The Cheaters (1945)

I stumbled upon this film on YouTube while searching for some classic TV Christmas episodes.  Considering the array of fine and famous character actors who appear in the film and its distinct Christmas focus, I was surprised I had never heard of the movie.  It was made by Republic Studios, which specialized in B Westerns and apparently received negative reviews when first released in 1945.  To call it a quirky film is an understatement.  It bears some similarity to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, with the story of a bum (Joseph Skildkraut) who comes into contact with a troubled wealthy family and eventually transforms them, but it has a much greater dose of irony, since everyone in this film is a cheater.  The plot seems a bit stretched, but Skildkraut’s performance is intriguing, especially his re-telling of the Jacob Marley portion of A Christmas Carol, which initiates the transformation of all the cheaters into honest people.

PLOT SUMMARY

An apparently wealthy Fifth Avenue family, the Pidgeons, are actually on the brink of bankruptcy and depending on an inheritance from a wealthy Colorado uncle, but he has left his $5 million estate to an unknown actress, Florie Watson, he saw on stage when she was a child. As a stunt to impress a fiancé, the Pidgeons have taken in a down-on-his-luck former actor, Anthony Marchand, who suggests a way the Pidgeons can cheat Watson out of her inheritance.  She is a struggling vaudeville performer, who doesn’t know about the inheritance.  When the Pidgeons invite her to their home for Christmas claiming her as a relative, she pretends to be the cousin and thinks she is the one doing the cheating.  She recognizes Marchand, who had once been a successful Shakespearean actor, and becomes attracted to him. Marchand begins to regret his cheating and in a dramatic re-telling of A Christmas Carol convinces the Pidgeons to reveal the truth about the inheritance.  Watson reveals her own cheating and agrees to share the inheritance with the Pidgeons, so all ends happily.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The film is set throughout the Christmas season.  There is a grand tree at the Fifth Avenue mansion, and then an intimate Christmas at an isolated country home.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Joseph Schildkraut (Anthony Marchand) has been seen as the two-faced Vadas in The Shop Around the Corner (1940).   Check out the blog post for that film for more details.

Billie Burke (Clara Pidgeon) will be seen soon in another Christmas classic, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).  The wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, she was a top star on Broadway in the 1910s and 1920s but is best known today as the good witch Glinda in Wizard of Oz (1939).  She had delightfully ditzy roles in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Topper (1937).

Eugene Pallette (J.C. Pidgeon) is one of my favorite character actors.  His long film career began in the silent era with small roles in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).  In the sound era he had roles in two of the best screwball comedies ever, My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Lady Eve (1941). He also appeared in The Kennel Murder Case (1933), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Topper (1937) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  He even appeared in two classic swashbucklers: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940).

Ona Munson (Florie Watson) is best known for her role as Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939).  Two years later she appeared as Mother Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture (1941) — speaking of quirky films.

Raymond Walburn (Willie Crawford) had roles in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), but he is best known as a member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in  Christmas in July (1940), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947).

Robert Greig (MacFarland) also was a frequent member of the Sturges stock company, appearing in The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Great Moment (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) and  Unfaithfully Yours (1948).  Grieg also had roles, often as a butler, in Animal Crackers (1930), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Easy Living (1937) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938).  One of his finest non-butler roles is as the reprobate Uncle John in the wonderful screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

Byron Foulger (process server) had a small role in In Name Only (1939).  He also appears in Capra’s  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), but he is best remembered for his extended role as Mr. Gibbs in Petticoat Junction (1969).

Cyril Ring (private detective) was seen as the movie director in Holiday Inn (1942), and was also seen in Beyond Tomorrow (1940) and Meet John Doe (1941).  We will see him soon in Holiday (1938) and Lady on a Train (1945).  His other classic films include The Great Ziegfeld (1936), After the Thin Man (1936), Topper (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937),  My Favorite Wife (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and Woman of the Year (1942).

