Once again, it’s down to the wire. I was planning on working on this earlier in the day, but we finally received the last information we needed for our insurance claim–so I worked on that instead. However, I am a big fan of Danny Kaye and I wanted to get this blog entry completed before the deadline. Kaye’s movies must not be easy to lease, as they seem to rarely air on TCM. As of this writing, it appears that many of Kaye’s films are streaming on Amazon Prime, so now’s my chance.
For this blogathon, I am discussing 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It was remade in 2013 with Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig in Kaye and Virginia Mayo’s roles, respectively. I have not seen the remake, so I refrain from commenting on it. My entry will focus solely on the original adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, titled “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
I just wanted to use the above quote because it was funny. So here’s my segue—While Danny Kaye isn’t Errol Flynn, it doesn’t matter because Kaye is perfect in the role of the titular Walter Mitty, an editor working at Pierce Publishing Company in New York City. Day after day, he reads pulp fiction magazines as part of his job. He also lives at home with his overbearing, bossy mother Eunice (Fay Bainter). Eunice controls every facet of poor Walter’s life, including what he wears, who he dates, what he eats, when he goes to bed, how he drives, etc. The man can’t even breathe without his mother having an opinion on it. And if that wasn’t enough, every day Eunice gives Walter a laundry list of tasks to complete, all of which he writes down in a little black book. His notes end up getting him into further trouble, since he is prone to writing down the wrong items, because he’s only half listening and daydreaming instead. One evening, instead of bringing home a cake, he brings home a rake.
At work, his boss constantly micromanages him and steals his ideas. Walter also has to deal with his dingy fiancée, Gertrude (Ann Rutherford) and her mother (Florence Bates). With all the constant nagging, it is no wonder that Walter is nervous and prone to daydreaming. Walter descends into his dream world when feeling overwhelmed with his current life. Usually his dreams are triggered by a setting or someone’s talking. At the beginning of the film, while listening to Eunice drone on and on about his driving, Walter imagines himself at the helm of a sinking ship. Next, while at a meeting listening to his boss talk about a hospital themed story idea, Walter is a doctor performing a life saving operation. Later, while tending to the furnace, he’s a daring British fighter pilot during WWII. In Walter’s dreams, he is always the hero saving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, each time portrayed by Virginia Mayo.
One morning while taking his usual train into New York (and probably the only peace and quiet this man has all day), Walter spots a woman that looks a lot like the woman from his fantasies. To escape a creepy man, the woman named Rosalind (Mayo) cuddles up next to Walter and pretends that he’s her beau. They get off the train and Walter realizes he is running late for work. He tries to catch a cab, but there are none available. Walter ends up spotting Rosalind in a cab and he is able to get a ride. While in the cab, Rosalind asks Walter to accompany her to meet someone at the down at the docks. He agrees, but asks to stop by his office so he can drop off some proofs.
While at the docks, a man hides a little black book in Walter’s briefcase. The man ends up being killed. Later that evening, Rosalind invites Walter to meet her uncle Peter, who is looking for the Dutch crown jewels that were hidden during World War II. Peter explains that he used to work as a curator for a Dutch museum and that he was the one who hid the jewels and had written down the locations in a little black book. It is this little black book that a criminal, named “The Boot” is trying to locate and steal. Later that evening, Walter goes to a department store and ends up finding the little black book. Scared, Walter hides it in a corset inside the modeling department.
As the film continues, the lines between Walter’s fantasy life and his real life continue to blur. Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (Boris Karloff) is introduced as a possible villain, then seems to be a legitimate doctor. As Walter is continually questioned about his actions and statements, the people in his life begin to question his sanity–thinking that he’s losing his mind. Even the facts surrounding Rosalind, Peter, the crown jewels, Dr. Hollingshead, The Boot, all start to become unclear. Walter then starts to wonder if he’s fit to be a hero.
I thought that this was a very interesting film. I’d tried watching this movie at least two or three times prior but kept falling asleep. That is definitely not the fault of the film however, I just kept falling asleep. But this time I made it all the way through. I am a fan of Danny Kaye, though I can see how he might be divisive figure. He has a very specific type of humor and seemed to perform in very specific roles. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was the perfect role for Kaye. I cannot think of a performer that would be this adept at playing roles that require broad humor and slapstick. However, I could have done without at least half of the runtime of “Symphony for the Unstrung Tongue,” written by Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine. This number was interminable and got annoying really quickly.
I loved Virginia Mayo in this film. She definitely deserves to be more well known. I’m used to seeing her as James Cagney’s girlfriend in White Heat or as Gordon MacRae’s girlfriend in the film noir, Backfire. I’ve also seen her in comedic parts like in Out of the Blue where she plays a woman who agrees to model for Turhan Bay in exchange for him letting her dog breed with his prize dog. The two end up getting involved in a crazy scheme to get back at Bay’s neighbors, George Brent and Carole Landis, using the oft-fainted body of Ann Dvorak. Mayo was paired often with Danny Kaye and I would love to see more of their collaborations.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty must have had an enormous costume and set budget, which is probably why there is some very obvious rear projection used in other non-fantasy scenes. Each of Walter’s fantasies contain different set pieces and costumes. One of Walter’s best fantasies comes on the heels of one of my favorite classic movie tropes– the random fashion show. While this fashion show is short, it is still fun. We watch as a designer unveils his latest collection of hats, each one more ornate than the last. There is a hideous black hat that looks like it was made from human hair. After the real fashion show, Walter lapses into a fantasy sequence where he unveils his latest collection of ridiculous hats, one resembling the Tower of Pisa.
I would recommend this film to anyone who enjoys fantasy-type films and/or is a fan of Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff, and/or Fay Bainter.
WALTER MITTY: Your small minds are musclebound with suspicion. That’s because the only exercise you ever get is jumping to conclusions. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, every one of you!
Walter Mitty finally grows a backbone and tells off his mother, fiancée and boss!
Allen Jenkins has one of those mugs and voices that is instantly recognizable the second he’s on screen and opens his mouth. He’s never the lead, or even the major second lead, but he’s always there to provide ample support. My first introduction to Allen Jenkins was in his numerous appearances on I Love Lucy, often as a police officer. His most memorable appearance was in a late second season episode, “Ricky and Fred Are TV Fans.” In this episode, Lucy and Ethel are upset about becoming boxing widows when Ricky and Fred settle in for the evening to watch “the big fight.” It is established that Ricky and Fred have spent a lot of evenings watching boxing on television and their wives are fed up with being ignored night after night. Lucy and Ethel decide to go down to the corner drug store and call Ricky on the phone. Lucy will disguise herself as one of her friends and ask Ricky to call Lucy to the phone, which should clue him in that Lucy and Ethel are gone. The plan doesn’t work however, as Ricky just answers the phone, calls Lucy to the phone, sets the receiver down, then returns to watching the fight. The entire crowd in the drug store is caught up in the fight, including Officer Jenkins (Allen Jenkins). Lucy unable to get the drugstore clerk’s attention (because he’s watching the fight on television), decides to make change for herself. The bell on the cash register gets Officer Jenkins’ attention and he accuses Lucy of trying to rob the drug store. Lucy and Ethel get away.
Later, Lucy and Ethel return to the Ricardos’ apartment only to see the phone still off the hook and Ricky and Fred still watching the fight–they didn’t even notice the women’s disappearance. Insulted, Lucy decides to climb up onto the roof to cut the electricity to the Ricardos’ apartment. It seems a little drastic, and she has no fear about being electrocuted, but that’s how Lucy works, she doesn’t screw around. Anyway, while Lucy and Ethel discuss which cord is running to the Ricardos’ apartment, Officer Jenkins finds them and brings them down to the precinct. Now at the police station, Officer Jenkins tells his superior, Officer Nelson (Frank Nelson), that he’s finally tracked down the infamous female robbers, “Pickpocket Pearl” and “Sticky Fingers Sal.” The women are identified based on their hair color. ‘Pearl’ is a blonde and ‘Sticky Fingers’ is a brunette, who must have dyed her hair red, deduces Officer Nelson.
LUCY: Dyed your hair. A lot you know. My hair is naturally red. Isn’t it Ethel? ETHEL: Look Lucy, let’s not add perjury to our other charges. LUCY: Well I might have expected something like that from you. Pick. Pocket. Pearl.
Lucille Ball as “Lucy Ricardo” and Vivian Vance as “Ethel Mertz” in “Ricky and Fred Are TV Fans” in I Love Lucy. Originally aired June 22, 1953.
Allen Jenkins went all the way back to 1939 with Lucille Ball when he appeared with her in the RKO film, Five Came Back. In the film, nine passengers board a flight from Los Angeles to Panama City. During the flight, the plane flies directly into an intense nighttime storm, which ends with the plane crashing into a rainforest. The passengers and crew survive. Eventually the plane is repaired, but can now only support the weight of five passengers. The passengers and crew must decide which five people will get to return home. Lucy plays Peggy Nolan, a woman with a shady past and Allen plays Pete, a gunman who is tasked with escorting the son of a gangster back home.
Eight years prior to Five Came Back, Allen had made his film debut in the 1931 short film, Straight and Narrow playing what else? An ex-convict. Allen played many unsavory characters throughout his career. He also appeared in many memorable pre-code films such as: Three on a Match (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Blondie Johnson (1933), and Jimmy the Gent (1934). During the production code era, he played opposite big Warner Brothers stars like Errol Flynn (The Perfect Specimen (1937), Footsteps in the Dark (1941), and Dive Bomber (1941)) and Humphrey Bogart (Marked Woman (1938), Dead End (1937), and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) ).
