Everyone remembers the big stars: Bogart, Hepburn, Monroe, Gable, etc. but not enough attention or praise is given to the character actors. Character actors are performers who often played supporting parts, but weren’t expected to carry the film. A film’s failure wasn’t blamed on the character actor. They weren’t “the name” that brought in the crowds. These actors were hired for the types of characters they portrayed. Some actors, like Claude Rains, for example, could play leading parts, supporting (but lead) parts, and character roles.
One of the all time best character actors is SZ Sakall, or as I like to call him: “International Treasure SZ Sakall.” SZ was born Gründwald Jakob in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now present day Budapest, Hungary) on February 2, 1883. As a young man, he wrote vaudeville sketches under the pen name Szőke Szakáll. In the 1910s and 1920s, SZ was working on the Hungarian stage and screen. In the 1920s, he moved to Vienna. By the 1930s, he was living in Berlin. He continued to appear in German cinema and plays. He also ran his own production company.
SZ returned to Hungary in 1933 after the Nazis gained power in Germany. He started appearing in Hungarian cinema and performed in over 40 films. In 1940, SZ and his wife Anne moved to Hollywood after Hungary joined the Axis powers. Many of SZ’s relatives, including three sisters, were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. SZ started appearing in films almost right away. He made his American film debut in It’s a Date (1940) with Deanna Durbin. He also shortened his name to the much easier to pronounce, SZ Sakall.
SZ or “Cuddles” as he was dubbed by Jack Warner, specialized in playing befuddled, but loveable European shopkeepers, uncles, restaurant owners, etc. He was usually in a small part, some more critical than others. SZ was popular with actors like Errol Flynn, who loved him. But he was unpopular with other actors, like Alan Hale Sr., who claimed that SZ was a scene stealer. Flynn tells a story in his memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, about how he liked to invite Cuddles and Hale to the same get togethers over and over:
Over his Hollywood career, SZ appeared in over 40 films. He appeared in a variety of different roles and genres. His most famous role is arguably Carl, the waiter in Casablanca (1942). SZ appeared in dramatic films, comedies, musicals, westerns, he was everywhere. His last film was The Student Prince (1954). Sadly, SZ suffered a heart attack and passed away on February 12, 1955, 10 days after his 72nd birthday.
SZ will always be remembered for his colorful film appearances. His loveable, flustered persona is endearing as is the way he delivers his lines in mangled English. I absolutely love him and am always excited to see him when he pops up in a film.
My Top 5 SZ Sakall Appearances:
- “Carl” Casablanca (1942). In the classic film to end all classic films, SZ plays “Carl,” the head waiter and maître d’ at Rick’s Cafe American. He is loyal to Rick and watches in admiration as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) lets the young Bulgarian couple win at Roulette. He also delivers a funny line when asked if the gambling is honest.
CUSTOMER: “Are you sure this place is honest?”
CARL: “Honest?! As honest as the day is long!”
2. “Luigi” Never Say Goodbye (1946). SZ appears with buddy Errol Flynn in one of my favorite Christmas films. In this film, Flynn and ex-wife Eleanor Parker are divorced. Their daughter, Flip, hates spending 6 months with one parent and then 6 months with the other. She desperately wants to get them back together, as does her father Errol, who it seems was blindsided by the divorce. SZ plays Luigi, the owner of the restaurant where Errol and Eleanor frequented while they were dating. Luigi is also a family friend. Errol pulls him into his schemes and Luigi does all he can to follow along, often to disastrous results. There is a funny scene where he and Errol wake up after having spent the entire night bar-hopping while dressed as Santa.
PHILLIP (Flynn): “I don’t care about Nancy. But I don’t want her to start making a scene. You know how she is.”
LUIGI: “Sure. You take a girl out to dinner two or three hundred times and right away she thinks you’re interested in her.”
3. “Felix Bassenak” Christmas in Connecticut (1945). SZ appears as Barbara Stanwyck’s uncle who is enlisted to help his niece cook a delicious Christmas dinner for a visiting soldier, Dennis Morgan. Stanwyck’s character, Elizabeth Lane, works as a magazine columnist. She’s concocted this entire persona as the perfect wife, cook, mother, everything. She describes her gorgeous Connecticut farmhouse to her readers. On paper, Elizabeth looks like she’s living the dream and everything’s perfect. In reality, Elizabeth is single, lives in New York, and has just purchased an absurdly expensive mink coat. Her publisher, Sydney Greenstreet, is unaware of her charade and insists that Elizabeth host Christmas at her farmhouse for visiting soldier Dennis Morgan, who is so fond of her articles, that he writes to Greenstreet expressing his wish to meet her. Aside from being the chef who cooks all the food, SZ gets involved in Stanwyck’s shenanigans–at one point, he insists that the baby swallowed his watch.
