Sunday, February 23, 2020

Holy Matrimony

Directed by
John M. Stahl
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a novel by Arnold Bennett
Starring Monty Woolley, Gracie Fields, Laird Cregar, Una O’Connor, Eric Blore
IMDB Entry

Fame is fickle.  Many major stars of the 30s and 40s are virtually unknown today/ This is especially true if they were stars outside the US and only had moderate success over here. Others had US success, but the memory of them is faded away because their films are fading away. Holy Matrimony is a perfect example.

Priam Farll (Monty Woolley) is considered England’s greatest artist, but he has no use for the fame and fortune, so he moves to a small house on the other side of the world to be left alone, accompanied only by his butler Henry Leek (Eric Blore). Farll is summoned to the UK to be knighted, but when they get there, Leek dies of pneumonia, and Farll decides to pose as Leek to avoid the bother.

He quickly realizes this is a mistake, but is unable to convince anyone of his real identity. He’s about to be arrested for disrupting his own funeral, when Alice Chalice (Gracie Fields) spots him. She had been corresponding with Leek with an eye to matrimony, and confirms his identity as Leek, who she has only seen in a photograph of Leek and Farll that didn’t specify who was who. Farll is attracted to Alice’s personality and marries her.

All is well until Leek’s real wife show up. And Farll decides he needs to support Alice better and returns to painting. His art is purchased by the unscrupulous art dealer Clive Oxford (Laird Cregar), who sells them as undiscovered works of Farll. Then things get complicated.

Monty Woolley was a close friend of Cole Porter* and a Broadway director.  He became a major Broadway star playing Sheridan Whiteside in the classic “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and reprised his role for the film version. Here, he plays a similar character, a curmudgeonly man who refuses to compromise.

Gracie Fields, though, was a major star in the UK, primarily as a singer of music hall tunes.  She became a movie star in 1931 with a series of hit films, all of which didn’t make much impression on this side of the pond. Holy Matrimony was her first US film, and was impressive enough for her to make several more. Her Alice is delightfully warm and understanding.

The film is populated by several of the great character actors of the time. Eric Blore made a career of playing butlers and was almost certainly the first people they thought of when the film came up. Una O’Connor, who plays Leek’s wife, was Hollywood’s favorite old biddy, and is most notable as the maid in Bride of Frankenstein. Franklin Pangborn (best known as the bank examiner in The Bank Dick) has a small role as Farll’s cousin and future science fiction icon Whit Bissell plays Leek’s son.

Then there’s Laird Cregar. This movie doesn’t quite let him display the urbane wit he showed in Heaven Can Wait, but he’s an interesting presence.

The movie was successful and the studio gave Fields a contract. Alas, she was unable to duplicate her success and eventually returned to England, where she was a beloved figure. Woolley never duplicated the success of Whiteside, though he continued to act.
*He appeared as himself in the Porter biopic Night and Day

Sunday, February 16, 2020

It Happens Every Thursday

It Happens Every Thursday(1953)
Directed by
Joseph Pevney
Written by Dane Lussier from a novel by Jane S. McIlvaine
Starring Loretta Young, John Forsythe, Frank McHugh, Edgar Buchanan, Jimmy Conlin, Jane Darwell, Willard Waterman, Gladys George, Regis Toomey
IMDB Entry

Even the most obscure film can have some wonderful delights. It Happens Every Thursday is a small, unassuming movie that makes them most of what it had, and which has things that might surprise you.

Jane and Bob MacAvoy (Loretta Young and John Forsythe) are a couple with a young son and a baby on the way. Bob is a newspaper reporter who has dreams of publishing a small-town newspaper. When Jane spots a newspaper up for sale in California, she sees it as a dream come true, and convinced Bob to uproot themselves to buy it.

When they get to California, they realize that the advertisement . . . exaggerated. The circulation figure was inflated by real estate agent Fred Hawley (Frank McHugh), and the photo hides the actual appearance of the rundown building. The paper is operating, with Jake (Edgar Buchanan) and Matthew (Jimmy Conlin) getting it out each week on a press that breaks down regularly.
Jane and Bob decide to stick it out, with various promotions to increase circulation and make money.

The movie is low key* but surprisingly modern in many respects. One fascinating scene is when Jane goes to businessman Myron Trout to sell ad space, where he starts hitting on her. Jane deflects him in a way that is probably familiar even today.

The way Jane’s pregnancy is handled is also different. She is shown clearly pregnant in the opening scenes, but it is not referred to until several minutes of film time later. And while there is a scene where she gives birth,** it is early one and not a centerpiece of the film.

What’s also interesting is that Jane is clearly shown as the one taking charge. She comes up with the ideas, the money, sells the ads, comes up with promotion, and much else. She is the go-getter in the family, which is unusual for the time. And she is by no means perfect, making mistakes but managing to help Bob recover from them.

There is also a subplot about what is clearly supposed to be a bordello, also surprising given the time frame.