Jenkins was born on April 9, 1900 in Staten Island, New York. Despite often being cast as the dimwitted thug or comic relief, Jenkins actually had a long pedigree when it came to show business training. His family earned their living in show business and he later trained at the reputable American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In the 1920s, Jenkins was working steadily on Broadway, even replacing Spencer Tracy in the play, “The Last Mile.” Jenkins’ turn in Tracy’s role is what led to Darryl F. Zanuck discovering him and bringing him out to Hollywood to work for Paramount Pictures. His first major role was reprising his Broadway role of “Frankie Wells” in the 1932 film adaptation of Blessed Event, starring Lee Tracy. This role led to Jenkins receiving steady work, often in gangster films throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
In Ball of Fire, Jenkins has a memorable role as the garbage man who rattles off one slang word after another, much to the bewilderment of the professors who are trying to write a comprehensive encyclopedia on American slang. He would later reprise his role in the film’s 1948 remake, A Song is Born.
GARBAGE MAN: I could use a bundle of scratch right now on account of I met me a mouse last week. PROFESSOR ODDLY: Mouse? GARBAGE MAN: What a pair of gams. A little in, a little out, and a little more out. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: I am still completely mystified. GARBAGE MAN: Well, with this dish on me hands and them giving away 25 smackaroos on that quizzola. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Smackaroos? PROFESSOR ODDLY: Smackaroos? What are smackaroos? GARBAGE MAN: A smackaroo is a… PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: No such word exists. GARBAGE MAN: Oh, it don’t, huh? A smackaroo is a dollar, pal. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Well, the accepted vulgarism for a dollar is a buck. GARBAGE MAN: The accepted vulgarism for a smackaroo is a dollar. That goes for a banger, a fish, a buck, or a rug. PROFESSOR BERTRAM POTTS: Well, what about the mouse? GARBAGE MAN: The mouse is a dish. That’s what I need the moolah for. PROFESSOR ODDLY: Moolah? GARBAGE MAN: Yeah. The dough. We’ll be stepping. Me and the smooch, I mean the dish. I mean the mouse. You know, hit the jiggles for a little drum boogie.
Allen Jenkins as “Garbage Man,” Richard Hadyn as “Professor Oddly” and Gary Cooper as “Professor Bertram Potts” in “Ball of Fire” (1941).
One of Jenkins’ last film roles was as the elevator operator who takes pity on the perpetually hungover Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk (1959). Later, he moved to television, where he often played cops, or characters in blue-collared jobs. Aside from I Love Lucy, Jenkins also appeared in Adam 12, Bewitched, Batman, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He also made frequent appearances on Red Skelton’s show, The Red Skelton Hour, and also had a role in the 1950s sitcom, Hey Jeannie! (1956-1957). He is also remembered for voicing Officer Dribble on the cartoon series, Top Cat (1961-1962).
Allen Jenkins passed away on July 20, 1974 from lung cancer at the age of 74.
HUNK: Maybe I’m wrong. We all make mistakes, boss. That’s why they put the rubber on the ends of pencils.
Allen Jenkins as “Hunk” to Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, 1937.
I ‘m coming in hot with a last minute entry for Classic Film and TV Corner’s “Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon.” I actually saw this blogathon announced awhile back and forgot to enter it. Oops. This is also my first opportunity to type something substantial using my new laptop that my husband got me for Christmas! Woohoo. My introduction to classic film didn’t come via the usual routes. I’m not old enough to have seen any of these movies in the theater during their original run. The first movie I saw in the theater was Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the age of 5 in 1989. Apparently I saw a re-release of The Aristocats in 1987 when I was 3, but according to my mom it did not go well and I did not see the whole movie. Lol. I traumatized my parents enough that it was 2 years before I went back. Having grown up in Salem, OR during the mid-to-late 80s through the early 00s, there wasn’t really any opportunity to see the classics in repertory theaters, as Salem doesn’t have any. While I did watch the annual TV viewings of The Wizard of Oz, and had secretly seen Psycho and The Birds despite my mom not wanting my sister and I to see them (my dad rented them while she was out of town), these did not ignite my love of classic cinema.
One evening in 1994, 10-year old me was flipping channels and came across Nickelodeon’s evening programming, something called “Nick-at-Nite.” For the record, 90s Nick-at-Nite was one of the greatest things ever and I really wish it would come back, but I digress. Anyway, I was instantly sucked in by the colorful graphics, catchy jingles and fun animation that once graced the evening Nickelodeon block. A voiceover came on screen and announced that a show called I Love Lucy was coming up on the schedule. I honestly do not recall if I’d ever seen or heard of I Love Lucy prior to this moment, but I do know that it was not something I watched regularly. The now-familiar I Love Lucy theme song started, the hearts on satin appeared with the cast’s names: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley. I still remember the first episode I saw, “L.A. at Last!” with William Holden guest starring. At that moment, I had no idea who the cast members were, let alone William Holden.
I was instantly transfixed by Lucy’s antics. In “L.A. at Last!,” Lucy decides that she and the Mertzes need to find the “celebrity watering hole,” where the stars all gather at the same place, thus saving Lucy time in having to track them down one-by-one. Bobby the Bellboy suggests that the group visit Hollywood’s famed Brown Derby restaurant–a well known hotspot for celebrities. As an aside, I will forever be sad that I cannot go to the Brown Derby, nor can I go to 99% of the famous Hollywood nightclubs of the 30s-50s. No Ciro’s or The Mocambo for me. Anyway, while at the Brown Derby, Lucy, Ethel and Fred are spotting celebrities left and right. We hear multiple celebrities paged to the telephone: Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Walter Pidgeon, Ava Gardner. Lucy and the Mertzes see each and every one of them (offscreen) get up for the phone. Ethel also manages to offend Eve Arden in the neighboring booth by asking her to identify a caricature of herself as either Judy Holliday or Shelley Winters. Lucy for her part, is in awe of Ethel. “You touched her!” Lucy says, much to Ethel’s dismay at her faux pas.
Then, big star William Holden sits down in the booth next to Lucy and the Mertzes. Ethel is immediately starstruck and gets Lucy’s attention. Lucy catches a glimpse of Holden in the booth and is swooning. Being the creeper that she is, Lucy can’t stop staring at Holden, making him very uncomfortable in the process. Lucy’s encounter with Holden at the Brown Derby culminates with her tripping the waiter and causing him to dump a cream pie all over Holden’s head. Later, Holden meets Ricky at MGM and offers to give him a ride home to his Beverly Palms Hotel suite. When Ricky tells Lucy he’s brought a big star home with him, Lucy is overjoyed, until Ricky reveals the big star’s identity. Frantic, Lucy puts on a ridiculous disguise which includes large black cat eye glasses, a scarf to hide her hair, and a big putty nose. The scene that follows is hands down the funniest moment of the entire series (in my opinion). The look on William Holden and Desi Arnaz’ faces when Lucy turns around after “fixing” her putty nose is hysterical. How lucky was I to have this be the first episode of I Love Lucy that I ever saw?
I was hooked on I Love Lucy from then on, watching it at 8:00pm every night–except on Saturdays, I Love Lucy started at 10:00pm. On “Whole Lotta Lucy” Saturdays, Nick-at-Nite showed two episodes of I Love Lucy, followed by an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Every episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour featured a different guest star. With the exception of Fred MacMurray, I didn’t know who any of the guest stars were. I also knewvery few of the I Love Lucy guest stars, with the exception of John Wayne, Orson Welles, and Bob Hope. As a kid, I always figured that these were people who “were famous at the time.” Lol.
Anyway, my family and I were also avid library goers, spending approximately one Sunday afternoon a month perusing the stacks. Now fully obsessed with I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball, I checked out each and every book about her in the library. I read multiple biographies about her, Desi, Vivian Vance, and anything I Love Lucy-adjacent. From these books, I learned that Lucille Ball had a fairly extensive film career and discovered that my library had a large selection of “The Lucille Ball Signature Collection” VHS movies. I watched each and every one. At the same time, my parents’ cable package had just acquired a new channel, the recently launched TCM. Every Sunday, I would find the new TV guide supplement in the newspaper and comb through it, looking to see if any Lucille Ball films or documentaries were scheduled that week. I’d always check PBS, A&E’s Biography program, TCM and AMC (when it showed old films).
From Lucille Ball’s film career, I was introduced to a myriad of different stars who quickly became favorites of mine. Through Lucy’s film, DuBarry Was a Lady, I learned about Gene Kelly. Because of my interest in Gene, I watched Singin’ in the Rain and The Pirate. ‘Rain’ introduced me to Debbie Reynolds and ‘Pirate’ introduced me to Judy Garland, who I was aware of through The Wizard of Oz, but hadn’t seen her in anything else prior. Through Judy, I learned about Fred Astaire (Easter Parade), which led me to Ginger Rogers. Rogers I’d seen before as she’d appeared with Lucy and Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door, which I’d borrowed from the library. From Stage Door, I recognized Eve Arden from the episode of I Love Lucy I’d seen. I continued on this path of constant discoveries and am still on the path somewhat, except that I’m more familiar with all the actors and know that the ones who appeared as guest stars on I Love Lucy weren’t just people who were famous at the time of I Love Lucy’s production era.
Cornel Wilde is no longer known as “Cornel Wilde is in the penthouse!” (I Love Lucy, “The Star Upstairs”). He’s a co-star in the excellent Leave Her to Heaven with Gene Tierney and he’s great in The Big Combo, his film being promoted on his episode of I Love Lucy. Charles Boyer isn’t just “LUCY! I love you, rawrrrrr” ((I Love Lucy, “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer”). He’s Ingrid Bergman’s terrifying husband in Gaslight, or the man who woos Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn. Boyer is the man who arranges to meet Irene Dunne at the top of the Empire State Building in Love Affair. Unbelievably, I also didn’t know anything that William Holden did aside from being hilarious in I Love Lucy. I finally saw him in Sunset Boulevard and was blown away. After having seen him in so many films now, I can definitely say that Holden was a bona fide superstar.
