1940s

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.

Marriage is a Private Affair (1944)

Marriage is a Private AffairWhen man-hungry heiress Theo Scofield (Lana Turner) playfully agrees to marry soldier Lt. Tom Cochrane West (John Hodiak), the last thing she expects is for him to actually taker her up on the offer. They’ve only known each other for three days, but Theo goes through with the wedding anyway, much to the dismay of her mother Irene (Natalie Schafer) and admirer Captain Miles Lancer (James Craig). But it doesn’t take long before Theo begins to question whether or not she’s really meant to be married. She’s used to being pursued by many men and it’s not like she’s grown up with a positive example of what marriage can be. Her mother has been married and divorced several times and Theo is worried that perhaps she’ll inevitably end up following in her mother’s footsteps. Tom is more positive about their marriage; his parents have been married for over 30 years and he idealizes the marriage between his friends Ted (Herbert Rudley) and Sissy (Frances Gifford).

Theo and Tom are married just before Tom is supposed to report for military duty, so they spend their honeymoon trying to get to know each other better. Their plans suddenly change and Tom is sent to take over his father’s optical company. Tom’s friend Joe (Hugh Marlowe) was the head of the company, but his behavior has become too erratic. Theo barely has time to adjust to marriage when she has a baby and then struggles to cope with motherhood.

On her son’s first birthday, she runs into her old admirer Miles, who is now stationed nearby. Frustrated by Tom’s long hours at work and desperate to feel attractive again, Theo goes out to meet Miles that night. When Tom finds out where she is, he’s furious at her for her not being home to celebrate their son’s first birthday. In dire need of some marriage advice, she goes to see Sissy, but is shocked to discover Sissy has been having an affair. After seeing that even someone like Sissy is capable of being unfaithful, Theo wonders if she’s truly a lost cause.

Marriage is a Private Affair probably would have worked better if it had been made in 1934, not 1944. IMDB lists it as a comedy, but it’s really more of a drama with some light moments. With the production codes being enforced in 1944, it would have been very hard to get the OK to produce a movie that could be seen as making fun of adultery. That’s something The Seven Year Itch had problems with over ten years later. In fact, this was originally announced as a project for Myrna Loy and Robert Taylor in 1941, but it faced so many problems with the Hays Office, the project was shelved. When it finally ended up being produced in 1944, the result wasn’t anything spectacular, but it’s still a likable movie. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see a Hays Code era film that depicts a woman seriously questioning whether or not she’s cut out for things like marriage and motherhood.

My Favorite Wife (1940)

My Favorite Wife

Seven years after being lost at sea, Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) legally declared dead and gets re-married to Bianca (Gail Patrick). Just as Nick and Bianca are heading off on their honeymoon together, Ellen arrives back at home. It turns out she had spent the past seven years stuck on a deserted island and finally been rescued. On the trip home, Ellen had time to mentally prepare herself for all the things she expected to change in her absence, but the one thing she hadn’t expected is that Nick may have re-married. When she hears where Nick and Bianca have left for their honeymoon, she goes to see find them.

Obviously, Nick is stunned to see his first wife waiting for him at the hotel. He doesn’t have a clue about how he should explain a situation like this to Bianca, so he does his best to hide it from her, which brings out some very odd behavior. Bianca is considering leaving Nick and wants to get him professional help. But then this situation gets even complicated when Nick gets a visit from an insurance adjuster who informs him that Ellen wasn’t alone on an island all that time, she was there with a man named Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott).

Desperate to assure Nick that nothing happened between her and Stephen on the island, Ellen convinces a bland-looking shoe salesman to pose as Stephen and meet with Nick. However, Nick has already done his homework and knows the real Stephen is far more attractive. Just as Nick finally tries to tell Bianca the truth about what’s been going on, she doesn’t believe him until he is suddenly arrested for bigamy and the whole crazy incident gets dragged into a courtroom.

