The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)


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Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family…

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30 Days of Noir #26: Behind Green Lights (dir by Otto Brower)


The 1946 film, Behind Green Lights, takes over the course of one night at one police station.

When tough-but-fair Police Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan) shows up for work, he discovers that a car has been haphazardly parked in front of the station.  Inside the car is bullet-ridden body of Walter Bard, a somewhat notorious private investigator.  If the brazenness of the crime wasn’t already enough to indicate that there’s more going on here than just a detective following the wrong lead, it is soon discovered that Bard was acquainted with Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), the daughter of a reform-minded mayoral candidate.  As Janet explains it to Lt. Carson, Bard was blackmailing a friend of hers.  Janet admits that she had a gun with her the last time that she saw Bard but she swears that she didn’t murder him.

Corrupt newspaper publisher Max Calvert (Roy Roberts) views Janet’s father as being a potential rival and he immediately starts to pressure Lt. Carson to make an arrest in the case.  Not convinced of Janet’s guilt, Carson refuses.  Meanwhile, the crooked coroner (Don Beddoe) comes across evidence that could change the entire case but, as a favor to Calvert, tries to cover it up….

But that’s not all.  It’s a very busy night at the precinct.  Not only does Carson have to deal with the murder and all of the political fallout, he also has to deal with an escapes prisoner and a collection of snarky crime reports who spend all of their hanging out at the station house and waiting for a big story to drop.

Largely set in one location and featuring a cast made up of fast-talking, quick-witted cynics, Behind Green Lights sometimes feel more like a play than a film.  (One could easily imagine it taking place in the same cinematic universe as The Front Page.  Call it the MacArthur/Hecht Cinematic Universe, or MHCU for short.)  Though the film only has a running time of 64 minutes, it manages to pack a lot of twists and turns into that hour.  For the most part, it all works.  The mystery is intriguing, the cast is made up of properly tough character actors, and the tragic Carole Landis is well-cast as a character who could be an innocent victim or a dangerous femme fatale.  The film and her performance will keep you guessing.  (It has been written that Landis, a talented actress who never quite got the roles that roles that she deserved, was heart-broken when Rex Harrison refused to divorce his wife and marry her.  Two years after the release of Behind Green Lights, she was found dead at the age of 29.  The official ruling was suicide, though members of Landis’s family dispute that.)

Behind Green Lights may be a minor noir but it’s still an entertaining one.  And it can be viewed for free on YouTube!  Just remember, when doing an online search, that the film is called Behind Green Lights and not Behind the Green Door.  Don’t make the same mistake that I did!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break


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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and…

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The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns.  Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).  Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke).  Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people.  In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life.  In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage.  And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all.  Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.

When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get.  First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires.  Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.

Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family.  Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways?  However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann.  Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead.  When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.

No worries!  Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost.  In fact,  she seems to be rather amused by it all.  She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder.  After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees.  Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime.  Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.

Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them.  The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films.  It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot.  At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.

But no matter!  I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail.  Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun!  I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost.  Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…”  Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.

For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie.  On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe.  On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for.  Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script).  Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”

Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie.  Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.