Lydia (1941)

Lydia PosterAfter dedicating her new home for blind children, Lydia MacMillan (Merle Oberon) gets a surprise visit from her former lover Michael Fitzpatrick (Joseph Cotten).  Lydia is an elderly philanthropist who, despite having some grand romances in her lifetime, never married and had children of her own. Instead, she dedicated her life to helping blind children. The reunion soon grows to include her other past loves, Bob Willard (George Reeves) and Frank Andre (Hans Jaray). She hasn’t seen any of them in years and they naturally start reminiscing about their times together.

Michael first met Lydia when she was a young girl living with her wealthy grandmother Sarah (Edna May Oliver). His father was the family’s butler at the time and when Michael, then a recent med school graduate, comes to visit, Sarah gives him a job as the family physician. Lydia likes Michael and gets him to escort her to her first ever formal ball. However, it’s immediately clear to Michael that she really loves football player Bob Willard (George Reeves). Sarah is extremely unimpressed with Bob, but Lydia nearly elopes with him.

After her failed relationship with Bob, Michael heads off to war and Lydia has a chance encounter with a blind child. Seeing the deplorable conditions the child lived in, she was inspired to start a school for blind children. The school is her true passion in life and she’s willing to sacrifice love for it if she has to. However, she does fall in love with Frank, a blind pianist who comes to teach at the school. The only man she comes close to marrying is Richard Mason (Alan Marshal), who she was met to marry one New Year’s Eve, but Lydia is left standing at the altar.

The heartbreak of being left by Frank drives Lydia to accept a proposal from Michael, but she calls it off after the death of her grandmother, preferring to focus on helping blind children instead. All the reminiscing makes Lydia realize that she meant something different to each of the men in her life.

When I decided to write about Lydia today, I didn’t have terribly high expectations for it based on the 6.6 stars it currently has on IMDB. However, I was pleasantly surprised. A little slowly paced, but there were moments that I loved. The movie’s finest moment is when Lydia is reminiscing about walking into her first formal ball and how breathtaking it all was for her. It’s a wonderfully dreamlike sequence that is made even greater when it’s juxtaposed against Michael’s less-rose tinted recollections of the same ball. The story may not be particularly unique, but I liked Merle Oberon and Joseph Cotten enough for it to be worth watching  just for them.

Watch the Birdie (1950)

Watch the Birdie 1950

Rusty Cammeron (Red Skelton) works at his family’s camera shop, but business isn’t going too swimmingly. The bank is coming after them for money they owe, so when a customer comes in and tells Rusty there’s money in taking pictures of famous people and selling them, Rusty convinces the customer to leave his camera so he can use it to go out and try to get some shots. Rusty tries getting footage of Lucia Coraline’s (Arlene Dahl) yacht being christened, but only succeeds in taking an unplanned swim. Lucia rescues him, but the borrowed camera is at the bottom of the lake.

Lucia has a soft spot for Rusty and after hearing his financial woes, she sends some of her employees to his store the next day to buy enough stuff for him to pay off everything he owes.  She also hires him to come shoot footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at the Lucky Vista Housing Project, which she’s an investor in. Rusty’s attempts to film the ceremony are a complete disaster, but he does unwittingly end up getting footage of Lucia’s manager, Grantland Farns (Leon Ames), making plans to sabotage the housing project.

When Rusty screens the footage, the audio and the footage don’t match up, but Grantland wants that footage back before he can get it straightened out. He sends Miss Lucky Vista (Ann Miller) to seduce him and get the film back, and despite her best efforts, he doesn’t fall for her. But Lucia does catch them together and assumes the worst. By now, Rusty and Lucia have fallen in love, so the whole incident is very upsetting to both of them, but they both straighten everything out to reveal the truth about Grandland.

Watch the Birdie is basically a very loose remake of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman. The overall plots aren’t particularly similar, but a number of sequences are lifted straight out of The Cameraman. While Watch the Birdie never even comes close to touching the genius that is The Cameraman, it is good for some laughs. I loved beginning exchange between Rusty and a kid who came into his store and I got a kick out of Red Skelton narrating the opening credits. But, unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. It’s not terrible, it’s just not as good as it could have been.

D.O.A. (1950)

D.O.A. 1950 Poster

When Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) announces he’s taking a quick trip to San Francisco, his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) is nervous about him going alone, but reluctantly agrees to let him go. As soon as he gets to his hotel, Pamela calls to tell him Eugene Phillips has been urgently trying to contact him and refuses to leave a message. Frank also meets Sam Haskell (Jess Kirkpatrick) who invites him to join a party in his hotel room.