Norma Varden (Mattie) appeared in a variety of classic films: the screwball comedy The Major and the Minor (1942), Casablanca (1942), the thriller Strangers on a Train (1951) and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) opposite Charles Coburn.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Billie Burke appeared with Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the last film he did with Ginger Rogers.  Burke appeared with Fred and Adele Astaire at a Junior League Benefit in Manhattan on January 19, 1928.

Cyril Ring appeared with Astaire in Holiday Inn (1942) and Broadway Melody of 1940.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

I am not sure that we love it, though we were thoroughly intrigued by it and will probably try it again.  We wish the quality of the print was better.

This is the third film on our holiday watch list with a reference to the Tom and Jerry holiday drink.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

The full film is available on YouTube.

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Of all the classic movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, this is our favorite.  More than any other, it seems to capture the spirit of the poverty of the Cratchits, the bitter greed of Scrooge, and the Victorian setting.  The script adds a number of scenes that do not appear in the short story, but unlike the 1938 MGM version it doesn’t add ridiculous elements.  The new scenes actually clarify and expand upon some points in Dickens’ characterizations.  In this re-telling, we learn that Scrooge’s father blamed him for the death of his mother while giving birth to him, which is why young Ebenezer was banished to a poor private school.  Scrooge similarly blames his nephew, Fred, for the death of his beloved sister, Fan.  The Spirit of Christmas Past allows Scrooge to hear his sister’s dying words asking him, after he has left the room, to take care of her son, and this newly realized irony seems to begin Scrooge’s reclamation.  Unlike the book, where Scrooge sees his former love Alice married with many children, in this version the Spirit of Christmas Present allows Scrooge to see her alone working in a poor charity hospital.  Two brief scenes usually omitted from other versions of the film are among the most serious: Marley’s ghost showing Scrooge the countless doomed souls frustrated in their attempts to intervene in human affairs and the children Ignorance and Want hiding under the robe of the Spirit of Christmas Present.  Other versions of the story eliminate these didactic Dickensian elements.

PLOT SUMMARY

Does it need summarizing?

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

This, too, goes without saying.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Most of the actors in this version of A Christmas Carol worked primarily in British films before and after World War II, so there are only a few with roles from the classic Hollywood films and none that connect to others on our Christmas watch list.

Alastair Sim (Scrooge) had many British film credits, including An Inspector Calls (1954) and Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950).

Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber) appeared in the suspenseful Night Must Fall (1937) and in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942).

Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit) appeared in the frightening Dead of Night (1945) and in Errol Flynn’s weakest swashbuckler, The Master of Ballantrae (1953).

Miles Malleson (Old Joe) appeared in Trent’s Last Case (1952), two Hitchcock classics — The 39 Steps (1935) and Stage Fright (1950) — and two delightful Ealing Studio comedies with Alec Guinness — Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951).

Ernest Thesiger (the undertaker) appeared most famously as  Doctor Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with Laurence Olivier in Henry V (1944) and with Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit (1951).

Peter Bull (plump businessman and the film’s narrator) appeared with Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob (191) and with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in  The African Queen (1951) where Bull played the German ship captain.  He also played the Russian ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Patrick MacNee (young Jacob Marley) is best known for playing the dapper John Steed in the classic British TV series The Avengers.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

This is the biggest stretch for an Astaire connection in our whole Christmas watch list: Patrick MacNee and Fred Astaire appeared in the TV series Battlestar Galactica in 1979, but not in the same episode.  MacNee also narrated the intro to many episodes of the series.

