The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) Preston Sturges


   The first half of The Sin of Harold Biddlebock kicks off promising, however, the second half grinds on like a car in stop and go traffic. It has its good spots but it’s a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. One would believe, or at least hope, that the combination of Harold Lloyd and Preston Sturges would yield a solid golden treasure. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The film displays bits of social commentary that keep it interesting. Of course, it gave us one last chance to see the great Harold Lloyd on screen. Still, in careers filled with so many highs, it remains a minor effort for both the director and star. Continue reading

Short Takes: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) Preston Sturges


I have always hesitated to watch this film because I, for whatever reason on my part, lacked any attraction to the two leading stars Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken.  Well, I finally bit the bullet, smacked myself a couple of times and said this is a Preston Sturges film, just watch it! Subsequently I finally picked up a copy at the local library and happily report how foolish I have been to have avoided this clever work.

Trudy Klockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a war time victory girl who dates soldiers about to leave for the war.  She sees this as her patriotic duty! On one of these wild evenings Trudy gets drunk, marrying one of the unknown soldiers she partied with and the next morning cannot remember a damn thing about how it all happened. Complications ensue when she soon finds out she is pregnant. Local 4-F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) is in love with Trudy tries to help (she borrows his car to go out and party while he goes alone to a movie) but cannot compete with the soldiers and constantly find himself in trouble with Trudy’s hyper protective father (William Demarest). False identities, jail time for Norval and the birth of sextuplets all contribute to the surprisingly miraculous and controversial going ons.

For the time period this has to be one of the most audacious comedies ever made, a bold satire making sophisticated fun of marriage, small town life, soldiers, and the government all the while pushing the buttons of the production code. Sturges takes on small town values, the sanctity of soldiers going off to war, local politics presenting an almost anti-Capraesque view of America reminding one that he was one of the best screenwriters of his time and now.

 The film was held up from release for about a year resulting in Sturges having three films released in 1944 (Hail, The Conquering Hero and The Great Moment being the other two).  The film was a big hit with audiences when it hit the screens in January becoming Paramount’s biggest money maker for the year.
The cast includes fifteen year old Diana Lynn as Trudy’s kid sister along with many of Sturges regulars including Demarest, Chester Conklin, and Porter Hall among others. Reprising their roles from “The Great McGinty” are Brian Donlevy as the Governor, and Akim Tamiroff as the Boss in cameos. 

Sturges received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay that year (he was also nominated the same year for “Hail the Conquering Hero”) losing to Lamar Trotti for “Wilson.” The Jerry Lewis/Frank Tashlin 1958 film “Rock a Bye Baby” is a loose remake of this film for which Sturges received a screenwriting credit. 


The Great McGinty (1940) Preston Sturges



   “The Great McGinty” was Preston Sturges first directorial effort. Already rooted with a reputation as an excellent screenwriter, Sturges sought to direct; he disliked when directors changed his scripts, in particular Mitchell Leisen who directed two of his works, “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night.” Sturges, in a deal with Paramount, sold “The Great McGinty” script for $1 in exchange for letting him direct his first film. For legal reasons, Paramount actually had to increase the payment to $10 but either way Sturges was directing. The script’s origin goes back to 1932 and went under various titles among them “The Vagrant”, “Down Went McGinty” and “The Biography of a Bum.”mcginty-vhs-small0_

    We first meet McGinty bartending in an unnamed banana republic where he begins to tell his story to another American (Louis Jean Heydt) who is drunk, depressed and on the verge of suicide. In an attempt to convince the man, others have fallen further in life than he has McGinty narrates his story. We flashback to an American city, probably Chicago, where we first meet McGinty as a vagrant getting mixed up with local gangsters who are rigging elections and controlling elected officials. A character, only known by the name The Politician (William Demarest) is fixing votes for the current puppet Mayor, Wilfred Tillinghast who is owned by the big guy in town simply called The Boss (Akim Tamnioff). Straight from the breadlines, McGinty is a willing volunteer to join The Politician’s crusade to vote and vote often, with the promise he will get $2 for every time he vote’s. How is this accomplished? By using the names of dead people and going to different election polls of course. McGinty’s tenacity brings him to the attention of The Boss when it is discovered he managed to amazingly vote 37 times! Now he wants the $74 that is owed to him.  The Boss is impressed by his doggedness and hires McGinty as an enforcer to ensure delinquent storeowners pay for protection (“you’ve got to pay somebody to protect you from human greed.”) The Boss soon realizes that McGinty has potential for being more than just a thug and shortly has him running for the office of Alderman. Within a short period, Tillinghast is out as Mayor, and McGinty is The Boss’ new “reform” candidate.  There is only one problem, McGinty now has to get married because as The Boss tells it “if you haven’t heard, the women have the vote now….they don’t like bachelors.”  So, McGinty marries his secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) who has her own reasons for agreeing to this odd couple arrangement. What first starts out as a “business” arrangement soon turns to love when McGinty becomes jealous of Catherine  going out to dinner with an old male friend of hers. It does not take long for Catherine to go from calling him Mr. McGinty to darling.