The party moves to a nearby bar and when Frank notices his drink tasting strangely, he doesn’t think anything of it. When he wakes up the next morning not feeling well, he goes to a doctor and finds out his drink had been spiked with a lethal poison that has no known antidote. He only has a few days to live and plans to spend it finding out who could have poisoned him and why. Sam is nowhere to be found and the bar they visited is closed. Later, Pamela calls to let him know that Eugene Phillips had suddenly died, the reason for his important call still unknown.

Sensing there may be a connection between his poisoning and Eugene’s death, Frank goes to Eugene’s place in Los Angeles and finds out he had committed suicide. Everybody close to Eugene is acting strangely and nobody knows why he’d want to talk to Frank. Meanwhile, back home, Paula has finally found Eugene’s connection to Frank — Frank had notarized a bill of sale for a purchase of Iridium that Eugene had been involved in. When Frank discovers that Eugene’s death was actually a murder, he suddenly finds himself caught in the dangerous position of knowing too much.

Three words for D.O.A.: essential film noir. D.O.A. is anything but dead on arrival; it has one of those opening scenes that grabs your attention instantly and holds onto it with a tight grip until the last frame. Does it get any more purely film noir than an opening scene of a man staggering into a police station to report his own murder? An extremely intriguing story that is very effective without trying too hard. D.O.A. is everything I want from a good film noir.

More Than a Miracle (1967)

More Than a Miracle PosterSpanish prince Rodrigo Fernandez (Omar Sharif) could have his choice of any princess his mother (Dolores del Rio) wants him to marry, but Rodrigo refuses to have anything to do with them. One day, he meets a magical monk and when Rodrigo explains who his ideal woman is, the monk gives him a sack of flour and a donkey. He is to find a woman who will make him seven dumplings with the flour and the donkey is to take him to her. As he rides along on the donkey, he meets the beautiful peasant Isabella (Sophia Loren). Isabella detests him, but he can’t resist her beauty and convinces her to make him the dumplings.

However, she gives him six dumplings, not seven — she ate the seventh one herself. To teach her a lesson for disobeying her, he plays dead, attracting the attention of the neighbors, then suddenly vanishes. In an attempt to bring him back, Isabella gets some help from some local witches, who create a spell for her. But when Isabella tries to cast the spell, she doesn’t do it right and instead casts a spell that paralyzes him and can only be broken with a magical kiss.

The prince’s guards find Isabella and bring her to the palace to break the spell and even though they have both fallen in love with each other, he still punishes her by sealing her in a barrel and sending her out to sea. That’s not enough to stand between, though, and Isabella is rescued by some children who help her get back to the palace. She gets in by working as a maid, but Rodrigo is under more pressure than ever to get married within seven days and to pick a bride, there will be a competition between the princesses. Rodrigo disguises Isabella as a princess and arranges a dishwashing competition, figuring she’d be a shoo-in to win. But when a rival sabotages Isabella’s plates, Isabella is about ready to end it all when she’s encouraged to make one last attempt to be with her true love.

More Than a Miracle isn’t a particularly noteworthy movie, but I enjoyed it just because it’s very different from the types of movies I typically go for and I was really craving something different today. It’s a cute movie; a pretty standard fairy tale fantasy story with some comedy thrown in for good measure. A pleasant little diversion that’s purely entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It’s certainly not one of the best movies Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif, or Dolores del Rio (who I was pleasantly surprised to see; until now, I don’t think I’d seen anything she made after Flying Down to Rio) ever made, but for what it is, there are far worse ways to spend a little over an hour and a half.

Christmas in July (1940)

Christmas in July If there’s one thing Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) can’t resist, it’s entering a contest. He’s not exactly successful at winning them, but when he enters a big slogan writing contest sponsored by Maxford House Coffee, he figures he’s due to win big. The night the winners are set to be announced on the radio, the results end up being delayed by a stubborn judge. At work the next day, some of Jimmy’s co-workers leave a fake telegram on his desk telling him he’s won and the whole office gets caught up in his excitement. The grand prize is $25,000 so at last Jimmy can afford to marry his girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew) and buy some nice things for his month.

Since Jimmy works for a rival coffee company, when his boss finds out he’s won the Maxford House contest, he promotes Jimmy from being a clerk to working in the advertising department. Before his friends can tell him he hasn’t actually won, Jimmy’s on his way to pick up his check from Maxford House. When Jimmy shows up claiming to be the winner, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn) just assumes the contest judges have kept him out of the loop again and gladly signs the check. Jimmy and Betty go out and buy gifts for everyone in the neighborhood.

When Maxford finds out the judges hadn’t actually picked a winner, he stops payment on the check, sending the head of the department store out to find Jimmy and take back the stuff he bought. Humiliated, Jimmy doesn’t know if he really has what it takes to cut it at his new job because the only reason he had any confidence was because of that contest. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, over at Maxford House, the judges have finally picked a winner — him.

