Ball of Fire (1941)

Ball of Fire ball of fire poster
Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett from an original story by Wilder and Thomas Monroe
1941/USA
The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Repeat viewing/Warner Home Video DVD

Professor Bertram Potts: Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

I love this film.  Started smiling when I watched the trailer and didn’t stop until it was over.

The inventor of the electric toaster was miffed at his omission from the Encyclopedia Britannica so left a small fortune to a group of professors to compile a new and “improved” version.  One of the stipulations is that the professors be single.  The “leader” of the eight experts is linguist Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), who realizes he is not up with the times on American slang.  He hits the streets to learn how American English is spoken in 1941 and to put together a “round table” on the subject.  One of his star finds is nightclub entertainer Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck).

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It so happens that her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) has been picked up for murder and the police are looking for her.  She parlays Pott’s invitation to participate in the round table into a place to take cover for a few days.  All the old professors are gaga for her and Potts falls in love.  But Joe has decided that the best way to deal with his problem is to marry her so she cannot testify against him … With Oskar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.Z. Sakall, and Leonid Kinsky as a few of the professors and Dan Duryea as Duke Pastrami, Joe’s henchman.

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One of the best kissing scenes ever

Based loosely on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, Wilder and Brackett’s screenplay is a hoot.  Stanwyck and Cooper carry over their great chemistry from Meet John Doe and the cast of sterling character actors is superb.  This is just a whole lot of fun and quite romantic to boot.  Hawks keeps the zingers flying.

Ball of Fire was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Actress; Best Writing, Original Story; Best Sound, Recording and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Alfred Newman).

Trailer – cinematography by Gregg Toland

 

Charley’s Aunt (1941)

Charley’s Auntcharley's aunt poster
Directed by Archie Mayo
Written by George Seaton from a play by Brandon Thomas
1941/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First viewing?/Netflix rental

 

Babbs Babberley: I’m Charley’s nut from Brazil where the aunts come from.

Jack Benny’s English accent is ludicrous but that doesn’t stop him from being funny in this take on the old stage play.

The setting is 19th Century Oxford.  Charley Wickham and Jack Chesney are in love and need a chaperon for meeting their beloveds.  They had been counting on Charley’s aunt Donna Lucia from Brazil to do this duty.  When Lucia doesn’t show up, they blackmail Babbs Babberly (Benny), who already has the clothes from his role in a campus play, to take over.  Jack’s father Sir Francis (Laird Cregar) is broke and starts courting the “lady”, who is said to be worth millions.  Old Stephen Spettigue (Edmund Gwenn) isn’t far behind. Finally a client of Babbs’s father (Kay Francis) appears, and it looks like the jig is up.  With Anne Baxter as one of the young ladies.

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This isn’t hilarious or anything but it is amusing and a pleasant way to spend 80 minutes. Jack Benny does quite well at a role that is outside his general miserly persona.

Promo – Jack Benny talking about Charley’s Aunt with Tyrone Power and Randolph Scott, who briefly plug their parts in A Yank in the RAF and Belle Starr

Rage in Heaven (1941)

Rage in Heavenrage in heaven
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Written by Christopher Isherwood and Robert Thoeren from a novel by James Hilton
1941/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

Title card: “Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned.” – Milton

Rage in Heaven is kind of a mess, but an interesting one.

The story begins in Paris where psychiatrist Dr. Rameau (Oscar Homolka) has called the British Consul into his asylum to help learn the identity of a paranoiac patient known as “Ward Andrews”.  By the time Rameau can introduce his patient, he has escaped.

Segue to London, where Ward Andrews is being paged at his hotel.  The phone is delivered to Ward Andrews (George Sanders).  Having heard the page, his friend Philip Monrell (Robert Montgomery) goes to him. Coincidentally, both have just returned from Paris.  Andrews has a couple of days before starting a job in Scotland and Philip invites him up to his family’s country estate.  There they meet Philip’s mother’s new companion the lovely Stella (Ingrid Bergman).  Both men promptly fall in love with her but Philip pushes her toward Ward.  However, it is Philip Stella loves and they marry shortly after Ward’s departure.

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It is not long before we learn that Philip has serious problems.  He admits that he posed as Ward in Paris to feel more confident.  Despite Stella’s evident loyalty and love, he has also become convinced that she actually loves Ward.  He invites Ward back to their home and gives him a job.  After that, he repeatedly concocts ever more devious “tests” of Stella’s devotion.  In his mind, she fails every one of them and he begins to plot an elaborate revenge.