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

One of the nicest small touches is the musical theme of the folk song “Barbara Allen” used to connect the scenes with Scrooge and his sister, Fan, and later his coming to the Christmas party with his nephew, Fred. This scene in Fred’s home is among the most touching in the film.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies always shows this film several times during December.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)

Although set at Christmas, the charms of this film version of Kaufman & Hart’s famed play come in the rapid-fire dialogue and the numerous references to celebrities from the 1930s and early 1940s.  It’s a fairly faithful screen version of the original stage play, with only a few outside scenes to open up the story and add some visual and romantic interest.  Bette Davis seems an odd choice for the romantic lead in this film, but she actually was instrumental in getting it made and wanted the role as Sheridan Whiteside’s secretary to be a romantic change of pace from her previous more serious films.  The play is an acerbic take-off on Alexander Woolcott, one of the leading members of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table.  In fact, though Monty Woolley originally played the role on Broadway, eventually Woolcott took the role himself when the play went on tour.  Other roles in the play are modeled on other celebrities from the 1920s and 1930s.  Beverly Carlton is Noel Coward; Banjo is Harpo Marx, who was also an occasional member of the Algonquin Round Table and who even briefly played the role when the play toured the West Coast. Lorraine Sheldon was modeled on the actress Gertrude Lawrence.  Of course, there are many wonderful character actors, especially from the Warner Brothers studio, and we have seen most of them in earlier films on our Christmas watch list.

PLOT SUMMARY

Noted author and radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is visiting Mesalia, Ohio, several weeks before Christmas during a nationwide lecture tour.  Stopping for lunch at the home of one of the city’s leading citizens, Whiteside slips on the icy front steps, injuring his hip and forcing him to stay at the home for several weeks recuperating.  His dominant personality takes over the entire household, which is flooded by phone calls, packages and visitors calling on the famed Whiteside.  His secretary, who accompanies him, meets an attractive local newspaperman and begins to fall in love.  Whiteside tries to break up the budding romance through nefarious manipulations, but all ends well on Christmas day, until Whiteside now recovered is ready to leave …. and slips on the ice again!

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The story begins a few weeks before Christmas and culminates on Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  There is a lavishly decorated tree, scenes of ice skating and snow-covered streets.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Monty Wooley (Sheridan Whiteside) has already been seen in The Bishop’s Wife, where we posted more information about his career.

Jimmy Durante (Banjo) was on our Christmas watch list for his role in The Great Rupert.

Billie Burke (Daisy Stanley) appeared in The Cheaters.

Grant Mitchell (Mr. Stanley) has already been seen in a smaller role in It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton) played Barbara Stanwyck’s would-be husband in Christmas in Connecticut.

Mary Wickes (Miss Preen) was seen previously in White ChristmasShe, Monty Woolley, and Ruth Vivian (who plays Harriet Stanley) were the only three actors from the original Broadway production to appear in the film version.  Wickes again played Miss Preen in a 1972 TV version of the play.

George Barbier (Dr. Bradley) had roles in such classics as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Little Miss Broadway (1938).

Edwin Stanley (John the butler) appeared in such screwball classics as  Libeled Lady (1936), Easy Living (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Ninotchka (1939).

Fred Kelsey (detective) has been seen several times on our holiday watch list, including roles in Christmas in Connecticut and O. Henry’s Full House.

Frank Moran (Haggerty) has been seen in two previous films on our list: Meet John Doe (1941) and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).  His other film credits include  The Good Fairy (1935) and Another Thin Man (1939). Moran appeared in nearly every film directed by Preston Sturges:  The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Great Moment (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) and Unfaithfully Yours (1948),

Ralph Peters (cab driver) had a wonderful role as one of the gangster’s stooges in Ball of Fire (1941) and appeared  again as a cab driver in Lady on a Train (1945), which is a new film on our holiday watch list.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Frank Moran appeared in three films with Fred Astaire: Shall We Dance (1937), A Damsel in Distress (1937) and Carefree (1938).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

The rapid-fire dialogue, the acerbic wit and the name-dropping references to celebrities in the 1930s.  I appeared as Mr. Stanley in a stage production of the play at Chamberlayne Actors Theatre in 1993.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies shows the film at least once every December.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

I first saw this movie in April 1974 not on a television but on a large screen in an auditorium at the University of Virginia, which was hosting a festival of Frank Capra films, at which the great director himself was present.  After the screening, I attended a small reception on the Lawn (in the rooms that once housed Edgar Allan Poe) and had the chance to meet Mr. Capra and ask him several questions about his many wonderful films.

