Tag Archives: Old Movies

Monday Matinee: Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

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Alternate title for this post would be The Christmas Movie That Wasn’t.

One of my favorite holiday movies is Frank Capra’s last film, Pocketful of Miracles. Starring Glenn Ford and Betty Davis, this film is a wonderfully corny, heart-warming film, and measures up to the Capra-Corn that for which Capra films are known. It is a worthy companion to his It’s A Wonderful Life.

Why is this film so great? First off, it’s a Damon Runyon mashup of the Cinderella story, with the twist that the Cinderalla of the film is an old street woman, played to perfection by Bette Davis. Throw in a twist where the hero of the piece is a bootlegger and club owner, played with marvelous desperation by Glenn Ford. Runyon, Davis, Ford, holidays; a guaranteed winner.

Throw in the fact that it seems like MGM emptied its lot to provide the cast for this film. I’ve written a few posts about those character actors that make you jump and shout, “Oh! I recognize him/her from ……..!” This film is loaded with those actors. Here’s a list of who’s who in the movie:

Jack Elam – wall-eyed actor known for Support Your Local Sherrif/Gunfighter
Arthur O’Connell – Anatomy of a Murder; Bus Stop
Peter Falk – Columbo
Thomas Mitchell – Uncle Billy, in It’s A Wonderful Life
Edward Everett Horton – too numerous to try to pull up, but my favorites are his supporing roles in Astaire/Rogers pics.
Mickey Shaughnessy – Elvis’s mentor in Jailhouse Rock
Sheldon Leonard – Nick the bartender, It’s A Wonderful Life
Jerome Cowan – the prosecuting attorney in Miracle on 34th St.
Ellen Corby – Shane, Sabrina, The Waltons
Grace Lee Whitney – Yeoman Rand in the original Star Trek

And then, to top it off, just as Pocketful of Miracles was Capra’s last film, it was the first film for a young ingenue, looking to break into the movies, and making her first appearance on the silver screen: Ann-Margaret.

Often when so many big names are included in a project, something goes wrong. But in Pocketful of Miracles, that doesn’t happen. With so many great names associated with the film (Runyon, Capra, Davis, Ford, Ann-Margaret), it is fitting capstone to Capra’s career.

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Monday Matinee: Destry Rides Again (1939)

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Getting back to the Class of ‘39, I now come to a film that is one of my favorites, Jimmy Stewart’s Destry Rides Again. Ten films were nominated for Best Picture, and I’ve already discussed most of those. What many people don’t realize is that Jimmy Stewart almost had his own Best Picture race, all on his lonesome. Continue reading

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Netflix Gold: Desk Set, 1957

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Normally, when I write about a find on Netflix, it is something obscure, like a small BBC production, or someone’s art film. Today, I’ve got something really great to rave about, and it kind of crosses the line into my Matinee Monday posts. Usually, Netflix, when they are able to get good movies (yeah, yeah, that is optimistic, I know), they aren’t “classics”. For example, I’m an MGM musical fan, and you can count the number of really great musicals on Netflix on the fingers of one hand. Continue reading

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Matinee Monday: At The Circus (1939)

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This week, I’m returning to my theme of writing about the great crop of movies that came out in ’39. I’ve already written about most of the ten nominees for Best Picture, only omitting the two I have never seen before. Now I want to start writing about pictures that weren’t in the top ten, but are notable in themselves. They may have been second tier, but oh, a second tier like those in ’39 never existed!

By 1939, Groucho Marx was 48, and starting to show his age. The best years (and films) of the Marx Brothers were behind them. There was no way they could again bottle the magic of such comedy classics as A Night At The Opera or Animal Crackers. But they were still capable of creating a few gold nuggets, every now and then.