FELIX: “Watch now. I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips.”
4. “George” The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) . In this film, SZ plays Charles Coburn’s butler. Coburn is Thomas Merrick, “the richest man in the world.” Merrick owns a department store whose employees want to unionize. Merrick goes undercover as “Thomas Higgins” to find the source of the union talks. As he spends more time with the employees, the more he sympathizes with their desire to form a labor union. SZ is so put upon as Coburn’s butler–he only serves Coburn graham crackers and milk due to Coburn’s constant stomach issues. SZ does almost everything for Coburn to the point where he’s so out of touch with reality, that he fails at even the easiest of tasks. At one point, in an attempt to show up his nemesis, Coburn asks SZ to bring in a small child and sell her 12 pairs of shoes. Coburn tries the ugliest shoes on the little girl and the whole scheme falls apart.
GEORGE: “Dr. Schindler made up your pepsin in to sticks of chewing gum sir. He thought that you would like the change. You are to have one every hour on the hour. You will find them in your lower left breast pocket.”
5. Otto Oberkugen “In the Good Old Summertime” (1948). This film is a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film, “The Shop Around the Corner.” In ‘Summertime,’ Judy Garland plays Veronica who gets a job at Otto Oberkugen’s music shop. One of the other salesmen, Andrew (Van Johnson), is threatened by her potential competition for sales, but he also develops a crush on her. Both Veronica and Andrew begin corresponding and falling in love with their respective secret pen pals. Little do they know that they’re corresponding with each other.
OTTO: “Don’t call me Uncle Otto. In the store, I am Mr. Oberkugen.”
Ruby Catherine Stevens (aka “Barbara Stanwyck”) was born 113 years ago, on July 16, 1907. She had a very difficult childhood. At the age of 4, Ruby lost her mother to a streetcar accident. A drunk pushed her mother, then pregnant, off a moving streetcar. She subsequently miscarried, and died from the complications. Two weeks after Ruby’s mother’s funeral, her father joined a work crew digging the Panama Canal, bailed on his children, and was never seen again.
Ruby and her older brother, Byron, were taken in and raised by their eldest sister, Mildred. When Mildred obtained a job as a showgirl, Ruby and Byron were placed in foster care. Ruby ran away often from the multitude of foster homes she was placed in. In 1916 and 1917, when she was 9 and 10, Ruby spent her summers touring with her sister Mildred. It was this period in her life that influenced Ruby’s decision to pursue acting. At the age of 14, Ruby dropped out of school and started working.
In 1923, Ruby started her career as a chorus girl at the Strand Roof, the club on top of the Strand Theater in Times Square. She also spent two seasons as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1926, through her chorus girl work, Ruby was discovered and asked to play a chorus girl in the upcoming Broadway play, The Noose. The Noose was very successful, running for over nine months! It was during this period when Ruby Catherine Stevens received her new stage name: Barbara Stanwyck.
After a couple years being a star on Broadway, Barbara screen-tested for the 1927 silent film, Broadway Nights. She did not win the leading part, but did make her screen debut, as a fan dancer, in the film. In 1929, Stanwyck appeared in her first sound film, The Locked Door. In 1930, Frank Capra selected Barbara for the lead in his film, Ladies of Leisure. This film served as the catalyst for Barbara’s film career. Between 1930 and 1933, Barbara starred in many memorable pre-code* films: Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933).
*Pre-Code refers to the period between the advent of sound pictures (1929) and the implementation of the Hayes Production Code (mid-1934). Pre-Code films are known for their racy, controversial themes. Many of these films deal with premarital sex, abortion, promiscuity, violence, homosexuality, and many other themes.
In 1933, Barbara was on a roll, careerwise. This is the year she would make her star-making film, Baby Face. Just before Baby Face, however, Barbara appeared in one of my favorite pre-code films: Ladies They Talk About.
Full disclosure, I love movies about ladies in prison. Well, actually I should amend that to I love seeing older films about ladies in prison. Some of the newer, more exploitative women in prison films, I wouldn’t have an interest in. In Ladies They Talk About, Barbara plays Nan Taylor, the sole female member of a gang of bank robbers. At the beginning of the film, Nan poses as a regular customer and distracts the security guard while her accomplices rob the bank. She ends up being arrested by a cop who recognizes her from a previous arrest. Nan is sentenced to prison and placed in the San Quentin State Prison.
