Alan Hale

Janie (1944)

Janie 1944 PosterHortonville is a small, quiet town and that’s the way Charles Conway (Edward Arnold) likes it.  His hands are full enough with running a newspaper and trying to handle his teenage daughter Janie (Joyce Reynolds).  Charles just can’t make sense of all the modern slang he hears Janie and her friends using and doesn’t approve of the things she likes to go out and do with her friends.

But Hortonville gets turned upside down when the Army opens a base nearby.  Charles is horrified and writes an editorial about how all those soldiers are bound to distract all the teenage girls in town.  When Janie meets Private First Class Dick Lawrence (Robert Hutton), son of her mother Lucille’s (Ann Harding) friend, it’s love at first sight.  She gladly throws her boyfriend Scooper (Richard Erdman) aside for the more sophisticated soldier, but if Scooper can’t have Janie, he doesn’t want anyone else.

When her parents go out for a night, Janie plans to have Dick come over for a nice, quiet evening at her house.  Her friends, however, throw a wrench into her plans when they show up with their soldier boyfriends because they have no other place to go.  Not only that, Janie’s little sister Elsbeth (Clare Foley) keeps getting in the way so Janie gets Dick to escort Elsbeth to her grandmother’s house by bus.  While he’s gone, Scooper tries to sabotage Janie and Dick’s date by calling up the army base and telling them to send all the soldiers to Janie’s house for a party.  Luckily for Janie, April (Hattie McDaniel), the family’s maid, loves the soldiers and is happy to make hot dogs for all the guests.  Janie’s friends call all the girls they know and before she knows it, it turns into the biggest party Hortonville has ever seen.

Janie is nothing amazing, but it’s a very fun little movie.  I really liked how energetic the movie is; the party scenes had me wanting to get a hot dog from April and to join the conga line.  Janie is very much a product of its time, but I found it interesting to see a movie that is so much about teen life during that era.  The whole story of a party getting out of hand while a teen’s parents are away has been done in movies many times over the years, but Janie has got to be the most patriotic version of that story ever made. It’s a very pleasant comedy that deserves a little more recognition than it gets.

Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931)

Born out of wedlock to a mother who died in childbirth, Helga (Greta Garbo) is left to be raised by her strict uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). When Karl tries to force Helga into marrying Jeb Mondstrom (Alan Hale), she runs away in the middle of a thunderstorm.  She makes her way to a house where architect Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) is staying.  Rodney invites her in, gives her something dry to wear, and lets her stay with him for the night.

The next day, Helga repays Rodney’s kindness by making breakfast for him before continuing to run away.  But Rodney really likes her and persuades her to stay with him.  They fall madly in love with each other, Rodney even proposes to her, but then Karl and Jeb track her down and she has to leave town immediately.  She hops the next train out, which happens to be a train full of circus performers. Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham), the tattooed lady, sympathizes with Helga’s plight and helps her get a job with the circus as a dancer.

Helga changes her name to Susan Lenox and keeps in touch with Rodney, hoping to meet with him again. But when Karl and Jeb track her down, she has to start having an affair with the circus’ owner in exchange for helping her hide from them.  Eventually, Susan and Rodney are reunited, but their happiness is short lived. Rodney finds out about Susan and the circus owner, but he doesn’t understand why she’s done it and leaves her.

A heartbroken Rodney falls into a deep depression while Susan goes from man to man, eventually winding up as the girlfriend of Mike Kelly (Hale Hamilton),a prominent but crooked politician. When Mike and Susan throw a fancy dinner party, Susan makes a point of inviting Rodney for the sole purpose of degrading him in front of all her high society friends.  But in the end, it only makes her realize that she still loves him.  She travels from city to city looking for him, taking any job she can get along the way.  Eventually, she makes her way to South America where she meets up with Rodney again while singing in a bar.  At first, Rodney is too drunk to be open to reconciling the way she wants to. But when he sobers up the next day, he and Susan are finally able to put the past behind them once and for all.

If you like melodrama, you’re in luck because Susan Lenox has got melodrama to spare!  Considering this was an adaptation of a nearly six hundred page book by David Graham Phillips, it’s safe to say that the movie is an extremely condensed version of the story.  The movie could have benefited from a slower pace, but Garbo is fantastic in it.  Even though she and Gable didn’t get along off screen, they worked pretty well together on screen.

Susan Lenox also features some very beautiful, atmospheric cinematography.  Some of the scenes in the beginning of the movie look straight out of a German expressionist film. I’d say this is one of Garbo’s more underrated films.  It’s not in the same league as Queen Christina or Ninotchka, but it is still a pretty enjoyable movie.

Listen, Darling (1938)

After the death of her husband, Dottie Wingate (Mary Astor) is unable to support her children, Pinkie (Judy Garland) and Billie (Scotty Beckett), and is on the verge of marrying banker Arthur Drubbs (Gene Lockhart).  She doesn’t love him and Pinkie and Billie don’t like him at all, but she needs the financial security.  Desperate to stop her mother from making such a big mistake, Pinkie and her boyfriend Buzz (Freddie Bartholomew) come up with a plan to “kidnap” Dottie and Billie in the family camper and take her for a little vacation, hoping the vacation will help her forget about Arthur.