At The Circus, while not among the pantheon of Marx Brothers classics, is memorable for two things, one off-screen and one on. One of the gag writers who worked on At The Circus was the great silent comic, Buster Keaton, His career was sliding, and Louie B. Mayer (head of MGM at the time) directed him to work behind the scenes with the Marx Brothers developing comedy gags. The problem was that the comedic styles of Keaton and the Marx Brothers just didn’t mesh. One time, when Groucho was upset over how a joke wasn’t working, he called Keaton on it. Keaton responded, “Hey, I’m only doing what Mr. Mayer told me to do. The truth is that you guys are so good that you don’t need help.”

The second notable fact was that At The Circus featured Groucho performing that great comedy classic song, Lydia, The Tattooed Lady. A quick search of YouTube will pull up many different covers of the sing, including one by Kermit the Frog, but here is the original:

CSL

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Matinee Monday: Maureen O’Hara

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Given that she had been off of radar from many years, I did not know that Maureen O’Hara was still with us until she left us Saturday, at the age of 95. Everybody and his cousin is doing a tribute to O’Hara, and given that I am another of the millions smitten by her films, why should I be any different?

The facts of her life can be read in most news websites, so I won’t get into all the factoids that can be so fascinating, but rather mention three classic movies that round out the idea of “Maureen O’Hara” to me.

In 1961, Disney released a movie that set the hearts of millions of boys like me, teetering on the edge of approaching puberty, aflutter: The Parent Trap. Oh my stars and garters, Hayley Mills! Two of them! And the mother? Maureen O’Hara. Yes, the draw for The Parent Trap was Hayley Mills, But the reason to stay was the love story between the two great actors who played her parents, Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara. The Parent Trap was my first introduction to O’Hara; yes, I know that she was an established actor with many film roles to her credit, but I was only 11 years old, and my awareness of cinema ran to only what was au courant. 

Next, Christmas movies. I love Christmas movies, and starting next month, I will drive my family crazy with two months of holiday movies. You can count on The Miracle of 34th Street being one of the first. Again, cast as a divorced mother in Mo34, O’Hara is the cynical mother of no-nonsense Susan (Natalie Wood) who hires a man to be the Macy’s Santa Claus and dismayed to find out he claims to be the real Santa Claus. It is well-known around the CSL household that I love schmaltz, and the transformation of O’Hara’s character in Mo34 gets me every year. I love that movie, not for Natalie Woods, but for O’Hara.

Tell the truth: when you read the news that Maureen O’Hara died on Saturday, the first thing that passed through your mind was The Quiet Man, wasn’t it? For a woman who created many iconic roles, the iconic-est was that of Mary Kate Danaher, right? She will forever be remembered as the fiery Irish lass who gave John Wayne as good as she got, scene for scene, in The Quiet Man. I think it is a tribute to the film’s greatness that, even in today’s PC climate, the scene where Wayne drags O’Hara over half the county and is offered a stick “to beat the lovely lady”, we don’t get offended.

The Quiet Man was O’hara’s favorite from her oeuvre and John Wayne was her favorite leading man, so it is only fitting that I leave you with O’Hara’s defining image:

(Oh, and since O’hara was proudly Irish, Erin Go Bragh!)

CSL

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Matinee Monday: The Wizard of Oz, 1939

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I’ve taken a short break from most of my writing for the blog, and that included writing about my favorite topic, old movies. After lazing about for a couple of week, I seem to be building up another head of steam and am thinking of topics for future posts, and so I’ll begin with an installment of Matinee Monday.

I’ve been writing about the films of 1939, beginning with the ten movies that were nominated for Best Picture. One that I haven’t mentioned, and is the elephant in the room, is the monster hit, The Wizard of Oz. While Gone With The Wind was chosen as Best Picture that year (and won just about every other award), I think it’s safe to say that The Wizard of Oz is much more popular, and certainly much more a part of our culture than GWTW could ever be.

Back in February, when in the early stages of doing these movie posts, I wrote about the song that was made famous by The Wizard of Oz, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” To write about the movie and settle on any one aspect of the film would be impossible. The Wizard of Oz is probably the most widely loved of all films, reaching as it does to all ages, whether it be through appeal to childish fantasy, to mature audiences by dealing with the idea of lost dreams, and even the true meaning of life.