San Quentin State Prison is an interesting place. The women are housed on one side, the men on the other. There is only a wall separating the two groups. On the ladies’ side of the prison, the women are given cute uniforms. Nan’s prison uniform is of course tailored to her perfectly and shows off her great figure. The prison also gives each woman her own cell, which she’s allowed to decorate to her liking.
The ladies play cards, do each others’ hair, and pursue other activities to pass the time. Meanwhile, Nan’s accomplices, the men, are housed on the other side of the prison, directly on the other side of the wall. Lefty, one of the members of Nan’s gang managed to avoid arrest. Through their weekly visits, Lefty and Nan scheme to break herself and Don (housed in the men’s prison) out. Nan is tasked with drawing a map of the layout of the women’s prison and making an impression of the matron key.
Getting the impression of the matron’s key is absurdly easy, as the matron (Ruth Donnelly) basically does everything but make the impression herself. Nan talks the Matron up about her key ring and the Matron lets her see each and every key, and provides details as to which key goes to which lock. With all the necessary tools in place, Nan and Don are ready to make their escape.
This movie is a lot of fun. Besides the ridiculous women’s prison, you can’t go wrong with an escape from prison plot. Stanwyck is fantastic as are the supporting cast members. I also love the Matron’s cockatoo. This film isn’t nearly as stressful or sadistic as Caged! (1950), which I also loved. Donnelly’s Matron is an absolute saint compared to Hope Emerson’s portrayal that will come 17 years later. There is a scene where a woman prisoner sings a love song to a photograph of Joe E. Brown. Joe E. Brown!
This movie has a strange ending. I won’t divulge it here. After watching it though, you’ll think: “What was that ending?”
So far, this film only seems to be available on the 5th volume of the Forbidden Hollywood collection.
This year’s CLAMBA (CLAssic Movie Blog Association) Spring blogathon is dedicated to classic films that people may turn to in times of crisis, emotional distress, stress, or any other time when they might feel a little weary from the drudgery of day to day life. Right now, during these trying times, having something comforting to turn to, whether it be a movie, a pet, a hobby, etc. is more important than ever.
I find movies, especially classic movies, to be comforting. Not every film has positive subject matter, and not every film is uplifting, but they allow you to escape into a different world. Full disclosure: This is coming from someone who watches “Forensic Files” and “Unsolved Mysteries” to relax before bed. I have my “pet” movies that I revisit over and over again (The Long Long Trailer, Gidget, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, The Brady Bunch Movie, Singin’ in the Rain… ) but I’ve already written about those–sometimes multiple times. I will try to branch out and share my Top 5 favorite comfort films.
One of my favorite types of films is a tried and true romance. Not necessarily a rom-com (though occasionally those can hit the spot, depending on what it is), or a overly sappy romance (e.g. Nicholas Sparks), or some generic, non-offensive, completely predictable film (Hallmark Movies, I’m looking at you), but a real romantic film–“happily ever after” not guaranteed.
1) Summertime (1955). David Lean’s romantic drama is aesthetically a gorgeous film. Shot on location in Venice, Italy, the scenery and color is beautiful and very fun to watch. Katharine Hepburn stars as Jane Hudson (not that Jane Hudson), a single (gasp!) middle-aged secretary from Akron, Ohio. She has had a lifelong dream of going to Venice and has saved money for many years. Finally, she has enough money and travels abroad for her summer vacation.
Upon arriving in Venice, Jane boards the local vaporetto (e.g. a waterbus that transports the public down the canals) where she meets two fellow American tourists. Jane and the three tourists are all staying at the same pensione (e.g. a boarding house that includes meals). At the pensione, Jane meets another American tourist, Eddie Yaeger (Darren McGavin), and his wife.
On her first night out, Jane goes out to dinner and spots an Italian man, Renato de Rossi, (Rossano Brazzi) watching her. The next day, Jane is window-shopping at an antique store and spots a red goblet. Interested in obtaining more information (and possibly purchasing) the goblet, Jane enters the store and discovers that the owner of the shop is Renato, the same man who was watching her the night before. Later that night, Renato finds Jane at her pensione and confesses that he finds her very attractive. She tries to ward off his advances, but ultimately agrees to attend a concert with him.
Renato and Jane’s romance grows and soon find themselves completely enamored with one another. However, like so many romantic films, they reach an impasse when Jane finds out more about Renato’s past.
I love this film because Jane and Renato’s passion for one another is evident and who doesn’t love the idea of falling in love with a handsome stranger while on vacation? See Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun for another example of this storyline. I also liked the idea that Hepburn was playing a woman who was not only single, but didn’t seem to regret being single. She wasn’t a miserable “can’t find a man” spinster. This film is also where Hepburn picked up her lifelong eye infection after performing a stunt where she falls into one of the fabled (and notoriously polluted) Venice canals.