Naturally, Dottie is surprised by this plan, but after a little while, she relaxes and begins to enjoy herself.  However, she still plans to marry Arthur when they get back home.  Buzz and Pinkie want to prove to Dottie that she can do better so they set out to find a more suitable match for her.  As luck would have it, they end up camping near Richard Thurlow (Walter Pidgeon), who just happens to have a lot in common with Dottie’s late husband.  Buzz thinks he’d be perfect for Dottie, and when Richard suddenly leaves the campground, he gets everyone together to follow him.

They manage to find Richard again, but Richard is very annoyed by the kids when Billie gets Richard’s camera (and himself) sprayed by a skunk.  Despite that incident, Richard and Dottie start to fall in love with each other.  The kids don’t know that, though, and think Richard hates them so they keep looking for another man.  They end up meeting J.J. Slattery (Alan Hale), who adores the kids and could very easily support them and Dottie.  But as much as Dottie likes Richard, she can’t share Richard’s love for living on the road because she needs to be settled in one place for the children.  Pinkie overhears her saying this and asks Slattery to adopt her and Billie so Dottie won’t be tied down and can be with Richard.  Of course, Slattery knows he can’t take Dottie’s children, but he sees to it that Dottie and Richard get back together.

Listen, Darling is a nice bit of fluffy entertainment, but nothing great.  By far, the most memorable thing about it is Judy Garland singing “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.”  Despite the first-rate cast, the movie is cute at best.  Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Mary Astor, and Walter Pidgeon have all starred in far more memorable movies.  But it is a pretty good example of the wholesome, family friendly movies that Louis B. Mayer was famous for making.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

One Sunday afternoon, dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney) gets a phone call about a man who urgently needs to have a tooth pulled.  Biff doesn’t typically work on Sundays, but when he finds out the man in question is Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), he’s willing to make an exception.  It’s not because Hugo is a big-shot business man and he thinks having him as a patient would be good for his career.  No, his reasons are much more personal.

About ten years earlier, Biff was studying to become a dentist and was good friends with Hugo.  Back then, all the guys in town would line up to watch Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) as she walked by.  One night, Hugo manages to land a date with Virginia and he asks Biff to come with him because Virginia was bringing her friend Amy (Olivia de Havilland).  Virginia is concerned with being respectable and proper (or at least appearing to be), but her friend Amy is much more forward-thinking and loves to shock people with her modern ideas.  Biff finds Amy rather off-putting and after that night, he puts all his efforts into wooing Virginia.  The two of them spend a memorable day together and Biff asks to see her again, but she can’t see him for a few weeks.

When the day of their date arrives, Biff waits for Virginia in the park, but is in for a surprise when Amy shows up instead.  Even worse, he gets word that earlier that day, Virginia married Hugo.  After talking to her for a while, Biff begins to see something in Amy that he hadn’t seen before and they start seeing each other.  Eventually, they get married and when they run into Virginia one day, she invites them over for dinner.  By then, Hugo’s contracting business has really taken off and he offers Biff a job as Vice President of his company.  However, Hugo is involved in some illegal business practices and really just wants Biff around to take the fall for it.

Biff ends up spending a few years in prison because of Hugo, but while he’s there, he finishes his dentistry program and starts practicing as soon as his sentence is over.  So when Biff gets the call about Hugo needing his tooth pulled, he knows this is his chance to get his revenge.  But when Hugo and Virginia arrive and he sees how miserable they are together, he realizes he’s truly gotten the last laugh.

I’d never even heard of The Strawberry Blonde before today, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it.  It’s funny and pretty endearing for the most part.  James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland were hilarious in this and played off each other so well.  Cagney has charisma to spare here and did such a great job of making Biff sympathetic.  You don’t typically think of Olivia de Havilland as a comedienne, but she made me laugh out loud in this movie.  All she had to do was wink and I was cracking up.  The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Alan Hale, who played Biff’s father.  Rita Hayworth didn’t really have to do very much other than act very proper.  I actually liked Rita the most in her last scene where we get to see how eight years of marriage to Hugo has changed her. Also, you might be surprised to know this was directed by Raoul Walsh.  At the time, he wanted a little change of pace from movies like High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties, and The Strawberry Blonde fit the bill perfectly for that.  Walsh proved he can direct comedy just as well as he can direct gritty noirs or gangster films.

The only thing keeping me from calling The Strawberry Blonde “completely charming” is the fact that the way Biff gets revenge on Hugo is awfully ghoulish.  Hugo certainly deserved to get some kind of punishment for his behavior, but watching him get a tooth yanked with no anesthesia while his wife and former friends laugh with delight just seemed too awful even for him.