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne really deserve more credit for being a great on-screen duo. They may not have made as many movies as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or Myrna Loy and William Powell, but The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife alone are amazing enough for me to put them in that league. It might be easy to think of My Favorite Wife as not being particularly original since it went on to be re-made as Move Over, Darling (and almost re-made as Something’s Gotta Give with Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse, and Dean Martin) and Too Many Husbands has a very similar plot, but My Favorite Wife manages to shine just a bit brighter than the others. While Too Many Husbands felt like a one-note movie that got old fast, My Favorite Wife never felt stale. Simply, it’s a fantastically madcap romantic comedy and that’s all it tries to be.

Night and Day (1946)

Night and Day 1946

Before becoming one of the most celebrated songwriters of all time, Cole Porter (Cary Grant) was a law student at Yale. However, Cole simply has no interest in becoming a lawyer; he’d much rather be in the theater department writing songs. Cole is only studying law because his grandfather expects him to and would never approve of him becoming a songwriter. When Cole and his law professor Monty (Monty Woolley) spend Christmas at his grandfather’s estate, Cole meets Linda Lee (Alexis Smith), his cousin’s beautiful roommate.  During the holiday, after receiving a little support from his mother, Cole announces he’s leaving law school to try and make it as a songwriter.

Cole gets to work staging his first show, called “See America First,” with some help from Monty, who has given up teaching to go into the theater. The show is a flop and opening night just happens to be the night the Lusitania sinks. Cole heads over to France to join the French Army and is injured while on duty. As luck would have it, Cole is reunited with Linda when she is his nurse. To boost his morale, she arranges for the hospital to get a piano, inspiring him to write his signature song “Night and Day.” Cole loves Linda, but after he has recovered, he can’t resist the lure of the theater.

Back in America, gets back to work with a newfound vigor and takes the theater world by storm. On a roll of hit shows, Cole goes to England where he meets up with Linda once again. Through it all, Cole had never forgotten her and they are soon married. But their marriage is strained by Cole’s unrelenting drive to work. When his work stands in the way of their vacation one too many times, Linda leaves Cole to go to Europe. But after a number of personal setbacks, Cole keeps on going and is reunited with Linda once again when he returns to Yale for a special tribute.

I love Cary Grant, but as much as I love watching pretty much anything he made, he is woefully out of place in Night and Day. Given that Grant was 42 at the time Night and Day was released, he is laughably unbelievable as college-aged Cole Porter. Granted, we’re told that Cole was hardly a star pupil at Yale Law School, but really now. I also love that Monty Woolley is in this movie for literally no other reason than to be Monty Woolley. It’s true that Monty and Cole did meet at Yale and remained close for years, but he wasn’t his law professor. Of course, the whole movie is very highly fictionalized. By now, I think most people expect Hollywood biopics to take some creative liberties, but still, this is a bit much. Not surprising is the fact that the movie completely whitewashes the fact that Cole Porter was gay. Night and Day‘s only major redeeming factor is that it naturally features many Cole Porter songs, which are always a pleasure to listen to.

Come Live With Me (1941)

Come Live With Me 1941After fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria, Johnny Jones (Hedy Lamarr) comes to America, starts a career as a showgirl, and starts dating book publisher Barton Kendrick (Ian Hunter). But when her passport expires, she continues to stay in America illegally and eventually, the government catches up with her. When an agent comes to see her, he tells her she’ll have to leave the country unless she marries an American citizen. But the real problem is that she can’t even marry Barton, he’s already married. Later that night, she goes out to a restaurant and meets Bill Smith (James Stewart), a writer going through a rough patch and in dire need of money. Since Johnny has money and Bill is an American citizen, she suggests a marriage of convenience: he marries her and she pays him $17.80 a week to be her husband. Bill agrees.

Two months go by and Johnny is happy with the arrangement. She keeps seeing Barton, but he’s clueless about how Johnny solved her citizenship dilemma. At least Johnny is happy with the arrangement until Barton tells her he’s leaving his wife Diana (Verree Teasdale) to marry Johnny. When Johnny tells Bill she wants a divorce, he’s reluctant to agree to it. Not because he wants the money, but he’s become infatuated with Johnny and has started writing a book about his unusual marriage.