From reading all the library books about Lucille Ball and her film career, I learned that she made it a point to hire her friends from the movies when she had an opportunity to do so. The film friend of hers who benefitted the most from this is of course, William Frawley, who is now a legend in his own right for playing the irascible Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. Having seen a good amount of classic films now, Frawley is everywhere. He plays Errol Flynn’s boxing promoter, Billy Delaney, in Gentleman Jim. He also plays a cop in Flynn’s Footsteps in the Dark, and Deanna Durbin’s Lady on a Train. He is also in the perennial Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Frawley had called up Lucy’s husband and Desilu Production president, Desi Arnaz, and asked for the job of Fred Mertz. CBS was hesitant to take a risk on the alcoholic Frawley, but Lucy and Desi prevailed and Frawley is now a television legend.
I find myself pointing out I Love Lucy characters in various classic films. Elizabeth Patterson who played Mrs. Trumbull is everywhere in classic film. She makes a memorable appearance as Fred MacMurray’s Aunt Emma in Remember the Night. Charles Lane is another character who pops up everywhere He appears as Lucy’s typing instructor in Miss Grant Takes Richmond (also co-starring William Holden). He also appears in uncredited roles in a million excellent pre-code films such as: Blonde Crazy, Employees’ Entrance, 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933, She Had to Say Yes, and Blondie Johnson. He made multiple appearances in I Love Lucy: the expectant father (I always say “nine girls” when I see him in a movie), the passport office clerk, the man conducting auditions in the episode where Lucy has to tell the truth for 24 hours, and he plays the Ricardos business manager, Mr. Hickox. Allen Jenkins, has a memorable role in an episode of I Love Lucy playing a police officer who apprehends “Sticky Fingers Sal” and “Pickpocket Pearl” (Lucy and Ethel). Jenkins was almost a mainstay in Warner Brothers films, playing the sidekick to the male lead. He’s in Dive Bomber, Footsteps in the Dark, The Perfect Specimen, all with Errol Flynn. He also supports Humphrey Bogart in Dead End, Racket Busters, and the horribly named The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. I even spotted Mr. Martinelli, owner of the pizza restaurant where Lucy works for one episode, as the villain in Marked Woman with Bogart and Bette Davis!
To this day, I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball are still my favorites. I also love Classic Film and I just love how well my favorite television show and my favorite era of filmmaking are so closely intertwined.
On May 2, 1955, Van Johnson appeared as himself in “The Dancing Star,” an episode of I Love Lucy. I Love Lucy was the pioneering and now-iconic television sitcom starring his old friends, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In this episode, Lucy’s character, Lucy Ricardo, finally realizes her dream of show business success. Van Johnson is appearing in a show at the hotel where the Ricardos and Mertzes are staying while Ricky (Desi) makes his film debut. Van’s partner is sick and Lucy ends up getting the chance to fill in. In this episode, Lucy Ricardo is finally given the opportunity to perform in a musical number where she doesn’t screw it up, whether purposefully or inadvertently. For a more detailed synopsis about “The Dancing Star,” click here.
Van Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did not start with I Love Lucy. He actually made Desi’s acquaintance first back in 1939 on Broadway. Desi had recently arrived in New York City as part of Xavier Cugat’s touring orchestra. Previously, he’d lived in Miami after emigrating there from his birthplace of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Desi had been performing as part of the Siboney Septet. He was discovered by Cugat and hired as a singer and conga drum player. Desi’s natural charisma and talent as a showman led to him forming his own orchestra. He was discovered by director George Abbott who wanted to cast Desi as Manuelito, the Argentinian football player. Van was cast in the same play as a college student and also as an understudy for the three male leads. He later understudied Gene Kelly in the Broadway production of Pal Joey which eventually led to Kelly’s discovery and subsequent Hollywood stardom.
In 1940, Van came out to Hollywood to appear in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls. Van’s role is very small. He has an uncredited role as a fellow college student and appears as part of the chorus in some of the musical numbers. Van is near Lucille Ball in the big celebratory conga number (led by Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller) at the end of the film when Pottawatomie wins the big game. Watch Lucy screw up the choreography, she very noticeably comes in early or late in every single one of the moves. However, Van’s role in Too Many Girls did not lead to any big breaks. Disenchanted, he was ready to return to New York and back to Broadway where he had experienced more success.
However, before Van left for New York City, he had lunch with Lucy at Los Angeles’ famed Chasen restaurant. She introduced him to MGM’s casting director who just happened to be sitting at a nearby table. This led to a series of screen tests at many of the big studios. He ended up scoring a $300/week ($5452/week in 2022) contract at Warner Brothers. Van made his debut as a leading man in 1942’s Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately for Van, this contract did not lead to big success at Warner Brothers and his contract was dropped after six months.
Eventually Van was signed to MGM where his friend, Lucille Ball, had recently signed with after leaving RKO. Van’s big break was in the 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, which starred Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. During production, Van was in a car accident which left him with a metal plate in his forehead and numerous scars on his face. For most of his career, Van would hide his scars under heavy makeup. However, in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, he opted to not wear the heavy makeup. His large forehead scar is prominently displayed in that film. MGM wanted to replace Van in A Guy Named Joe, but Tracy advocated for him. Thanks to Tracy, Van became a star after their film was a big success at the box office.
Van continued to appear in one hit film after another. In 1946, Van appeared with his friend Lucy in Easy to Wed, a remake of the 1936 hit, Libeled Lady. Van took on the role of Bill Chandler, which was played by William Powell in the original film. Keenan Wynn, Lucille Ball and Esther Williams take on the roles played by Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy, respectively. Bill Chandler is hired by Warren Haggerty (Wynn) to marry his girlfriend Gladys (Lucy) and then romance and woo Connie Allenbury (Williams), a socialite who is suing Warren’s newspaper for a large sum of money after they publish a false story about Connie being a homewrecker. To save the newspaper from financial ruin, Warren wants Gladys to charge Connie with alienation of affection after word gets about Connie’s romance with her husband, Bill. Curiously enough, perhaps in an instance of life imitating art, Keenan Wynn’s wife, Evie, married Van Johnson on THE DAY (!) of their divorce.
Easy to Wed is not nearly as good as Libeled Lady, but it is amusing. Lucille Ball is definitely the highlight and steps into Harlow’s shoes very well. Van asserts himself nicely as the straight man and is good at portraying the All-American young man. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Van continued to appear in films in every genre from war to film noir to musicals to comedy. At the time of his 1955 appearance in I Love Lucy, Van was at the height of his fame. In one of the episodes of I Love Lucy leading up to the big cross-country drive, Lucy asks her friend Marion Strong if she’d like Lucy to give a message to “the gang.” “The Gang” being Clark (Gable), Cary (Grant), or Van (Johnson), or Marlon (Brando)?” Later while the Ricardos are celebrating their wedding anniversary in Hollywood, Ricky name-drops Van and his wife Evie to a Hollywood newspaper about a (fake) party he’s throwing at the Mocambo. Van continued to appear in films and television. In 1968, he appeared in another film with Lucille Ball, Yours, Mine and Ours. Desilu had purchased the rights to the story in 1967, right before Lucy sold the studio to Paramount. Desilu had been founded in 1950 by Lucy and Desi. Desi retired in 1962 and sold his shares to Lucy.
Van’s role in Yours, Mine and Ours is fun. He appears as Darrell Harrison, a fellow officer who works with and is friends with Frank Beardsley, played by Henry Fonda. Lucy appears as Helen North, a nurse who works in the dispensary at the base. Darrell thinks that Frank and Helen are perfect for one another, the only hitch being that Frank has 10 children and Helen has 8. To prove his point, he fixes Frank up with a young Hippie woman who is half Frank’s age and is very sexually aggressive. Frank is more modest and finds her sexual appetite off-putting. Darrell then fixes Helen up with a doctor who specializes in obstetrics and is at least half a foot shorter than she is. Darrell effortlessly brings the two characters together. For much of the rest of the film, he is used for comic relief and is delightful.
Van continued to work with Lucy. He appeared as himself during the first season of her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy, in 1968. In the episode, Van plays himself and plays a Van Johnson doppelganger. In the episode, the Van Johnson doppelganger and Lucy (as Lucy Carter), talk about Yours, Mine and Ours. The fake Van Johnson, imitating the real Van Johnson, says that he loved working with the “kooky redhead.” Lucy Carter says that she thought that she (Lucille Ball) was much too young for Henry Fonda. Later, Lucy Carter compliments the real Van Johnson on his appearance in The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was the film debut of Janet Leigh. Eventually, Lucy remarks that she was glad Van was court-martialed in The Caine Mutiny after he refuses to go along with her schemes.
Van and Lucy continued to appear in various specials together and remained friends. After Ball’s passing in 1989, Van continued to give interviews and appear in various documentaries and retrospectives about Lucy and Desi. He was one of the interviewees in PBS’ American Masters episode about Lucille Ball, “Finding Lucy.” It is apparent that Lucy, Desi, and Van all held each other in great esteem. It is obvious through their professional and personal collaborations and the way in which Van continued to talk about his friends long after their respective passings. Van Johnson passed away in 2008 and it is nice to think that he is now back with his friends.
“They (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) were soulmates. They knew it. The whole world did.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. All my dreams came true. I was in a wonderful business and I met a lot of great people all over the world.”
I will just throw this out there right now, if Dive Bomber (1941) did not feature my man, Errol Flynn, it’s more than likely that I would not have watched this film. While I don’t mind WWII films, I’m not particularly interested in films that depict the war aspect of the war. I’m more interested in stories about the homefront, or at least a central story that takes place adjacent to the war scenes. And one type of war film, I’m especially not that interested in, are stories about planes, tanks, submarines, or other war-related machines. With that said, the central story of Dive Bomber is interesting, as it deals with the effects of being a pilot and the efforts taken to combat a common issue, altitude sickness.
However, let’s be real here. I watch Dive Bomber because it features Errol Flynn wearing a myriad of different uniforms, and I am here for it.