Another type of movie that I find comforting is an over-the-top melodrama. For me, over-the-top is something so outrageous, so absurd, that it seems like it could never possibly happen. But at the same time, with the right mix of people and the right situation, it could definitely happen. One of my favorite melodramas also combines another of my favorites: 50s-60s teen movies.
2) A Summer Place (1959) has everything one could possibly want in a good melodrama: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, adultery, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, a catchy title theme tune, love, the use of the word “convenience” for toilet… this movie has it all. And if that was not enough, the movie is photographed using the most beautiful color. Every scene is seemingly shot with gauze over the lens, giving everything a slightly hazy, ethereal look. This film also features two of my all-time favorite stars: Sandra Dee and Dorothy McGuire.
At the beginning of the film, we meet the Hunter family. Patriarch Bart (Arthur Kennedy), his long-suffering wife, Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), and their teenage son, Johnny (Troy Donahue). It is quickly apparent that not all is well with the Hunter household. Bart, despite having been born to a wealthy family and seemingly had it all, has allowed his family’s Pine Island, ME estate to fall into disarray. Most of the blame for the family’s decline falls squarely into the lap of Bart’s alcoholism. To make ends meet, the Hunter family is forced to transform their private family home into an inn and rent rooms out to paying guests.
One day, the Hunters receive a telegram from Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan) who along with his wife, Helen (Constance Ford) and teenaged daughter Molly (Sandra Dee), wants to rent out a room at the “inn” for the summer. The only hitch? Ken and Sylvia used to date twenty years ago, prior to their respective marriages and children. Ken at the time was a lifeguard on the island whereas, it is presumed that Sylvia must have come from “better stock.” However, the tables have turned and now Sylvia is seemingly lower class, whereas Ken is successful millionaire research chemist.
When the Jorgenson family is seen, it is obvious that Helen has some issues. “Some issues” is putting it lightly. Helen is one of the most prudish (even for 1950s standards), hateful women that I have ever seen in a film. She seemingly has an issue with everyone and anything that isn’t American, straight, puritan, and most importantly, White. Ken has an amazing scene where he rips his wife a new one. It is obvious that the Jorgenson union is going to be kaput by the end of the film.
Upon arrival at Pine Island, Johnny immediately spots Molly. They are instantly smitten with one another, much to the chagrin of Helen. As a parallel to the budding union between the children, something is rekindled between Sylvia and Ken. Both are stuck in unhappy marriages and both want a new start. Sylvia and Ken find themselves confiding in one another, until their flame is reignited. At the same time, Molly and Johnny are finding themselves falling for one another. Jilted spouses Bart and Helen, find themselves on the outside, looking in.
I love this movie. I love everything about it. I never tire of it and look forward to reading the novel. There is so much drama to savor. Sandra Dee, despite being saddled with the goody two-shoes virgin image, is definitely NOT living up to that reputation in this film. One of Dee’s best qualities, in my opinion, are her eyes. Her fantastic large, brown eyes imbue Dee with a vulnerable quality. She seems to always have a wanting in her eyes. She just needs someone to take care of, and someone to take care of her. For whatever reason, Troy Donahue, despite not being that great of an actor I really enjoy. I don’t know what it is about him, but he has a quality that I find interesting.
Sometimes, all that will provide comfort is some good old fashioned eye candy. Just something to ogle for a couple hours. One such eye candy (for me) is Errol Flynn. During his heyday, he looks amazing in pretty much everything. Even in the 1950s, when Flynn’s bad habits were definitely catching up with him, though looking older than his age, he still possesses the panache and charisma of his youth. For this entry, I’m going to discuss my favorite Errol Flynn film.
3) Gentleman Jim (1942) is a biopic that features Flynn as James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. At the beginning of the film, Jim and his friend Walter (Jack Carson) are attending an illegal boxing match in 1890s San Francisco. The match is raided by the police. Jim and Walter find themselves in the paddywagon with Judge Geary, a prominent member of the board of directors at the bank that employs both Jim and Walter as tellers. Jim is able to think quickly and saves his boss from embarrassment.
Later, through a chance meeting at his bank, Jim meets Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), the socialite daughter of Buck Ware, a wealthy upper-class member of the Olympic Club–the same club that Jim’s boss also frequents. Victoria has arrived at Jim’s bank to collect change for a local game at the club. After hearing Victoria state that she’s on her way to the Olympic Club, Jim charms her into letting him escort her and carry her heavy coins. Victoria, obviously interested in Jim (because duh! who wouldn’t?) and seeing his ulterior motives right off the bat, agrees to let him accompany her to the club. She even treats him to lunch and cigars. Later, Jim meets the Judge and other members of the upper class in the gymnasium.
