Saturday, February 17, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 5 February 2024 - 11 February 2024 (Jean Arthur Week, Part II)

What a "living at the Brattle" week looks like, if you don't remember.

This Week in Tickets
So, yes, as was the plan last week, I did that whole Jean Arthur series, and was kind of amused when I saw a review on Letterboxd for More Than a Secretary that read "Jean Arthur was gay, PERIODT!" because one looks at her biography and wonders if she wasn't somehow queer: One annulled marriage, one that produced no children, intensely private, died in the care of a female longtime friend/companion. More or less finished in Hollywood after her Columbia contract ended, though she'd work on the stage and teach.

And then there are the movies, where The Talk of the Town wasn't the only one that seemed to like a happy polycule was closer to the ideal conclusion than a couple. Obviously, you can't really tell much about an studio-period actor from the movies they're in, because they can't really choose projects, but sometimes it seems like the queer-coding and apparent comfort with it piles up - the best takes with her roommate being better than the best ones with her boyfriend, her biggest movies being the ones with unconventional chemistry.

No way to know, obviously, since if this was the case, she maintained her privacy very well during her life. More likely than not, she just lived a private life, wasn't nearly as romance-focused as the characters she played, and had a roommate when she was older. She definitely made some good movies during her time at Columbia, though, and the post-weekend portion of the Brattle's program got to some of the more offbeat ones: If You Could Only Cook, The Whole Town's Talking, More Than a Secretary, Too Many Husbands, You Can't Take It with You, The More the Merrier, and Adventure in Manhattan.

(Somewhere in there, there was a re-watch of Piranha for Film Rolls, but we'll just maybe link to that when that post is ready actually.)

After that came the Lunar New Year weekend, which is kind of a weird one here because it's big mainstream movies, but few have ever had a trailer, some of them come out day-of and some get picked up by North American distributors and wind up coming out months later, and some just disappear because the Chinese distributor doesn't figure there's enough audience in the USA to care. This year, it's backed up right up against Valentine's Day, too. Some years they take over the Imax screen with something huge like The Wandering Earth, other years, not so much I liked both Table for Six 2 (Friday) and The Movie Emperor (Sunday), but they're not "hey, they've got blockbusters in China too!" things.

(It looks we're missing two big ones - YOLO, from the director of Hi, Mom, and Zhang Yimou's Article 20, which will probably show up later.)

Also on Sunday: The first "Silents, Please!" of the year, the 1924 Peter Pan, which was quite fun. Given the mention of the next one tying to MGM's and Columbia's 100th anniversaries, I wonder if 1924 is going to be the theme for the year. The pandemic really screwed over what could potentially have been a good long celebration of silent centennials!

Sorry this showed up kind of late, but it's kind of a beast, and the next Film Rolls is looking like a beast too. My Letterboxd account continues to update if this is too long between missives.

If You Could Only Cook

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Available to purchase on DVD on Amazon; not steaming elsewhere at this moment

So here's the thing about If You Could Only Cook, in which a self-made millionaire (Herbert Marshall), having given an unemployed woman he meets (Jean Arthur) the impression that he, too, is out of work (rather than taking a week off before his wedding to a woman from a respected family he doesn't particularly love), agrees to pose as her husband so that they can take jobs as a butler & cook, only to discover that they were hired by a gangster: It seldom has the absolute best joke possible in a given situation, and it's got a bunch of set-ups it barely mines, but it rarely stumbles, while also packing everything into 74 minutes and fading to black at the very moment its business is done. This is how comedy B-movies are done. Solid as heck work all around.

Indeed, the filmmakers are often content to run off little more than the chemistry between Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall for long stretches, letting them be pleasant company so that you needn't have reservations about pairing them up despite the deception at the center, while a bunch of nutty folks around them escalate things. Arthur and Marshall play off each other so well that it's pretty easy to believe that Jim and Joan go out on limbs for each other. Meanwhile, we see just enough of Jim's best man cuddling with the bride-to-be to casually dispose of that as an issue, while Leo Carrillo and Lionel Stander are mobsters divorced enough from violent crime to be entertaining goofs.