To my mind, It’s a Wonderful Life is not only the best Christmas film and the best of Capra’s many classic comedies, but I think it is one of the best films ever made.  Serious film critics would probably scorn this opinion.  I know my film professor at UVA did, but I believe it has the best structured script, the finest range of acting from the top stars to the smallest character actors, and some of the best editing and camera work to be seen in any film.  Yes, it is a sentimental story, but it is not a simplistic or simple-minded one.  There are many dark elements (as there are in many of Capra’s films), but he can be honestly optimistic about the enduring values of faith, family and friendship that enable us to survive life’s shadows.

I never tire of watching this film and always see some new element in it on my annual re-viewing.  This time, perhaps because I saw it on a large 4K television, I noticed how intricately decorated each set was.  From Gower’s drug store to Potter’s office to the Building & Loan to the Bailey Boarding House to the home at 320 Sycamore, every set is decorated with hundreds of objects that give deep visual realism to each scene.  Similarly I can’t think of any film that has a broader or deeper range of superb character actors, several of whom Capra had worked with for more than a decade. They provide a similar level of realism and community to this wonderful film, captured especially in that joyous final scene where they all crowd into the Bailey living room on Christmas Eve.

PLOT SUMMARY

Believing his life has been a frustrating waste, George Bailey contemplates suicide, but an intervening angel helps him see how his life had changed the lives of all of his family and friends and indeed his whole town for the better, so he comes to realize that he has had a wonderful life.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

The central action of the film occurs on Christmas Eve and ends with a joyous resurrection around the family Christmas tree.

CHARACTER ACTORS

This is will be the longest list yet with links to nearly every film on our Christmas cinema garland.

Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy) is perhaps my favorite character actor of all, who unfortunately appears only in this one Christmas film.  He had worked with Capra before in Lost Horizon (1937)and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  In 1939 alone Mitchell appeared in four other all-time classics:  Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Look for him in a fine early screwball comedy, Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and in the classic western High Noon (1952). His last film was also Capra’s last — Pocketful of MIracles (1961).

Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) appeared in the earlier Capra film You Can’t Take It With You (1938).  Barrymore’s best known classics are Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933),but I particularly like his role in Saratoga (1937) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.  He was originally slated to star in MGM’s A Christmas Carol (1938), but health problems prevented him from appearing, so the role as Scrooge went to Reginald Owen.

Henry Travers (Clarence) appeared in some wonderful films, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), High Sierra (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941).

Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey) has already been seen as a warm, loving mother in Remember the Night (1939).

Frank Faylen (Ernie) had appeared with Jimmy Stewart twice before, in an off-beat screwball comedy with a similar name — It’s a Wonderful World (1939) — and  No Time for Comedy (1940). He also had roles in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Grapes of Wrath (1940).  At the end of  Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Faylen plays the sergeant who asks George M. Cohan “don’t you know the words, old-timer” to the song “Over There”?  Faylen had an extended TV role as the father, Herbert T. Gillis, in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63).

Ward Bond (Bert) is another of my favorite character actors with a wide range.  He appeared as the bus driver in Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). He also had roles in After the Thin Man (1936), Topper (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1941). He became a frequent member of the John Ford stock company, appearing in My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), Mister Roberts (1955) and The Searchers (1956).

Gloria Grahame (Violet Biggs) had roles in Song of the Thin Man (1947), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and the late film noir classic,The Big Heat (1953).

H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower) frequently appeared in Capra films, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He was a major stare in silent films and appropriately appeared as a member of the “wax works” in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright) was seen previously in Bachelor Mother.

Todd Karns (Harry Bailey) was seen previously in Good Sam.

