Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nope. No, sir, I don't approve.

I have borrowed that line from Disapproving Rabbits to express my feelings about June Allyson's performance in "The Secret Heart." I watched it because it featured her and Claudette Colbert, who I'm really liking right now because I recently saw her in the 1934 "Imitation of Life," and I just finished the book as well (an entry on all of that is forthcoming).

Anyhow, I was talking about June. With her little girl looks and squeaky voice, she is ideal for bubbly musicals like "Till The Clouds Roll By," wherein she does that "Cleopatterer" number (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, there's a neat factoid) I keep seeing in the "That's Entertainment!" compilations. I also liked her in "The Glen Miller Story;" that kind of drama works for her. However, in "The Secret Heart," she is supposed to be a disturbed young woman with a mild sort of Electra complex who dislikes her stepmother. I thought her performance was just average; I could not, in my mind, put aside the perky June Allyson long enough to find her credible in this role. When she has a "breakdown" near the end, and ends up temporarily catatonic, then bursts into hysterical tears, I wasn't really moved. Of couse, the movie ends with her miraculous recovery as she moves on with her happy life (apparently crying in the arms of Claudette Colbert is a cure for years of mental illness; who knew?).

Another ho-hum addition to the cast was Walter Pidgeon, who I think works perfectly well in small character roles (I liked him in "The Bad and The Beautiful"), but doesn't have what it takes to pull off a leading man role. That was kind of distracting to me as well. I had the same feeling about him in "That Forsyte Woman;" I just could not buy that Greer Garson would leave Errol Flynn for Pidgeon. Not just because of Pidgeon's looks (which are average at best, although he does have a great, deep voice), but because he was just sort of...meh. No reflection on his acting, he just doesn't thrill me, is I guess what I'm trying to say. I've never been really absorbed in one of her performances.

An amusing fact with which to close: June Allyson guest starred in an episode of "The Incredible Hulk," which tickles me. For some reason it's easier to imagine her as Dr. Kate Lowell than Penny Addams.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Yesterday I watched the 1934 movie "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," with Norma Shearer, Charles Laughton, and Frederic March. Today it is chilly, and pouring rain. On the surface, these two facts may seem unrelated. To me, however, the nasty weather makes me envy Norma Shearer, who got to play most of this role reclining on a beautiful chaise lounge in front of a toasty fire with Flush, the adorable cocker spaniel, curled up in her lap. Right now, that sounds like heaven. (I can't find a picture of Norma in the role, but her lovely chaise lounge looked something like this, only more old-fashioned, with the buttons set deep in the upholstery).

I liked the movie quite a lot. Norma was very good as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and looked just gorgeous in those long curls. I thought Maureen O'Sullivan was too shrill as her sister Henrietta. I understand Henrietta's thwarted love affair and conflicts with their father were to lend drama to the story, but O'Sullivan gave it too much drama, in the scenery eating style you often see in old movies. When she shrieks at her father, "Is it nothing to you that I shall hate you for this to the end of my life?" and he answers, "Less than nothing," I was actually a little bit on his side. And her crying jag as she clings to his knees...dear, please get up and show some dignity. For all our sakes. I found O'Sullivan delightful as a "modern" girl, Dorothy, in "The Thin Man." There, her energy works well with the character. Here, in this period drama, she seems out of place.

It has been said that the scenes between Elizabeth and her father were toned down to lessen the suggestion of his incestous feelings for her. Charles Laughton famously replied, "They can't censor the gleam in my eye," and he was so right. It's rather subtly done at first; you don't get the idea right from the start that he's panting after his own daughter. He just seems like a big old control freak, who dominates over all his children. As the movie progresses, more and more hints come out that Elizabeth is his favorite child, in both (relatively) good ways and really, really bad ways. He's a master at manipulating her (and the rest of his children) with guilt trips.

Then there is the scene near the end, right before she runs away to marry Browning, where her father grabs her and goes on and on about how the family will move away to the country and Elizabeth will be his confidant and his comfort and...okay, now it's extremely icky. Sneaking out of the house with only the clothes on her back and her dog suddenly seems like a great idea. And she does. In a final touch of evil, Laughton orders one of Elizabeth's brothers to find her dog, take it to the vet, and have it destroyed. Henrietta triumphantly informs her father that Elizabeth has taken the dog with her.

Frederic March as Robert Browning...eh, March has never really done anything for me. He was good in "Anna Karenina," and "Susan and God," but I never see a movie listing and think to myself, "oooh, Frederic March, yay!" You don't actually see Browning much in the movie, so March made his usual non-impression on me.

Overall, I would recommend this movie, and was disappointed to learn that it's not out on DVD yet. In my world, it would be released as a Norma Shearer boxset with the following other movies (I'm only choosing ones that have not already been released on DVD):

Idiot's Delight (seeing Clark Gable perform "Puttin' on the Ritz" should be on every classic movie lover's list)
Strange Interlude
Romeo and Juliet
Private Lives

Two of Norma's movies have recently been released on DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2 collection: "The Divorcee" and "A Free Soul."