.

The Great Dictator (1940)

The comedic value here (like all of Chaplin’s films) in undeniable. You can’t help but laugh and smile throughout as he, in his first full-talking film, delivers with dialogue, facial expressions, set pieces, and, of course, physical stunts. The surprise of this picture isn’t in the comedy, but in the drama. Chaplin had a message to deliver, and “The Great Dictator” gave him the outlet he needed. Making a film such as this, at such a crucial time in the world’s history, could have ended in absolute failure. Chaplin, however, doesn’t seem to know how to fail, and ended up creating an important, memorable film that even today gives viewers a chance to see how influential and important one man could be. The Great Dictator (1940)There is a story that Chaplin had seen the German film “Olympia” (1938), and used it to aid him designing “The Great Dictator”. I wasn’t around in 1940 to see how this movie played as a piece of propaganda, but it is both moving and inspiring today.

Besides Chaplin, who gives not one, but two brilliant performances, Paulette Goddard also contributes with her usual perfect blend of hilarious, almost slapstick comedy, and touching drama. She constantly has to continue jumping back and forth between the serious scenes and the comedic ones, which is not all that easy to do. Also getting in on the fun is Jack Oakie, who plays a neighboring dictator named Benzino Napaloni. (Man I love Chaplin’s character names!) The Great Dictator (1940)Oakie is so entertaining in this film that he even earned himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

When it was all said and done, “The Great Dictator” became Chaplin’s highest grossing movie. Also, after the fiasco centered on the Academy’s removal of 1928’s “The Circus” (and don’t get me started on the stupidity of that!), “The Great Dictator” ended up being the only one of his films to be a Best Picture nominee, and his only Best Actor nomination. (Both of which were thoroughly deserved.) Today “The Great Dictator” is not the first of his films that will come to a movie fan’s mind, but with classic comedies like “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931), and “Modern Times” (1936), it is easy to see how “The Great Dictator” has been lost in the shuffle. Trust me, however, when I tell you that missing out on seeing this amazing film would only be an injustice to both Chaplin and to yourself.

I Dood It (1943)- Vincente Minnelli

 ★★★

 

“I Dood It” (1943). I can’t believe they used this ridiculous phrase as the title of a movie. “I Dood It” isn’t really a movie anyway, as much as it is a series of musical and comedic sketches grouped together.I Dood It (1943) The little plot that does exist is centered around Broadway star Constance Shaw (Eleanor Powell), and the poor, common man, Joe (Red Skelton), who falls in love with her. She, in turn, is in love with someone else (at least she thinks she is), so in order to make him jealous, Constance marries Joe, believing that he is rich and successful.

The arbitrary story makes “I Dood It” an easily forgettable film. Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell, however, dood their best to save it at every turn. The dance numbers make things worthwhile, especially Powell’s opening performance, dressed as a cowgirl, tapping away in boots, lasso in hand, impressing with the long, uncut takes masterfully directed by Minnelli. This truly is the highlight of the picture, and is so good that you’ll want to go back and watch it again. It is an extremely complex number, and one that deserves to be showcased, illustrating how far her talents could stretch. Of course, as an enormous fan of Powell, I will always find reasons to sing her praises. I Dood It (1943)All of her dances in “I Dood It” are incredible… that is, except for the big finish, which is just stolen from Powell’s earlier movie, “Born to Dance” (1936)- but it was good the first time, and is still enjoyable in this movie, just not original. That’s just awful and cheap MGM, and I for one, am hugely disappointed. How could they dood that?

Red Skelton is as funny as ever, even when recycling jokes from earlier film performances. It doesn’t really matter because he has the ability to be funny in so many ways, he’s bound to get you smiling one way or the other. The scenes that he shares with Powell are particularly special. Her physical abilities are undeniable, but it’s her comedic skills here that are a bit of a pleasant surprise. The scene where she accidentally drinks a glass of champagne with multiple sleeping pills inside is her comedic highlight, as Skelton attempts to put her to bed, without any of her help. I Dood It (1943)“I Dood It” is based on the Buster Keaton film, “Spite Marriage” (1929), and Keaton was known to work with Skelton on many of his physical sketches. Odds are, he was involved here as well.

Besides the obvious lack of plot, the other reason “I Dood It” suffers is because it tries to incorporate other musical numbers into the film, even though they had nothing to do with the story. Jimmy Dorsey and his band, Hazel Scott, and the great Lena Horne, (one of my favorites) all offer a little something special to the production, even if for no reason. Don’t get me wrong, these performances are wonderful and entertaining on their own, but because they don’t fit into the plot, they end up just dragging the flow of the film, and increasing the running time.

You would think that Minnelli, Skelton, Powell and Horne would be able to put something special and memorable together, but alas, that is not the case. They just can’t dood it. I mean do it.