Dive Bomber starts off with a plane crash. A Navy pilot, Lieutenant “Swede” Larson, is practicing dive bomb maneuvers over the US Naval Base in Honolulu. During a high speed dive (from a high altitude), Swede blacks out (presumably from altitude sickness) and crash lands at the base. At the hospital, Swede’s colleague and friend, Lieutenant Commander Joe Blake (Fred MacMurray), is concerned that his friend will not survive. The US Navy Doctor, Lieutenant Doug Lee (Flynn) convinces the senior surgeon to operate. During the operation, Swede dies. Blake, distraught over the death of his friend and convinced that the operation was done in haste, blames Lee for Swede’s death.
This incident convinces Lee to become a flight surgeon. He relocates to the US Naval Station in San Diego to start his training. He goes through a rigorous course and is trained by a myriad of different Navy personnel, including his nemesis, Blake. After completing the program, Lee is promoted to the position of Assistant Flight Surgeon to Senior Flight Surgeon, Commander Lance Rogers (Ralph Bellamy). Rogers is working on developing a solution for combating altitude sickness. We observe multiple pilots, including Blake, being grounded due to failing their recent physicals. The film makes it appear that pilots who regularly fly at high altitudes seem to have a shelf life of sorts, and there comes a point for every pilot when he’s no longer in good enough physical condition to fly. I’m not up on the technical aspects of aviation and military protocol, but that’s what I assumed.
Much of the film involves Lee, Rogers, and Blake performing various tests trying to determine the altitude at which pilots start to black out, and how the aircraft itself is affected when the oxygen level and temperature start to fall. The men develop a harness and later a flight suit that help to provide oxygen to the pilot when he starts his ascent into higher altitudes. I find the scenes of them testing the harness to be funny, because it basically looks like a rubber version of what sumo wrestlers wear. The flight suit resembles something a scuba diver would wear, which makes sense, since scuba divers would deal with oxygen and water pressure issues.
Outside of the main storyline involving altitude sickness, the subplot of the film involves the rivalry between Lee and Blake. Aside from the grudge that Blake holds against Lee for causing the death of his friend (or so Blake thinks), Lee also seems to beat Blake to the punch when it comes to women. Blake meets a young divorcee, Linda (Alexis Smith), and thinks he’s found a hot number to date. However, Linda is already acquainted with Lee previously, so she’s excited to see him when he shows up at the same party Blake is attending. This incident only increases the tension between the two men, which at first affects their altitude sickness experiments. It was fun seeing Ralph Bellamy in a role where he isn’t just the schmuck boyfriend, cast aside by the leading lady for the more dashing leading man. Bellamy’s character plays a crucial role in the plot of this film. There is also an annoying sub-subplot involving Allen Jenkins’ character being hunted down constantly by his ex-wife. At one point, he fakes quarantine to get away from her. It’s not very funny though and completely unnecessary to the overall film.
While I don’t know entirely how accurate Dive Bomber‘s depiction of WWII, the Navy, altitude sickness, and all that is, I do find this film enjoyable as a whole. Though like I said, if the film did not star my favorite actor, Errol Flynn, I don’t know that I would have made a point to see this film. The film is worth watching however, if only to see the gorgeous Technicolor photography and to watch a unique war film that deals with the very real issue of altitude sickness. I also enjoy films that feature current technology, as it’s fun to see what was considered cutting edge at that time.
Tomorrow, May 16, is National Classic Movie Day. Even though for me, everyday is National Classic Movie Day, tomorrow is “official.” It would be wonderful if the spotlight on classic film brings about a new crop of fans. While classic films still seem to be a bit of a niche interest, at least on Twitter, it feels like new classic film fans are made every day. I have always loved classic film, and it makes up about 90% of my “new” movie viewing. After all, on TCM’s Private Screening series, Lauren Bacall was quoted as saying, “It’s not an old movie if you haven’t seen it.”
This year, the wonderful host at the Classic Film and TV Cafe, has asked bloggers to discuss four of their favorite film noir. Along with musicals, pre-code, and melodrama (“weepies” if you will), if there’s another type of movie I love, it’s film noir. While many film noir may have a formulaic plot, it is the combination of actors, director, cinematography, music, editing, etc. that can set one movie apart from another. It is always so satisfying to discover a “new” film noir, or any classic film really, and be surprised by a plot twist or ending. Narrowing my list down to four will be difficult; but I will try. I definitely have dozens of film noir that I absolutely love.
In no particular order:
#1Detour (1945) Starring: Tom Neal and Ann Savage Director: Edgar G. Ulmer Studio: PRC Pictures
Synopsis: The film opens with Al Roberts (Neal) hitchhiking. He ends up at a diner in Reno where he drowns his sorrows in a cup of coffee. It is obvious that something is bothering Al. Al’s disturbed mental state becomes further evident when another customer plays a song on the jukebox that reminds Al of his former life in New York City–a life that while not great, must have been better than whatever he is going through now. Al’s voiceover serves as the device that brings the audience back to the beginning of Al’s story.
In New York City, Al worked at a nightclub playing piano. He laments wasting his talents playing in a shabby club; however he puts up with it because he’s in love with the club’s singer, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). One evening, she announces that she’s quitting her job and moving to Hollywood to try and make it in Hollywood. Al is depressed about Sue’s departure and eventually decides to drive to California to propose to her. However, not having any money, Al has to resort to hitchhiking across the country.
While in Arizona, Al meets Charles Haskell, a bookie on his way to Los Angeles. On their way to the City of Angels, Haskell ends up dying. Not knowing what to do, Al ends up taking Haskell’s identification and car and continues his trip. After crossing over the California border, Al stops for gas. It is at the gas station when he meets the amazing Vera (Savage). At this point, Vera’s in charge and Al’s just along for the ride.
Why I Love Detour: I love Detour purely because of Ann Savage’s performance. Her performance is absolutely amazing. I love how she is onto Al from the get-go and she will make sure to take advantage of him every opportunity she gets. Al is complete mincemeat after Vera gets done with him. Another reason I love this film is because we really don’t know Al’s story. Is he truly innocent of all the events in the film? Or is he just trying to convince himself that he is? For a film that is barely over an hour long, it is a trip from start to finish. There is not a wasted moment. This film is also very low budget which I think adds to the entire aesthetic and feel to the movie.
If you are not familiar with Tom Neal, I highly recommend reading about him. He was 1/3 of the infamous love triangle involving girlfriend Barbara Payton and her fiance, actor Franchot Tone. Despite her relationship with Tone, Payton and Neal carried on their affair for months in the early 1950s. It came to an end briefly when Payton became engaged to Tone, but then she quickly resumed her affair with Neal. It all came to a head on September 14, 1951 when Neal and Tone got into an altercation over Payton. To say that Tone lost the fight would be a gross understatement. Neal pulverized Tone. Tone suffered a smashed cheekbone, a broken nose, and a concussion which resulted in his hospitalization. Despite this, Tone inexplicably still married Payton. Their union lasted a whole 53 days when Payton left Tone for Neal.
I feel like knowing this drama surrounding Tom Neal really lends to his performance as the unreliable narrator, Al Roberts, in Detour. I also really wish we had a prequel just about Vera. I would love to know about her life leading up to the events of Detour.
VERA: “Say, who do you think you’re talking to… a hick? Listen mister, I’ve been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?
#2 The Locket(1946) Starring: Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum, Gene Raymond Director: John Brahm Studio: RKO
Synopsis: The Locket is a film with a very interesting flashback within a flashback within a flashback narrative structure. The film starts with a wedding. Nancy (Day) is set to marry her second husband, John Willis (Raymond). Before the ceremony starts, Dr. Harry Blair (Aherne) arrives at the Willis home, requesting to speak with John. John acquiesces and the two men retire to another room. Alone, Harry tells John that he is Nancy’s first husband. He warns John that his bride is a kleptomaniac, murderer, and chronic liar. She has never been punished for any of her crimes.
The film then segues into a flashback featuring Nancy as a child. As a child, Nancy lived with her mother in the Willis estate. Her mother worked as a maid for the Willis family. Nancy’s best friend, Karen Willis, has a birthday party one afternoon, and her snooty mother does not invite the “low class” Nancy. Karen, feeling bad for Nancy, opts to gift her a locket. Mrs. Willis is outraged, stating that the locket was expensive and it wasn’t Karen’s place to give it away. Mrs. Willis takes the locket back. Later, the locket goes missing and Nancy is accused of its theft. Insulted, Nancy’s mother sticks up for her daughter. This leads to Mrs. Willis firing Nancy’s mother. She and Nancy move out. This incident is a formative event in Nancy’s life. From here on out, she steals anything she wants, rationalizing that it doesn’t matter because she’ll be blamed regardless.
Subsequent flashbacks involve Nancy’s relationship with an artist, Norman Clyde, and her marriage to Harry, and the events leading up to her wedding to John.
Why I love The Locket. This film has such an unusual narrative structure. I’ve read complaints about the complicated plot, but I like it. It’s such a unique film and I love seeing Laraine Day as an absolute sociopath. I love the ending scene. I felt that this film was adept at showing how childhood trauma can affect a person well into adulthood. I also love the vibe of this movie. What’s also fascinating about this film is that Nancy is set to marry into the Willis family–the very same family that treated her so horribly when she was a child and were the root cause of her childhood trauma. It’s never explained in the film whether this was a calculated movie on Nancy’s part, or just a coincidence. It’s another interesting layer to the film’s plot line.
NANCY: How could I ever have liked you, Norman? Arrogant, suspicious, neurotic… NORMAN: It isn’t neurotic to be jealous. NANCY: It’s worse than neurotic to be jealous of a dead man.