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One of the reasons I watched this was because it was billed as a film noir in Keaney’s Film Noir Guide.  I think that’s stretching a point – the film is strictly a Freudian melodrama with a Gothic slant.  It went through three directors before being finished by Woody Van Dyke while he was on a 14-day leave from the Marines and the pacing suffers.  The first part drags a bit and the third act is badly rushed.

Still, I thought all the principals were good, though Bergman is still finding her way as an actress.  It is always nice seeing George Sanders play outside his cynical “type” as the decent friend of the family.  I don’t know how accurate the psychology was but I thought Philip’s machinations were pretty scary.

Re-release trailer

 

 

The Corsican Brothers (1941)

The Corsican Brotherscorsican brothers poster
Directed by Gregory Ratoff
Written by George Bruce and Howard Eastabrook based on the novel by Alexander Dumas pére
1941/USA
Edward Small Productions

First viewing/Amazon Prime Instant Video

 

“True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring.” ― Alexandre Dumas

I thought this was a very well-done swashbuckler.

The Countess Franchi gives birth to Siamese twins Mario and Lucien on the day the evil Colonna (Akim Tamiroff) kills her and the rest of the Franchi family.  Dr. Paoli (H.B. Warner) separates the twins.  Lucien is sent off to the forest with a loyal Franchi servant (J. Carroll Naish) and Mario is adopted by aristocrats and goes off with them to Paris. During their childhood, Mario keenly feels Lucien’s feelings even though he is ignorant of his existence.  On their 21st birthday, the twins (both played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) are reunited in Corsica and swear a solemn vow to restore the Franchi family and kill Colonna and his supporters.  Complications arise when Mario and Lucien discover they are both in love with the Countess Gravini (Ruth Warrick). In his jealousy, Lucien vows to kill Mario and be free of his influence.

corsican brothers

On the whole this is well acted and exciting with many good sword fights, some between the twins themselves.  I kept wondering how the script would resolve the rivalry between the twins and didn’t quite expect the ending.

Dimitri Tiomkin was nominated for an Academy Award for his scoring of The Corsican Brothers.

You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

You’ll Never Get Richyou'll never get rich poster
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Written by Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano
1941/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Martin Cortland: Do anything so long as you make my wife believe I was telling the truth when I was lying to her!

A predictable musical gives viewers the opportunity to see Rita Hayworth dance.

This could be the plot of almost any movie starring Fred Astaire.  Robert Custis (Astaire) is the choreographer and star of a Broadway musical.  Sheila Winthrop (Hayworth) is a dancer in the chorus.  Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley), the show’s wealthy producer, is a philanderer and currently has his eye on Sheila.  He buys her an engraved diamond bracelet, which she, being a good girl, refuses.  The bracelet is discovered by his wife who threatens to divorce him so he makes Robert pretend that it was a gift from Robert to Sheila. In the course of this drama, Robert discovers he is in love with her himself.

The Peacetime Draft catches up with Robert.  Sheila shows up at base to visit her sometime boyfriend who is an Army Captain.  Robert does various things to capture Sheila’s heart, all of which lead to misunderstandings and land Robert in the guard house — that is until Cortland decides to put on a show on base.

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This is OK but the script lacks the sparkle that animates Astaire’s best work.  Hayworth started out as a dancer in vaudeville and does a fair job in keeping up with Astaire in their numbers together.

Cole Porter was nominated for an Academy Award for his original song “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye” and Morris Stoloff was nominated for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.

The Four Tones sing “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye” while Astaire taps

Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth tap dance at a rehearsal

The 47 Ronin (1941)

The 47 Ronin (“Genroku Chûshingura”)47 ronin poster
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Written by  Kenichiro Hara, Seika Mayama, and Yoshikata Yoda
1941/Japan
IMA Productions/Shôchiku Eiga

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus

 

“Bushido is realized in the presence of death. This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death. There is no other reasoning.” ― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The Japanese Ministry of Information commissioned this film as propaganda to promote loyalty and sacrifice for WWII.  What it got was a contemplative and non-violent film of great beauty that has outlived its original purpose.

This is a two-part film relating one of Japan’s most famous historical legends, the Ako Vendetta of 1702.  It is a true story that has been embellished in countless plays and movies.

Lord Asano is helping to arrange a ceremonial welcome for Imperial messengers at the Shogun’s place.  Chief of Protocol Lord Kira insults his efforts.  Asano loses his temper and attacks Kira, failing to kill him.  For this outrageous breach of decorum, the shogun orders Asano to commit harakiri.  He accepts this calmly, saying his only regret is that he didn’t kill Kira.  Most of the Lord’s property is seized as well, leaving his retainers masterless. Lord Kira is not criticized at all.  Gradually, public opinion takes Lord Asano’s side in the dispute.