There's a kind of temptation to let things get completely crazy, as they do during an entertaining final chase, but it's not that movie; as frantic and full of screwball misunderstandings as it is, it's pretty gentle. In some ways, it means that this is a comedy B movie that maybe could have been an A picture with 10 more minutes spent running down all the other things going on, and I'd kind of like to see the movie where they knock down everything they set up.

On the other hand, it works pretty darn well at this scale, and can you imagine remaking it? So much is positively quaint today that you'd have to spend time explaining couples' jobs and the like.

(Fun if surprising fact: F. Hugh Herbert, credited with the story, was not a one-off alias that one might use during the Great Depression! His career spanned 30-plus years!)

The Whole Town's Talking

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime or elsewhere, and to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

The first character we meet in this movie is named Seaver, and he survives to the end despite being kidnapped. Five stars.

Well, not quite, but it is tremendous fun to watch Edward G. Robinson not only spend a lot of the movie playing a sweet little nebbish but, as the word gets out that there is an escaped convict who looks just like him, seemingly have difficulty contorting his face into that of the gangster he sees in the paper. I'm not sure of the extent to which he'd really established his gangster persona at this early point, but it's a kick when the Robinson we know and love does show up. Joan Arthur is a fun foil, giving Miss Clark aggressive but honest-seeming charm that quickly wipes away how she initially comes off as a bullying opportunist.

John Ford directs, and it makes for a snappier movie than the ones with Frank Capra that started this Jean Arthur series, even as he's marshaling scenes that play big or tossing both the gags and the bits that move the story ahead around quickly. The parts with Robinson playing off himself work well, too, especially a couple that must be done with rear protection or quality matte work because the smoke from Killer Mannion's cigar wafts behind Arthur Jones rather than disappearing as it passes a central line.

i do, eventually, get a sense of what's kind of too much at points; the chaotic first half doesn't make a whole lot more sense than the second, when Mannion is setting things in motion, but it's quick and lots of fun.

More Than a Secretary

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Not currently streaming; available to purchase on DVD at Amazon.

It's the old, old story - the co-owner of a secretarial school (Jean Arthur) tries to give the demanding client (George Brent) who has fired a number of girls placed at his magazine a piece of her mind, but is mistaken mistaken for the new hire. He's handsome and charismatic, though, so she takes the job, even as she and her partner have lamented the extent to which their students see their training as a path to matrimony rather than independence.

There is some darn good screwball in here, especially as Arthur's Carol is initially thrown by just how peculiar Fred's healthy lifestyle and the workings of the magazine he uses to spread the gospel thereof are, with Lionel Stander especially fun as Fred's trainer and best buddy (he was also a scene-stealer in If You Could Only Cook and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, just a terrific character actor). The film loses a bit of momentum when the health-magazine goofiness starts to fall by the wayside, because Carol finding the whole thing weird is generally more entertaining than her being part of it. I do want to know what percentage of Dorothea Kent's lines as Maizie are double entendres that just aren't so well known 90 years later; she's a hussy and given that so many of her lines are clear come-ons or ones where you can see where she's going, I suspect the rest are just the same.

It's a slight movie, for sure, and at times feels like it's been cut to the bone to get down to its trim 77-minute running time: If the fact that Jean Arthur's character was actually the owner of the school was supposed to be something she was hiding, it's never brought up, and if the best friends are pairing off, it's just out of sight, a fuzzy piece of the background. But it's cute.

Too Many Husbands

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Not currently streaming; available to purchase on DVD at Amazon.

I wonder what the original stage play of this is like, because it certainly feels like the filmmakers took a look at the premise, saw the jokes, and decided that any attempt to make it go anywhere or say anything with even the slightest bit of weight would be working against their purposes, so they tossed it out. This is actually more than fine; it's 80 minutes of flustered absurdity as Jean Arthur's Vicky tries to figure out what to do now that her missing-presumed-dead first husband Bill (Fred MacMurray) has been rescued from a deserted island and found her married to his best friend and business partner Henry (Melvyn Douglas).