When Bill finishes his book, he sends it to several publishers, including Barton. Both Barton and Diana read the book and want to publish it. But during a meeting with Bill, the Kendricks realize what’s really going on. Bill uses the money from his advance to buy a car and take Johnny on a trip before he’ll agree to the divorce. He wants to get to know her better before they divorce and hopes she’ll reconsider. During a visit to Bill’s grandmother’s home, Johnny realizes that maybe Bill is the one she really wants to be with after all.

People getting married for the sake of solving a citizenship problem is hardly a unique plot device for movies or TV shows, but Come Live With Me manages to stand out from the others. Come Live With Me offers enough twists and charm that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching something that’s been done time and time again. Jimmy Stewart and Hedy Lamarr are so likeable together, it’s easy to want them to end up together at the end. It’s all very sweet, gentle, and extremely enjoyable. Come Live With Me is exactly the type of movie I talk about when I call a movie a hidden gem — not exactly well known, but with a great cast, good writing, it’s anything but mediocre.

Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

Angel on my Shoulder

When gangster Eddie Kagle (Paul Muni) is released from prison, his old friend Smiley Williams (Hardie Albright) is waiting to meet him. But Smiley isn’t giving him a ride out of the kindness of his heart, he’s planning to kill Eddie and take over his crime syndicate. Eddie suddenly finds himself in Hell, where he meets Nick (Claude Rains). Nick has been hard at work in Hell trying to make nefarious deeds happen on Earth, but Judge Frederick Parker (also Paul Muni) keeps getting in his way. Nick would love nothing more than to get Judge Parker out of the picture by ruining his campaign for Governor. As luck would have it, Eddie bears a striking resemblance to the Judge and wants to get revenge on Smiley. So Nick makes a deal with Eddie that Eddie take over the Judge’s body and destroy his reputation and in return, Eddie will be allowed to avenge his own death.

Eddie does his best to tarnish the Judge’s reputation, but his efforts completely backfire. Eddie also has the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the Judge’s fiancée Barbara Foster (Anne Baxter) and quickly falls in love with her, which makes him realize the things he’d been missing out on due to his life of crime. Eddie wants to change his ways and when Nick gives him the opportunity to shoot Smiley, Nick doesn’t take it. Instead, he startles Smiley and Smiley accidentally kills himself. No longer willing to cooperate with Nick, Eddie has to go back to Hell. Nick would love to make Eddie’s stay in Hell even more miserable than he originally meant it to be, but is powerless to do so since Eddie knows how incompetent Nick was about this whole incident and could ruin his reputation.

With a cast of Paul Muni, Anne Baxter, and Claude Rains, I had fairly high expectations for Angel on my Shoulder, but it just wasn’t one of my favorites. There were some things I really liked about it, though. The scenes in Hell were awesome; very well produced. And for some reason, I couldn’t help but love the scene where Eddie/the Judge gets into a brawl. The kid saying, “He’s doing jiu-jitsu!” is just one of those little movie moments that I am now inexplicably obsessed with. As for the rest of it, though, I just couldn’t get into it, even though I really wanted to.

Cry Wolf (1947)

Cry Wolf 1947 Poster

When Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck) gets word that Jim, her husband of five months, has passed away, she does what any good wife would do and goes to see his family. But Sandra and Jim’s marriage wasn’t exactly conventional. Their marriage was a secret and they had an arrangement to stay married for six months so he could collect money from his trust fund. Sandra visits Jim’s scientist uncle Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), who is naturally surprised, yet skeptical, to hear his brother had a wife. But until her claims can be proven, she stays at the family home.

The more time Sandra spends with Jim’s family, the more strange behavior she sees.  First of all, Jim’s funeral was closed casket, which is odd considering he allegedly died of pneumonia. When Sandra visit’s Jim’s room, she finds all his sport clothes and pipes are missing. Mark is also disturbingly controlling of Jim’s younger sister, Julie (Geraldine Brooks). He has the family’s servants constantly monitoring Julie, he reads her mail, and he refuses to let her leave the estate. Sandra and Julie quickly become friends and when Julie hears screams coming from Mark’s laboratory, Sandra goes with her to investigate. Although Mark later tries to dismiss Julie’s claims of hearing screams as nothing more than her imagination, Sandra heard the screams too and suspects it may have been Jim’s screams they heard.

