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. 

****

All Through the Night (1941) Vincent Sherman

Bogart Takes on the Nazis.

Produced and released  by Warner Brothers, always the most socially conscience of the studios,  this 1941 propaganda film came out just months before America would enter World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart as “Gloves” Donahue, a local hoodlum who runs the neighborhood bookie operations. “Glove’s” is a long way from Bogart’s other roles as a gangster. Here he is sort of a neighborhood Robin Hood with his gang, a bunch of Damon Runyonesque type comedic characters.

Most of the neighborhood seems to like “Gloves”, except for the cops, and his rivals led by Barton McLane. Conrad Veidt plays Ebbing, the head Nazi who commands an underground organization of fifth columnist with sabotage on their mind. Peter Lorre is Pepi, Ebbing’s little weasel of an assistant.

“Gloves” involvement begins when a neighborhood German baker is murdered by the master of creepiness, Peter Lorre. The baker was a friend of “Gloves” mother and made his favorite cheesecake, so at his mother’s beckoning he begins to look into the killing. When a nightclub bouncer is also murdered and one of “Gloves” gloves is found at the scene, the police can only conclude one thing, he is the murderer.

While trying to prove his innocence “Gloves” investigation leads him to discover a group of fifth columnist with plans to sabotage the New York Harbor by blowing up a naval battleship. The police, who are clueless about the German threat, are only interested in  fingering “Gloves” for the murders.

Surprisingly, the film is amazingly light in its humor considering that the war was going strong in Europe by this time. Released on December 2nd, according to IMDB, only days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America would enter the war. The release may have been only in Los Angeles though because the New York Times review is dated January 24th  1942 and makes note that this is a “pre Pearl Harbor” film, “lest anyone raises the  objection that it plays too fast and loose with a subject much too serious for melodramatic kidding in these times.”  The review, by Bosley Crowther, then goes on to say, “One would hate to think that an enemy plot of such elaborate magnitude as the one presented here should be so completely overlooked by our capable F. B. I. (italics mine), and that the responsibility for licking it should fall upon a semi-gangster. So don’t even let yourself think that this picture pretends to be fact. It is straight, unadulterated fiction pulled out of a script-writer’s hat.”

So here we are now some 70 years later, and considering what we have been going through since 2001, such blind faith in the F.B.I. or Homeland Security or any other Government Agency is naiveté of the highest order. I am not picking on Mr. Crowthers, as I usually do, I’m sure that many Americans had blind faith in and felt secure that organizations like the F.B.I had security matters well in hand back in those days.

Much of the films humor is supplied by members of “Gloves” gang, consisting of fanciful character actors like William Demarest and Frank McHugh along with some additional bizarre casting of Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. McHugh’s character is newly married and the running joke throughout the film is that he cannot consummate his marriage because he is always helping  “Gloves” in hunting down the Nazis. Gleason and Silvers are regulated to humorous roles that are close to slapstick level.

There is a touch of seriousness thrown into the mix when “Gloves” in his search to find the murderers comes across nightclub singer Leda Hamilton (Karren Verne), a young woman who is first made to seem to be aiding the Nazis. We soon find out that Leda is being forced to help them because her father is a prisoner in Dachau. Ebbing promises to keep him alive as long as she helps them with their sabotage plans.

The cast also includes Jane Darwell as “Gloves” mother, Judith Anderson as an assistant to Ebbing and Barton McLane as Callahan, the rival gang leader. Bogart handles his role in typical Bogie fashion, cool and unflappable. Peter Lorre and Karren Verne would marry, in real life, a few years after this film was made. Today, “All Through the Night” comes across as a bizarre little film, somewhat uncomfortable in its humor, melodramatic with some odd casting but still entertaining enough.

***

The Great McGinty (1940) Preston Sturges

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   “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