 

Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936)-Roy Del Ruth

 ★★★

 

The “Broadway Melody” films that MGM released between 1929 and 1940 are a series of four pictures that have nothing in common except for their name. They are, typically speaking, low on plot and high on musical talent. Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936)They also were extremely successful. The second of the four, “Broadway Melody of 1936” (1936), was the first of three to star Eleanor Powell, and also receives a boost from Jack Benny in a comic relief supporting performance. The plot, however, is nothing too exciting, and leaves the audience begging for more dancing…and Eleanor Powell.

Irene Foster (Powell) is an aspiring musical performer who travels to New York City to see a big time theater producer, Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), who also happens to be an old friend from high school. He is against Irene trying to be a performer, but his secretary (Una Merkel) teams with Irene to prove her talents to Gordon. It seems that everybody except for Gordon is anxious to get Irene dancing. There is the brother/sister dance team (real life brother and sister Vilma & Buddy Ebsen), who become Irene’s friends, and she even convinces a gossip columnist (Jack Benny) and his slap-stick Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936)side kick (Sid Silvers), to lend a helping hand.

Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed put together a handful of decent songs for this picture, most of which are more remembered today as being recycled in the more popular “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). In fact, “Broadway Melody of 1936” was well received upon its initial release and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Story (I don’t get that one), and my favorite (forgotten) category, Best Dance Direction, which it won! An even more impressive feat when you consider the tough competition from “Top Hat” (1936).

It’s a good thing that this film does have such marvelous dancing, because the rest kind of falls short. Jack Benny and Sid Silvers are funny, but aren’t given enough screen time to make a significant impact. Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936)This movie (like so many 1930’s musicals) is really just about the dancing anyway. And that my friends, is where Eleanor Powell is allowed to shine. She is absolutely amazing in dance after dance, scene after scene. Her movements are an inspiration, and when she really gets going in her highlighted dance number, Powell becomes the very definition of sexy. She’s a breath of fresh air every time she starts moving, and the overall picture could have benefited significantly from more of her and less of everything else. If she is the only reason you watch “Broadway Melody of 1936”, believe me, that is reason enough. She gets ★★★★★, and the rest of the film only gets ★★.

The Heavenly Body (1944)-Alexander Hall

 ★★

 

The Whitleys are a happily married couple. At least that’s what famed astronomer William Whitley (William Powell) thinks. His wife, Vicky (Hedy Lamarr), has grown increasingly tired of waiting for her husband to put the stars on the back burner, and promoting her to the major focus of his life. Hedy Lamarr and William Powell in "The Heavenly Body" (1944)She’s become impatient, and at the urging of her excentric neighbor (Spring Byington), she is convinced to look to the stars herself, only instead of a telescope, she uses an astrologer (Fay Bainter). Her astrologer tells her that she is going to meet someone special, and being a foolish, frustrating person to watch, Vicky explains to her husband that their marriage is now over.

William becomes more annoyed than concerned, until of course Vicky meets their air raid warden (James Craig), who just happens to fit the description of Vicky’s mystery man. William must now go on full alert to keep his marriage alive, all the while being consumed by the most important scientific event of his career.

It seems that “The Heavenly Body” (1944) may have been made specifically because of the success of William Powell and Hedy Lamarr’s previous film, “Crossroads” (1942). Hedy Lamarr and William Powell in "The Heavenly Body" (1944)Between Powell’s appearance in the fourth Thin Man, “The Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941), and the fifth installment, “The Thin Man Goes Home” (1945), his only starring roles were in these two Hedy Lamarr films. World War II, and Myrna Loy’s absence from acting during this time, unfortunately, hurt his career. Screwball comedy is well within his ability, but with the exception of a couple of good scenes and some nicely written dialogue courtesy of Michael Arlen and Walter Reisch, “The Heavenly Body” falls into the category of mediocre.

Hedy Lamarr is a good co-star for Powell, despite their 22 year age difference. In fact her youth and free-spirited attitude adds to the gullibility of her innocent and naive character. She is a good fit for “The Heavenly Body”, and shows her ability to do screwball comedy, paired with one of the best.

The downfall, or perhaps more appropriately, the serious cataclysm of “The Heavenly Body” is that Vicky so blindly listens to her astrologer, and casts aside her obviously loving husband, even though she has never believed in astrology before.

It’s new to her and she is willing to test it out, but to end a marriage on that test seems more than far-fetched or screwball- it seems stupid. The Heavenly Body (1944)As the plot continues, it is easy to get angry with Vicky, especially considering that William wasn’t even a bad husband, and obviously loves her. It’s hard to enjoy a romantic comedy when one of the characters behaves so ridiculously.

The supporting cast is fun to watch. Especially Spring Byington, in a role that is far too small, as well as the group of Russians  that come over a “teach” William the best way to drink vodka. Less emphasis on the astrology and more on the crazy situations that William keeps walking into, would have made for a funnier, laugh-out-loud successful formula. It also would have made a better screwball comedy. As hard as it is to find a William Powell comedy with flaws, “The Heavenly Body” is here.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)- Lloyd Bacon

 ★★★

 

The baseball season is here once again, and that means that not only is it time to get fired up for another season, but it also is time to start watching some baseball movies. And what better place to start than the light-hearted comedic romp “It Happens Every Spring” (1949)? It Happens Every Spring (1949)This is a highly entertaining film about a college professor named Vernon (Ray Milland) who has been attempting a new chemical formula in order to achieve notoriety and a promotion, so that he can marry his girlfriend (and one of his students), Deborah (Jean Peters). Just before he is able to test his experiment, a baseball comes flying through the window, destroying all of his hard work.

