Friday, May 18, 2012

It's a Wonderful Gab!

Werth: Hello, Wise.  

Wise: Hello, Werth. What cinematic-themed gab awaits us today?

Werth: Well, Wise. If I read my Film Gab Hollywood Birthday Calendar correctly, today would have been the 115th birthday of one of the most memorable directors of classic Hollywood: Frank Capra!  

Wise: Good ol' Capra. No filmmaker became more associated with Americana than Capra with his folksy approach to American society in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Werth: But what was so great about Sicily-born Capra is that he was equally capable of making flat-out comedies like It Happened One Night (1934)—and one of my favorites, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).  

Wise: Arsenic and Old Lace. Sounds like our future codenames in the Shady Queens Rest Home.

Werth: Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, was filmed in the middle of a spate of WWII documentaries that Capra shot for the war effort—so its giddy, yet dark treatment of the Brewster Family must have been a refreshing escape from the horrors of the real world for Capra. 
The film opens on Halloween night as author and drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) gathers up his newlywed bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane) for some honeymoon action.

Wise: Doubles tennis with George Cukor and Edward Everett Horton?

Werth: Luckily for Mortimer, Elaine is the next-door-neighbor to his two spinster Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), so he can say goodbye to them before the happy couple catches a train for Niagara Falls. The only problem is that Mortimer's day begins to unravel as he discovers his sweet, kindly old aunts have been hiding something from him.

Wise: Compromising photos of Randolph Scott?

Werth: Abby and Martha feel so badly for lonely old men with no friends or family that they put notices in the paper for boarders and when these older men come to take the room, these angelic spinsters poison them so the men can stop being so miserable and alone. The most recent victim, Mr. Hoskins, is hanging out in the window seat when Mortimer accidentally finds him.

Wise: Those great old architectural details make a home so invitingand so convenient for homicide.

Werth: The comic plot spirals wildly from there with Mortimer's loony brother Teddy (John Alexander) shouting "Charge!" everytime he runs up the stairs because he thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt; Mortimer's other brother Jonathan, who has just finished a world-wide killing spree with his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (played with unsubtle creepiness by the droopy-eyed Peter Lorre), wanting to use the 
"Panama Canal" in the basement to get rid of his own pesky dead body, and a dopey beat cop (Jack Carson) trying to tell Mortimer his new play ideaall this while Elaine dithers between heady romance and annulment papers.

 Wise: Familial insanity would be enough for me to re-think a marriage.

Werth: At times the insanity is a bit much. Grant makes more bug-eyed faces and does more double-takes than any film of his I can recall and by the end there's a plethora of character types coming in and out of the plot at a dizzying pace. But it's all good fun, with the two murderous aunts coming off as the normal people in this farce. Capra's gift was a directorial light touch that could even make serial murder something to laugh at.

Wise: Here Comes the Groom (1951) stars Bing Crosby as Pete Garvey, an ace reporter assigned to post-war Paris where he files heartbreaking stories about war orphans in the hopes of getting them adopted by well-to-do Americans.  His work is interrupted when his fiancée Emmadel (Jane Wyman) reminds him that he promised to marry her three years ago.  Packing up and setting off for home, he can't help but bring along the two most adorable orphans in the hope that he and Emmadel can adopt them.  Arriving in Boston, he's stunned to discover that Emmadel is planning to marry her high-toned boss Wilbur Stanley (a good-natured Franchot Tone in the Ralph Bellamy role).  
Knowing that his orphans will be sent back to Paris if he doesn't succeed, Pete hatches a scheme to make Emmadel realize she still loves him, as well as helping Wilbur to discover the charms of his dowdy cousin Winifred (Alexis Smith).

 Werth: Because the only thing more adorable than Parisian street urchins is incest.

Wise: With Bing Crosby being the star, it's no surprise when he launches into song.  It's a bit of a shock, however, when Jane Wyman does too.  The film isn't exactly a musical—most of the songs involve Bing leaning against a piano—but there are two production numbers: "Misto Cristofo Columbo" is a spontaneous jam aboard the flight back to the U.S. with cameos from Louis Armstrong and Dorothy Lamour; 
and the Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael tune "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" that begins as something Peter hums with Emmadel in her office and erupts into a full song and dance number amid the filing cabinets and continues on the elevator and into the street.  Wyman spent much of her career playing ice princesses melted by love, but she began as a chorus girl, and seeing her hoof it on the silver screen is a welcome surprise.

 Werth: I guess after you win an Oscar for playing a deaf-mute rape victim, you want to dance with some filing cabinets for a change of pace.

Wise: Crosby is the real mystery in this film.  Capra often unleashed the desperation in his male stars—think of Jimmy Stewart's attempted suicide in It's a Wonderful Life—but Crosby's unflappably romantic persona (honed on the radio and in the "Road" pictures with Bob Hope) prevents the tension from ever escalating and making the happy ending feel a bit flat.  And unlike 
Wyman, who gamely indulges in the pratfalls intrinsic to screwball comedy, Crosby remains aloof.  Still, his charisma is undeniable and when the final credits roll, the audience is happy he's won Jane Wyman back.

Werth: Well after a post full of serial killers and war orphans, I'm ready to lighten up a little.

Wise: I've got some great pics of Randolph Scott, Arsenic.

Werth: Bring 'em on, Old Lace!  

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