Recently I’ve noticed a series of public services announcements promoting “device free dinners.”
They put me in mind of my double-bill for May’s Pick(s) of the month: “I Remember Mama” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The disappearing ritual of family dinner is central to both films. All movie schedules are for Turner Classic Movies.
I REMEMBER MAMA: MAY 14, 8:00 EDT
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS: MAY 9, 6:00 PM EDT
Both films take place in the first decade of the 20th Century; before the United States became a player on the world’s stage. Both celebrate family life in an era before Sigmund Freud pathologized parents; before John Bradshaw pathologized childhood (contemporary pediatricians would have a field day diagnosing and prescribing for Tootie, the youngest child in Meet Me in St. Louis); before peculiar relatives were branded as dysfunctional instead of being lovingly accepted as eccentric; and before the phrase “family values” became a politically divisive cri de coeur.
There is a degree of nostalgia in these films, more in Meet Me in St. Louis than in I Remember Mama; issues of race and gender are not touched upon except to suggest that a smart woman could make a career of being a writer. Yet at the heart of both of these films, is a clear-eyed representation of the foundational importance of the family in American culture and the values—sacrifice, support, loyalty, love and selflessness—that are at the core of the archetype of family. We could do worse than to imitate them.
George Stevens, the director of I Remember Mama, is a realist which perfectly suits the plight of an extended family of Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco doing their best to adapt to the ways of their new country. Stevens draws from the ensemble cast uniformly flawless performances—four of the actors were nominated for Academy Awards. Barbara Bel Geddes (best remembered, perhaps, as Miss Ellie on Dallas) and Ellen Corby (beloved Grandma Walton on The Waltons) both got Best Supporting Actress nods. Seven years later Ms. Bel Geddes was nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Maggie the Cat in the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s—at the time highly controversial, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. How could this fresh-faced ingénue possibly pull that off? Close your eyes and listen to her voice—she purrs, just a step away from growling. Aunt Trina was a career-changing role for Ms. Corby who had appeared uncredited in bit parts in over 30 films before getting this break. She makes the best of it, stealing all most every scene that she’s in. A Supporting Actor nomination went to Oskar Homolka (one of the greatest ham actors of all time—his moustache and eyebrows steal scenes all by themselves).
As good as they all are, the heart and soul of the film belong to Irene Dunne and her radiant portrayal of the matriarch of the title. Ms. Dunne may not be familiar to younger audiences; it’s a shame, she should be. She was one of most popular and versatile leading ladies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. “Lady” is the operative word; she possesses an instinctive elegance and dignity that few actors before or after her could match. She was equally adept at musicals, screwball comedies (two with Cary Grant), love stories and costume dramas. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar five times; her final nomination was for I Remember Mama. If you ask me, she was robbed.
Vincente Minnelli, the director of Meet Me in St Louis, (also of An American in Paris and Gigi) was a painter, Broadway costumer and set designer before he came to Hollywood. In a sense he paints his films, using a Technicolor palette. His shots are framed to look like paintings. Each of the films four acts begins with a painting of the Smith family home in one of the four seasons. His films aren’t meant to look realistic and they don’t.
In addition to the visual beauty of the film there are the unforgettable performances, in particular, those of Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and Mary Astor.
Garland is in fine voice and at her least mannered and most relaxed. (Besides being a singer, Garland is also a sly and fearless comedienne, a clown really, something that’s often overlooked because of the pathos in her private life. Watch her at the dance, doing penance for sabotaging a rival’s dance card- comic genius). She’s given great musical material: The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and she inhabits them, making them forever her own.
Margaret O’Brien is, for my money, the best child actor Hollywood ever produced. (She also appears in an adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s classic, The Secret Garden which screens on TCM the same day as Meet Me in St. Louis. (May 9, 4:00 PM EDT) I don’t know that Garland ever had better rapport with a co-star than with O’Brien; their scenes together are pure magic.