Left alone to clean up, Vernon picks up the baseball lying in a pool of chemicals and casts it aside. What he witnesses, however, leaves him speechless. Wherever the ball goes, it repels wood. Vernon sees the potential to make some quick money, and he leaves his job and secretly joins the St. Louis baseball team, after impressing the team’s owner (Ed Begley). With the guidance of his new catcher and friend (Paul Douglas), Vernon (or King Kelly as he has renamed himself) is dead set on helping his hometown team win the World Series, while baffling hitters around the league with his “loop-d-loop” pitching.

Just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is not what many would consider to be an “important” or “quality” film. It has been made for fun by filmmakers who love baseball and always dreamed of playing the game on a professional level. It Happens Every Spring (1949)The script is a little bland, and if there weren’t such wonderful comedic actors in the roles, in  would feel rather dry. Likewise, director Lloyd Bacon lays out the story for us without any surprises or complications. It is a straight-forward film that relies on the actors to keep things entertaining.

Luckily the cast is up for the challenge. Ray Milland is constantly enjoyable in roles like this one, and his fun, easygoing demeanor help to make him seem like a child still playing ball on a sandlot. Jean Peters appears to have purposefully spent her career blending into her films, and never standing out. She has done it again here, but not in a bad way. She does her part, plays the supportive girlfriend, and stays out of Milland’s way. The real highlight is Paul Douglas as the loveable, fumbling catcher. He has the best lines and plenty of laughs to hand out. The scene when he starts using the “formula” because he thinks it’s a hair tonic is particularly amusing.

The main reason that “It Happens Every Spring” leaves an impression is because it doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not. It is a movie filled with good clean fun and laughs, and that is why it is still so entertaining so many years later.

It Started with Eve (1941)- Henry Koster

 ★★★★

 

“It Started with Eve” (1941) is the last of six films that had the dynamic creative collaboration of director Henry Koster, producer Joe Pasternak, and acting/singing sensation Deanna Durbin. It also (quite possibly) is their funniest. Of course instead of giving them all the credit, I must point out that what makes this film wonderful has more to do with a delightfully witty screenplay written by Norman Krasna and Leo Townsend,  and a commanding and hilarious performance from the somewhat surprisingly comical Charles Laughton.

You see, Jonathan Reynolds (Laughton), the towering, powerful man, who grabs headlines every time he leaves his home, is in fact, dying.It Started with Eve (1941) His loving son, Johnny (Robert Cummings), rushes to his father’s enormous mansion and kneels next to the bed in time to hear the dying man’s request to set his eyes on his only child’s fiance before death comes. Johnny, being an obliging son, frantically drives across town to the hotel where his fiance, Gloria (Margaret Tallichet), is staying with her mother (Catherine Doucet). Unfortunately, they aren’t in, and Johnny feels that all is lost.

But wait! Johnny’s luck is about to change as a hat check girl, Anne (Deanna Durbin), agrees to pose as Johnny’s fiance, just to help out. (Isn’t that sweet of her?) Anne meets Mr. Reynolds, who is impressed with her girl-next-door appearance and down-to-earth mentality. So much so in fact, that he makes a remarkable recovery and is back on his feet in no time. Good news for him- bad news for Johnny and Anne as they have to figure out some way to break the news of their lie to the old man, without him relapsing.

Although “It Started with Eve” is a highly predictable story, the entire production still benefits from a great script and a cast who clearly know how to get the job done. Robert Cummings spends the majority of the film running in circles with an I’m so confused and overwhelmed look on his face, but he steps things up when the scene needs him too. Deanna Durbin does what Deanna Durbin always does best- she looks cute and likeable, and she sings.It Started with Eve (1941) She also gets to mix things up with both Cummings and Charles Laughton, which gives her a chance to do some more physical comedy with Cummings and a more dialogue driven humor with Laughton.

It is the great Charles Laughton who deserves the most praise, in a role that is a far cry from his successful performances from the 1930’s. Don’t get me wrong, he can always be funny in a smaller, quieter way, as is evident in a film like “The Private Lives of Henry VIII” (1933). In “It Started with Eve,” however, his humor and comedic style is much more evident and substantially more appreciated. He also has the advantage of playing a character that is supposed to be substantially older than he was. In fact, Laughton was only 42 years old at the time of this film’s release, making Robert Cummings (playing his son) only 11 years his junior. Laughton sulks around many of his early scenes, reminding the audience of his deteriorating body and fragile bones, but it’s all just a set-up to show how youthful he now feels by having Anne in his and his son’s life. Truthfully speaking, I wish Laughton had made more films such as this one, as he has a refreshing and highly enjoyable style that truly does leave the audience wanting more.