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The Cat and the Fiddle (1934)
The dawn of MGM Jeanette
Jeanette MacDonald's first for Metro is a loose adaptation of the hit Kern-Harbach operetta co- starring Ramon Novarro and Frank Morgan, and alas, she's already becoming MGM Jeanette. A smart, suggestive comedienne at Paramount in things like "One Hour With You" and "Love Me Tonight" (to these eyes, the greatest movie musical ever), she really became a household word at Metro, in operettas, usually opposite Nelson Eddy, that increasingly encouraged her diva- hood. Here, as an American pop composer in Brussels, she's already losing her deliciously risqué sense of humor and indulging in great-lady sentimentality. Fun Jeanette isn't entirely gone, though, and she works well with Ramon, who has an attractive tenor and a good deal more acting skill than some of MacDonald's subsequent leading men. The screenplay, by the Spewacks, runs far afield of the Broadway original but makes room for most of the sublime score. And there's also a good glimpse of Vivienne Segal, a legendary Broadway soprano who'd been playing Jeanette-style leads just a few years back, at the dawn of sound. Charles Butterworth--no stranger to Kern, having supported Helen Morgan on Broadway in "Sweet Adeline"--has some funny bits, and there's a pleasing finale in early three-strip Technicolor. Jeanette followed this one up with "The Merry Widow," where, aided by Chevalier and Lubitsch, she was more her old self. Witness this one for some lovely Kern and for Novarro, but watching Jeanette trade comic finesse for prima donna respectability isn't pretty.
The Road to Singapore (1931)
Early polished Powell
Not-especially-interesting romantic melodrama, from a play, of a triangle in the tropics. But it's one of the earliest demonstrations of William Powell in full William Powelldom. As a rich, unscrupulous playboy living a hedonistic existence in Khota (why Khota is never made clear), he's all polished consonants, dapper clothes, and upper-class charm. You can see why Doris Kenyon, unhappily married to dull, work-obsessed doctor Louis Calhern, would respond to his flirtations. And you can see why her younger sister, Marian Marsh, would be similarly captivated. It's a bit clichéd and more than a bit casually racist (when displeased with a servant, kick him), but it's lifted up by a) some spiffy early-talkie camera-work--love the long take panning from Calhern's to Powell's bungalow!--and b) engagingly pre-Code morality, where the callow hedonist isn't entirely punished for his devil-may-care attitude. It's swift, and the ending may surprise you a little.
Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935)
Drivel, and I loved it
What a wallow, a Hugh Walpole novel he adapted himself, assisted by the reliable Lenore Coffee, and produced, with needless lavishness, by Selznick during his MGM tenure. Eternal love in its most idealized state, with Robert Montgomery pining for Helen Hayes, until they have an elaborately staged misunderstanding and she marries Otto Kruger, who's not only rich and shallow but goes insane. Meantime Montgomery loses an arm, but their love is unaffected, and when they're reunited the whole 19th century British society rejects and disdains them, even though they're platonic lovers (and lack chemistry). Meantime, May Robson, as Hayes's centenarian-plus grandmother, makes barbed comments on the side, like a very, very old Eve Arden. And the happy ending arrives when Kruger dies. William K. Howard was no great stylist but has some nice, elaborate compositions, and the musical score is suitably slurpy, and some winning MGM stalwarts hover on the sidelines, like Lewis Stone and Henry Stephenson. Montgomery was an awful man, but he's good here, though he doesn't even attempt an accent, and Hayes is... prim. Distinguished it's not, but as an example of large, prestigious studio product of 1935, it's great fun.
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.