Samuel Hinds (Pa Bailey) also appeared for Capra in You Can’t Take It with You (1938).

Mary Treen (Tilly) appeared in films such as Kitty Foyle (1940) and Bundle of Joy (1956). She had an extended TV role as Hilda on The Joey Bishop Show (1962-65)

Sarah Edwards (Mrs. Hatch) has been seen in two previous films: The Bishop’s Wife and The Shop Around the Corner.

Lillian Randolph (Annie) had a small role in The Palm Beach Story (1942) directed by Preston Sturges.

William Edmunds (Martini) has been seen in The Shop Around the Corner and Double Dynamite.

Sheldon Leonard (Nick) was better known as a producer and director than as an actor, but he had roles in Another Thin Man (1939), Guys and Dolls (1955) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961).

Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu) appeared in another Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife.

Charles Lane (real estate salesman) was previously seen in It Happened of Fifth Avenue.  He appeared in many classic films, such as Twentieth Century (1934), Ball of Fire  (1941), He appeared for Capra many times, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Arsenic and Old Lace.  He also had extended roles on TV shows such as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Petticoat Junction, where he played the nemesis Homer Bedloe.

Robert J. Anderson (young George Bailey) also appeared in the Christmas classic The Bishop’s Wife.

Edward Keane (Tom in the Savings & Loan) was seen previously in Meet John Doe (1941). He also appeared for Capra in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

Frank Hagney (Potter’s Body Guard) had many film roles, including the comic policeman in On the Town (1949).

Ellen Corby (Ms. Davis) was seen in All Mine to Give.

Charles Halton (Carter, the bank examiner) was seen as the detective in The Shop Around the Corner.

J. Farrell MacDonald (man whose tree was hit by George’s car) was seen previously in Meet John Doe, Christmas Eve and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Almira Sessions (Potter’s secretary) was seen previously in Good Sam and The Bishop’s Wife.

Carl  Switzer (jealous dance partner) is best known for his role as Alfalfa in the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedy shorts.

Charlie Wilson (Charlie) was seen previously in Meet John Doe.  He worked for Capra in It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). His other classic film credits include The Kennel Murder Case (1933), Footlight Parade (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933.

Cy Schindell (Nick’s bouncer) appeared in films such as The Talk of the Town (1942), Woman of the Year (1942) and You Can’t Take It with You (1938).

Dick Elliott (man on porch) was seen previously in Christmas in Connecticut.

Harry Holman (high school principal) was seen previously in Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), playing the mayor. He also appeared for Capra in  American Madness (1932), which bears a certain resemblance to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Stanley Andrews (Mr. Welch) was seen previously in Meet John Doe (1941) and worked for Capra in You Can’t Take It with You (1938)and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He also had roles in The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).

Al Bridge (sheriff) was seen previously in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1943).  He appeared in such classic as A Night at the Opera (1935), The Awful Truth (1937) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Talk of the Town (1942).  He was a frequent member of the Preston Sturges stock company, appearing in  The Lady Eve (1941), Christmas in July (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Great Moment (1944), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949),

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Frank Faylen appeared with Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

Frank Hagney appeared with Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

I would double the size of this post were I to detail all of the reasons I love this movie, so let me name just two: the snow and the staircase finial.

I asked Mr. Capra when I met him 44 years ago how he managed such wonderful snow, especially in the scene on the bridge.  He told me that he mixed Ivory Snow laundry detergent with corn flakes painted white, which provided an appropriate crunch.  I still think it is the best snow in any film I have ever seen.

The staircase finial that comes off in George Bailey’s hand is a masterful touch, symbolizing the narrative track of the film.  The first time it is a minor annoyance. The second time, when George comes home facing disaster, he nearly throws it across the room in frustrated anger.  The third time, after realizing that his has been a wonderful life, he kisses it with honest, tearful affection.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

After many years when it was shown dozens of times every Christmas on numerous TV stations because the copyright had lapsed, now that the copyright has been renewed it is shown only on Christmas Eve on NBC.