    The graft has been lucrative and the Boss decides to go big time and have McGinty run for Governor. Before long victory is theirs, however The Boss’ new plans for bigger graft are thwarted when McGinty decides to go the honest route. No sooner is he in office they fight over McGinty’s new honesty policy resulting in The Boss shooting McGinty. The Boss is sent to jail, and he immediately implicates McGinty in all the graft schemes they initiated over the years. The new Governor is quickly arrested, ending up in a jail cell next to The Boss.

great_mcginty_1940_0    Both men manage to escape, thanks to The Politician, and exit the country in the dark of night. For McGinty, this also meant leaving his wife and family behind. We flash forward to the present time as McGinty’s finishes telling his tale. One customer who has been listening to McGinty’s story yells out that it is all a lot of malarkey.  McGinty does not deny it however; truth or not, he did save a man from suicide.

    When the film was released in August of 1940, no one was expecting much. There was no advance publicity from Paramount. All anticipated the film to come into town, play a week or two and disappear. To the surprise of everyone, the film turned out to be a laugh out loud hit. Moreover, the film had bite! It also had Brian Donlevy in a rare lead role that he took full advantage of, delivering an excellent and sensitive portrayal of a man who starts out as a simple thug and develops into a selfless individual.  Akim Tamiroff plays well off Donlevy and Muriel Angelus is fine in the pivotal role of his secretary/wife who at first accepts the greed and thief of her husband’s political lifestyle by rationalizing that it is impossible to rob from the people because when you rob, you spend and it all ends up going back to the people. When she eventually abandons this absurd philosophy, it also kindles McGinty’s will to go straight and be an honest politician. Of course, going honest turned out to be his downfall. William Demarest, one of the many actors who became part of Sturges stock company is lively and filled with plenty of spunk in his role known only as The Politician. Many other actors who would become part of Sturges “stock company’’ also appear in the film. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff would reprise their roles as McGinty and The Boss a few years later in Sturges’ “The Miracle of Morgan Creek.”

            For Muriel Angelus, “The Great McGinty” would be her final film. She made two appearances on Broadway in the early 1940’s in “Sunny River” and  Fats Waller’s “Early to Bed” before retiring. In the late 1930’s she had made her Broadway debut  in the Rogers and Hart musical, “The Boys from Syracuse.”  

   An interesting aside (source Wikipedia) is Akim Tamiroff’s malaprop laced performance here was the source for the villainous spy Boris Badenov character in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show   

Easy Living (1937) Mitchell Leisen


     Wit. Such a simple word and yet it is so hard to come by in the movies or anywhere else for that matter. If you have been following my blog you will notice I have recently been watching a few films written and or directed by Preston Sturges. What has attracted me to Sturges is that simple three-letter word. His films are full of it. A rare commodity, only found in a handful of films by such filmmakers as Billy Wilder, Ernest Lubitsch and more recently Woody Allen. In a film world full of Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey movies, wit is at a premium.  While I have enjoyed a Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey movie here and there, it was certainly not for any kind of cleverness or wit.  

 easy-living-dvd   This all leads to a 1937 film written by Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen called “Easy Living.” A bright and charming movie bursting with tons of that three letter word. The film stars the superb comedic actress Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a young woman who literally has a fur coat dropped on her head as she rides a double decker bus in Manhattan while on her way to work. This was a result of a fight between Bank Financier J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) aka “The Bull of Wall Street” and his wife Jenny ((Mary Nash). Ball. Fed up with his wife’s extravagant spending J. B.throws Jenny’s latest purchase, a $58,000 fur coat, off the penthouse landing and right onto Mary’s head riding on the bus below. When they meet later in the film, Mary tries to give the coat back but Ball tells her to keep it, plus he buys her a new hat since her old one was crushed when the coat landed on her head. This incident sparks a series of  incidents that result in Mary being fired from her clerical job at a magazine. It also gives the impression to many people, especially to Mr. Louis Louis, the owner of the Hotel Louis, and in debt to Banker Ball, that Mary is Ball’s mistress. As a result, Louis Louis now invites Mary to live in the hotel penthouse free of charge, thinking Ball will surely not foreclose on his hotel if his mistress is living there. Before she knows it, Mary is being offered free cars and jewelry from other customers indebted to Ball. Essentially, still broke and no food in her penthouse kitchen, Mary goes to the Automat diner for a cheap meal. Here’s she meets John Ball Jr. (Ray Milland) who not wanting to live off his father’s money is working at the Automat. Mary is unaware of John Jr.’s background and thinks of him as just another poor working Joe. When John spots Mary eating very little, he attempts to give her some free food and is caught by the store security. A free for all breaks out when Ball Jr. and the security guard get into a tussle.  Without giving too much more away let me say that the incidents just keep piling on including a potential  crash of the stock market.

“Easy Living” is a delightfully swift comedy set during the depression and it must have been amusing and maybe even hopeful to depression audiences as Sturges takes plenty of pokes at the upper class and their so called “problems.” As with many of Sturges films,  written or directed, there is a combination of high verbal wit and low level slapstick. The fight scenes in the Automat are pure laugh out loud funny.