Judge Geary and a renowned British boxing coach (who has been hired to evaluate prospects) see a lot of potential in Jim as a boxer. Both men are looking to make boxing respectable and plan to start a boxing club that use the Marquess of Queensbury rules (the same rules still in effect today in the boxing community). These rules were set up a few decades prior in London and were meant to make the matches more even and fair. The Judge and the British coach find Jim’s appearance and polished demeanor as the perfect image for their new fighter. And, if Jim’s good looks and charm weren’t enough, he’s also a good fighter!
Soon Jim gets to work training and quickly finds himself scheduled for his first fight, which he wins. Eventually, Jim gets a manager, Billy Delaney (William “Fred Mertz” Frawley) who books him into even bigger matches. After winning a series of fights, Jim finds himself booked for his biggest fight yet–Taking on the current heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond).
I love this movie. I love sports movies in general, and especially boxing ones. Flynn is so freaking adorable and hot in all of his scenes. The man even looks good in a union suit! The absolute best Flynn scene is when he falls into the San Francisco Bay and pulls himself out of the water. Ooh la la. Alexis Smith makes a great foil for Flynn’s brashness. Their love/hate relationship is one of the highlights of the film. One of the absolute best parts of the film though is Alan Hale as Flynn’s father. He is hilarious in this movie. Ward Bond is also excellent as John L. Sullivan.
Another type of film that I find comforting is something that is so adorable and so sweet, that you cannot help but feel better. Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character, The Tramp, is so sweet and kind, you cannot help but root for him. In The Kid (1921), even though the audience knows that Tramp’s “son,” belongs to someone else, you cannot help but root for the two of them to stay with each other. They belong together–even if the Tramp can’t provide financially. What he lacks in financial resources, he more than makes up for it in love and kindness. One of the absolute best examples of this is present in my favorite Chaplin film.
4) City Lights (1931). This film is so freaking adorable and sweet, I cannot stand it. Fortunately, I was able to see it in the theater prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was even better on the large screen. To make the experience even better, I got to view a 35mm print. Anyway, I digress.
The film opens with a bunch of dignitaries and citizens assembling for the unveiling of a new monument dedicated to “Peace and Prosperity.” When the veil is removed from the statue, the Tramp is revealed to be asleep in the lap of one of the figures. After a few moments of hilarity, the Tramp escapes the angry crowd and runs into the city. While in the city, the Tramp encounters a blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers. The Tramp is smitten with her, even after figuring out that she is blind. The blind woman mistakes the Tramp as wealthy when she hears a door open and shut on an automobile right as the Tramp approaches her to purchase a flower. She assumes that he’s just emerged from a chauffered vehicle.
Later that evening, the Tramp saves a drunk millionaire from suicide. The millionaire is grateful to the Tramp and declares him his new best friend. The millionaire takes the Tramp back to his home for champagne, and then for a night out on the town. They have a raucuous good time. The next morning, the Tramp spies the flower girl at her corner as he’s driving the millionaire home. He gets some money from the Millionaire, takes the Millionaire’s car, and drives the girl home.
At this point, a running gag starts where the millionaire is the Tramp’s BFF when he’s drunk, but sober, he has no idea who the Tramp is and wants him out of his house ASAP.
The Tramp continues to visit with the blind girl. It is during one of these visits that he learns that she and her grandmother are one missed rent payment ($22… Oh to pay rent in the early 1930s) away from being homeless. At this point, nothing will stop the Tramp until he’s able to save the blind girl from losing her home.
This film is so freaking sweet and I don’t want to spoil it by describing the ending. It is perhaps one of the best endings ever in film and with so few words. The ending scene fully illustrates why Charlie Chaplin deserves every inch of recognition and acclaim that he ever received.
Finally, another of my favorite genres is film noir. Some film noir can be romantic in nature, like the Bogie/Bacall films and others can be super gritty (The Asphalt Jungle comes to mind). I love all of them. There’s something about the noir style, the narration, the way characters speak, everything.
5) One of my favorite noir, is probably one of the most famous film noir of all time: Double Indemnity (1944). Fred MacMurray stars as Walter Neff, a seemingly decent insurance salesman who makes his living selling all types of insurance. One day, he makes a house call to the Dietrichson household to remind Mr. Dietrichson to renew his automobile insurance. When Walter arrives, Mr. Dietrichson isn’t home, but his second wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) is. In one of the all time best character introduction scenes, Phyllis appears at the top of the stairway clad in a towel and her “honey of an anklet.” Walter is instantly smitten.