I can’t think of a film that is more analyzed, frame by frame, and has every aspect of its production written about, commented on, etc. After all, the fact that Buddy Ebsen (Jed, of The Beverly Hillbillies) was originally cast as The Tin Man and nearly died because the aluminum powder from his make-up got into his lungs is widely known and written about. The Munchkins? How about numerous documentaries and books about the little people who portrayed the Munchins? (There was even a feature movie made about the events entitled Under The Rainbow, if I’m not mistaken.)

Garland not the first choice? Frank Morgan buying an old frock coat in a thrift store to be part of the Wizard’s costume, and finding L. Frank Baum’s name in it? “The Jitterbug” and extended jazz dance scene by Ray Bolger left on the cutting room floor? Memorabilia selling at record prices? Where do you begin? Of all the Oscar-nominated films of 1939, not one comes close to inspiring love, affection and nostalgia as The Wizard of Oz. I could write five posts about it, and not cover it sufficiently.

I guess that when many of us try to think of something that appeals to us, we have to agree with Dorothy’s assessment of the Cowardly Lion, at the end, when she says she’s going to miss the way he cried for help when he was frightened. I think that beside the fact that the initials were the same (CL), the reason I chose Cowardly Lion as my Twitter avatar is because his use of language during his “Courage” speech just makes me smile:

CSL

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Matinee Monday: Ninotchka (1939)

The next film from 1939 makes me smile just thinking about it: Ninotchka. It starred the great dramatic actress, Greta Garbo, in a surprising new role: comedic! Just to show you how surprising this was to the movie-going public, here is the poster for that film:

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Note the tag-line: “Garbo Laughs!” Garbo was so-well known as a dramatic actress that it was a complete surprise to everyone to find out that she was an accomplished comedienne. After all, Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle, in Miracle on 34th Street) is supposed to have said on his death bed, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

In Ninotchka, three Russian commissars are sent by Moscow to Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from Russian aristocrats, but are corrupted by Count  d’Algout (male lead Melvin Douglas.) Concerned about these three, Moscow sends a special envoy (Garbo) to straighten the commissars out and take charge of the sale. Garbo plays the role of the stern and cheerless envoy with a deft touch, and as she blossoms in the Paris summer, she comes to see that there are delights in the world.

Ninortcha was very successful, and even spawned a Cole Porter musical remake, Silk Stockings, with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The dialogue is witty, with many digs at Stalinist Russia. One scene has Ninotchka reporting to the three commissars, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians”.

Here is the scene that surprised America:

CSL

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Matinee Monday: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

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Continuing with the films of 1939, I now come to another classic (as if any of the entire Academy 10 isn’t a classic), Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This film is a sterling example of Hollywood’s ability to believe in true morality and goodness. It doesn’t hurt that the director is Frank Capra, who believed in old-fashioned goodness, and tried to present it in all of his films.

Simply told, Mr. Smith is the story of a small-town naif known for his good deeds who is appointed as interim senator by a corrupt political machine that needs to have an easy-to-control placeholder who doesn’t know how things are done in DC, in order to complete a massive scheme of political graft. A complication is that the congressional aide is a cynical politico who knows how things are done. Let’s see if I’ve checked off the boxes:

Small-town rube
Corrupt big-city sharpies
Cynical female operative
Cynical female operative falls for naif
Sharpies steamroll the rube

I’m not sure if I’m describing Mr. Deeds Goes To Town or Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Throw in a daft angel or an absent-minded mother who uses kittens as paperweights, and I could be describing It’s A Wonderful Life or You Can’t Take It With You, all fine examples of the genre known as Capra-Corn.

This iteration of Capra’s vision of American goodness starred America’s “Everyman”, the inimitable Jimmy Stewart as the naive Jefferson Smith, head of a national boys’ organization. The female lead is one of my favorite actresses, the reclusive Jean Arthur, who starred in another Capra-Corn movie I’ve written about, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Together they have to overcome a nefarious political cabal, led by suave and urban Claude Rain and perennial tough guy Edward Arnold.

