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The Rabbit Trap (1959)
The problems of little people. Very little people
Adapted from a '50s TV drama, this United Artists release stars Ernest Borgnine, at the height of his Everyman abilities, as a family man torn between home and work responsibilities. His boss (David Brian, good) is a slave driver who knows how to exploit his cooperativeness, and his wife (Bethel Leslie, also good) keeps talking sense to him, knowing he's disinclined to listen. When he's called back to work prematurely from vacation and forgets to dismantle the rabbit trap he and his young son set up, the son worries about the suffering rabbit and tries to travel back to the lake on his own. Yes, the movie's really that small. There's a subplot about a va-va-voom but nice secretary who's having an affair with the boss and feels guilty about it, and there's a happy ending that really isn't very happy. And there's annoying, TV-sounding music throughout, and some dull shots of L.A. and environs in 1958. It's well intentioned and reasonably well executed, but also prosaic and up to its neck in the Everyday Problems of Normal People. That's generally not a recipe for exciting cinema.
Ringside Maisie (1941)
And the first one's better, a typical Maisie entry where Sothern cracks wise, plays tough, and gets stuck in upstate New York, romancing both prizefighter Robert Sterling (whom she married in real life) and his promoter, a not very likable George Murphy. Sterling's engaged to a weakly written dame who overeats and gets carsick, and the always welcome Virginia O'Brien, given fourth billing, shows up to do a deadpan "Bird in a Gilded Cage" and exits. Then it takes a dark turn as Sterling's blinded in the ring, and the comedy completely vanishes. Maisie and melodrama don't mix, and we're not really rooting for her to end up with either leading man, least of all the one she does end up with. We love Annie, and she does her usual good work here, but the screenplay lets her down.
A nonmusical musical
Based on a 1919 Broadway musical hit, and transferred reasonably faithfully to the screen, with much underscoring from the Harry Tierney-Joseph McCarthy original. But only three songs remain, leaving acres of unprepossessing light comedy about a shanty-Irish colleen who lucks into modeling and is courted by friendly rich boys Ray Milland and Alan Marshal. The plotting here goes far awry. Alan Marshal spends the whole movie lusting after Anna Neagle, only to declare in the last reel he really loves Marsha Hunt, only because the screenwriters are desperate to have Neagle end up with Milland. Some nice things happen: a whole reel in Technicolor, to show off Neagle's Alice Blue Gown, and one of Billie Burke's best society-flibbertigibbet turns, and Roland Young exuding wry bemusement. And Neagle has a lovely solo dance near the end, about absolutely nothing. But one does spend an awful lot of time wishing they'd get on with it, and wondering where the stage score went.
The V.I.P.s (1963)
Wildly entertaining, and stolen by the two Maggies
Seven years before "Airport," there was this similarly laid out, lush MGM soap, which wasn't produced by Ross Hunter but looks like it could have been. The stars, the fashions, the mid- century-modern sets, the Miklos Rosza themes grinding and repeating in the background, all speak to a more innocent, more optimistic time. And best of all, while Hunter had only Perlberg and Seaton to bring Arthur Hailey's novel to the screen, MGM had the super-literate, super- crafty Terrence Rattigan to provide his own original story, expertly plotted out to afford a plethora of wide-screen star-gazing. Elizabeth Taylor, resplendent in St. Laurent, is about to leave Richard Burton for lounge lizard Louis Jourdan, but their plane is fogged in at Heathrow and Burton catches up to them, allowing for some civilized sniping between the two men, neither of whom seems good enough for her. Meantime, Dino di Laurentiis-like producer Orson Welles has to be out of Britain by midnight to escape some tax burdens; duchess Margaret Rutherford is headed unhappily to a new job in Florida to pay expenses for her Brighton mansion; and tractor maker Rod Taylor, subject to a hostile takeover, needs 150,000 pounds to cover a bad check, in which he's ably assisted by his plain-Jane secretary, Maggie Smith (all Janes should be this plain). Rattigan's epigrammatic screenplay darts dazzlingly between the four story lines, and he's instinctively fair-minded; nobody's all good or all bad, and even Linda Christian, as Rod Taylor's shallow girlfriend, isn't entirely reprehensible. Everybody's great fun to watch, and interesting people like Michael Hordern and Robert Coote and David Frost can be glimpsed in supporting roles, but the movie really belongs to the two Maggies. Rutherford picked up a supporting Oscar for playing essentially what she'd been playing for the previous 25 years, but who deserved it more, and she's not only pricelessly funny but unexpectedly touching. And Smith, silently loving her boss Rod Taylor (and who wouldn't), effortlessly steals a particularly good scene from Burton, bringing on the third act and walking off with the rest of the movie. Deep it isn't, and Rosza's themes feel a little obvious (I grew to hate that cutesy-English strain underlying every Rutherford scene), but what a luxuriously entertaining ride. That the prime storyline is based on Rattigan's own observation of the Vivien Leigh-Laurence Olivier- Peter Finch triangle being played out at the airport a few years before only adds to our sumptuous enjoyment.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
20th gets it right
In the mid-'40s, in the midst of producing some uncertain literary adaptations and boring musicals, 20th Century Fox did itself proud with this stirring version of Betty Smith's famous novel. Set in 1912 Brooklyn, it's remarkably atmospheric and un-Hollywood looking, and helped by Alfred Newman's hurdy-gurdy scoring, zeroing in on time and place as few studio movies of the era were able to. The screenplay's an entirely reasonable reduction of the rich novel, and the cast is extraordinary. I've been reading so much praise of Peggy Ann Garner's Francie, and just want to add: She has such a stillness about her, the look of someone who's hearing music no one else can, and she gets deep, deep into the bones of this questioning young girl. James Dunn captures Johnny's dreaminess and too-willingness to fool himself, and Dorothy McGuire doesn't short-sell Katie's hard-to-like practicality. Elia Kazan shoots it with considerable artistry, always putting the camera where it ought to be, and doesn't over-sentimentalize, which would be very tempting with this property. At a leisurely 128 minutes, it has a couple of scenes that could have been cut and a couple more that end inconclusively, but it's a grownup, moving movie that improves with age.
