Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '45 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Underrated '45 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson is a dedicated cinephile who can be found writing at The Cinema 4 Pylon: 

I am not a great fan of the word “underrated” as it pertains to being perceived generally, either by masses of moviegoers or smaller cliques of critics. Because my interest in films is more tied to my personal relationship with cinema, I am approaching the subject of “Underrated Films of 1945” by discussing movies that I, for a variety of reasons, underestimated. Whether it is in how I first approached them, perhaps thinking it was going to be terrible and it turned out to be a pleasant experience, or if it is in the lingering and highly unexpected effects these films may have had on me since first seeing them, these films fit the bill.

Having Wonderful Crime (1945) Dir.: A. Edward Sutherland
Honestly, I had not heard of this film until a couple of years ago when it played on TCM. I thought the program guide had a typo, and so I rushed online to find the proof that the dumbasses at Time Warner had left out the “a” between “Having” and “Wonderful”. I was so wrong, but so was the information that appeared next to the title on the program guide: just two simple stars (our of four), which would lead viewers to believe Having Wonderful Crime is only a middling picture. Sure, if you are looking for a smart film, I could see that. But this film is about zippiness and charm and… even more charm. Instead of a standard detective yarn, this film relies on its trio of fast-talking, wisecracking characters — a freshly married couple attempting to enjoy their honeymoon at a resort area and their lawyer-detective friend — who take it upon themselves to solve the murder of a magician. The detective, played by Pat O’Brien, is John J. Malone, a character created by the writer Craig Rice and who appeared in numerous novels and one other film in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The husband and wife are George Murphy and Carole Landis (who would tragically take her life just a couple of years later). There are a zillion characters, the plot is ridiculous, but if you are like me and really couldn’t care one whit “whodunit” in these affairs, just sit back and enjoy the one-liners that fly back and forth between the truly enjoyable lead threesome. This one can turn into a mildly pleasant tonic for the spirits, as long as you don’t ask it to do any heavy lifting.

Objective, Burma! (1945) Dir.: Raoul Walsh
Back in my older teenage years, the local CBS affiliate threw on Objective, Burma! as I was staying up late one Friday night. As Errol Flynn was one of my particular heroes at the time, having seen most of his swashbuckler and western roles, I chanced to throw myself onto a beanbag chair (it was the late ‘70s), and stay up until after three in the morning to watch an example of my least favorite genre: the war film. I am not a good judge of battle scenes in films (or in real life) and I could never tell you if they were throwing the right type of grenades or pointing the appropriate weaponry for that time and place. And I really don’t care one bit. I just know Objective: Burma! scared the crap out of me that night and stuck with me in ways that affected my attitudes towards both war and violence in films ever since. I thought that I had been caught up in Flynn’s adventures with a sword or pistol before, but this film seemed so much more real to me in every way, and I kept actually fearing for Flynn’s (not his character’s) life. I remember grabbing the blanket my mother had crocheted off the couch and pulled it over my head, watching the second half of the film through one of the holes in the blanket, with an uneasy queasiness in my stomach because I was so caught up. (That didn't stop me from eating popcorn through the blanket though...) It was years before I saw the film again, and having seen a great many more movies about war in that span (some of them reluctantly), it didn’t hit me in the same way. On the second go, I saw it as a little creakier than I remembered but it still came across as a really solid action-adventure for the great Flynn.