Bundle of Joy (1956)

This is probably the worst film that we have seen so far.  A musical re-make of Bachelor Mother, it is not as thoroughly unwatchable as All Mine to Give, but it is painful to see how everyone involved in this mess mangled such as marvelous little film as Bachelor Mother.

I feared that this would be the case, which is why we haven’t watched Bundle of Joy until this year, when we had more spaces to fill on our holiday film schedule because of how early Thanksgiving fell.  It won’t be back on any list, even if Turkey Day were to be moved to November 1.

There is only one reason to watch this film — to learn what NOT to do.  In fact, a side-by-side comparison of some scenes from Bachelor Mother and Bundle of Joy would be very instructive.  And to keep you from having to watch the whole of this musical mess, I have posted the two scene comparisons on YouTube : Scene 1 in the park and Scene 2 with the spoons.

So how did such a wonderful story turn into such a painful travesty?  First, the producers decided to turn the story into a musical to showcase the talents of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, who had been married the year before the film was made.  During the production, Reynolds apparently was in the early stages of her pregnancy that yielded Carrie Fisher.  Speaking of early stages, Debbie Reynolds claimed in her autobiography that director Norman Taurog began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s during the production, which may explain a lot.

Since it was a musical, with five different songs, and the producers were still trying to keep the film close to the standard 90-minute length, much of the original script had to be cut, and what was cut proves devastating to the comedy and to the characterizations.

Fisher and Reynolds just can’t compare to David Niven and Ginger Rogers, though it must be remembered that Reynolds was just 24 when she made this film and had been in the movies for just six years. Rogers, in contrast, was 28 and had been a major star in dozens of pictures  by 1939.

While it may seem trivial, one of the most important omissions is the duck, a mechanical toy duck that not only appears at the beginning of Bachelor Mother but becomes a running gag and eventually a significant plot element at two stages in the film.  But in Bundle of Joy the duck is cut, probably for the musical numbers.  I would rather have the duck.

Though there are some fine character actors in Bundle, they also do not compare with the many fine folks in Bachelor Mother, and the mangled plot and the inattentive direction prevent the minor characters from shining.

PLOT SUMMARY

Department store worker Debbie Reynolds has been fired and while looking for a job sees a baby left on the doorstep of an orphanage, whose staff believe mistakenly that she is the mother. Protesting vehemently that she is not the mother, she rushes back to work but is traced to the department store, where the owner’s son (Eddie Fisher) insists that she admit the child is hers, offering her a job and higher salary to help the “unwed mother.” Reynolds reluctantly agrees and soon grows attached to the baby. Fisher begins falling for Rogers after a New Year’s Eve party, but when his father (Adolphe Menjou) mistakes the baby for his grandson, Fisher denies being the father.  When Menjou threatens to take his “grandson” from Reynolds, she attempts to flee with the child, only to be stopped by Fisher when he realizes that he loves both Reynolds and the baby and proposes marriage.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

It all takes place between the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s Day.

COMPARISON BETWEEN THE TWO VERSIONS

Here are two instructive examples of how to mangle good humor and character.

One of the loveliest scenes in Bachelor Mother is a New Year’s Day lunch between father and son, where the father accuses the son of not revealing that he has fathered the child he has just seen in the park.  There is an extended piece of business through the luncheon where Charles Coburn angrily throws a spoon across the room during his argument with David Niven, and the butler (E.E. Clive), who is out of the room for each spoon toss, is befuddled at the repeated disappearances of the spoon.

In Bundle of Joy, the scene is run with a far faster speed, and as a result the humor is drained from the business.  You will also notice that the butler gets less attention in the re-make.  Pace, patience and focus create the superior humor.

See the spoon scenes side by side on YouTube.

