The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy dealing with the conflict between social classes. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character, the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next to many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down an oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is an activist rallying against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. The type of character you don’t see often in classic films and likely would have been labelled a communist during the McCarthy era. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightning fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real badass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.

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The More The Merrier (1943)

Three’s a Crowd

The More The Merrier represents the screwball genre adapting for the war years however this was at the end of the genre’s original run. I wonder why there were not more screwball comedies made during the war period? Did people become more cynical with the war or perhaps the genre was simply made for the depression era. Instead of taking on the establishment like the genre screwball did during the depression, The More The Merrier is supporting it. It is refreshing to see a propaganda film from the war years which is less gloomy and shows how common folk got on with their daily lives during the war.

My main flaw with The More The Merrier is Joel McCrea. He’s fine but that’s the problem, he’s only just fine; a serviceable actor who doesn’t leave a great impression. He’s the weak spot of a trio of characters who could have been much stronger with a more charismatic actor. Granted this was during the war and most of Hollywood’s big male leads were off in Europe kicking Hitler’s ass. Could Cary Grant have played the role instead, but perhaps a big star like that couldn’t play a role in he doesn’t show up until half an hour in. The trio of characters still manages to be fun with Jean Arthur playing the straight man and Charles Coburn as an immature and conniving old man who still seems like a kid at heart; while the romance between Arthur and MrCrea is still believable and handled very well as they spend the final third of the film quietly denying their feelings for each other.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are one of the more unconventional screen pairings in Hollywood starring in three films together, just look at the morning schedule scene; comic choreographed brilliance and by far my favourite part of the film. When McCrea enters the picture though I feel it is never as strong. Also after you watch this movie you may find yourself saying “dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, a lot.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Old School

Sex! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s fascinating to see just how many references to the birds and the bees permeate the seemingly innocent veneer of Vivacious Lady. James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appearing more youthful than they do here. There are many code breaking moments in Vivacious Lady from the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and their tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face to Stewart breaking into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

It’s clear that the University in the fictional town of Old Sharon is full of students eager to get it on from every other male student wolf whistling Ginger to the large number of couples occupying the boathouse at night. I mean the President of University and Stewart’s father played by Charles Coburn even comes right out and says it, “We are having the usual spring difficulties between our male and female students a little early this season. Too much fraternising in the lockers”.  – The Hays Code? What code?

However on closer examination of Vivacious Lady something dawned on me – there’s a very unusual incest thing going on between the main characters. Francey (Ginger Rogers) was going out with Peter’s (James Stewart) brother Keith (James Ellison) before they met, however, Francey marries Peter shortly after they meet for the first time even though she was still going out with Keith at the time. Even when Keith finds out he is perfectly ok with this arrangement and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Likewise just get look at this dialogue exchange:

“I remember I married you”

“Oh no, she married me”

“So were cousins”

“You and your cousins can use that drawing room now.”

Incest aside, unlike other screwball comedies Vivacious Lady is actually more grounded in reality with its use of more deadpan humour. There are no over the top misunderstandings or histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing) but rather the characters react in a manner in which people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, it’s lifelike but manages to be no less funny. This was one of the four films in which Beulah Bondi played Jimmy Stewart’s mother; I can’t imagine a more convincing choice to be the mother of the on-screen, boy next door Jimmy Stewart persona. Likewise, is there a better choice to play an overly conservative father than Charles Coburn? I can speak for a friend of mine who couldn’t believe just how much he related to Jimmy Stewart and the manner he acts towards Ginger Rogers such as Stewart’s attempts to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love-struck kids.

Trouble Along the Way (1953)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Duke Is Ziggity!

Westerns have never been a favourite genre of mine unless one is really exceptional or unique. So it should come as no surprise what ends up becoming my favourite John Wayne movie was his foray into Cary Grant-esque style comedy, something much more up my alley.

The Duke isn’t a favourite actor of mine yet I’ve always found to be strangely charismatic and engaging; although coming from Ireland, John Wayne is the one classic actor most people have not only heard off but have seen a movie from. Trouble Along The Way shows he was capable of a larger range than he’s given credit for although judging from the movie’s success audiences much preferred seeing him doing his usual stick of westerns and war movies. It’s apparent the studio must have put a lot into this movie hoping for it to be a big success, employing a top director and top cast, plus it feels like this role was written for Wayne. Despite the film being a chance of pace for him, the role still feels like a very John Wayne character; very American, very macho and very much an individualist.