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Oishi, Lord Asano’s Chief Counselor, takes charge of the ex-samurai (ronin).  Most of them want to immediately slay Lord Kira to avenge their former master.  Oishi counsels patience and puts them through long and frustrating deliberations.  Forty-seven ronin finally agree to attack and pledge to follow Oishi unquestioningly.  Then, there is another long delay while the shogun decides whether to restore the Asano House under Lord Asano’s brother. During this delay, Oishi leads a life of dissipation and the ronin scatter, most of them living in extreme poverty and disgrace.

One year after Lord Asano’s death, the ronin attack Kira’s castle and kill him.  His head is placed on Asano’s grave.  The ronin have honorably avenged their Lord so that his soul can rest without bitterness.  After further deliberations, all the ronin are ordered to commit harikiri. They do this with great bravery and honor.

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The story might presage a samurai epic with plenty of swordplay and gore. In fact, other than the scuffle with Lord Kira at the beginning, the attack and all the suicides take place off-screen.  It is really the story of Oichi and the hard decisions he has to make, many of them very unpopular, to preserve the Asano honor, and the great discipline with which the ronin follow him, even when they bitterly disagree.

I was not looking forward to a four-hour samurai epic at all but I loved this film.  First off, it is just so gorgeous that I probably could have happily spent the running time gazing at the images with the sound and subtitles turned off.  I think the story would have been lost in a shorter film.  The message almost required that the viewer live with Oishi’s deliberations and the long delays.  Fortunately, Mizoguchi has a special interest in the plight of women, and there are several sub-plots showing their roles and fate.  The acting is pretty wonderful.  Recommended.

Clip – end of Part I – Oishi’s wife and younger children leave him

The Spell of Amy Nugent (1941)

The Spell of Amy Nugent (AKA “Spellbound” and “Passing Clouds”)spell of amy nugent poster
Directed by John Harlow
Written by Miles Malleson and Hugh Benson based on the play “Necromancer” by Robert Benson
1941/UK
Pyramid Amalgamated Pictures

First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? — Isaiah 8:19 ESV

According to the British Film Noir Guide, this is one.  It’s more of a ghost story and a pretty bad one to boot.

Mrs. Baxter is a pillar of society.  She is trying to arrange a marriage between her son Laurie and family friend Diana Hilton.  Laurie, however, is in love with Amy Nugent, daughter of the local shopkeeper.  The difference in class horrifies his mother but Laurie is determined to go through with the wedding.  Before this can happen, Amy dies of a sudden illness.

Laurie, an Oxford scholar preparing for his exams and a leading track star, is devastated. He is ripe when one of his mother’s friends leaves behind a book on spiritualism.  He visits the friend’s house where he meets a medium named Mr. Vincent.  The medium does conjure up Amy.  Laurie’s Oxford tutor is a skeptic but Laurie will not listen,  Finally, he brings in Mr. Cathcart, a believer who fled the movement.  Laurie sinks deeper under the spell of Mr. Vincent.  Can Cathcart or Diana break it before Laurie goes insane?

Derek Farr

At first, I thought this movie was going somewhere interesting with Amy’s demise.  Not so. In addition, at only 82 minutes, the film drags.  I thought Derek Farr over did it as Laurie.   I suppose some of the lighting is noirish but low-key lighting is suitable for horror as well and does not turn a ghost story into a film noir, in my book.

 

 

Penny Serenade (1941)

Penny SerenadePenny Serenade poster
Directed by George Stevens
Written by Martha Cheavens and Morrie Ryskind
1941/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation

First viewing/Netflix rental

Roger Adams: I-I’ll beg, I’ll borrow, I-I’ll… please Judge I’ll sell anything I’ve got until I get going again. And she’ll never go hungry, she’ll never be without clothes not so long as I’ve got two good hands so help me!

With every picture I see directed by George Stevens, I admire his work more.

The story is told in flashback as Julie Adams (Irene Dunne) listens to records from her past while she is preparing to leave husband Roger (Cary Grant).  They meet at a record shop and music follows them throughout their marriage, which takes place just prior to Roger’s move to Tokyo as a foreign correspondent.  After Julie joins him she becomes pregnant and Roger inherits a few thousand dollars.  He wants to quit his job, take a round the world cruise, and then go back to America and buy his own newspaper.  Julie is more cautious.  In the event, before anything happens their apartment is destroyed by the Tokyo earthquake and Julie is knocked down by the rubble.

Now unable to have a baby of their own, Roger buys a small town newspaper and the couple eventually decides to adopt.  Further happiness and heartbreak awaits them.  With Edgar Buchanan as a friend and adviser and Beulah Bondi as the head of the orphanage.

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I put off watching this one out of fear that it would be a super-saccharine melodrama.  I needn’t have worried.  I loved it, even though I was in tears by the end.