#3 Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Starring: Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley Sr., Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame Director: Robert Wise Studio: United Artists
Synopsis: Burke (Begley Sr.) is a former policeman who was fired from his job when he refused to cooperate with state crime investigators. Desperate for money and wanting to stick it to his former employers, Burke comes up with a plan to rob a bank upstate (New York). If pulled off successfully, Burke stands to make a mint. To help him, he recruits ex-con and racist, Earle Slater (Ryan). Burke promises Slater $50,000 if he helps pull off the heist. Slater’s incentive for helping is his pride. He is unemployed and living with his girlfriend, Lorry (Winters). Lorry works as a waitress and is supporting herself and Slater financially. Living in the same apartment building as Slater and Lorry is Helen (Grahame), who tempts Slater in to a tryst while his girlfriend is out. Finally, in addition to Slater, Burke recruits Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), an African-American jazz musician who is also in hock to bookies for about $7,000. Despite being an all-around decent man, Ingram is desperate for money. It is explained that his wife divorced him and he lost custody of his daughter due to his gambling. Burke, Ingram and Slater work out the details for the heist. They work through every detail. However, threatening to undermine the entire venture is Slater’s absolute contempt and bigoted attitude toward Ingram.
Why I Love Odds Against Tomorrow: This film has an amazing message without being preachy. The ending is absolutely fantastic, I don’t want to say too much more about it, at the risk of ruining it. But it is well worth the 95-minute investment to get to this point. I also love the on-location cinematography. The grittiness of the New York City streets works perfectly with this very gritty film. Robert Ryan’s performance as the disgusting racist Earle Slater is fantastic. You absolutely despise him throughout the entire film. He is such a worm–even Shelley Winters (who plays a disgusting racist in A Patch of Blue) doesn’t deserve him. Gloria Grahame’s part isn’t really consequential to the overall plot, but she’s always a nice on-screen presence in a film noir. Harry Belafonte was fantastic in this film. I wish he’d made more movies. I especially love the cool jazz song that he performs. This film has an overall cool jazz score as well.
SLATER: What you doin’ with such a big ol’ dog in New York?
BURKE: Never had a wife
#4 Jeopardy (1953) Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Ralph Meeker Director: John Sturges Studio: MGM
Synopsis: Doug (Sullivan) and Helen Stilwin (Stanwyck) and their son Bobby, are on a road trip driving to Baja California, Mexico. They are planning on traveling to a remote fishing spot on the coastline and will camp while there. Shortly after arriving, Bobby decides to venture out onto a derelict jetty that juts out into the water. His foot becomes caught in some of the planks and Doug rescues him. While walking back to the beach, the jetty collapses, causing the wood piling to fall on Doug’s leg. Making matters worse is that the tide is starting to come in. Doug will drown if he can’t free his leg. Helen and Bobby try a variety of tactics, including a car jack, to free Doug, but to no avail. Estimating that he has about four hours before the tide fully comes in, Doug sends Helen into town for some rope and/or help.
Helen leaves in the car, leaving Bobby and Doug on the beach. Helen finds the gas station that she and Doug passed earlier and tries to get help or a rope. She manages to get some rope. She also comes across a hunky man, Lawson (Meeker). She explains her predicament and he gets into the car. Thinking that he’s accompanying her to offer to help Doug, she has no qualms about letting this stranger, albeit a hunky stranger, into her vehicle. It quickly becomes clear that Lawson is a dangerous escaped convict and he’s using Helen as a means to escape. At one point during their “trip,” Helen tells Lawson that she’s willing to do anything to save Doug.
Why I Love Jeopardy: First off, Ralph Meeker is hot hot in this movie. I wouldn’t have blamed Barbara Stanwyck for one second if she’d abandoned Barry Sullivan to run off with Meeker. This isn’t as well known a film noir title, but it is well worth a watch. Stanwyck always plays the tough as nails woman so well. I actually really like Barry Sullivan, especially in film noir. He’s fantastic in Suspense (1946) and Tension (1949). Ralph Meeker is excellent in this film. I can’t describe what it is that I find so appealing about Meeker. He has this primal quality about him and he always sounds like such a thug when he talks. I loved him in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
HELEN: I’ll do anything to save my husband…anything!
10 Honorable Mentions (I know this is cheating, lol):
The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman. Dir. Ida Lupino
DOA (1950) Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton. Dir. Rudolph Mate
Angel Face (1952) Jean Simmons, Robert Mitchum, Mona Freeman. Dir. Otto Preminger
Phantom Lady (1944) Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Elisha Cook Jr. Dir. Robert Siodmak
The Spiral Staircase (1946) Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore. Dir. Robert Siodmak
Lured (1947) Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Charles Coburn. Dir. Douglas Sirk
Deadline, USA (1952) Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore, Kim Hunter. Dir. Robert Brooks
In a Lonely Place (1950) Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy. Dir. Nicholas Ray
Too Late for Tears (1949) Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy. Dir. Byron Haskin
Cry Danger (1951) Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Erdman. Dir. Robert Parrish
2021 is (finally) coming to a close. While the year wasn’t so hot as a whole, except for my fabulous trip to Southern California in October, it was another year of discovering new favorite films. One of the best thing about being a fan of film, especially classic film, is that you never run out of “new” movies to see. As Lauren Bacall says in an episode of Private Screenings with Robert Osborne, “It’s not an old movie, if you haven’t seen it,” and I couldn’t agree more. There is an entire world of movies to discover, a world of films just waiting to become someone’s favorite.
Without further adieu, in no particular order, here are some of my new favorites that I watched for the first time in 2021:
#1 Road House (1948) This was a fabulous film noir that I watched right at the start of the new year. It is the final volume in the Fox Film Noir DVD series (I own the entire collection). I decided to take a look at it, because I’m a big fan of Ida Lupino. In addition to Lupino, it also starred Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Celeste Holm. At first, it seems like Ida is going to be the femme fatale, but it is soon revealed that she is a woman who will not be made a pawn in the games of the men, Wilde and Widmark. Even though she was originally brought into the Road House by Widmark to be another of his fly by night floozies, she refuses to be used and becomes a big star and later saves the day. In a time when every woman who wasn’t Judy Garland or Doris Day was dubbed, Ida uses her own voice to warble out “One for my Baby (And One More For the Road)” and it was fabulous.
#2 Mrs. Miniver (1942). I know. This is a big Oscar winner. A major classic of the studio era, but I hadn’t seen it yet. I absolutely loved this movie and actually bought the blu-ray literally right after watching it. That’s how much I loved it. Greer Garson won an Oscar playing the titular Mrs. Miniver and infamously delivered the longest acceptance speech, a record which still stands today. Long-winded speech or not, Garson deserved her award. In Mrs. Miniver, Garson portrays a very stoic woman and mother who stays strong and protects her family even directly in the line of fire during the German invasion of Britain. She puts humanity above all else, even when directly threatened by an injured German pilot. The scene with Mrs. Miniver and her husband and children hiding in the shelter while bombs fall all around them is heartbreaking. This family does not know what they’ll find when they emerge, or whether their house will still be standing. Despite everything, Mrs. Miniver remains a calm influence even in the middle of a tumultuous event, like a World War. I cannot say enough good things about this film, it was fantastic.
#3 Girl Happy (1965). Like the esteemed Mrs. Miniver, this Elvis movie is another film that I purchased immediately after watching it. I loved it. For years, with the exception of Viva Las Vegas (my favorite Elvis movie), I wrote off Elvis’ movies as pure fluff, and not fluffy in a good way, and many of Elvis’ movies are ridiculous, like Girl Happy, but if you can suspend disbelief and just go along with whatever plot is presented, I’ve found that many of Elvis’ movies are enjoyable diversions. In Girl Happy, Elvis plays a musician (a premise setting up lots of opportunities for Elvis to sing) who, along with his band, is hired by his boss to indirectly chaperone his 18-year old daughter, Shelley Fabares. Shelley is traveling to Florida for Spring Break and her overprotective father is worried. Elvis happily agrees, because he gets an all expenses paid trip to Florida. Like how most movies with this plot go (see Too Many Girls), Elvis starts to fall in love with the girl whom he’s chaperoning, and the girl discovers that he was hired to watch her and gets upset. Regardless, this movie was charming, fun, and I loved it.
#4 History is Made at Night (1937) This was a movie that I’d never even heard of until I heard that Criterion was restoring it and releasing it as part of their esteemed (at least among the boutique label community) line of films. I first watched it on the Criterion Channel and must have seen a pre-restoration print, because it was pretty rough. After watching it, I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it. It had one of my faves, Jean Arthur! And Charles “LUCY! RAWWWR” Boyer. How has this movie been hiding from me this entire time? In this movie, Jean Arthur plays Irene, a woman who leaves her husband, Bruce, (Colin Clive) after he falsely accuses her of having an affair. To prevent the divorce from being finalized, Bruce tries to manipulate a situation to frame Irene for infidelity. He hires his chauffeur to pretend to be Irene’s lover, so that a private detective walks in and catches them in a compromising position. While this is taking place, Paul (Charles Boyer) is walking by Irene’s window. He overhears the ruckus and comes to Irene’s rescue, pretending to be an armed burglar. It’s a weird set-up, but ultimately leads to a beautiful love story with an ending that I was not expecting.
#5 Naked Alibi (1954). This was another film noir that I’d never heard of until I was reading Sterling Hayden’s filmography and discovered that he’d made a film with one of my faves, Gloria Grahame. Fortunately, my library had this film available and I was able to borrow it. This was a great movie. Hayden plays a police chief who tails a suspect, Willis, to Mexico. Willis is suspected to be the mastermind behind a series of crimes in the small town from which he and Hayden hail. While in a border town on the Mexican border, Hayden meets Grahame, a singer with whom he becomes smitten. Unfortunately, Grahame is the girlfriend of Willis, despite the shoddy treatment she receives from him. Hayden and Grahame’s connection with one another continues to grow until the very end of the film. This was a wonderful film and I thought that Gloria Grahame looked absolutely gorgeous.
