Tuesday, June 20, 2017

PARDON US (1931)

(Post 5 of 20)

 Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel in the prison classrom
in Pardon Us

The only film the 1001 book lists starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is Sons of the Desert. I felt since I was doing films from the 1930's, I'd look at one more old favorite. 1931's Pardon Us

The team had already became famous by the release of this time through their silent shorts and talkie shorts, but the Hal Roach studios were beginning to branch out into full length films in 1931 and Pardon Us was their first. Full length being a relative term since the film runs 68 minutes. I'm assuming Pardon Us is sort of a parody of the popular prison pictures of the day such as The Big House and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. The boys get thrown in prison trying to sell beer to a cop (Prohibition is still with us in 1931). They get thrown in jail. Stan has a loose tooth that keeps squeaking and makes it sound like he is giving someone the raspberry every time he talks. They meet up with a tough prisoner named Tiger who is planning a jail break. After the jail break, they end up hiding with some black field workers (using  black face of course) until they run into the warden and Stan's tooth gives him away and they are thrown back in jail. The recaptured Tiger and his crew plan another jailbreak which Stan inadvertently foils by shooting off a smuggled machine gun. After a wild prison revolt is squashed, the boys are released.

There are lots of funny bits in this film for fans of the duo. The classroom scene with teacher James Finlayson is my favorite. The constant problems with Stan's whistling tooth are usually pretty funny including a strange trip to the prison dentist! The blackface scenes may be a little uncomfortable for modern audiences, but does include a nice song from Oliver (Ollie had a nice singing voice) and an accompanying dance from Stan (Stan had some moves).

I'm glad they showed Laurel and Hardy films on television during the time I grew up. You won't see them on much anymore, but thanks to the glory of YouTube, you can relive a lot of them there.  
And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to..(tie) James Finlayson/June Marlowe
Anyone who is a big Laurel and Hardy fan probably knows the name of James Finlayson. He played the comic foil against the lads in many of their best films (The Music Box, Big Business). He was sort of to Laurel and Hardy what Margaret Dumont was to the Marx Brothers. Fin could squint and scowl with the best of them. A modern frame of reference is that Don Castellana had said the inspiration for Homer Simpson's catchpharase "D'oh" comes from Finlayson using the same expression of irritation in many a picture.

Finlayson plays the prison school teacher who just can't seem to get his students to do what he'd like them to do in Pardon Us in what I think is the funniest scene in the film. 

 James Finlayson as the exasperated teacher
in Pardon Us

 Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and James Finlayson
in the short Big Business

Speaking of school teachers...June Marlowe has a small role as the warden's daughter in Pardon Us. She is featured in the finale of the film where she has to be rescued from a burning building by Stan and Ollie during the film's climax. Unlike a lot of my Elisha Cook winners, June had a pretty short film career, ending in 1932 when she wasn't even thirty years old yet. I include her here for here work in six short films she made from 1930-1932 for  Hal Roach Studios as the pretty teacher named Miss Crabtree (Even prettier than Miss McGillicutty!) in the Our Gang/Little Rascals series. She was always the object of the affection of Jackie Cooper (and sometimes Chubby) in these shorts. This brief period of films was really the high point of The Little Rascal film series and here's to you June and every teacher that any student ever had a crush on!

 The brunette June Marlowe as the warden's daughter
in Pardon Us

Blonde June Marlowe as Miss Crabtree in one of her
Our Gang shorts as Jackie Cooper, Mary Ann Jackson
and Chubby Chaney look on

Thursday, June 15, 2017


(Post 4 of 20)

 Paul Muni eyes the other convicts in
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Robert Burns's book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, about his escape from a chain gang and subsequent success story and exposé of the brutal prison system has it's antecedents in Victor Hugo's classic book Les Miserables, the story of the imprisonment of an innocent man. The movie based on Burn's book, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, is the story of James Allen (played by Paul Muni) and his unfortunate plight. The film is one of the several prison/crime dramas that Warner Brothers released during the 30's and deals successfully with several separate issues: Life struggles that can come after military service,  pursuing the American dream, the injustices of the penal system, and how an innocent man can be a victim of a flawed justice system. The influence of this film is also unmistakable in Preston Sturges classic comedy, Sullivan's Travels. We can also see the influence of Chain Gang in later films such as O Brother Where Art Thou, Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. 

My favorite line in the movie is James's exchange with a barber after he he almost gets caught by the authorities after his shave and haircut.
Barber: How was it. close enough? (Referring to his shave)
James: Plenty! (Not referring to his shave)

Censorship alert: I was surprised when a character uses the abbreviation S. O. L. Can you say shit in a pre-Hays censorship code film even in abbreviation? There's also a scene where James is clearly being serviced in a brothel. You go, 1932!

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Glenda Farrell
Saucy, sharp-tongued second rung Hollywood leading lady Glenda Farrell is best know to me from The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), where she played the fast talking reporter who uncovers the goings on in the forerunner to the more famous House of Wax film. She later played the same type of character in the 30's and 40's film series Torchy Blane. Her most famous role might be as Olga in Little Caesar.

Paul Muni prefers his book on Civil Engineering to the charms of Glenda Farrell
in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Glenda plays the defacto leading lady in Chain Gang, but she isn't the fun loving likable dame here she often played. She's an opportunistic tart who takes advantage of James Allen at every turn in this film and is most unsympathetic.

Later in her career, Ms. Farrell, made a lot of television appearances, including a guest role on The Fugitive in 1963, bringing our "escaped prisoner on the run" theme full circle.

Glenda Farrell in The Mystery of the Wax Museum

Saturday, June 10, 2017


(Post 3 of 20) 

Mickey and Judy perform in Babes in Arms

Hey, gang! Let's Put on a Show!