As always in a Capra movie, good ultimately triumphs over evil, but not before a climactic struggle in which Goliath nearly destroys David. In this scene, Stewart presents what Capra believed in:

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Matinee Monday: Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)

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It is the task of biographers to tell the why’s, how’s and wherefore’s of a person’s life, but how do you sum up a life? How do you get to the person and learn how his journey affected his soul? James Hilton did an exemplary job in his novella, Goodby, Mr. Chips (1933), telling the progress of a British boys’ school teacher from a second-rate teacher in a second-rate school to beloved icon.

Like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips was a recent literary work, a product of the 30’s. Another of the Class of ’39, Goodbye Mr. Chips is unlike GWTW. Goodby Mr. Chips was not grand in scope nor in size, it didn’t aspire to present an epic tale, merely the memory of a life that seemed small, but touched many.

Hollywood has told this story twice: once in 1939, starring Robert Donat as Mr. Chipping, and a second time thirty years later, with the great Peter O’Toole as the title character. Both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. Mr. Donat received the award in ’39; O’Toole had the misfortune to be nominated the same year that John Wayne was nominated for his role in True Grit. While True Grit is an excellent film, it is pretty much acknowledged that Wayne was a lock for the Oscar, as he was the sentimental favorite of the Academy because of his many years in Hollywood.

Robert Donat’s portrayal of Mr. Chipping over the 63-year span of the film is a wonderfully sensitive look into the transformation of a life through times of joy and sadness, love and loss. Mr. Chips, as the boys of Brookfield call him, starts the film as a “rookie” teacher in the British school system, but over time, is transformed as time the the movie progresses into a beloved institution, through no fault of his own.

A sentimental movie, a sentimental story, Goodbye Mr. Chips is a loving look back at a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, but deserves to be remembered. The only decent clip I could find shows how the timid Chips actually professes his love to Miss Kathy, a woman he met on holiday, and who would instigate his transformation:

CSL

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Monday Matinee: Gone With The Wind (1939)

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Let’s address the elephant in the room. If I am going to write about the films of 1939, there is one film that must be pushed out into the middle of the room, front and center. In 1936, Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, Gone With The Wind, which became the top-selling book for two years running. David O. Selznick bought the rights to GWTW early, but due to problems, it took three years to film and release the movie.

One reason that it took so long to get the film to the screen was because Selznick only wanted one man to play Rhett Butler, Clark Gable. Gable was under contract to MGM, who wasn’t about to lend Gable to another studio. Lending actors to other studios to make movies was a common practice, but by the late 30’s Gable was such a hot property and screen idol that MGM wouldn’t lend him. To give you an idea of just how idolized Gable was, check out this video of a pre-Oz Judy Garland singing a love song to a Gable photograph:

In order to get Gable, Selznick negotiated an exorbitant deal with Sam Goldwyn’s father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer, in which he took on huge financial obligation, and gave MGM distribution rights.

But. He got Gable.

And for Scarlett O’Hara? The drama was no less intense. Selznick, for publicity, announced a 1400-person casting call for actresses to read and audition for the part. The gimmick did generate a swell of publicity for the film, but didn’t produce someone for the role. Instead, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood actresses (and their agents) were lobbying and working the phones for the part of Scarlett, including Katherine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Vivien Leigh, and Lana Turner. In the end, it came down to Paulette Goddard (who had starred opposite Gable in It Happened One Night, in 1934) and Vivien Leigh; Selznick’s choice was Goddard, but controversy over her marriage to Charlie Chaplin caused him to opt for Leigh.

Despite the casting problem, the end result was that Gone With The Wind won ten Oscars and became the all-time grossing movie production up to that time; it took another 25 years for a film to earn more than GWTW. According to Wikipedia, when adjusted for monetary inflation, is still the most successful film in box-office history.

Tortured though it might have been to bring about, here is the first meeting of these two fabled characters:

CSL

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