#6 Dead End (1937). Despite the appearance of the Dead End Kids, whom I cannot stand (I don’t get their appeal), I thought this was a great movie. This film is a story about social classes and the privileges that are afforded to those of a higher social standing. The neighborhood in the film is a “dead end” both figuratively and literally. The rich live in high rise apartments that overlook the slums and tenements. Those who are not privileged to live in the high rises literally have the rich looking down upon them. If you have the misfortune to be born into the slums, it is all you can do to get out. Some try to do so honorably, like Dave (Joel McCrea), who dreams of making a career as an architect. However, he can’t just seem to book the right gig, so he has to survive by doing odd jobs. Others, like Drina (Sylvia Sidney) have slightly less honorable means to get out of the tenement, she wants to marry a rich man. Then, there are those like Hugh “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who did manage to get out of the slums, but he did so by becoming a big-time mobster. The Dead End Kids represent the next generation who most likely will remain in the slums, unless they can somehow be guided into making a better life for themselves. Marjorie Main has a heartbreaking role as Baby Face’s mother. Claire Trevor is fantastic as Baby Face’s old girlfriend, who was never able to get out of the slums.
#7 Klute (1971) This was the first film in Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy,” which unfortunately I watched all out of order. I don’t think the films in the trilogy have anything to do with one another, so I think I’m okay. Anyway, there’s just something about the 1970s thrillers that I find fascinating. There’s a grittiness, a seediness, combined with the earth tones aesthetic that I just love watching. Anyway, in this film, Jane Fonda gives an Oscar-winning performance as Bree Daniels, a prostitute who aids police detective, John Klute, in investigating a murder. After finding an obscene letter addressed to Bree in the murder victim’s office, Klute rents an apartment in Bree’s building and begins tracing her. Concurrently, Bree is working as a freelance call girl to support herself while she tries to make it as a model/actress. Bree is also trying to find meaning in her life through sessions with a psychiatrist. This was such a fantastic movie and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who was responsible for the murder.
#8 Thunder on the Hill (1951) I am a big fan of Ann Blyth and this was a film of hers that I hadn’t heard of until I purchased Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema box sets. Thunder on the Hill, by the way, is on the second collection in the series. In this film, Blyth plays Valerie, a young woman convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. However, on her way to the gallows, Valerie and the police officers accompanying her, are forced to spend the night in the hospital ward of a convent due to massive flooding. Running the hospital ward is Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert), a woman who is also battling with her own mental troubles involving her sister’s suicide. Valerie is understandably combative and angry, but confides to Sister Mary that she is innocent of the crime of which she was convicted. Sister Mary, who has been warned in the past about meddling in other people’s affairs, is convinced of Valerie’s innocence and sets to save her before she is executed. This was such a wonderful film. It was interesting to see Blyth in such a different role than that of Veda in Mildred Pierce or the mermaid in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. I loved the suspense of the story and the cinematography was gorgeous. I am also a big fan of Douglas Sirk, so this film fit the bill.
#9 King Creole (1958) A second Elvis film on the list? Yes! I watched a lot of Elvis movies this year according to LetterBoxd, so it was bound to happen. This was an excellent film. It was much higher brow fare than Elvis would be offered once he returned from his stint in the army. In this movie, Elvis plays super senior Danny, who has failed high school once and looks like he’ll fail it again due to his behavior. He is offered a chance to graduate if he agrees to take night classes, but Danny turns it down, much to the chagrin of his father, Dean Jagger. There is drama between Danny and his father, in that Jagger lost his job as a pharmacist after his wife died. The family is forced to leave their nice home outside of New Orleans for a much more modest flat in the French Quarter. To help make ends meet, Danny was working before and after school. Now with school out of the way, Danny starts working at a club. As how most Elvis movies go, he is coerced into singing and is offered a job performing at the club, much to the chagrin of the club’s main act. Danny is soon a sensation. Eventually his connection with the local gangs threaten to affect his family, his relationship with a young woman named Nellie (Dolores Hart), and his life. This was such a great movie with a stellar cast. Aside from Elvis, Dean Jagger and Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, and Paul Stewart also star in this film… and it was directed by none other than Michael Curtiz!
#10 Private Lives (1931) This was a fabulous pre-code starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. In this film, Shearer and Montgomery play Amanda and Elyot, two ex-spouses who end up staying at the same hotel while honeymooning with their new respective spouses. Both honeymoons are NOT going well. Amanda and her new husband Victor (Reginald Denny) are already fighting due to Victor’s incessant need to talk about Elyot. Because yes, let’s talk about your new bride’s ex-husband on your honeymoon. Great idea, Victor. Elyot is dealing with the same thing from his new wife, Sybil (Una Merkel) who won’t stop asking about Amanda. Eventually, Amanda and Elyot find each other and begin to reminisce about “the old times.” They end up leaving the hotel together and head to a new place in St. Moritz. This was a fabulous pre-code that had plenty of racy moments. I am not as big a fan of Shearer in her production code movies like The Women, but I love her in pre-code. She and Montgomery also make a great pairing. Poor Una Merkel is wasted in her role, but she is wonderful in her scenes.
#11 Hold Back the Dawn (1941) This was an amazing movie. One that I’d always wanted to see but it seemed like it was never on TCM–then finally it was and the movie was everything I’d hoped it would be. In this film, Charles Boyer stars as Georges Iscovescu, a Romanian immigrant who is stuck in a Mexican border town. Per immigration laws, he is looking at up to an eight year wait to obtain a quota number for entry in the United States. Georges then runs into an old flame, Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), an Australian who married a US citizen purely to obtain US citizenship. As soon as she could, she divorced the man and retained her citizenship status. Anita suggests that Georges do the same thing, then he and she could be free to start a new life together in New York. Georges immediately goes to work and spots Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a California school teacher whose bus has broken down. The bus is set to be repaired shortly, but Georges manipulates the situation (by “losing” a vital piece of the bus’s machinery) and forces Emmy and her class to stay overnight. This gives Georges enough time to woo Emmy and they are married after a whirlwind romance. However, Georges is required to wait in Mexico a few weeks before he can join Emmy in California. Emmy returns unexpectedly and Georges takes her on a trip (under the guise of a honeymoon, but in reality he is trying to hide from an immigration officer who is looking for con artists like Georges and Anita). Georges’ plans are complicated when he finds himself falling in love with Emmy. This was such an amazing film. Even though we’re supposed to dislike Georges, it’s hard to do because it’s Charles-freaking-Boyer. It’s easy to see why Emmy falls for him. I love true, legitimate romantic films (with no contrived plot points), and this is one of the best that I’ve seen.
#12 Gaslight (1944) Another Charles Boyer film! Third one on the list! Surprisingly Boyer was not on my top 10 actors watched in 2021, per Letterboxd. This was an amazing film. I don’t know how I went so long without seeing it. This is the film that gave the name to a form of psychological abuse, where one partner mentally manipulates another into thinking that they’re losing their mind. In this film, Boyer plays Gregory Anton, a pianist who marries Alice Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a famous opera singer. Gregory works as Alice’s accompanist. At first, Gregory seems sweet, he convinces Alice that they move into her deceased aunt’s old home #9 Thornton Square in London, seemingly under the guise that Alice loved her aunt so much and that her aunt would want her home to be lived in. However, Gregory has ulterior motives which are revealed throughout the film. To keep Alice from catching onto Gregory’s motives, he gaslights her by manipulating situations and then making her think she caused them. Alice begins to think she’s going insane. And while she begins to question Gregory’s actions, he’s gotten her mind so messed up that she can’t convince herself that she’s right. A young, 17-year old Angela Lansbury makes her film debut as Nancy, a tart of a maid who takes pleasure in observing Gregory’s manipulation of Alice. Nancy even plays along to exacerbate the situation. Ingrid Bergman’s performance was a tour-de-force and she deserved every piece of the Oscar that she received.
#13 I Want to Live! (1958) If there are two things I love, it’s classic film and true crime. I Want to Live! has both. This film is a biopic of Barbara Graham, a prostitute who was executed in California in 1955 for her part in the murder of a wealthy widow. Susan Hayward gives an Oscar-winning performance as the doomed woman who at the beginning of the film, works as a prostitute who is arrested for soliciting sex across state lines. She then receives jail time after providing a false alibi to two friends who committed crimes. Despite her growing rap sheet, Barbara continues to “make a living” by committing petty crimes and turning tricks. Eventually, she hits the big time when she gets a job working with a big time thief, Emmett Perkins. Her job is to lure men into his illegal gambling parlor. Meanwhile, her husband has a drug addiction and is unemployed–leaving Barbara as the breadwinner. Eventually Perkins ends up becoming involved with criminals, John Santo and Bruce King. Barbara returns to Perkins’ establishment which is soon raided by the police. Barbara surrenders to the police for her involvement in the gambling ring, but soon learns that she is being accused in being complicit with Santo and King’s murder of a wealthy widow. Barbara tries to give her alibi, saying that she was home with her husband and son, but her husband has skipped town. Unless he can be found, Barbara is toast. This was such an amazing film. I know that there was controversy regarding how Barbara Graham was portrayed in the film, versus the real life events. I can’t comment on that; but what I can say is that real facts or not, this was a great movie.