The second instructive scene, actually preceding the spoon episode, occurs in the park, where Niven and Rogers are with the baby on New Year’s Day.  The truncated script of Bundle omits a significant portion of the original where Niven and Rogers boast about their child’s accomplishments to another couple, even though earlier Rogers had denied the child and Niven soon would.  The 1950s had no room for irony, I guess.  Immediately following this, Charles Coburn arrives, having been told in an anonymouse letter that he had a grandson.  His interaction with the child has a quiet poignancy that is completely lacking from the bungled Bundle version. That omission not only eliminates some substance from the grandfather’s character, but it also diminishes the effectiveness of the unspoken reactions from the supposed mother and father.

See the park scenes side by side on YouTube.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Mary Treen (foundling home matron) appeared as Tilly in the Bailey Building & Loan Staff in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Adolphe Menjou (J.B. Merlin) had wonderful roles in The Front Page (1931), Morning Glory (1933), Stage Door (1937)and A Bill of Divorcement (1940).

Tommy Noonan (Freddie Miller) is perhaps best known as Marilyn Monroe’s fiancé in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).  He had a nice small role as the jazz musician friend of Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954)

Nita Talbot ( Mary) was far better known for her TV roles.  She played Delfina on General Hospital (1981-82), made repeated appearances as Marya in Hogan’s Heroes (1966-71) and appeared on the short-lived Debby Reynolds Show (1969).

Howard McNear (Mr. Appleby with the orphanage) is best known as Floyd the barber in The Andy Griffith Show (1961-67).

Edward Brophy (dance contest judge) was previously seen in The Thin Man and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.  He will be seen next in Larceny, Inc. (1942).

Melville Cooper (Adams, the butler) had many wonderful roles in the 1930s and early 1940s, including The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941).

Una Merkel ( Mrs. Dugan, the landlady) had roles in such classics as 42nd Street (1933), Broadway Melody of 1936 and Saratoga (1937).

Gil Stratton (Mike Clancy) appeared as Cooky in Stalag 17 (1953) and in the Ginger Rogers-Cary Grant comedy Monkey Business (1952).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Adolphe Menjou (J.B. Merlin) appeared with Fred Astaire in the film You Were Never Lovelier (1942).  Astaire mentions in his autobiography, Steps in Time, that he first met Menjou in 1925 when Fred and Adele were appearing at the Trocadero night club at 52nd St. and Seventh Avenue, just east of Broadway:

My first meeting with Adolphe Menjou came about at the club one night. He said, “Where did you get that suit? I like it.” He was referring to my tails, and I was pleased because Adolphe was noted as a dresser. I had not worn full dress much at that stage. My rash of tails started in the movies — years later.  (Steps in Time, p. 132)

This one of the few times that Fred and Adele did pure ballroom dancing.  They performed late nights after the curtain came down on their smash hit Lady, Be Good, their first show with the Gershwins, which was staged at the Liberty Theatre on 42nd Street.  They made $5,000 per week for the club appearance.

Here’s an advertisement that ran in the New Yorker magazine on May 2, 1925, for their Trocadero appearance:

The building had been several different night clubs during Prohibition.  Today the building is home to Rosie O’Grady’s.  The Trocadero would have been in the basement.

Melville Cooper  appeared with Fred Astaire in the film  Let’s Dance (1950).

Norman Taurog directed Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940.

Debbie Reynolds worked with Astaire in Three Little Words (1950) and in his second non-musical film, The Pleasure of His Company (1961).  [The first was On the Beach (1959).]

WHY WE LOVE  HATE THIS MOVIE

A wonderful story is ruined by poor direction, script cuts, and weak acting.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies shows this film nearly every December.  Skip it, unless you want to see how NOT to make a good movie.

Larceny, Inc. (1942)

We had only seen a few snippets of this oddly funny film on Turner Classic Movies in the past, and we weren’t even sure of its Christmas connection, but now it will most surely be on next year’s list.  Edward G. Robinson dressed as Santa Claus while smoking a large cigar is worth the price of admission! The whole film plays off the stereotyped gangster characters that Robinson and others in the cast had developed for years in previous films.