Jean Arthur is charming as Mary Smith and makes the entire movie a joy to watch. Arthur was at the beginning of the peak years of her career. Only two years earlier, she starred with Edward G. Robinson in John Ford’s amusing “The Whole Town’s Talking.” The following year in 1936, she would make her first film with director Frank Capra in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Two other Capra classics would follow, “You Can’t Take it With You”, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Among Arthur’s other works are C.B. DeMille’s “The Plainsman”, Howard Hawk’s “Only Angels Have Wings”, Frank Borzage “History is Made at Night”, Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair”, and three films with George Stevens,  “Talk of the Town”,  “The More the Merrier” and her final film “Shane.”  Shy and reclusive, Arthur prematurely retired from acting, though she did make sporadic appearances on TV and some theater work. The theater work usually ended with disastrous results due to her shyness and severe bouts of stage fright.   John Oller in his biography of Arthur writes about one of  Ms. Arthur’s disastrous theater attempts, the 1967 Broadway production of “The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake”, which closed during previews.  The production was hindered with props that did not work, pot-smoking stagehands and actors who did not show up for work. According to the author, in one incident Arthur got down on her knees and begged the preview audience to let her leave the stage.  Nevertheless, Arthur’s work on the screen is memorable and should be better appreciated today than it is. Along with Carole Lombard, Arthur represents the quintessential screwball  heroine, spirited, confident and uniquely American.   easy_living

   Arthur’s co-star, Edward Arnold, as the magnate J.B. Ball is full of himself and is the source of much of the slapstick humor in the film. Though he died at a relatively young 66 years old, his career spans 50 years in film dating back to 1916. Ray Milland as Mary’s love interest and J.B.’s son holds his own and has some incredible funny scenes. When he made “Easy Living”, Milland’s career was on the verge of becoming a full-blown star.  Also, in the cast is William Demarest, who would become a regular member of  Sturges stock company. Demarest plays a gossip columnist here who is responsible for spreading  the rumors about Mary being J.B.’s mistress.

Credit should also be given to director Mitchell Leisen, who despite a career that has been criticized by both Sturges and Billy Wilder is responsible for some respectable films,. In additions to “Easy Living” Leisen directed “No Man of Her Own”, Hold Back the Dawn”, “Remember the Night” and “Midnight.”  “Easy Living” is a wonderful screwball comedy that should be on everyone’s ‘to watch list.’

 Here’s a clip from  Easy Living and here is here is another.

The Lady Eve (1941) Preston Sturges

    “The Lady Eve” is one of the most intelligent, romantic, funny screwball comedies to grace the screen. Preston Sturges opened the door for other screenwriters, like Billy Wilder, who frustrated with directors messing with their work, wanted to direct their own scripts. Sturges had a great run making eight classic films,  including  “The Great McGinty”, “Christmas in July”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, “The Miracle of Morgan Creek”, “Hail, The Conquering Hero”, The Palm Beach Story”, “Unfaithfully Yours” and of course “The Lady Eve.”  Sturges films were unique in blending sophisticated humor right along side laugh out loud slapstick. According to Peter Bogdonovich in an interview on the DVD of “The Lady Eve”, he states that the term screwball came from a comment made about Carole Lombard’s performance in “My Man Godfrey”, “That’s real screwball she played” and the term stuck for romantic comedies with farcical overtones. Well, “The Lady Eve” is a prime example of screwball. Barbara Stanwyck is Jean who along with her father (Charles Coburn) are card sharks looking for prey on the cruise ship heading back to the states. Henry Fonda is a rich naïve man named Charles Pike who is returning home after a year of studying snakes abroad and falls prey to Jean and her father’s card schemes. Only problem is Jean, did not plan to fall in love

    Stanwyck and Fonda make a great team. They made three films together all comedies, which is pretty amazing since Fonda did not make that many comedies. “The Lady Eve” was the second film they made together; “The Mad Miss Manton” came first. These two are the cream of the threesome though “You Belong to Me”, their final film together is pleasant and worth seeing if for no other reason that to watch these two stars together.   

    Fonda manages to fall, trip, slide, and slip so many times that he seems to spend much of the film on the ground. My favorite scene is the seduction scene where Jean practically seduces Charles by continually twirling his hair while he is reclining on the floor getting more and more flustered. This is one of the most seductive and sexy scenes ever filmed. Both stars are just perfect. I was breaking out in a cold sweat just watching!  What makes Fonda so effective is that he does not play it for laughs. He plays it straight and that makes it even funnier. Stanwyck is such a talented actress who can play both drama and comedy to perfection. She has a great scene where she is sitting in the dining room, of the ship, with her makeup mirror commenting on all the women who try to catch the shy rich Fonda’s eye who is sitting at another table reading a book. Only one year earlier Stanwyck worked on the Sturges scripted “Remember the Night” and he told Stanwyck at that time that some day he would write a screwball comedy for her. He kept his word.

    As usual with Sturges there is a great supporting cast including Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette and William Demarest all who are wonderful. “The Lady Eve” is a film that is not be missed, well written and very funny.