(I’d give runner-up as best child actor to Ronny Howard—now director Ron—who gives a hilarious and touching performance in another Minnelli film that airs this month, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, May 1, 7:00 PM EDT)
Mary Astor, the beautiful and versatile actress, who plays the girls’ mother, began her film career at the age of 14 in silent films and never stopped—even a major scandal in the 1930’s couldn’t slow her down. (Check Google or Wikipedia.) In the four years before becoming a respectable matron in Meet Me in St. Louis, Astor won an Oscar as a vengeful unwed mother in The Great Lie and steals the film from Bette Davis (perhaps the only actress who ever did); embodied, as well as any actress ever has, the archetype of the deadly femme fatale opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, and played a ditsy heiress in Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy, The Palm Beach Story.
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: MAY 7, 2:00 PM EDT
Robert Mitchum’s performance as seductive and sinister religious fanatic and serial killer, Harry Powell, obsessed with finding a hidden cache of $10,000, is arguably his best, which is saying something. The movie, the only one directed by actor Charles Laughton, is a film noir masterpiece. The sense of dread and menace never lets up as Mitchum pursues two children he believes know the location of the money. Shelley Winters is heart-breaking as the love-starved widow who falls under Mitchum’s spell. The great silent film actress, Lillian Gish is fierce as an avenging angel who takes the children under her care. Do not miss this film!
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: MAY 2, 8:00 PM EDT
Neither Clark Gable nor Claudette Colbert—both top box-office stars at the time—wanted to do this film. After shooting was finished, Colbert reportedly complained to a friend, “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Nonetheless, the movie was a huge success and made Oscar history as one of the rare comedies to win Best Picture and as the first of only three films in Academy Award history (the other two are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs) to capture the five top awards—Best Picture, Best Actor (Gable), Best Actress (Colbert) Best Director (Frank Capra), and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin).
Colbert plays a spoiled-rotten runaway heiress—heiresses were popular heroines in comedies of the Depression Era—and Gable is an out-of-work reporter trying to get his job back. (Legend has it that animator Fritz Freleng based Bugs Bunny on Gable’s fast-talking character.) The pair finds themselves traveling together on a Greyhound bus. Colbert’s father has offered a reward for the return of his daughter and Gable recognizes her. He doesn’t want the reward; he wants her story so he can sell it to his old newspaper and get his job back.
Colbert is stranded when her bag and bus ticket are stolen during a rest stop. She has no survival skills and the rakish Gable comes to the rescue. Two sequences, in particular, are considered classics: the “hitchhiking” scene and the “walls of Jericho” scene. When Gable takes off his shirt in the Jericho scene, he is not wearing an undershirt. Apparently this did as much damage to the men’s underwear business as JFK’s refusal to wear a hat at his inaugural did to the hat business several decades later.
I don’t care if I ever see Cuckoo’s Nest or Silence of the Lambs again, but I’m always grateful for the opportunity to catch up with “It Happens One Night” when TCM schedules it. Fix a bowl of popcorn, relax, and enjoy.
HOWARD HAWKS TRIPLE FEATURE
BRINGING UP BABY: MAY 30, 7:45 AM EDT
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT: MAY 30, 9:45 AM EDT
THE BIG SLEEP: MAY 30, 11:30 AM EDT
Howard Hawks directed films for forty-four years beginning with silent films in 1926. He made movies in every genre—westerns, gangster movies, film noir, screwball comedies, war films, adventure films, even musicals—and excelled in all of them; he made nearly forty sound films, at least a dozen are considered classics. Five are screening on TCM this month; the other two are Sergeant York and Rio Bravo.
Bringing Up Baby is considered by many, including me, to be the funniest, most lunatic, of all the screwball comedies. It’s certainly the most outrageous. It’s the second of three great films co-starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. (Last month featured the pair in Holiday.) Grant is an absent-minded professor (paleontology) eagerly anticipating the arrival of an intercostal clavicle, the last bone he needs to complete the skeleton of a brontosaurus. What a set-up! Hepburn is a scatter-brained heiress whose brother has sent her a tame leopard, the “Baby” of the title, to deliver as a gift to her wealthy Aunt Elizabeth, who dotes on an irritating pet terrier who spends his time hiding bones throughout Aunt Elizabeth’s property. Baby, the pet leopard, is a bit skittish but can be coaxed into behaving if someone sings, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”. As circumstances would have it, a traveling circus with a man-killing leopard is performing in the neighborhood of Aunt Elizabeth’s estate. The dog buries the brontosaurus bone; the man-killing leopard escapes from the circus, and, of course, Hepburn thinks it’s Baby. I can think of no other film where a leopard is the center of a case of mistaken identity. The supporting cast is a who’s who of the best character actors of the era.