There's maybe the hint of something weightier here in Bill's realization that he took Vicky for granted or Henry's inferiority complex, but then something clicks with Vicky, and the look on Jean Arthur's face she realizes that she can make this work for her is delightful. Her glee at realizing that these two men will fight over her, and not because they see her as a prize but because she's obviously the best thing in their lives - kind of important, that! - seems like a chance for the movie to go in on how these two men have neglected her in different ways, but it's having way too much fun with the banter and bouncing around the apartment to slow down and talk about that.

Screenwriter Claude Binyon could maybe do with making a stronger argument for Melvyn Douglas's Henry; the film is almost all ping-ponging and banter, and while Douglas fills this sort of slot quite well, Fred MacMurray is really good at that sort of comedy, and I suspect that the guy who is quick on the draw is going to do better with audiences on top of the girl. MacMurray seems a lot like Arthur in that he was in a classic or two but didn't have iconic pairings or a body of work that became where he was the best thing in legendary pictures. But even if they didn't achieve places in the canon of their own, you can see why they're stars in movies like this as MacMurray in particular is giving you reason to enjoy it at even the silliest moments.

You Can't Take It with You

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Artthur, DCP)
Available to rent/purchase digitally on Prime and elsewhere, or to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

Can you imagine if the internet had been around in Frank Capra's day? The level of snark at his seemingly facile earnestness, the immediate "let people like things" backlash, the attempt to parse whether he was actually kind of great at directing actors or if he was lucky to have James Stewart in parts calibrated to his strengths? The truth of it is probably somewhere in the middle, but you can picture the shouting over it, right, especially in a movie like this which doesn't always hit.

In it, banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is trying to acquire a group of properties in New York on which he'll build a factory that corners the munitions business; the holdout, "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) barely recognizes the attempt; he and his family and other oddballs he's collected have a sort of creative commune. Unbeknownst to either, Kirby's idler son Tony (Stewart), a do-nothing Vice President has Grandpa's granddaughter Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) for a secretary and girlfriend, and she would like their families to meet.

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would have described the clan of eccentrics in this movie as worse than the banking family, although these days I'd mark the former as just annoying and inconsiderate while the bankers looking to build a monopoly on munitions manufacture are closer to evil. Progress, but, man, do I still get annoyed by all these guys working so hard to be zany. Capra fetishizes his misfits as much as he loves them, so the avalanche of screwiness seems a bit forced.

Some of the situations are pretty entertaining, at least, well-executed free-floating gags. Alice is a perfect fit for Jean Arthur, who throughout this series has been shown as good at being charming and elegant and then peeling that back to show something more brash and playful not far underneath, and that's often the center of her character here. Jimmy Stewart's do-nothing rich kind doesn't deserve her, really, and Stewart is at his best when he's letting the audience see how empty his rebellion is for most of the movie. There's a lot of charm to most of the cast, though, especially Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold: Barrymore runs a sort of brute-force assault to get the audience to see him as sincere, while Arnold convincingly lets his decency get dragged out.

85 years later, I must admit that a big part of what sours it for me is Grandpa's little rant against paying his taxes and how ready he is to abandon the neighborhood he'd told not to worry about selling as soon as things get a bit uncomfortable for him. You don't have to make these movies "balanced", but you should perhaps reckon with Grandpa's happy life coming from a place of privilege, even before getting to the Black servants who keep this little commune fed!

The More the Merrier

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, DCP)
Available to rent/purchase digitally on Prime and elsewhere, or to purchase on DVD at Amazon

I wonder how many more movies like The More the Merrier got made quickly at some point and then sank into relative obscurity because they were so of the moment or local that their inspiration would seem alien just a few years later. Here, that's Washington DC as America enters World War II, beset by a housing crunch where Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) opts to rent out her spare bedroom out of patriotism, not planning on winding up with Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), who arrived a couple days before his hotel room was free, and who subsequently sub-sublets half of his bedroom to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), with the intention of playing matchmaker.

It's a kind of unnerving little premise that requires one find Dingle whimsical and charming rather than, say, dangerously presumptuous about invading a young woman's space, and it's on Arthur and Coburn, and later McCrea, to sell that they can size one another up quickly and see more than irritants, enough so that they can go through bunch of clockwork physical comedy and being flustered because of how they've defaulted to farce rules where something is a secret to be kept rather than something to broach right away, with director George Stevens orchestrating things nicely.