While flirting with one another, Phyllis asks Walter about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband, without her husband’s knowledge. Walter at first, wants no part of Phyllis’ obvious plan to murder her husband, but soon devises a scheme to write a policy that contains a “double indemnity” clause–which would double the payout, should the policy holder die in some type of accident.
At this point, I cannot decide if Walter is really that enthralled with Phyllis that he’s willing to commit capital murder, or whether he wants to try and put something over on his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Keyes is responsible for investigating claims on behalf of the firm, to reduce the amount of payments that need to be paid out. Keyes seems to believe that he knows anything and everything about probability of different causes of death and everything that would negate an insurance claim.
Walter inevitably ends up helping Phyllis commit the murder. Throughout the rest of the film, Phyllis and Walter try to cover their tracks as Keyes gets closer and closer to the truth.
I love this film. I love the way that Walter speaks, I love Phyllis’ hilarious wig, and Edward G. Robinson is fantastic. In the scene where Walter murders Mr. Dietrichson in the car, Phyllis has one of the most evil facial expressions in cinema.
When deciding what movie to watch, I often find myself deciding upon a film based on a specific actor, a specific director, certain genre… whatever I happen to be obsessed with at the moment. It’s probably because of these kicks that many of the classic era’s biggest classics, e.g. Gone With the Wind have not yet made it to my DVD/Blu Ray player. Anyway, right now, I’ve been watching and seeking out Ralph Meeker.
I discovered Ralph Meeker as the antagonist in Jeopardy (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan. In Jeopardy, Stanwyck plays a woman who is racing against time (and the tide) to try and find help for her husband played by Sullivan. Sullivan ends up becoming trapped under a wooden piling when he tries to save his and Stanwyck’s son from being seriously injured on a collapsing, dilapidated jetty. Sullivan cannot free his leg, and neither Stanwyck nor their young son are strong enough to move the piling. To make matters worse, the tide is coming in. If Sullivan isn’t saved soon, he will drown.
Stanwyck leaves Sullivan at the beach in search of someone who can help. She comes across Lawson, played by Meeker, a man who seemingly wants to help her and her husband. However, it is revealed that Lawson is an escaped convict and basically uses Stanwyck as a way to escape the police. Meeker’s Lawson is terrifying, but also really hot, in that dangerous kind of way. He’s the type of dangerous that only seems sexy in the movies–in real life, you’d be scared to death and calling 911.
Anyway, after seeing Jeopardy, I started seeking out more Ralph Meeker films. Unfortunately Meeker seems like he had more success on television and on the stage than in film; but he does have a good sized filmography to keep me going for awhile.
One such film that I watched recently was Something Wild (1961) starring Meeker and Carroll Baker. This is a film that I’d seen on the Criterion shelves often, but had never seen it. I’d actually recorded it on TCM back when Baker was honored one day during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. After getting on my Ralph Meeker kick, I was ready to watch this film. I’d also heard that this film was somewhat bleak and stressful at times. It seemed like a film that you’d have to be in the mood for and one that you’d watch at night.
Anyway, I loved Something Wild. I thought it was a fantastic film. In this movie, Baker plays Mary Ann, a college student who is attacked and raped by an unknown assailant. Normally, I do not like films that feature rape. Fortunately however, the rape scene was not graphic and the director chose to use specific close-ups and shots to get the idea across as to what was happening, but did not actually show anything. Anyway, Mary Ann is understandably traumatized and terrified.
Mary Ann tries to get her life back together and put her trauma behind her. She even goes as far as to destroy every piece of clothing that she was wearing the night she was attacked. Mary Ann doesn’t tell her mother or stepfather what happened. I get the sense that she felt shame, embarrassment and also was traumatized to the point that she just wanted to put it past her. While trying to ride the subway to get to school, Mary Ann faints when a large mob of people rush on and squeeze her into other people. Her PTSD would affect her later when her co-workers do the same thing to her and she has to go home and vomit. The police end up bringing Mary Ann home, much to the horror of her prim and proper mother. Mary Ann’s mother, instead of asking why the police are bringing her home, chooses instead to go on a tirade about what the neighbors will think. It’s obvious that if Mary Ann were to reveal to her mother the true source of her anxiety, her mother would make it about herself and make Mary Ann feel even worse.
Mary Ann ends up leaving home (without telling her mother or anyone else, causing her to be a “Missing Person” for much of the film) and finds a gross apartment in a tenement for $5/week. Her neighbor is Jean Stapleton (aka Edith Bunker) whose constant drinking and carousing with men brings Mary Ann much stress. Mary Ann’s job at the five and dime isn’t much better, as her co-worker, Doris Roberts (grandma from “Everybody Loves Raymond”) is very abrasive and gossips behind Mary Ann’s back about her aloofness and quiet nature.