#14 Suspense (1946) I went into this film noir not knowing entirely what to expect. It starred Barry Sullivan whom I like and Albert Dekker who always turns in a good performance. Sullivan and Dekker’s co-star was British figure skater, Belita. Often when athletes are put into films, especially athletes whose sport is exploited on screen, the results can vary drastically–especially if the athlete has limited acting talent. Sometimes this is good, such as the case with Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan series. Other times, it can be limiting like is the case with Belita in another film of hers that I’ve seen. However, in this film, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying Belita was amazing; but she was asked to play a figure skater, and Belita delivers on that front. In this film, Sullivan plays schemer, Joe Morgan, a newcomer to New York City who ends up taking a job at a theater as a peanut vendor. Belita plays the star performer, figure skater, Roberta. Albert Dekker plays Leonard, the owner of the theater and Roberta’s husband. Joe ends up suggesting a new act for Roberta, which revitalizes the show–as a reward he is made a manager. When Leonard leaves for a business trip, he puts Joe in charge. Joe and Roberta end up striking up a romance which Leonard soon discovers. This was a fantastic film. I actually was in suspense and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
#15 The China Syndrome (1979) This was another 1970s thriller that I watched which I really enjoyed. In this film, Jane Fonda plays television reporter, Kimberly Wells, who keeps getting stuck with the fluff stories during the local news segments. There is chauvinism present at the station, as it is thought that she couldn’t possibly handle a serious story. Her cameraman is the hot-tempered Richard Adams (Michael Douglas). One day, Kimberly and Richard end up getting a plum gig: doing a report from the Ventana, CA nuclear power plant. While visiting, they witness a malfunction in the nuclear power plant turbine operation and emergency shutdown protocol. Richard, despite being asked not to film, covertly records the entire incident. The incident is played off as not a big deal, but it becomes clear that the plant was thisclose to a meltdown. Jack Lemmon gives a fantastic performance as Jack Godell, the supervisor of the plant. Wilford Brimley was also excellent as the long-time employee, Ted Spindler, who battles with knowing what is right and his resentment over being passed up for promotion opportunities. I loved this movie. This isn’t normally my type of thing, but as a fan of 1970s thrillers and Fonda and Lemmon, I gave it a try. I’m glad I did. I was captivated from beginning to end and I especially loved Lemmon’s performance in the second half of this movie.
A Cry in the Night (1956). Raymond Burr, Natalie Wood, Edmond O’Brien.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018). A fabulous documentary on HBO Max.
The Caine Mutiny (1954). Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, Jose Ferrer.
Once a Thief (1965). Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin.
Walk on the Wild Side (1962). Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter, Capucine.
Moonrise (1948). Dane Clark, Lloyd Bridges, Gail Patrick.
The Glass Wall (1953). Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame.
The Big Combo (1955). Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace.
Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021) The Great Gonzo, Pepe, Will Arnett.
Die Hard (1988) Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson.
Confession (1937) Kay Francis, Basil Rathbone, Ian Hunter.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Eddie Albert.
Possessed (1947) Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey
WILMER COOK: Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.
SAM SPADE: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.
Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”
HELEN: I must warn you though, liquor makes me nosy. I’ve been known to ask all sorts of personal questions after four cocktails.
MARTY: ‘s alright. I’ve been known to tell people to mind their own business. Cold sober too.
Claire Trevor as Helen and Elisha Cook Jr. as Marty in “Born to Kill.”
GEORGE PEATTY: This couple, sittin’ in front of me, oh, they weren’t young, exactly. I guess the woman was about your age.
SHERRY PEATTY: A little senile, you mean? With one foot and a big toe in the grave?
GEORGE PEATTY: You want to hear this or not? Do you or not, Sherry?
SHERRY PEATTY: I can’t wait. Go ahead and thrill me George.
Elisha Cook Jr. as George Peatty and Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty in “The Killing.”
Elisha Cook Jr. carved out a very unique niche for himself in Hollywood. He often played a villain, but never a outwardly scary villain. He was no Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death or Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear. Cook Jr.’s portrayal was much different. He was mild-mannered, timid even, but was still able to make the action of the film seem uncomfortable. To me, he comes across as someone who seems like they could crack any time now. In The Maltese Falcon, he trails Sam Spade all over San Francisco and makes threats along the way, but Spade never takes him seriously. Even at the end of the film, Cook Jr.’s boss, Kasper Gutman, sells him out and makes him the fall guy. Kasper does this to save his own neck.
When I first learned about Elisha Cook Jr., I did what I always do for every new film and new actor I discover: I looked up his Imdb and Wikipedia pages. I was astonished to learn that Cook Jr. was born in 1903! 1903! In ‘Falcon,’ he looks like a kid compared to Bogart and company. However, he was only four years younger than Bogart! Save for Sydney Greenstreet, Cook Jr., was older than the other members of his gang: Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. This was insane to me. He had such a baby face that it was astonishing that he was almost 40 when he appeared in ‘Falcon.’
It is partially Cook Jr.’s baby face that lends to his ability to play these meek, timid characters who provide a duplicitous nature to his characters. He didn’t always play the villain, but he often played someone who was pretty much on the up-and-up, but got in over his head due to his naiveté and inability to stand up against a stronger personality. In The Killing, Cook Jr., works at a large horse track as a cashier. He is married to the very domineering (physically and personality-wise) Marie Windsor, who treats him like garbage because he hasn’t provided her with the lifestyle to which she feels accustomed. To make his wife like him better, Cook Jr., gets involved with criminal Sterling Hayden who wants to pull off one last heist. Cook Jr., offers to use his position as an employee of the horse track to help Hayden pull off the heist. In exchange, he is supposed to receive a large sum of money. Unfortunately, Cook Jr. ends up paying for his involvement with his life.
In contrast to his wimpy weaklings, Elisha Cook Jr., did turn in a very uncharacteristic (yet entirely typical) performance in Phantom Lady. In this film, Ella Raines is trying to prove the innocence of her boss who is sitting on death row for murdering his wife. He has an alibi, but the alibi cannot be located. Raines is trying to follow the clues to find the alibi and exonerate her boss before it’s too late. Nightclub drummer Cook Jr., is one of the people who can help lead her to the alibi. To convince him to give her the details, Raines tries to emulate the type of woman that a musician would be interested in. Donning fishnet stockings, a slinky dress, and stilettos, hepcat Raines’ ruse works. Cook Jr., invites her to this seedy private club away from the nightclub.
Here’s where Cook Jr.’s uncharacteristic performance comes in. Obviously wanting to seduce Raines and “make it” (as they say in old movies back then) with her, he presents the most erotic, sexually charged drum solo ever committed to celluloid. This is as close as filmmakers could get in having characters have sex on screen in 1944. Cook Jr.’s drumsticks hit the drumheads with such an intense, rhythmic beat. Close-ups of his sweaty face, eyes widening, smile tightening are juxtaposed with shots of the drumsticks. As the beat intensifies, so does the intensity in Cook Jr.’s face until the scene climaxes, and he and Raines slink out the door when she offers a come hither look. Like in most of his films, Cook Jr., doesn’t survive Phantom Lady, but at least he had some fun before his murder.
Elisha Cook Jr. is one of my favorite character actors. He brings such a unique presence to screen and you never know what you’re going to get, while knowing exactly what you’re going to get when he’s on screen.
My favorite Elisha Cook Jr. performances:
The Maltese Falcon
Born to Kill
House on Haunted Hill
The Big Sleep
Don’t Bother to Knock
I Wake Up Screaming
Ball of Fire
WATSON PRITCHARD: They’re coming for me now… and then they’ll come for you.
Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By.'”
“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Everybody comes to Rick’s.”
These are just some of the amazing quotes from Casablanca. Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and for good reason–it is a fantastic movie. Almost every line of dialogue is quotable. The characters (especially Rick, Ilsa, and Louis) are iconic. The last scene between Rick and Ilsa at the airport and later, the ending scene with Rick and Louis walking off into the fog are forever symbolic of Classic Hollywood. Between the quotes, the scenes, the music, Rick and Ilsa’s romance, Louis’ corruption… there is so much to remember about Casablanca. However, does anyone remember the object that plays a central role in the film? 1
1 Obviously a rhetorical question, because duh, we’re all Classic Hollywood film fans, OF COURSE we know the answer to this question; but roll with it.
Answer? The letters of transit. The letters of transit are introduced in the film as a piece of crucial documentation that refugees must present to leave Casablanca, Morocco. These refugees are hoping to obtain a letter of transit so that they can travel through German-occupied Europe to Lisbon, Portugal (which is neutral), then board a ship/plane to head to their new life in the United States. These documents are the objects that motivate the main characters’ actions in the film. The audience is first introduced to Peter Lorre’s character in the film, Ugarte, as he races through town and into Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) club, Rick’s Cafe American. Ugarte boasts that he murdered two German couriers to obtain these precious letters of transit. He wants to sell them in Rick’s club. In the meantime however, Ugarte asks Rick to keep the letters of transit safe.
Later, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive in Casablanca and head over to Rick’s. Victor is the leader of the Czech Resistance movement. Because of his activity, Victor ranks high on the Germans’ list of persons to not allow to leave Casablanca. Thanks to Rick’s business rival, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Rick is suspected of having the letters of transit in his possession. This suspicion is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the corrupt prefect of police, also suspects Rick has the letters of transit. He is a subject of the German-controlled France and is supposed to be preventing Ilsa and Victor’s escape.
But does the audience care about the letters of transit? No. Not really. As the audience, we are immediately captivated by Rick’s sour reaction to Ilsa’s showing up at his club. What’s the story there? That’s what we want to know. Judging from Ilsa’s acquaintance with Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s pianist and friend, and her asking him to play “it,” we know that there’s a story there. Sam knows what “it” is and reluctantly agrees to play the song when Ilsa persists. When Sam acquiesces to Ilsa’s request and begins playing “As Time Goes By,” (i.e. “it”), Rick angrily emerges from his office, demanding to know why Sam is playing *that* song. He spots Ilsa and oof. If looks could kill. Rick’s reaction, combined with Sam quickly grabbing his piano bench and scurrying out of the way, is what we need to know about. What is the story behind Rick and Ilsa?
The story of Rick and Ilsa provides the main framework of the story and the main conflict. Add in the fact that Ilsa is married to Victor, and a love triangle develops. Rick and Ilsa’s romance is re-kindled and soon it’s up in the air as to whether Ilsa will want a letter of transit to leave Casablanca. A different side of Rick emerges. He was a cynical, world weary ex-pat living in Casablanca, seemingly impervious to everything. Then Ilsa shows up (unexpectedly) and the romantic side of him emerges. Louis is there, kind of playing both sides, both as an ally of Rick’s but also wanting to follow through on his “duty” and prevent Victor’s escape. He knows Rick knows where the letters of transit are, but he doesn’t really work too hard to look for them. Louis, a French police officer, is stuck in the middle between duty to his country and duty to the corrupt Nazi regime who had taken over Vichy France. At the end of the film, Louis tosses the full bottle of Vichy water into the trash, symbolically showing that he is severing his ties with the Nazis. Louis, like Rick, becomes a patriot.
