Monday, 14 May 2018

Surprisingly enjoyable vintage movies: On Approval, Patterns, I Wake Up Screaming, Intruder in the Dust and If I Were King

There's nothing quite as satisfying as sitting down to watch a film with moderate hopes, only for it to turn out to be much, much better than one was expecting.  Such a film was the 1944 British romantic comedy, On Approval, which struck me as a poor prospect, but turned out to be an absolute hoot. It was the second adaptation of a 1926 "bright young things" stage play by Frederick Lonsdale (the grandfather of actors Edward and James Fox, as it happens). The screenplay was adapted by Clive Brook, who went on to direct and produce it - and somehow found time to play one of the four main characters, the feckless, selfish Duke of Bristol. I was expecting to sit stoney-faced throughout, but, instead, found myself roaring with laughter at the wittiest, most malicious, most expertly delivered, Noel-Coward-on-steroids banter... could ask for.

While Googie Withers, as a rich American (without a trace of an American accent) who has rented the Duke's home and fancies him something rotten, is the right age for her role, the other three - Brook, Roland Culver and Beatrice Lillie - are far too old, which is why Brook scrubbed its contemporary setting and shifted it back to the late Victorian era. As for the slightly risqué plot, hard-up Roland Culver proposes to Beatrice Lillie, who suggests they spend a month together on a Scottish island to see if they're compatible (very daring for 1926). Heiress Googie Withers and the skint Duke of Bristol gatecrash the party, and the question becomes: who will end up with whom? Yes, it's all too, too terribly artificial and mannered and brittle, but Brook and Beatrice Lillie playing two really rather horrible people lift the whole enterprise onto another plane. I suspect that watching it in this witless, virtue-signalling age makes it a lot funnier than it seemed at the time. On Approval was made by Rank, but its casual, comedic, terribly English cruelty foreshadows Ealing's Kind Hearts and Coronets. The whole film is available on YouTube:

And now for something completely different: Patterns is a 1956 drama scripted by Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone renown), who had written the successful 1955 TV version. It stars Van Heflin as a junior executive hired by Everett Sloane, the boss of an industrial empire founded by Sloane's father. Heflin's boss is Ed Begley, who's been with the company for decades. Heflin and Begley are nice guys, who believe in treating workers with respect, while Sloane (probably best known as Mr Bernstein in Citizen Kane) is a red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist sonofabitch. Sloane is trying to force old-school Begley to resign by constantly humiliating and undermining him, and wants to replace him with young (?), thrusting, dynamic Heflin. It all comes to a head in a final confrontation between Sloane and Heflin, the outcome of which is both unexpected and pleasing.

These days, films and TV series about business tend be crime or political dramas - today, Everett Sloane would be a master criminal, a lying, cheating, stealing murderer, poisoning working-class communities' water supplies, manipulating the stock market, corrupting politicians and plotting with the CIA to topple enlightened left-wing governments around the globe. Here, he's just an unpleasant, ruthless businessman who's read too much Ayn Rand. Serling was a liberal-leftist, but Patterns isn't so much an attack on business and the profit-motive as a reflection on how to marry decency and efficiency - with Sloane and Heflin winding up as potential marriage partners. The result is humourless and a tad melodramatic - but, thanks to Serling's script and boffo performances from the three lead actors, it's utterly rivetting. A genuine find:

Intruder in the Dust (1949) is an adaptation of a William Faulkner novel about a proud, unbending black Mississippi farmer who's arrested for the murder of a white local after being discovered standing over the body, clutching a recently-fired revolver. The victim is a member of a ne'er-do-well clan of troublemakers, and the chances of the arrested man not being lynched seem mighty slim. As people stream into town to witness the entertainment, a white teenager who knows the farmer tries to prove his innocence.
Juano Hernández & Claude Jarman, Jr.
I won't say any more about it, because - not having read the book - I honestly didn't know how it was going to turn out. It's a terrific film, which benefits from a lack of sentimentality, stereotyping, or finger-wagging piety - and from a convincing performance by Claude Jarman, Jr. as the boy, and a positively towering performance from Juano Hernández as the proud, taciturn, unbending farmer.  Faulkner himself approved of the film: "I'm not much of a moviegoer, but I did see that one. I thought it was a fine job. That Juano Hernández is a fine actor--and man, too." Again, the whole film is available on YouTube:

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is an early noir crime movie which I was expecting to doze through, but which turned out to be a classic of the genre. Flighty, shallow waitress Carole Landis is taken to the verge of movie stardom by smooth publicist Victor Mature - then someone kills her. The evidence points to Mature. Landis's sensible, decent sister - Betty Grable - becomes convinced that Mature is innocent, and sets out to help him prove it. Meanwhile, huge, sinister police detective Laird Cregar is determined to pin the murder on the publicist. 
Cregar is superb - but that's no surprise. Mature's good -  despite his limitations, he was good in several films. The real surprise here is Betty Grable as the murdered girl's sister: her unthreatening, girl-next-door prettiness and her unshowy, shall-town groundedness contrast nicely with the film's slick, phony, big city milieu. Another gem available on YouTube:

I'll end with If I Were King, a 1938 film starring Ronald Colman as the roguish medieval French poet François Villon, and Basil Rathbone as the wily, scheming Louis XIV. The script was by Preston Sturgess, based on a 1901 novel by Justin Huntly McCarthy, and any resemblance to people living or dead is pure coincidence. Colman  swashes, buckles, rogues, twinkles and purrs throughout, while Rathbone hams it up outrageously as the pantomime-villain king. Maybe I just happened to be in the right mood when I watched it - but I enjoyed every silly, glorious, minute

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