One day, Mary Ann decides to end everything and prepares to jump off a bridge. She is saved right before jumping by Mike (played by Meeker), a mechanic. Mike takes Mary Ann to his home so that she can relax and rest. Mike’s home isn’t much better than Mary Ann’s. It’s sparsely decorated with only the basic essentials. Mary Ann at first is hesitant to go to Mike’s home (because duh, he’s a stranger), but acquiesces when he assures her that he’ll be at work all day. Mike at first seems like a sweet man, but it becomes clear that he’s troubled when he arrives home from the bar completely trashed. He’s so drunk that he can barely walk. He sees Mary Ann and tries to force himself on her. She is able to fight him off and he passes out. She spends the rest of the evening understandably terrified.
For most of the remainder of the film, Mike will not allow Mary Ann to leave. He is able to lock the door from the inside and outside and always has the key on his person. At the beginning, one might think that Mike’s just keeping her inside so that he can make sure she won’t harm herself. However, it becomes apparent that Mike has other motives for keeping Mary Ann at his house. As the audience, I should be upset and turned off that Mike is holding Mary Ann hostage; but it becomes clear that this man is troubled. He is lonely. No, he shouldn’t be keeping her hostage, but he is afraid of being alone. He doesn’t want to be alone.
Both Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker bring a lot of emotion and complexity to their portrayals of their characters. Meeker is a troubled man, who seemingly only wants someone to love and take care of him. Baker is trying to overcome emotional trauma caused by a stranger, and is basically forced to trust a strange man that he won’t bring her harm. I really enjoyed this film and would watch it again. I loved the gritty setting, the great music and the performances of Meeker and Baker.
William Holden was born 100 years ago today. He made his film debut in Golden Boy (1939) co-starring Barbara Stanwyck. Holden was only 21 when he was cast in his first film and it was apparent to everyone that he was inexperienced. Holden was almost fired from his first part; but veteran film star Stanwyck took him under her wing and coached and encouraged him, often on her own time. Under Stanwyck’s tutelage, Holden was able to keep his job and turned in a serviceable performance. After the filming on Golden Boy ended, Holden and Stanwyck remained lifelong friends.
In 1978, the two friends appeared together as presenters at the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Holden deviated from reading the list of nominees to publicly thank Stanwyck for her helping and supporting his career when he was first starting out. Four years later, Stanwyck appeared at the Academy Awards to accept an Honorary Oscar. Holden had passed away a few months prior. After her very genuine and humble speech, Stanwyck paid tribute to her friend stating: “I loved him very much and I miss him. He always wished I would get an Oscar. And so tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish.” It was a very sweet and emotional tribute. I highly recommend looking up both Holden’s tribute to Stanwyck and Stanwyck’s tribute to Holden on You Tube.
Whether or not Holden would have still become a star without Stanwyck’s help, it is unknown, but being fired from his first big part could have definitely curtailed his career. Stanwyck should definitely be given credit for being kind and generous and helping out a young man who wanted a film career. She could have been a diva and demanded a more experienced co-star (and could have probably gotten one), but she saw something in her young 21 year old co-star and opted to provide her knowledge and advice instead. For the next eleven or so years after Golden Boy, Holden continued in small parts and small films and continued to grow his skills and gain experience. During this period, Holden appeared in many B-list films including one with RKO’s former “Queen of the Bs,” Lucille Ball.
In 1949, Holden and Ball appeared in the comedy, Miss Grant Takes Richmond. Ball had just been signed to Columbia Pictures after a recommendation from Buster Keaton to Columbia studio-head, the irascible Harry Cohn. Keaton suggested to Cohn that Ball would be perfect for comedic parts. Miss Grant Takes Richmond was the first film Ball made under her new contract. This film is mainly a vehicle for Ball and her physical comedy talents, but Holden provides excellent support as her straight-man. His worldly, but weary, everyday man persona had emerged by this time and also provides Ball with a handsome and worthy love interest. Reliable character actors, James Gleason and Frank McHugh, provide excellent support.
In Miss Grant Takes Richmond, Ball plays Ellen Grant, an aspiring secretary. She attends secretary school and is the worst student in the class. She can’t type, has to make constant corrections, pulls the ribbon out of the typewriter and manages to get ink everywhere. She seems hopeless as a secretary–a sentiment echoed by her aunt and uncle and fiance who cannot understand why she’d want a career when she could just get married and be a housewife. One day at the secretary school, Dick Richmond (Holden), comes in looking for a secretary for his real estate office. Much to everyone’s surprise, including Ellen’s, Dick selects her.