The cast is just fine. Loretta Young is charming and lively throughout, while Forsythe is quietly practical. Of course, it’s great to see Edgar Buchanan, playing the same sort of character as he played in Petticoat Junction.  Frank McHugh, a film veteran at the point is fun to see, even if the role doesn’t give him much to do.

The film was Loretta Young’s last. She moved on to television, including hosting her own anthology show. And several of the actors also moved on to television.  John Forsythe starred in Bachelor Father and did both his own show and, eventually Dynasty.  He also was the voice of Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. Jane Darwell, who plays one of the townspeople also switched to TV, but did have one final memorable movie role: the lady feeding the birds in Mary Poppins.

Director Joseph Pevney also moved to TV and directed several of the best Star Trek episodes, including “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Amok Time,” “The Devil in the Dark,” and “Wolf in the Fold.”

While the movie is clearly not a classic, there’s plenty to enjoy.

And, as a personal note, the movie title reminds me of my hometown weekly, which also was published on Thursday.
*It was based on an autobiographical novel, which might explain some of the elements.
*Discretely.  There were the 50s.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (music)

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.
(1968)Howard Kayland (lead vocals), Mark Volman (vocals), Al Nichol (guitars, organ, Jim Pons (bass, vocals, Johnny Barbarta (drums)
Wikipedia Entry

I’m a big fan of concept albums. There’s something very exciting about seeing a group trying to write an entire album of songs with a thematic link. But most concept albums are serious (if not bombastic). One of the few that manages to be funny is The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.

The Turtles were a California-based group that started out performing surf rock. They signed a contract with the small label White Whale records and began to record. Sensing that surf rock was losing popularity, their first album leaned toward protest rock, with three Bob Dylan songs, plus “Eve of Destruction.” Most of the album was made up of covers.

Then the Lovin’ Spoonful came along.  The group was intrigued and wanted to get away from the protests and into lighter, feel-good fare. And, on their third album they hit the jackpot: “Happy Together” was a number one hit.* They then had a number 3 hit with “She’s Rather Be With Me.”

They had hit the big time, but, of course, there were storm clouds. White Whale had no other successful acts. So the pressured the group to put out another hit.

Meanwhile, Howard Kaylan, the group’s front man, was becoming more ambitious. He wanted to write more of the songs** and to get the rest of the band involved in the songwriting. The result was The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands.

The concept was a clever one. The album was ostensibly about various different groups all performing in a battle of the bands.*** So you had the fake groups The Atomic Enchilada, Quad City Ramblers, The Fabulous Dawgs, The Cross Fires.**** The inner gatefold showed these groups – all the Turtles – in different costumes. They ran a gamut of musical styles, from surf music, to R&B, to Bluegrass, to psychedelic rock.
Inner gatefold
Column 1: The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul, The Atomic Enchilada, Howie, Mark, Johnny, Jim & Al
Column 2: Quad City Ramblers, The L.A. Bust '66, The Fabulous Dawgs,
Column 3: The Cross Fires, King Kamanwanalea and the Royal Macadamia Nuts, Nature's Chidren,
Column 4: The Bigg Brothers, Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Firebal, All

In response to White Whale’s pressure to produce a hit, the group wrote a song with the dumbest lyrics they could, a satirical looks at the pop love songs of the day. Of course, as luck would have it, the song, “Elenore,”  was a major hit, making everyone happy.

The record also included “You Showed Me,” a song by the early Byrds that had not been previously recorded. It also made the charts.

One of the slyest jokes was the song “I’m King Kamanawanlea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts),” the title of which came from a risque schoolyard joke of the era.

Despite the two hits, the album only did middling sales. Perhaps the mix of styles was an issue: people who didn’t get the joke were not interested in songs that weren’t in the genre they preferred.

The group did one more album, Turtle Soup, produced by Ray Davies, but that got good press but failed to crack the charts. At that point, the group broke up, though White Whale put out an album of B-sides and whatever could be found in the studio.

Volman and Kaylan (along with drummer Jim Pons*****) joined the Mothers of Invention.****** White Whale, refused to let them use the Turtles name, or even their own, so they were billed as “The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie.” They were featured and given a large part in Zappa’s 200 Motels. As “Flo and Eddie,” they did several moderately successful humorous albums. Eventually, they got the rights to their own names back, but by then Flo and Eddie was too well-established to change.
*Knocking the Beatles out of the #1 spot.
**Their two hits were written by outside songwriters, as were most of their songs on the albums.  Of note was that they recorded at least one song written by Warren Zevon.
***This was a common concept in the 60s, where several local groups would perform one evening, with a prize given to those who the audience liked best (judged by applause at the end). It’s a common plot element of any TV show or movie featuring a rock band, from Josie and the Pussycats to School of Rock.
****An early name of the group.
*****Who later quit music to work for PR with the New York Jets, and designed the logo the team used in the 1980s.
*****One nice irony: on the Mothers’ first album, the liner notes disdainfully quoted a record executive who wanted to make the Mothers as big as the Turtles.