PLOT SUMMARY

After being turned down for a loan, three con-men decide to rob the bank by buying a neighboring luggage store and digging into the vault.  But their legitimate cover becomes of greater interest, and they decide to go straight until their past starts to catch up with them.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

It doesn’t look like a Christmas movie until the final scenes, when the bank heist conflicts with busy Christmas luggage sales, and the now honest crooks try to use Santa Claus  to delay the efforts of another set of violent thieves.  The story culminates on Christmas Eve, which is why one of the alternative titles for the film when it was released was “The Night before Christmas,” which was also the title of the play on which the film was based.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Jane Wyman (Denny Costello) early in her career played one of the socialites in My Man Godfrey (1936) and then moved beyond bit parts with films such as  The Lost Weekend (1945), Night and Day (1946) and Stage Fright (1950).  On TV in the 1980s she had an extended role as Angela Channing on Falcon Crest.

Broderick Crawford (Jug Martin) followed small parts such as this with starring roles in All the King’s Men (1949), Born Yesterday (1950) and TV’s Highway Patrol (1955-59).

Jack Carson (Jeff Randolph) had a remarkably long and varied career with films such as Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Having Wonderful Time (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Lucky Partners (1941), Love Crazy (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

Edward Brophy (Weepy Davis) has been seen in The Thin Man, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and Bundle of Joy.

Anthony Quinn (Leo Dexter) began his career with small roles in Blood and Sand (1941), The Black Swan (1942) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and then moved to major roles in Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Zorba the Greek (1964). If you have never seen Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), you will be amazed at the wonderful performance that Quinn gives in that film.

Harry Davenport (Homer Bigelow) has already been seen briefly in Meet John Doe (1940).  His varied roles have come in such films as You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Too Many Husbands (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Lucky Partners (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. His most famous role is as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind (1939).

John Qualen (Sam Bachrach) also had a long and varied career with roles in  Nothing Sacred (1937), The Mad Miss Manton (1938), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Casablanca (1942) and The Searchers (1956).

Grant Mitchell (Mr. Aspinwall) has been seen previously in The Man Who Came to Dinner and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

Jackie Gleason (Hobart the soda jerk) is so amazingly young in this film.  Of course, he is best known for TV’s The Honeymooners and later films such as Smoky and the Bandit and The Hustler.

Fortunio Bonanova (Anton Copoulos) has a small, nearly silent role in this film.  His resume is also long and varied, including Citizen Kane (1941), The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), The Black Swan (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Going My Way (1944) and Double Indemnity (1944).

Chester Clute (Mr. Buchanan) has been seen previously in Bachelor Mother, Remember the Night and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

Harry Hayden (mission leader) has been seen in Good Sam, O. Henry’s Full House and Double Dynamite.

Fred Kesley (Mr. Bronson) has been seen in O. Henry’s Full House, Christmas in Connecticut, Never Say Goodbye and The Man Who Came to Dinner.

William Hopper (traffic policeman) is, of course, best known for his extended role as detective Paul Drake in Perry Mason.  He had roles as a reporter in such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  His mother was the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and his father was a top-notch Broadway and vaudeville actor, DeWolf Hopper.

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Broderick Crawford’s connection with the Astaires comes through his parents.  His mother was Helen Broderick, who co-starred with the Astaires in The Band Wagon on Broadway and in the films Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). Helen and her husband, Lester Crawford, appeared on vaudeville stages with Fred and Adele in 1915 (Baltimore) and 1917 (Brooklyn).

Jack Carson appeared with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937) and Carefree (1938).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

It is certainly not a great film, but it is a solid, funny film with fine comic bits and some wonderful surprises.  Its being set in Manhattan with scenes of subway construction also added to its appeal.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will next show the film on March 30, 2019, at Noon (ET).