For the most part, I liked Cry Wolf. I like movies that keep me guessing and Cry Wolf did just that. It also did a good job of not letting me quite pinpoint Mark’s motives up until the very end. But unfortunately, since I couldn’t fully figure out what type of person Mark was, it made it a little hard for me to be satisfied with the ending. However, I did enjoy seeing Errol Flynn in a role different from the usual swashbuckler/adventure type movies I”m used to seeing him in. He was good, as was Barbara Stanwyck. However, the script isn’t quite strong enough to elevate Cry Wolf from being a good movie to a great movie.

The Clock (1945)

The Clock 1945 Poster

When soldier Joe Allen (Robert Walker) arrives in New York City to start his 48-hour leave, he happens to meet secretary Alice Maybery (Judy Garland) when she trips over his foot and breaks her shoe. After he helps her get her shoe taken care of, Alice and Joe spend the afternoon together, visiting New York landmarks such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Before they part, they make a date to meet later that night underneath the clock at the Astor Hotel.

Back at her apartment, Alice tells her roommate about the soldier she’s just met. While Alice is thrilled about the new man in her life, her roommate cautions her about picking up strange soldiers. But she ignores her roommate’s advice and keeps her date with Joe. They share a wonderful night together that results in them losing track of time and missing the last bus of the night. But with a stroke of luck, they end up catching a ride with milkman Al Henry (James Gleason). The young couple accompanies Al on his milk deliveries, which don’t end until the very early hours of the morning.

As Alice and Joe start their second day together, their minds move towards marriage. They want to be married that very day, before Joe has to go back on duty. However, they fail to account for the time it would take to get the mandatory blood test. But Joe and Alice are nothing if not persistent and they spend the day running around town trying to get their blood test rushed and manage to get it done just in the nick of time. The judge marries them right there in his office. However, the experience feels so rushed that Alice hardly feels like she’s really married. As they leave, they pass by a church where a wedding has just ended and step inside to repeat their vows. This time, it feels more real for Alice and when Joe leaves the next day, they part feeling like a real husband and wife.

Not only was The Clock the only non-musical film Judy Garland made during her time at MGM, it was one of the few movies of her entire career she doesn’t sing in. When it was released in 1945, it wasn’t a hit with audiences because they were disappointed in the lack of singing. It’s too bad audiences were so unwilling to give it a chance at the time, because they missed out on a really sweet story. Judy Garland and Robert Walker had surprisingly good chemistry together and it’s easy to be charmed by them. Lack of singing aside, I can see how some people might be frustrated by this movie, though. A lot of people really like movies to have firmly defined endings and The Clock‘s ending is left quite open. I don’t mind open endings, but part of me wishes there was a sequel to The Clock just because I think a movie about Joe returning from the war and how he and Alice adjust to life as a married couple after their whirlwind courtship could have been just as interesting as The Clock was.

On Gale Sondergaard in “The Letter”

Gale Sondergaard The Letter If I were to make a list of movie characters I would be most afraid to run into in a dark alley, Mrs. Hammond as played by Gale Sondergaard in The Letter would absolutely be on that list. To say Mrs. Hammond carried an imposing aura about her would be an extreme understatement. But what blows me away is how she manages to be so incredibly menacing while not seemingly doing very much. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t slap or punch anyone. Instead, she spends most of her time on screen standing still and glaring. But she stands still and glares more terrifyingly than anyone.

Mrs. Hammond hardly has any lines at all and the few she does have aren’t in English. All of her movements are extremely controlled; even when she’s stabbing Leslie to death.  All of her power comes from her facial expressions and her incredibly tense posture. If anyone ever looked at me the same way Mrs. Hammond looked at Leslie Crosbie, I would be running for my life. I aspire to glare at people half as well as Mrs. Hammond. Stealing scenes from Bette Davis was no easy feat, but Gale Sondergaard did so in a spectacular way.  It’s a brilliant example of how sometimes, things are more unnerving because of the things a person doesn’t do.