Babes in Arms is the most famous and most popular of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films.  The story is basically Mickey (also his character's name) putting on a show with his girl Judy in order to prove that show biz is a viable career option. It is a funny thing for him to have to prove to his folks since his parents are also in the business... but there you have it.

The film is pure escapism. If you aren't willing to step into it's "let's put on a show" mentality, you probably aren't going to get into it. It has loads of fun songs (The title track, Good Morning ) and an awful lot of frantic energy from Mr. Rooney. I am keeping in mind that this was the year that World War II was on the horizon and what people really wanted to see was escapist fare like Babes in Arms. It 's still fun to watch Babes in Arms today for a movie history fan.There is a minstrel scene (Judy Garland in blackface is more than a little weird) that is a bit uncomfortable to sit through by modern standards.

Margaret Hamilton (center) lays down the law to Guy Kibee
in Babes in Arms
And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Margaret Hamilton. Hamilton is best known as The Wicked Witch/Elmira Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. It is funny seeing her again as an uptight spinster (did she ever play anything else?) trying to get those wild show biz kids away from their irresponsible parents and on the road to being accountants or pediatricians. Hamilton made many appearances in films over the years (Angels Wash Their Faces, My Little Chickadee) and television (The Partridge Family, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood!). She also had a hilarious turn in Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud where she finally gets the ruby slippers back! However, during the seventies, she achieved a new level of fame in commercials as Cora, the shopkeeper who will sell no coffee in her store except for Maxwell House.

Margaret Hamilton in one of her many commercials
as Cora, the Queen of Maxwell House

Monday, June 5, 2017


(Post 2 of 20) 

Gary Cooper and Ann Harding feel the love in Peter Ibbetson

Peter Ibbetson, the story of two lovers who come together against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, has been adapted into a silent movie, a television production and even an opera! The most famous production of the story is this 1935 Paramount screen version with Gary Cooper. The spiritual aspect of true love may be the main reason to watch this today. Cooper's Ibbetson falls in love with Mary (Ann Harding) as a child and then they are separated. They never get over each other and when they are finally reunited, Mary is well off and married to a Duke. But this love is not to be denied! They plan to run off together, but the duke confronts him before Ibbetson kills him in self defense. As you might expect, self defense isn't a good plea when you kill a duke and Peter goes to jail. Space can't separate the lovers, even while Ibbetson is locked away. Eventually death comes to them and they are finally reunited.

It's easy to put this one in the heavy handed category...but I liked what they were trying to do here. It's an unapologetic romance. I'm not too sure this would make my 1001 list, but if I were making a list of unapoletic romatic movies, it would be right up there right behind An Affair to Remember.

And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Donald Meek
The appropriately named Meek played a number of meek (for lack of a better choice of words) roles. An aspiring inventor in You Can't Take it With You, a doctor in Captain Blood and perhaps most famously as whiskey drummer Samuel Peacock in John Ford's Stagecoach. His small role as Gary Cooper's boss in Peter Ibbetson is a little different than the others. He is a character with backbone and conviction as opposed to a milquetoast that is played mostly for laughs. Meek, who was actually Scottish by birth, appeared in over a hundred movies during his career. He died in 1946 at the age of 68.

The Meek may not quite inherit the earth
in Peter Ibbetson, but sometimes they
can at least be compassionate 

 One of the most rootin' tootin'ensemble casts ever rustled up on 
the big screen listen to the words of whiskey drummer 
Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) in Stagecoach

Thursday, June 1, 2017


(Post 1 of 20)

Greta Garbo and those marvelous cheekbones
in Queen Christina
I still have a few more  1930's Hollywood films from the 1001 list and a few others I've wanted to see thrown in for good measure) for me to go through. And since this was such a golden era for supporting players, I will give my Elisha Cook Jr. award for supporting players for each movie mostly because I enjoy doing it.

The 1001 book puts three Greta Garbo movies on the must see list. Ninotchka, the classic comedy from 1939, Camille, the romance novel come to life from 1936 and Queen Christina, the historical drama from 1933. Here Garbo plays the 17th century Swedish queen...who I have to admit reminds me of latter day Disney heroines in that she wants to escape from that provincial life like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, wants to escape the trappings of royalty like Jasmine in Aladdin and feels the need to pose as a man like the title character in Mulan. Christina does escape the castle and pose as a man, though it's a bit of a stretch to think that everyone can't tell that the exquisite Garbo is really a woman just because she wears a big hat. If you like Garbo, historical dramas, or  pre-code talkies in general, you might find Queen Christina to your liking. 

Censor alert: There is a scene with Christina and her lover in bed together which I'm sure would never have passed muster if the film had been released the next year after the restrictive Hays Code limiting what was appropriate to be shown in films was implemented.

The austere Lewis Stone counsels Garbo
in Queen Christina
And the Elisha Cook Jr. supporting player award goes to...Lewis Stone. Stone seemed to play mostly serious, dignified roles in the few films I've seen him in. He went on to play the judge in the Andy Hardy film series years after Queen Christina. The film I remember him most was called The Man Who Cried Wolf, a movie I saw forty years ago on television...but I believe I can still recount the plot of that one without using my Wikipedia crutch. Stone plays a ne'er do well who keeps confessing to the police about being guilty of crimes he committed. He has nothing to do with these crimes and the police always find out and let him go. Little does anyone know, Stone is setting up that he is about to commit an actual murder. After the deed is done, no one believes him after he confesses (as he knew they would) and  is set free. Another man is accused of the crime and is about to be sent to prison before Stone is overcome with guilt and convinces the authorities that he did indeed perpetrate the crime and is eventually sent to prison himself. I'm not sure if I recounted the plot exactly. I could check it, but I'll just stick with my own memory of it for now.

My copy of Life 
featuring Garbo on the cover