At the office, it seems that there is more going on between Dick and his associates, Gleason (James Gleason) and Kilcoyne (Frank McHugh). Ellen constantly takes calls from people seemingly wanting to put down-payments down on various properties in various neighborhoods. In reality, Dick and his cronies are actually running a bookmaking operation. The calls and payments that Ellen is accepting are actually bets being placed on horses at various racetracks. The real estate office and Ellen are just a front to fool authorities. To keep up the charade, Dick mentions that there is some land available for a housing development, but the owner wants $60,000. He mentions that this is too expensive, but he’d be willing to pay $55,000. Without his knowledge, Ellen goes down to the owners of the property and manages to negotiate the price down to $50,000.
Ellen, her fiance (who is also a District Attorney), and the owner of the property all go down to Dick’s real estate office to let him know of the deal to purchase the land. Ellen explains that Dick’s office will now be able to build a housing development of affordable housing. Dick knows that this deal will cause financial trouble for his operation, but has to play along. He then decides to try and scare Ellen away from the organization by being aggressively romantic with her, but that backfires when he finds out that he’s fallen for her.
Dick’s ex-girlfriend, Peggy Donato comes to visit her old flame and to also place a large bet ($50,000) on a race. Ellen accepts the bet, not knowing that a) Donato is placing a bet on a horse race and b) That the race that Donato is betting on is fixed, in her favor. Dick cannot afford to pay $50,000 to Donato. Dick tries to explain his predicament to Donato who is not sympathetic in the slightest. Donato, who still has feelings for Dick, tells him that he can either run away with her or she’ll have her goons take care of him.
Back at the housing development, Dick has put Ellen in charge. He has also embezzled funds from the down-payments he received for the houses in the development. There is a funny scene at the construction site where Ellen and the female customers decide to adjust the foundation outlines (by moving the ropes) of their respective homes. When they’re done, the size of the rooms are wildly out of proportion. The construction crews start pouring the cement foundations, per the rope guidelines and soon realize something is horribly wrong. There is a funny scene where the foreman rants about the crazy foundations. People’s homes are overlapping, some rooms are enormous while others are tiny, there are random triangular shaped rooms that are too small to use, you name it, it’s a problem. However, the project now has a larger problem, it’s out of money.
Dick, feeling guilty about scamming innocent people and Ellen, decides to run off with Donato and pay all his customers back. Ellen finally figures out that the whole operation was a scam and that Dick took the money from the housing development. She is upset, but decides that she still cares about her former employer and opts to scheme to get rid of Donato. In a scene reminiscent of the 1957 I Love Lucy episode, “Lucy Wants to Move to the Country,” Ellen decides to dress up like a gangster and pass herself off as the real brains of the bookmaking operation. She cobbles together her own “gang” and tries to intimidate Donato’s gang. That plan backfires when Donato’s gang proves to be too strong. At that time, Gleason and Kilcoyne show up with $50,000 that they won in a bet placed with Donato’s operation–which can be repaid to the people who purchased the homes at the development (or can be used to actually complete the homes).
This is a fun film that shows off both Ball and Holden’s strengths. Two years later, Ball would be starring in her groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy. In 1954, five years after their film together, Holden would be reunited with Ball when he made an appearance as himself on her show. “L.A. at Last!” was the first episode of the Hollywood story arc of I Love Lucy. Holden has his first encounter with the star-struck Lucy at the fabled Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood. Later, he meets Lucy again in the Ricardos’ hotel room where she attempts to disguise her appearance with a putty nose. My favorite thing about Holden’s entire appearance is the fact that this sets up the idea that Holden is a gossip. There are multiple episodes featuring other celebrities where the celebrity alludes to Holden giving them the low down on Lucy.
By the time Holden makes his appearance on I Love Lucy, his star had risen exponentially since Miss Grant Takes Richmond, much like Ball’s had. In 1950, a year after ‘Richmond,’ Holden got the plum role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. This film catapulted Holden into stardom. He received an Oscar nomination for his part as the weary and cynical screenwriter who allows himself to be a “kept man” by the delusional and absurd former silent screen star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). After Sunset Blvd., Holden appeared in a string of hits: Born Yesterday (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), The Moon is Blue (1953), Executive Suite (1954), Sabrina (1954), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Country Girl (1954), Picnic (1955), Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1955). Holden took home the 1953 Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17. Holden’s string of hit films during just this five year period is remarkable and a feat which is rarely repeated.