Things really come alive when, after a few tossed-off comments about DC having eight women for every man, what with the draft and all the clerical work, the movie makes a sharp shift from cute to horny, like they shot the scene of everybody sunbathing on the roof and decided that was what the film was missing up to that point. The film is certainly at its most fun during that period, with Connie suddenly tiring of the milquetoast fiancé that one might be forgiven for thinking was a lie and rooms full of women eying JOe appreciatively. Admittedly, Joe needs to be pushed out of the way to really let the movie achieve its ready-to-go potential, but it doesn't really need him at that point any more.

It's kind of screwy for the rest of the time, but cute, with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea a very nice potential pair. They're something of an "inevitable, because they're the young and single characters we see the most" match, but filled with enough charm to make one believe it. Throw in Coburn, and the group has nice screwball energy even as they stop just short of frantic.

The whole thing can make you scratch your head a bit - I'm not sure I've seen this sort of movie so specifically built around so narrow a certain time and place before - but it's certainly genial enough for most of the time to be a charmer.

Adventure in Manhattan

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (Jean Arthur, 35mm)
Available to purchase on DVD at Amazon

Adventure in Manhattan is just about complete nonsense as a mystery, really, the sort that either completely misses that a big part of what makes master detectives and criminals fun is the audience getting to see how the machinery in their brains works or realizes that there is absolutely no way for it to make sense and just pushes through anyway. The film all too often just asserts that these guys are brilliant and has them make random leaps, which keeps the movie moving but doesn't make the hero and villain much more than insufferable.

(The story involves a paper hiring "criminologist" writer George Melville (Joel McCrea) to investigate a series of daring robberies which he believes are the work of a presumed-dead European thief (Reginald Owen), while at the same time he crosses paths with unemployed waif Claire Peyton (Jean Arthur), who turns out to be an actress his fellow reporters have hired to prank him because he's obnoxious as hell and needs to be taken down a peg)

Of course, you don't necessarily need much more than that in a 72-minute movie, especially with Joel McCrea as the too-brilliant sleuth and Jean Arthur as the smitten sidekick. They bring sheer movie-star power to the very silly script and make the time passing pleasant. You might like and want more - a really clever heist, or brilliant detective work that falls into place as Melville explains it - but for movies as disposable as this was intended to be, sometimes you've just got to be satisfied with the vibe, and the vibe from McCrea and Arthur is pretty good.

Peter Pan (1924)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2024 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm with accompaniment)
Available to stream/rent digitally, or to purchase on Blu-ray at Amazon

This is the first official/authorized/known film version (although I wouldn't be shocked if someone had made one earlier), made with the direct input/control from J.M. Barrie, and it turns out to be really darn solid. Betty Bronsan & Mary Brian make a genuinely appealing Peter & Wendy, with Bronsan giving Peter the right sort of chaotic energy and Brian capturing Wendy being on the verge of growing up in a way that makes the end, where Peter can't join her, just the right amount of sad. Ernest Torrence really seems to set the standard for Captain Hook over the next century. Anna May Wong shows up, but, um, let's not get into that too much.

The set designers, art directors, and the like (or whatever they were called in those days) seem to have a field day as well, creating a great-looking Never Never Land that sometimes plays like a really spiffy stage production but also never feels bound by that medium; there's room to do special effects or zoom in to show Virginia Browne Faire's Tinker Bell interacting with oversized props. The pantomime animals have a perfect level of unreality considering this, too, in that their acknowledged artifice allows the audience to accept them rather than look for the flaws, with George Ali performing Nana the dog (and possibly the Croc). It's his only film credit, per IMDB, but he's listed first, making me wonder if he was a well-known specialist in this sort of role.

If it trips up at all, it's near the end, although (given Barrie's insistence that few liberties be taken), maybe that's inherent to the material, with things moving fast enough that you wonder how the implication that it's been some time works. It's also a bit of a shame that the only surviving print was a localized-to-America one, but all in all, this is a whole lot better than one might have expected. If You Could Only Cook & The Whole Town's Talking More Than a Secretary & Too Many Husbands You Can't Take It with You The More The Merrier & Adventure in Manhattan Table for Six 2 Peter Pan (1924) The Movie Emperor

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