The movie’s plot revolves around two things I’m not a fan off, sports and religion. I am informed the subplot involving the economics of college football (not to be confused with the sport of soccer, which in Europe is also called football, go figure) is more relevant today in a world where the financing of college athletics has gone out of control than it was in 1953. As for religion, although I am an atheist and staunchly anti-religious I can still enjoy movies about religion. Trouble Along The Way manages to express religious themes but never feels like I’m being preached towards. The movie even takes advantage of its religious based plot with some great religious jokes (“Couldn’t have booked one Protestant school for a breather”).

Charles Coburn’s role as Father Burke is an archetypal representation of Catholic clergy in old Hollywood films as an entirely trustworthy figure of respect such as Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces. This being an attempt to appease the legion of decency; have a film condemned by the legion and you lose out on box office intake. I’ve always found this representation of clergy in classic Hollywood films fascinating as it provides a complete contrast to the media reports of today of priests molesting young boys. Trouble Along The Way provides Coburn with one of his best roles and a showcase as to why he’s one of Hollywood’s finest character actors.

You can believe Wayne’s daughter played by Sherry Jackson really would be the daughter of a John Wayne character. Most movie kids get on my nerves, so whenever one does manage to impress me I have to give a special shout-out. I just wish Donna Reed could have had more screen time. In fact, my reason for watching this film was my enjoying of the other Wayne-Reed pairing They Were Expendable. Her character could easily have been a real “love to hate” role as a heartless social worker but brings sympathy to the role partially due to the character’s surprising backstory.

The other thing I must address which makes me wonder if John Wayne had much input into the film’s production is the speech Charles Coburn gives at the end of the film in which he discusses Steve’s unethical practices when assembling a football team in which Coburn states “He did it in his way, perhaps the only way”. Accompany this with the statement Steve makes when he’s been caught out that “I don’t regret what I did” makes me ask the question is this in any way referencing (and possibly defending) Wayne’s then-recent involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist, or am I just looking into it too much?

From the outset I was expecting Trouble Along The Way to be some light, enjoyable fare; but to my surprise, it proved to be a film with deep and complex story and characters. At nearly two hours it may seem lengthy for a comedy but the length is justified as there is so much going in the plot but never feels overbearing. The film is brave enough to leave questions unanswered. It’s not a depressing ending but unlike other light-hearted Hollywood films of the time, it doesn’t wrap everything in a neat bow. At the end of the film, the main characters have to learn to let go of something important in their lives. It’s disheartening seeing Sherry being taken away from her loving father to live with her mother and having to drop her tomboyish lifestyle in order to be integrated with other kids her age, but I guess the movie is just telling us that life is tough and you don’t always get what you want.

The Lady Eve (1941)

So Close, Yet So Far

The Lady Eve is a conflicting film. The first hour is some of the most perfect romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, however, it falls apart around the one hour mark. However, what is it that makes the first hour so perfect? Firstly it didn’t take too long for me to realise that Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck are one of the most flawless screen pairings ever, the perfect combination of sexy meets innocent. Watching these two I get the impression they must have been head over heels for each other. I’ve read that apparently Henry Fonda would later tell his wife he was still in love with Barbara Stanwyck, dam! But then again, after having your hair caressed by Stanwyck for 3 minutes and 51 seconds, who wouldn’t be?!

The Lady Eve is a prime example of a “How did they get away with that?!” movie. I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs were but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There’s her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, we have Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and of course, The Lady Eve. Call me old-fashioned but movies were sexier when the actors kept their clothes on. Vilma Banky did more with one raised eyebrow than an entire (Warning! Problem in Sector 7G).

So where does it all go wrong, well about 50 minutes into The Lady Eve, the movie pulls my least favourite movie cliché of all time, “the liar revealed”. You know, when a character is exposed as a fraud causing a relationship to end, even though you know they’re going to get back together again by the end of the movie. Having this cliché is bad enough, however, I thought it was only a contrived modern invention but here it is in 1941. At least they don’t drag it out like any rubbish modern-day romantic comedy would.

I’ve found Preston Sturges’ films to be indiscipline, his films all have their moments of greatness but at times they delve into over the top absurdity, even by screwball comedy standards. During the later part of The Lady Eve it’s hard to buy into Stanwyck disguising herself as another woman who doesn’t look massively different from her previous self in order to win back Henry Fonda. Oh, and he buys into the charade, the dope! Part of me wished the entire movie could have just been the two of them on the boat and it would have been a perfect film, however the final third still has some hilarious moments, such as Eugene Pallette frantically banging the table demanding his breakfast, or Fonda getting his suit destroyed three times at a party, a perfectly timed slapstick gag if I’ve ever seen one.

On a second viewing of The Lady Eve, I still have the same reaction to the first hour but I did find myself more forgiving of the last third. With my love of screwball comedies and the pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, perhaps with additional future viewings, I may become completely forgiving of the last half hour. The first hour is just that perfect.