To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep are two back-to-back collaborations Howard Hawks had with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Hawks’ wife noticed Bacall’s picture of the cover of a magazine and brought it to the director’s attention. A year later the nineteen year old model made her film debut in To Have and Have Not opposite forty-five year old Bogart. Despite the age difference the chemistry was immediate and thoroughly convincing. Standing in the doorway of Bogart’s room, the sultry- voiced Bacall says:
“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.”
The scene made Bacall a star and her dialogue is still quoted by film buffs some seventy years later.
The film is loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel. Bogart, a fisherman in the Vichy controlled island of Martinique is persuaded to transport French resistance fighters, a plot that closely resembles Casablanca, a superior film, also starring Bogart. (It’s not that To Have and Have Not isn’t good—it’s just that Casablanca is perfect.)
Veteran scene-stealer, Walter Brennan, is unforgettable as Bogart’s alcoholic sidekick, Eddie, who asks everyone he meets, “Was you ever stung by a dead bee?”—a line of dialogue quoted almost as often as Bacall’s speech about whistling.
Nobel Prize winning novelist, William Faulkner, is credited as one of the screenwriters of The Big Sleep, based on a novel by Raymond Chandler. Even Faulkner admitted he wasn’t sure “who done it!” The performances and atmospherics created by Hawks and his cinematographer, Sidney Hickox, are so compelling that whether or not the plot makes sense doesn’t really matter. Watch for Dorothy Malone as the proprietress of the Acme Book Shop. Nobody ever played repressed sexuality as well as Malone. She won an Oscar for her performance as a flat-out nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind (1957) opposite Rock Hudson. That’s acting!
A FOREIGN AFFAIR: MAY 21, 11:45 AM EDT
Billy Wilder is the least sentimental, some might say most cynical, of American filmmakers. Wilder, an Austrian Jew, fled Paris in 1933, as the Nazis were beginning to take control, and emigrated to the U. S. Austria’s loss was our gain. Wilder wrote and produced some of the best films of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. A Foreign Affair is one of his darkest and funniest. The first movie to be filmed in Berlin after World War II, it makes no attempt to hide the devastation—in fact, it uses it to make a dark comedic point—human beings never change. Jean Arthur (my all-time favorite film actress) plays an up-tight, do-right, buttoned-down Iowa congresswoman who has flown to Berlin to deliver a birthday cake to an army officer (John Lund), the son of one of her constituents. The day after delivering the cake, the congresswoman spies the cake for sale on the black market. This triggers an investigation that uncovers an affair between the army officer and night-club singer Marlene Dietrich, the glamourous mistress of a high-ranking Nazi fugitive. Dietrich delivers one of the best lines of dialogue ever written, “I live just a few ruins away.” Arthur sings a rousing version of The Iowa Corn Song. This is a great film.
MISTER ROBERTS: MAY 27, 10:30 PM EDT
Henry Fonda reprises the title role he originated on Broadway. I’ve lost track of how many times I watched this film with my father who enlisted after Pearl Harbor and ended up as a clerk-typist in the South Pacific. This film is about men like my Dad. Fonda is an extraordinarily subtle actor and he has never been better. When Mr. Roberts finally escapes duty as a supply officer and joins a combat operation, he writes his former comrades on the supply vessel and addresses the letter to “All the guys everywhere who sail from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony.” My father is always with me when I watch this film. The laughs are here; so are the tears. The flawless cast includes James Cagney, William Powell, and a very young Jack Lemmon, who won an Oscar for his performance as Ensign Pulver and was catapulted to stardom.
Until next month, Enjoy!