Thursday, 8 March 2018

Golden Age Hollywood movies that are more fun than a barrel of monkeys - Destry Rides Again, Miracle of Morgan's Creek, Mark of Zorro, Heaven Can Wait & Barbary Coast

I watched Destry Rides Again (1939) for the first time last week - and, Lord, what a treat it turned out to be. No wonder Hollywood conquered the world. First, there's Marlene Dietrich as a cynical saloon singer/croupier in full Lili von Shtupp mode...

 - so outrageously over-the-top, she makes Madeleine Cahn's Blazing Saddles parody of her seem positively restrained. By this stage, Marlene - frankly - looked like a bit of a raddled old brass: as for her "singing", she couldn't have hit a note if it had been the size of the Empire State Building and three inches it front of her nose: why anyone would fancy her is utterly beyond me - and yet she brings terrific, camp gusto to the role. James Stewart is hugely appealing as the deputy marshall straight outta Tombstone, gangling laconically through the silly plot, tossing off gnomic, shaggy dog anecdotes and using intelligence rather than guns (his heavily-armed lawman dad died after being shot in the back) to turn a corrupt, lusty frontier town into a law-abidin' community - until the last reel, where he straps on his six-guns and goes after the bad guys (if you don't let out a cheer when he does so, you're probably a Guardian reader and a vegetarian).

The main bad guy is Brian Donlevy, here playing a crooked saloon-bar owner (not for the first or last time) killing and cheating decent, ordinary folk to acquire all the land thereabouts and charging cattlemen an exorbitant fee to drive their herds through it. Some of the comic characters outstay their welcome (in particular the Russian deputy and the town drunk who switches sides after Donlevy forces him to take the job) - but who cares? It's genuinely funny, it oozes charm, and it's a great relief when Marlene takes one in the back while trying to save her "Destwy" so our hero won't have to wake up to next to her every day for west of his life. The film rightly that turned James Stewart into a HUGE star.

Brian Donlevy's  big break came in 1935, when he was cast as the chief henchman of crooked San Francisco saloon-bar owner (played by Edward G. Robinson) in man's man director Henry Hathaway's roister-doistering Barbary Coast. Miriam Hopkins (in the Marlene Dietrich role) arrives in town to marry the a goldmine-owner, only to discover that he lost all his money playing roulette in Edward G. Robinson's establishment, and was later murdered (by guess who). Our gold-digging moll takes a job as a croupier at the saloon, and allows Robinson to lavish gifts on her. One day while out riding, she gets caught in a storm and takes refuge in a cabin where she happens upon poet/gold-miner Joel McCrea (in the Jimmy Stewart role) - who is then also cheated out his fortune at the saloon. It's not as funny as Destry, but it has tons of atmosphere (most of the action is set at night), masses of verve, and moves along at a hell of a lick. The scene where the decent citizens of San Francisco grab Brian Donlevy and lynch him is genuinely chilling. Does Ms Hopkins end up with McCrea or Robinson? What do you think? One thing I've noticed about films made around this time is the abruptness of their endings - it's as if the studio suddenly ran out money and filming needed to wrap a week earlier than planned.

The real mystery about Preston Sturgess's 1944 screwball comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is how the studio got it past the Hollywood censors. Small-town gal Betty Hutton disobeys her filthy-tempered cop father's orders and sneaks off to a dance at the local army base, receives a knock on the head while hoofing, and wakes up not remembering what happened - only for it to emerge that she (a) got married to one of the soldiers, and (b) is up the duff. This was a mainstream film by a mainstream director produced by a major studio: what did the Hays Office think it was doing? I won't spoil the ending, but it involves Brian Donlevy (yet again - that man was everywhere) as a governor determine to seize the opportunity to put his state and Morgan's Creek on the map. I've always found Betty Hutton hard to take - too strident, noisy, boisterous and lacking sex-appeal - but Sturgess regulars William Demarest (as the policeman father) and Eddie Bracken (as the young man who has always been in love with Hutton) are both terrific.

I got bored with Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 comedy, Heaven Can Wait, about half an hour in when I tried to watch it for the first time last year. But something made me give it another try - and I'm glad I did. After leading a seemingly dissolute, selfish life, aged playboy Don Ameche turns up in the glossy reception area of Hell and tries to convince "His Excellency" Laird Cregar (a compelling, complex actor who died young as the result of a crash diet) that he belongs there - but there's some question as to his suitability. Cue Ameche's life story as a pampered, philandering rich boy in late 19th/early 20th century New York. The story centres around his pursuit of - and eventual elopement with - the ravishingly lovely Gene Tierney (who was affianced to Ameche's obnoxious, anal-retentive cousin). Despite snaring his true love, Ameche carries on chasing showgirls - and is eventually blackmailed by one of them. His wife leaves him (quite rightly), and Ameche - helped by his indulgent self-made millionaire grandfather, Charles Cockburn (Hollywood's answer to Fred Emney) - sets out to win her back. Which he does. She eventually dies, and Ameche returns to chasing showgirls. It shouldn't really work - Don Ameche is too wet to carry off the role, and the morality of the whole thing raised my puritan hackles - but it just sort of does: presumably the "Lubitsch touch".

I expect you've seen Rouben Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro (1940) - but it turns out I hadn't. Wildly camp fun set in early 19th Century California, when the Spaniards were still running the place. Tyrone Power plays Don Diego Vega, the son of a wealthy rancher and the former alcalde (big cheese) of the region, called back by his father from his military training in Spain. Posing as an effeminate fop (all very Scarlet Pimpernel), Tyrone is actually a daring, steely man of action, horrified by the way the new alcalde - who forced his father from office - is extorting taxes from the people, aided by his cruel henchman, Basil Rathbone. Love interest is provided by Linda Darnell. Tyrone dons a really natty, figure-hugging, all-black number and that mask and - zap! zap!zap! - starts leaving that logo all over the place, and, inevitably, wins the heart of the sultry senorita and ends up crossing swords with the hateful Rathbone (hssss!). It's all immensely silly and thoroughly enjoyable. I've never been a huge fan of Tyrone Power, but he certainly proves his worth in this camp classic: as for Basil Rathbone, well, he's as brilliant as ever. A champagne movie, with no hangover - Hollywood at the very zenith of its powers to entertain, amuse and thrill.


  1. I am afraid that not even the assurance in the trailer that Preston Sturges is 'Hollywood's gayest wizard' and that Betty Hutton is 'the peppiest girl in town' would persuade me to have another go at Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which I failed to get through some time ago. The term 'screwball comedy' doesn't do it justice.

    On the other hand, I must try and find Zorro which I saw as a boy when the BBC used to show old black and white films on Sunday afternoon. I always felt sorry for Basil Rathbone who was actually a highly accomplished fencer who would have pinned Tyrone Power to the wall in about 5 seconds. But he was fated to end up losing because he was British and therefore the villain. He said rather generously that the only other actor whose skills with the sword matched his own was, believe it or not, Danny Kaye in the Court Jester. But then he was 64 at the time.

    1. I'll admit to feeling the same way about Sturges's "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Palm Beach Story" - but I may have to give them another go.

      Rathbone is another of those British actors who made tons of Golden Age Hollywood films - Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, David Niven, Roland Young, Ronald Colman, George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Elsa Lanchester, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Vivien Leigh, and John Wayne (just joking) - and that's pre-1945 and off the top of my head, so there are no doubt many more... I feel another post coming on!