Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Holiday Inn (1942)

Now this is more like it.

Christmas in Connecticut and It Happened on Fifth Avenue were OK Christmas films, but definitely don't deserve to be called classics.

Holiday Inn doesn't rank alongside It's a Wonderful World either, but it's definitely closer in quality to Frank Capra's fine 1946 effort than those other two films recently reviewed on this site.

Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire only made two films together - Holiday Inn and Blue Skies four years later. There's one good reason right off the bat to give this film a look. Bing sings plenty and Astaire is a treat to watch on the dance floor - especially on an Independence Day routine with firecrackers as props. Wow, this guy is smooth.

Here, Astaire playing dancer (what else?) Ted Hanover, is a cad. He wants to share the stage with top-notch female talent. If that hurts Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby), too bad.

Hardy and Hanover are a team when the film opens on Christmas Eve.

"This is our last night in show business," Hardy suggests. He wants out of the constant grind of performing. His plan - buy an inn in Connecticut and only perform on holidays. "I want to be lazy," he declares. Maybe no one has told him how much work the average entrepreneur faces. Hardy plans to settle down with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), who's also part of the act. It's too bad it's Hanover she wants to find under the misiletoe for the rest of her life.

Hardy's heart bounces back soon enough when he meets Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a young lady with a fine voice and dancing talent. She's keen to work at Holiday Inn to start her career. When Lila ditches Ted for a better half with lots of cash, the smooth as silk hoofer goes on a major bender and makes his way to Holiday Inn. He and Linda are a hit on the dance floor, but he's so smashed he remembers little of the great talent he cut a rug with. "I've got to have a partner," he vows. His agent, Danny Reed (Walter Abel), joins in the search for the mystery woman.

Hardy, who has already been burned by Hanover once in matters of the heart, does his darndest to keep Linda away from Ted. His ploy works - for a while.

Seeing Crosby sing and Astaire dance is reason enough to watch this film. Plus, Bing sings White Christmas. White Christmas! That would be the biggest selling single for decades until Elton John's retake on Candle in the Wind paying tribute to Princess Diana in the late 1990s.

It's unsettling to see Crosby and Dale put on blackface for a song and dance number saluting Abraham Lincoln. Blame that on the times of racial inequality in the United States. Blackface would be gone by the 1960s.

The film's finale is a treat - an acknowledgement of Hollywood's world of make believe. Is actual director Mark Sandrich seen among the crew preparing for a movie's climatic scene? Another nice touch - Bing and Fred reprise the film's first song, updated to reflect how their ways with the ladies have gone.

Holiday Inn. Great cast. Fine music and dance. Now this is how the holidays should be spent.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Character actor Irving Bacon has some fun as Gus, a taxi driver who ferries Linda Mason to Holiday Inn. He appeared in more than 500 films and television shows including Gone With the Wind and Shadow of a Doubt .

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Animal Crackers (1930)

Leave it to the Marx brothers to get into monkey business with Animal Crackers.

There's fine comedy here, but prepare for several musical interludes and some scenes that just don't work.

Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) hosts a big bash at her swanky home for African explorer Capt. Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx). Spaulding brings along his posse of mostly troublemakers - The Professor (Harpo Marx), Signor Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and Horatio Jamison (Zeppo Marx). Does Zeppo ever get as much screen time, and laughs, as his brother?

Just like their film debut, there's a subplot involving theft. Here, though, the laughs aren't as generous. Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin) brings along a painting, After the Hunt, to show off at the party? Two pairs of party-goers want to slip away with the prized work, including Rittenhouse's daughter, Arabella (Lillian Roth), who suggests her boyfriend John Parker (Hal Thompson) substitute his version of the painting to showoff his talent with a deep-pocketed audience.

The biggest laughs come in the film's first half before the music and not-so-funny scenes take over.

Grocho and Chico have a fine exchange soon after Spaulding makes a grand entrance at the party.

GM: "How much would you want to run into an open manhole?"

CM: "Just the cover charge."

GM: "Well, drop in some time."

Harpo earned my biggest laugh of the film at about the 14-minute mark. His clearing the room with gunfire isn't so funny, but watch out when he takes aim at a statue. Something unexpected, and very funny, results.

For fine physical comedy, Harpo and Chico square off, and clean out, Chandler. Witty wordplay follows when Chico needs a flashlight to replace After the Hunt during a power outage. It seems Chico has just about everything else that sounds like a flashlight in his possession.

Watching Harvey Korman and Tim Conway crack up on television's Carol Burnett show was always great fun. Here, Dumont cracks a grin numerous times - mostly at Groucho's musings.

The music is fine - Roth and Thompson hold each other and coo Why Am I So Romantic?, but all this singing and playing - Chico tickles the ivories and Harpo has a go at the harp at about the same point in the film - take away from the comedy. But, Animal Crackers is based on a musical. Maybe this was just the package for movie-goers in 1930.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Robert Greig appears as butler Hives. He also appears in the very fine The Lady Eve and Trouble in Paradise.

Animal Crackers marks the only film appearance of The Music Masters. Appearing as the Six Footmen, they join Greig to sing, You Must Do Your Best Tonight.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Christmas classic?


The DVD package for It Happened on 5th Avenue suggested a Christmas film for the ages from director Roy Del Ruth (Why Must I Die?).

This family-friendly film is entertaining, but is nowhere near efforts such as It's a Wonderful Life that truly deserve the stamp of must-see viewing come the holidays.

The story is intriguing - old man Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor More) doesn't care much for work, so he squats in the homes of successful businessmen when they're living outside New York City. Me, even if I was incredibly wealthy, I think I'd wonder why my electricity bill was so high when I haven't lived at one of my estates for months. I'd also wonder why none of my neighbours didn't notice smoke from my fireplace when my place is boarded up for the winter.

McKeever, with only his pooch for regular company, begins to welcome others into the home of industrialist Michael O'Connor (Charles Ruggles).

Jim Bullock (Don DeFore) is a Second World War veteran who needs a place to live. He was tossed from his apartment because the building is being knocked down by O'Connor for another one of his mega-projects. O'Connor's daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), shows up one day to grab some clothes from her room. McKeever and Bullock don't know she's the unhappy offspring of said businessman. She wants to stay there too. Next up are some army buddies of Bullock's, and their families, who also can't find a place to live in New York City's tight housing market.

Bullock has a plan to help servicemen who need a place of their own. He wants to buy an army base just outside the Big Apple and convert barracks into apartments for other veterans. Pops O'Connor has his own designs on the surplus government property. He gets wind of the idea when he agrees to live with McKeever and the rest of the trespassers in his own place. His former wife, Mary (Ann Harding), also enters the fray when Trudy's dad threatens to have the vagrants arrested.

Trudy, for reasons that eluded this viewer, falls heads over heels for Bullock. There's no chemistry between these characters. Future Gilligan's Island Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.) and the other vets and their wives have little to do but fold laundry, care for the kids and make themselves at home in O'Connor's spacious digs.

There's some interesting use of physical comedy here and nice riffs on O'Connor being put to work as a labourer in his mansion. Trudy kept her true identity hidden from Bullock, but when was this matter dealt with? I don't know because there wasn't such a scene in this film. There's passing reference to tough times for veterans after the Second World War ended - including the lack of good paying jobs and places to live. But, unlike the tough times highlighted in It's a Wonderful World, there's nothing of real substance here. Everyone sure is happy though.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is pleasant, but not essential viewing.

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Charles Lane (It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Vera Lewis (The Roaring Twenties) have brief scenes.

Don DeFore was Thorny in television's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.