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) Dir.: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
This one falls into the “thinker” category, because I keep coming back to it in my head. The film is far more stunning than I ever imagined it to be, even having been exposed to most of Powell and Pressburger’s masterful work leading up to my viewing. When I first watched it a few years ago, knowing there was a heavy romantic element, I expected it to be one of the more arduous undertakings in their oeuvre. But I had just watched the 1938 film version of Pygmalion, and I was just a little bit in onscreen love with the young Wendy Hiller because of it. And she floored me in this film, with a characterization so fierce and strong (after all, her character knows where she is going!), that I could not help but be swept up in the story. Hiller’s Joan is determined to marry a much older man who lives on a distant Scottish island, but she runs straight into two problems. One is Torquil MacNeil (Archers’ stalwart Roger Livesey), a navy officer heading homeward, and the other is a curse that has been placed on the laird of a nearby castle. The laird in question, of course, turns out to be Torquil, and that curse may come into play as romance blooms for the pair. Despite this, Joan is determined to pursue her initial course, and goes to incredible lengths to get there at all costs. The film has a breathless scene where Joan and Torquil are caught inside a whirlpool, in a beautifully edited sequence that leaves you wondering how they pulled it off without killing cast and crew. Nature is at the forefront of this film, and I felt that perhaps the weather and scenery should get top billing over the actors at times. But it is the “will they or won’t they” relationship between Joan and Torquil that stuck in a way that rarely occurs for me. The Posies have a song relating to predetermined courses of action that features a chorus where they sing, “Somehow everything/Will be a little different than you thought.” Sure, just like Joan, you can know precisely where you are going, but you can never guess what complications may lie in wait along that path.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) Dir.: Raoul Walsh
Jack Benny used to rip on this film all the time on his radio and TV shows. It became known as a notorious flop in its day chiefly through Benny's own influence. When I was a kid, I learned the name of this supposed travesty pretty early even though I wouldn't see it for years. However, unless you despise fun in your comedies, the evidence is just not there when one watches it today. When I finally caught up to The Horn Blows at Midnight, I was expecting a true disaster. All I found was a light, silly comedy with some very fun visuals, great sets, and wacky slapstick antics. I watched it the third time as a pair with the Powell/Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death, and it really came to life then. Benny is his usual appealing self in the role of a trumpeter for a coffee-branded radio show who falls asleep and dreams he is an angel destined to blow the trumpet call that will announce the end of the world. Alexis Smith is gorgeous as Benny’s heavenly girlfriend, and my favorite in the film is Guy Kibbee as his boss, “The Chief,” who is in charge of destroying Earth and sends Benny on his mission. It is a really dark premise for a comedy released not only during World War II, but also just a few days after FDR died in office, which has generally been ascribed to contributing to its failure at the box office. I don’t care if that is true or not; I just know that the people who didn’t go to see it back then are suckers. It could be the times; the film plays very well today, and while it might not be a comedy on the level of Lubitsch (with whom Benny had considerable success with To Be or Not to Be), it is at least a very fun, surprisingly epic-looking, fantasy. I am actually surprised this film hasn’t attained an even greater cult status, because it’s a peach of a time.

Wonder Man (1945) Dir.: H. Bruce Humberstone
It is stunning to me that I married someone who has little regard for Danny Kaye, because I have been a fanatic of his for most of my life. I will tell you to your face that it doesn’t really matter that my wife would never admit Danny Kaye is one of the greatest overall talents that has ever graced the entertainment world. But inside? It tears me up fiercely. Of course, sometimes it all depends on how and where you grew up, and for me, viewings of The Court Jester and The Inspector General were not to be missed any time the local channels deigned to put them on their meager schedules. Once in a while, we got another Kaye film; at least a couple of times, I got to see Wonder Man as a teenager. Kaye plays twin brothers: Buzzy Ballew, a popular and confident nightclub entertainer with vocal skills much like Kaye himself; and Edwin Dingle, his nebbishy, bookworm brother. When gangsters kill Buzzy, Edwin (through the usual ridiculous machinations) ends up having to pose as Buzzy to root out the crooks. As a teen, I was enthralled by the film’s eye candy — Virginia Mayo and Vera-Ellen — and it gave me another chance to delight in Kaye’s simply astounding vocal acrobatics. He contorts his voice so far in every direction of his famous “Dark Eyes” variation that you swear he will never recover (I also still swear he comes close to inventing beatboxing in it). As an older teenager, I got my first Tom Lehrer albums, and thanks to my early exposure to Wonder Man and other Kaye classics, I could tell immediately how big an influence Kaye had been on him as well. The planets had, for a brief moment, aligned for me.

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1 comment:

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Thanks for letting me participate, Brian!