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Brawny on the briny
Warners in the early 1940s excelled at a number of genres, but it rarely produced works as relentlessly downbeat as this very good adaptation of a Jack London novel. It's grim and pessimistic for virtually its entire running time, and rich in atmosphere--the Ghost, the troubled ship on which it's set, is palpably filthy, leaky, and wet, and its madman captain, the always excellent Edward G. Robinson, is a sadist, albeit capable of introspection and thoughtfulness. But what a miserable crew he commands, full of good character actors; even Barry Fitzgerald turns off his monotonous Irish twinkle for a change and paints a complex portrait. John Garfield, though given star billing, hasn't that much to do, and we spend more time with Alexander Knox, never again as interesting as he is here, as a well-to-do writer who lands unluckily on the Ghost. Ida Lupino, as a thief also unluckily aboard, broods exquisitely, and the camera never captured her better. The Korngold score, not his best, does have a maritime air about it, and Michael Curtiz paces it wonderfully--he knows when to slow down. As an exploration of man's venality, and in its willingness to provide a less-than-totally-happy ending, it goes deeper than many sea adventures from the same era, and it has atmosphere that stays with you for days.
Cannery Row (1982)
As Steinbeck adaptations go, pretty good
MGM was in a slump in 1982, and nobody knew how to market this episodic, whimsical adaptation of two plot-light John Steinbeck novels. So a lot of people were deprived of a life-affirming, atmospheric wartime romance that preserves the democratic, people-loving tone of the Steinbeck originals. Shot partly on an elaborate sound stage and partly on or near Monterey seaside locations, it's a leisurely collection of likable losers and near-losers inhabiting the titular sardine- canning center that's seen better days. Nick Nolte as Doc, a marine biologist with a not-too-secret past, is perfection, as is Debra Winger as Suzy, a combative but yearning drifter--the movie captures the character's mercurial, changeable nature far better than Rodgers and Hammerstein did in their own adaptation, "Pipe Dream." We'd like to see more of the gang, and don't really get to know Mac (M. Emmett Walsh) and his cohorts very well. But Frank McRae's a wonderful Hazel, and John Huston's narration, much of it verbatim Steinbeck, ties things together neatly. A bit slow, and a bit fanciful, it's nonetheless a wonderful date movie, best experienced with a good California wine.
A bumpy ride
I was expecting a typical Warner's social-consciousness expose of unfair working conditions affronting cab drivers or whatever, but this short programmer is largely a love story, and a convoluted one. It has cabbie Jimmy Cagney falling for Loretta Young, whose dad, Guy Kibbee, died in prison after killing a rival driver who was unfairly moving in on his territory. The courtship is so rushed as to be incomprehensible--one scene he's chewing her out for failing to back him on his organizing efforts, next scene they're making goo-goo eyes at each other. Cagney plays such a hot-tempered, unreasonable lout that even this actor's charm and magnetism don't transform him, and you're not really rooting for the two of them to end up together. She's typically pretty and appealing, but hasn't much to play, and you have to endure Leila Bennett as her unbearably droning-on-and-on girlfriend--she plays her all too well. Jimmy and Loretta do get to dance together a bit, and some good character actors are hanging on the sidelines, notably David Landau as the evil rival who triggered the whole conflict, and ends up paying for it. But it's neither believable as a romance nor revealing as a working-class study, and the screenplay, from a stage play that one has to assume was rather different, doesn't make much sense.
Snowed Under (1936)
That's snow business
Modest Warners comedy, a little over an hour and filmed essentially on one set, has playwright George Brent holed up in his Connecticut retreat struggling to come up with a third act, where he's visited by the first wife he still loves (Genevieve Tobin, who's charming and elegant), the second wife who wants her alimony (Glenda Farrell, who's a little too shrill and boisterous), and the kid who wants to be No. 3 (Patricia Ellis). Frank McHugh also shows up to arrest him, and a housekeeper who ought to be Clara Blandick but isn't helps out. It's so one-set that it seems to be derived from a stage farce, but isn't, and implausibilities pile up--if it's such a snowstorm, why are the roads so clear? How does Brent get over to the housekeeper's house? Why is everybody suddenly fainting? Gags, such as McHugh getting covered in snow, get overworked, and Ray Enright, never the most dynamic Warners director, doesn't make much of the slender material. But it's nicely shot, with particularly lovely snowbound exteriors, and the cast looks like it's having fun.
Sunday Punch (1942)
Not-bad MGM B
Metro trods a Warners-like path in this boxing B, trafficking in the ring and the underclass, and even importing Warners contractee Guy Kibbee,as a down-and-out manager who uncovers a possible find in a young Dan Dailey, a Swede in a Brooklyn boarding house, populated entirely by boxers, until Jean Rogers moves in. She's the niece of Connie Gilchrist, who runs the joint, and besides being a looker, she has a nice Ann Sheridan-like toughness. Dailey, who's charming, Swedish Chef accent and all, woos her, but she's more drawn to his sparring pal Bill Lundigan,leading to the inevitable climax where the two have to have it out in the ring. It moves at a decent clip, and the dialog's tastier than in some other similar yarns, thanks to Fay and Michael Kanin. Some good character actors line the periphery, like Sam Levene and Rags Ragland, and Dailey and Lundigan punch and fake and feint well enough. A perfectly OK time-waster, it turns up now and then on TCM.