George Stevens is so underrated.  I just love the way he gets so much out of the silences in the dialogue.  Near the beginning, there is something that could be a real cliche – the montage of the circulation figures on the newspaper masthead.  But Stevens does something different.  The masthead changes but the circulation does not.  We see both the passage of time and the state of the couple’s finances without a word spoken.  I also loved the use of ellipses in the film.  There is some stuff the audience just does not need to see and the film is as moving seeing only the after-effects.

All the acting is wonderful..  This was one of Edgar Buchanan’s first films and he is great in it.   And Cary Grant so deserved his nomination!.  I started crying with his plea to the judge.  This could have been really over-the-top but I was convinced.  Recommended.

Cary Grant was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in Penny Serenade..

Clip – remembering

Topper Returns (1941)

Topper ReturnsTopper Returns poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Written by Jonathan Latimer, Gordon Douglas, and Paul Girard Smith
1941/USA
Hal Roach Studios

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Sgt. Roberts: Innocent men stay home nights. They don’t hide in iceboxes. And they don’t take dead bodies on boat rides.

The final film in the series of three “Topper” films is as funny as any of them.

Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) is headed to meet her father at his mansion for the first time since she was a baby and collect the inheritance due her on her upcoming 21st birthday.  Her friend Gail (Joan Blondelle) is along for the ride.  The taxi cab they are travelling in crashes and they hitch a ride with Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).

That night at the mansion, the girls decide to switch bedrooms and Gail is murdered.  Her ghost heads straight to Topper’s house next door and enlists his help.  Her body quickly goes missing and the rest of the film is taken up with some spooky goings on and lots of gags.  With Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper, H.B. Warner as Mr. Carrington, Dennis O’Keefe as the cab driver and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Topper’s driver.

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With a cast like this, you can’t go too far wrong.  It’s a little more slapstick than the first film but viewers who liked that one should like this one too.

Topper Returns was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound, Recording and Best Effects, Special Effects.

Trailer (note tie-in to “News on the March” from Citizen Kane!)

Blues in the Night (1941)

Blues in the Nightblues in the night poster
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Robert Rossen from the play Hot Nocturne by Edwin Gilbert
1941/USA
Warner Bros.

First viewing/Netflix rental

 

My mama done told me when I was in knee-pants/ My mama done told me, she said Son/ A woman will sweet-talk ya, she’ll give you the big eye/ But when that sweet talkin’ is done/ A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing/ Who’ll leave ya to sing the blues in the night — “Blues in the Night”, lyrics by Johnny Mercer

A musical film noir?  And in 1941 already?  A white band playing blues? Well, partly.

“Jigger” Pine (Richard Whorf) is playing honky-tonk piano in a dive.  His buddy clarinetist Nicky Haroyen (Elia Kazan, in his final screen performance as an actor) keeps after him to start his own band.  But Jigger doesn’t want to do this unless it is a small “unit” that thinks as one man (i.e., him) and plays “real” music.  He punches a customer out for wanting him to play “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, starts a brawl, and he and his buddies wind up in jail where they hear the stuff they are after — the blues sung by one of the black inmates. (Well, blues as imagined by Tin Pan Alley).  After they get out, they meet up with braggart trumpeter Leo Powell (Jack Carson) and his wife vocalist “Character” Powell (Priscilla Lane) and the “unit” is complete.

The band starts out at the bottom of the rung, hopping box cars looking for gigs.  Escaped convict Del Davis (Lloyd Nolan)  holds them up for their last $5 then takes a liking to the group and their music.  He gets them a gig at a roadhouse run by his “friend” Sam where his ex-girlfriend Kay (Betty Field) and her accompanist rummy cripple Brad (Wallace Ford) perform.   The band is a big hit.

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The tale soon turns much darker.  Turns out Sam and Kay set up Del as the fall guy from a job they pulled and Del is out for revenge.  Kay still has a yen for Del and uses the married Leo to make him jealous.  When Jigger puts a stop to this she turns her attention to him.  Jigger falls for this no-good dame and soon she breaks up the band and almost destroys Jigger’s musical career, mind, and life.

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So clearly this movie is all over the place.  The tone varies from light and comedic to pitch black.  The band is the squarest jive-talking “unit” on record.  Some of the resolutions come out of nowhere Still, the noir parts are beautifully shot and pack a punch.  There is a madness montage (directed by newcomer Don Siegel) that is years ahead of its time.  I have never really seen anything like it.  Recommended for those interested in the roots of film noir.

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer were nominated for an Academy Award for their song “Blues in the Night”.  What a year for great Original Song nominees 1941 was!

Trailer