At the end of the film, Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice and sends Ilsa off with Victor. He hands over the letters of transit very casually. There is no big fanfare, no big build up when Rick hands off the coveted documents. Instead, we are treated to Rick’s very self-sacrificing monologue, the monologue in which he finally severs ties with Ilsa and closes this chapter of his life. This is closure to the romance that we’ve been captivated by since the beginning of the film. We’re finally finding out the resolution of the love triangle. Which man will Ilsa end up with? The man she fell in love with after her husband was thought to be dead? Or her husband, whom she reunited with (and abandoned Rick in the process) after learning that he was still alive? Does she stay with the man who escaped the war to live in Casablanca? Or does she stay with the man who is conducting very important, but also dangerous work on behalf of the Resistance? The letters of transit are essentially irrelevant in the context of the real crux of the film.
RICK: “Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.”
ILSA: “But Richard, no… I… I…”
RICK: “Now you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten we’d both wind up in a Concentration Camp. Isn’t that true, Louis?”
LOUIS: “I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.”
ILSA: “You’re only saying this to make me go.”
RICK: “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”
ILSA: “But what about us?”
RICK: “We’ll always have Paris. What we didn’t have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
ILSA: “When I said I would never leave you.”
RICK: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t have any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”
(ILSA lowers her head and begins to cry)
(RICK gently grabs Ilsa’s chin and raises it, so they can look into each other’s eyes.)
RICK: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), and Claude Rains (Louis) in one of the most iconic scenes in Classic Hollywood.
The final scene between Rick and Ilsa is one of my absolute favorite scenes in any film. Who knew that a scene where two people are breaking up could be so romantic and heartbreaking. It was beautifully written and acted. After taking in the emotional gravitas of this scene and the absolutely heart-wrenching ending to this romance, who is still thinking about the letters of transit?
James John “Gentleman Jim” Corbett was a competitive boxer best known for beating the famed heavyweight world champion, John L. Sullivan. Despite having only fought in about twenty matches, Corbett went up against the best fighters the sport had to offer. He was famous for his technique, which involved actual skill and practice, in lieu of sheer brute force. His refined conduct inside and outside the boxing ring led to the media referring to Corbett by the nickname, “Gentleman Jim.” At the end of the nineteenth century, boxing was still illegal in about half of the states in the union. The brutal nature of the sport led to it being considered immoral. However, Corbett’s genteel behavior and adoption of the Marquess of Queensbury Rules 1 (still in use in boxing today) led to the sport becoming more acceptable, especially among the women who flocked to his matches in droves. Corbett was one of the first modern sex symbols in the sports world.
1 The Marquess of Queensbury Rules were drafted in 1865 and established a code of ethics that fighters must follow at all times during a match. It wasn't enough to win, a fighter also had to play by the rules. There are a multitude of rules, including boxing ring regulations, proper gloves and shoes, 10-count before declaring KO, referee given power to end bout, and other rules.
In 1942, about ten years after Corbett’s passing, Warner Brothers set out to create a biopic of his life after having purchased the rights to his story from his widow. To star in the film as the first sex symbol of modern day boxing, Warner Brothers cast (who else?) Errol Flynn. Of all the stars in their stable, Flynn is the perfect choice to appear as the refined, lithe, attractive “Gentleman Jim.” Flynn himself was a boxer before Hollywood and was a natural athlete. To hone his boxing skills and to properly portray the real-life Corbett’s footwork technique, Flynn took extensive lessons. He rarely used a double during filming.
Flynn’s James “Jim” Corbett is presented as a brash young man with a “cock of the walk” type attitude. Working as a bank teller in San Francisco alongside his best friend, Walter (Jack Carson), he very easily ingratiates himself into the Olympic Club, a very elite club and gym for the upper crust. A young woman, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) comes into the bank one day to get some change for her father’s card game and meets Jim. Hearing that she’s on her way to the Olympic Club, Jim very graciously (lol) offers to accompany her to the club. Soon he manages to invite himself on a lunch date with Victoria and before he knows it he’s in the club showing off his boxing technique to the members of the club. The members are impressed and much to Victoria’s chagrin, Jim is invited to become a member of the club.
Victoria and Jim have a very funny love-hate relationship throughout the film. Victoria finds Jim’s cockiness and forward behavior very off-putting. On his first day as a member, Jim has himself paged all over the club, “Paging Mr. Corbett,” to make him appear important to the other members of the club. His arrogant behavior irritates the other members of the club, but they put up with it because of his ability. Victoria heckles Jim throughout the film. She cheers for his opponents, boos him when he enters the ring, and mocks his behavior. Victoria’s dad looms in the background laughing at Victoria and Jim’s flirtatious, yet faux contemptuous behavior toward one another. “You two are the funniest couple” he says. However, despite how much Victoria pretends to be irritated by Jim, there’s a definite vibe that she’s got a crush on him. And who wouldn’t? Look at the man.
Jim also has a hilarious Irish family who provide some comic relief for the film. His father, Pat (Alan Hale) and mother, “Ma,” are both Irish immigrants who run a stable in the working class area of San Francisco. After a few prominent boxing matches, Jim’s star rises and he arranges for his family to move to the upper crust Nob Hill neighborhood. Pat and Jim’s brothers run a saloon that Jim purchases for them. The family is hilarious. One of their running gags is their heated arguments, which culminate with them taking the fight outside–“The Corbetts are at it again!” is heard a few times in the film. It is interesting how Jim is the only member of the family to speak with an Australian accent, but we’ll let that slide.
Much of the film involves Jim’s power growing as he takes down one acclaimed boxer after another. During his first major bout, there’s a funny scene where his opponent’s son asks his mother why his dad doesn’t look like [Jim] in his underwear. The mother responds, “he did, once.” Jim wins the match and attends a party in his honor. However, he learns about the snobbery of the upper crust when his friend Walter is kicked out of the party due to not following dress code and drunkenness. My favorite part of this scene is where Walter starts drinking a man’s cocktail and the man says “hey that’s my drink!” Walter says, “it is? Then this must be mine!” as he grabs another drink and knocks it back. Upset over the treatment of his friend, Jim bails and they continue the celebration.
The celebration ends the next morning in Salt Lake City when Jim and Walter wake up. They discover that during their drunken evening, Jim had won $10 in a fight and gained a manager, Billy Delaney (William Frawley). Delaney is “strictly big time” (he says) and is soon booking Jim into more prestigious fights. Jim’s prizefighting career culminates with a huge 60+ round fight against the reigning heavyweight world champion, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond).
At the risk of spoiling the film, Jim emerges as the victor of the huge Corbett vs Sullivan match. At his celebration party, a humbled Sullivan shows up unexpectedly to cede his title to Jim. The scene is very poignant as Sullivan has to admit defeat and face the fact that he is no longer the greatest in the world. Jim, who idolized Sullivan when he was younger, gives the man a boost as he says that he’s grateful that he wasn’t the same Sullivan a decade prior. This moment humbles Corbett as he knows that there’s always someone waiting in the wings that is better. Soon Corbett will be humbled, just like Sullivan was that evening.
Finally, Victoria and Jim’s contentious relationship reaches its climax. Victoria continues to feign annoyance at Jim’s arrogance and he finally calls her out on it. He makes her admit that she doesn’t hate him as much as she lets on.
(After Jim kisses her while she berates him for being a “tin-horned, shanty Irishman”)
VICTORIA: Fine way for a gentleman to behave
JIM: Oh darling, that gentleman stuff never fooled you, did it? I’m no gentleman.
VICTORIA: In that case, I’m no lady.
(Jim and Victoria kiss again, this time as two people who have the hots for one another)
Errol Flynn and Alexis Smith as James “Jim” Corbett and Victoria Ware in “Gentleman Jim” (1942)
Like most biopics, Gentleman Jim strays from the truth a bit. The real “Gentleman Jim” was soft-spoken as he considered that more dignified. However, the casting of Errol Flynn brought about the “cock of the walk” attitude that definitely makes for a much more exciting film. Gentleman Jim was Errol Flynn’s favorite film of his career and it shows. This film is the peak of Flynn’s popularity and good looks. This film makes the best use of Flynn’s athleticism, good looks, charisma, everything. Alexis Smith was perfect casting. She’s formidable enough both in stature and personality to face Flynn. He is at his best when he has a strong leading lady to play against.
My favorite parts are:
When Jim falls into the San Francisco bay during an illegal fight and he completes the match in wet boxing pants.
When Billy Delaney tries to maintain a quiet, relaxing environment for his prizefighter in the days leading up to the John L. Sullivan fight and his family bursts in and soon they’re singing and dancing an Irish jig. Billy Delaney says: “Look at those maniacs! What do you mean barging in here like a herd of wild elephants?” I love how Jim looks on in the background in amusement while Billy and Pat scuffle.
When Ma Corbett corrects her family, saying “John *L* Sullivan,” emphasis in the L.
The ending romantic scene with Victoria and Jim where they finally kiss. It’s about time, you know she’s been wanting to hook up with him since the beginning of the film.
The very sweet scene between Jim and Ma where she worries about him fighting.
Now, time for my swoon moment:
Errol Flynn. Errol is my #1 favorite actor and this is the film that cemented that. He is hot hot in this film and is fantastic. He is one of the few leading men who take attention away from the leading lady. He is so gorgeous in this film and is just so much fun to watch. Aside from the film being genuinely a good film, he also provides plenty of opportunities for ogling.
In this film, we get to see:
Flynn in wet, tight pants
Flynn in short shorts
Flynn in a tuxedo and top hat
Flynn in a form-fitting union suit. HE EVEN MAKES A UNION SUIT LOOK GOOD.