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturges’ more under-appreciated movies. Dick Powell struck a perfect balance of being incredibly heartfelt and sincere without being saccharine. Sincerity without saccharine is exactly what Preston Sturges did best as well. Christmas in July is a wonderful, sharp, fast-paced (67 minutes!) lark. It’s a prime example of how much you can do with a fairly short amount of time.

The Hard Way (1943)

The Hard Way PosterAfter the death of their mother, Helen Chernen (Ida Lupino) does her best to raise her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie). They live in the dismal industrial town of Greenhill, which doesn’t offer many prospects for a bright future. Helen never made it out of Greenhill, but she’s bound and determined for Katie to have a better life. When Katie catches a performance by Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan) and Albert Runkel (Jack Carson) at a vaudeville show, it inspires her to become to go into showbiz herself. Later that night, Katie announces her new ambition to her friends and acts out part of Runkel and Collins’ act, which happens to be witnessed by Runkel and Collins themselves. They’re impressed with her talent and invite her to join the act. Albert is immediately smitten with Katie and they are soon married.

With Katie on the road with Runkel and Collins, Helen tags along to manage Katie’s career and constantly tries to get Katie more time in the act. Eventually, Helen gets Katie her a gig of her own. It’s just a small role initially, but Helen makes sure she gets a promotion by sabotaging the rehearsal of experienced actress Lily Emery (Gladys George). Opening night is a smashing success and opportunities abound for Katie, but when Albert calls to congratulate her, Helen starts trying to drive them apart. It isn’t long before Katie becomes more famous than Albert and when Albert realizes that he can no longer get work on his own without using Katie’s name, he kills himself, sending Katie into an alcohol-fueled downward spiral.

When Katie’s behavior causes a theater producer to find a replacement for her in his show, Helen insists on producing the show herself. One night, Katie runs into Paul, who has moved onto a career as a bandleader. They start seeing each other and Katie is the happiest she has been in years. When they decide to get married, Katie is ultimately left to choose between Paul or Helen.

Not one of the all-time-greats, but The Hard Way is a really strong drama that deserves a bit more recognition. The entire cast absolutely hits it out of the park. Ida Lupino was absolutely glorious as the cold, steely, ruthless Helen.  Joan Leslie is likable and fresh, Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan were great, and Gladys George totally owned her brief role. This is exactly the sort of material director Vincent Sherman excelled at working with. Definitely keep an eye out for The Hard Way; it’s well worth your time.

The Catered Affair (1956)

The Catered Affair Poster

Just as cab driver Tom Hurley (Ernest Borgnine) finally saves enough money to fulfill his longtime dream to own taxi cab, his daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) is engaged to her boyfriend Ralph Halloran (Rod Taylor). Since Jane and Ralph don’t have a lot of money, they decided to get married after Ralph was presented with the opportunity to drive a car across the country so the trip could be their honeymoon. Since they plan on being married a week later, Jane insists the wedding will be a small, simple affair with the guest list very strictly immediate family only.

Tom and his wife Aggie (Bette Davis) try to fulfill her wishes for a small wedding, but Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald) lives with them and if they invited Jack, they’d have to invite a slew of other people. Jack is very upset when he finds out he isn’t invited, and as word of Jane’s impending nuptials spreads to friends and neighbors, everyone questions what the rush is and why they aren’t having a bigger wedding. While Jane comes from a working-class background, Ralph’s family is more well-off and wants them to have a more elaborate wedding. Between all the pressure from others and Aggie’s own regrets over her own rushed wedding, Aggie insists on a bigger wedding, even though it would cost everything in Tom and Aggie everything, including Tom’s opportunity to own that cab.

As they start planning the lavish wedding, unexpected expenses start popping up left and right. First Jane’s matron-of-honor’s husband loses his job and can’t afford a dress. Then Ralph’s mother invites far more many people than she was supposed to. Everything costs way more than Tom expected it to.  As the expenses mount, so does the tension between family members. Eventually things get bad enough for Jane to call the whole thing off and go for the small affair she and Ralph had originally envisioned. In the wake of Jane’s decision, Aggie is faced with the realization that for the first time since they were married, their household will soon just be her and Tom.

The Catered Affair is like the more dramatic counterpoint to Father of the Bride. Wedding plans spiraling out of control isn’t exactly fresh material for movies, television, and plays, but The Catered Affair is still a rock solid, nuanced drama; a real career highlight for Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds. Despite the done-before premise, the writing is strong enough to easily stand out from the crowd. The cast is phenomenal; Bette Davis is particularly great with her sensitive, restrained performance. With Aggie’s insistence on having a big wedding, it would be really easy for her character to turn into an over-the-top tyrant. Instead, Aggie has a lot of complexities and extremely sympathetic moments. Debbie Reynolds’ performance impressed me since at the time, she was mostly doing more fluffy, lighthearted material, but she held her own quite nicely with the likes of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.