Edmund Gwenn

The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Trouble with Harry is very cute. It’s fine, the film’s intentionally cute, but it’s also somewhat frustrating. With the exception of the glorious Technicolor exteriors of Vermont leaves, director Hitchcock and photographer Robert Burks don’t do anything particularly interesting. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay is so confined it often feels like Harry is a stage adaptation. It’s not; Hayes’s script is just stagy.

The film takes place over a particularly long day in a small New England town. Lovable old sea captain Edmund Gwenn is out rabbit hunting and finds a dead body. Thinking he’s killed the stranger, Gwenn goes to cover it up, eventually involving local painter and singing stud muffin John Forsythe (Forsythe’s voice sounds nothing like his singing voice). Forsythe happens upon Gwenn after going in to town to charm some groceries out of shopkeep Mildred Dunnock. He also meets local spinster Mildred Natwick, who we’ve already met because she caught Gwenn with the body. And made a date with him. Because New Englanders are naughty.

Gwenn and Natwick at the body is cute, Natwick in the shop is cute, Natwick and Gwenn are going to be cute throughout the movie. Meanwhile Forsythe has his eyes set on new-to-town local single mom Shirley MacLaine, even though Forsythe appears to be friends with MacLaine’s kid, Jerry Mathers. Mathers finds the body in the beginning, even before Gwenn. This jumbling instead of sequential plot recounting is intentional. See, Trouble with Harry is full of twists and reveals in the first half. The second half is all dead body comedy, but the first half is moving its four main cast members into situations together. Gwenn and Natwick, Forsythe and MacLaine. With Mathers popping in as needed. And it turns out he’s occasionally really needed because Hayes and Hitchcock run out of energy so it all hinges on Mathers having been cute enough early in the film.

It works, but it’s a lazy finish. Harry can get away with some lazy because part of the joke is how little people care about the dead body, whether Harry is a stranger or even an acquaintance. Hayes doesn’t have any difficult jokes in Harry. Even when he’s trying to shock, it’s never with a difficult joke. They’re always easy. And cute. Shockingly cute at times, so it helps MacLaine is so cute. And so on.

Hitchcock does really well with the cast, even when they’ve got way too much dialogue (or way too little). At the beginning, when Gwenn finds the body, it seems like he’s going to be Harry’s stage manager and narrate it. Though in talking to himself, not the audience. But then Forsythe shows up and Gwenn never gets to be the lead again. Forsythe’s too charming. And talented a artist. And swell guy.

Though he’s a dick to Natwick in their lengthy first scene together. Eventually the script reins in that character “feature” and Forsythe gets a lot more likable. Though he’s not like anyone else. He’s never cute. Even Royal Dano as dopey local sheriff’s deputy who the Scooby Gang has to hide from occasionally–and who they bully in a shocking display of classist privilege at one point–even Dano gets to be cute. And really sympathetic. Right before the troubled finish.

Though maybe the truncation of the ending saves the film from more derision of Dano, which becomes the focus for the final act. It’s really weird. Either Hayes or the source novel writer totally bungled the finish of the story or Hayes and Hitchcock screwed it up. It’s disappointing.

Gwenn is great. Natwick is great. And they’re adorable. MacLaine is good. And cute. Mathers is never around enough to get annoying.

Dunnock is good too. She seems like she’s going to have more to do than she gets.

Hitchcock’s direction is fine. It’s occasionally precious, which doesn’t clash with the humor but it also doesn’t generate any energy. Great photography from Burks. Awful editing from Alma Macrorie. Some of it is lack of coverage footage, but it’s still awful. There are also these fades to black at the end of jokes or when it’s time to jump ahead in time because Hayes’s plotting is so thin and they never bring anything to the film. Some are fine, but they’re never helpful.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is an unqualified, adjective-free perfect.

The Trouble with Harry is a diverting and often adorable 100 minutes. It’s a fine production. It’s also rather mundane.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Edmund Gwenn (Capt. Albert Wiles), John Forsythe (Sam Marlowe), Mildred Natwick (Miss Ivy Gravely), Shirley MacLaine (Jennifer Rogers), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs), Royal Dano (Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs), and Jerry Mathers (Arnie Rogers).

Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).



The Bigamist (1953, Ida Lupino)

With a sensational title like The Bigamist, one might expect something lurid and exploitative from the film. Definitely from the titular lead, Edmond O’Brien. But, no, poor O’Brien is just a married traveling salesman with a barren, work-oriented wife (Joan Fontaine) so who can blame him for stepping out. And he only did it once; he’s not a bad guy, he’s tragic hero.

Nearly all of O’Brien’s story comes out in a flashback–screenwriter Collier Young’s use of layered narrative is the film’s biggest problem–when he reveals all to kindly Edmund Gwenn, who has just discovered him.

The flashback portions are exceptionally insensitive to both Fontaine and Ida Lupino (which is surprising, as she directed the film after all) but the present action scenes with them are better. The film does cheat Lupino out of any great emotive moments, while Fontaine gets a couple.

As the lead–but fourth-billed–O’Brien has trouble with the impossible role. After spending fifteen minutes making him a suspect, Young’s script spends the rest turning him into a hero. Except O’Brien can’t seem to get behind playing the role heroic, which causes a bit of a disconnect… not to mention a general disinterest in how the story turns out. I had been hoping they went for the cheap, obvious ending, which would have resulted in less melodrama (but robbed Kenneth Tobey of a great scene).

Lupino’s direction is somewhat stilted at times, but generally okay. Except the Los Angeles exteriors; they’re way too lifeless.

Just like the movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ida Lupino; screenplay by Collier Young, based on a story by Lawrence B. Marcus and Lou Schor; director of photography, George E. Diskant; edited by Stanford Tischler; music by Leith Stevens; produced by Young; released by Filmmakers Releasing Organization.

Starring Edmond O’Brien (Harry Graham), Joan Fontaine (Eve Graham), Ida Lupino (Phyllis Martin), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Jordan), Kenneth Tobey (Tom Morgan), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Connelley), Peggy Maley (Phone Operator), Lillian Fontaine (Miss Higgins), Matt Dennis (Singer) and John Maxwell (Judge).


The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)

The Devil and Miss Jones has three or four stages in the narrative, but director Sam Wood basically has three. The first phase–covering the first two narrative stages–feature this singular composition technique. For close-ups, Wood either gives his actors a lot of headroom (fifty percent of the frame) or almost none. Harry Stradling Sr. shoots Jones and the photography’s magnificent, so both type of shot looks great, but with the department store setting, the extra headroom shots are always very full. It makes the film extremely visually distinctive.

In the second two phases of Wood’s direction, he changes it up a little, but retains the deliberate close-ups. Jean Arthur (who gets top billing) doesn’t even become the protagonist until about the halfway point; the close-ups make the handoff–from Charles Coburn to her–work beautifully.

The film has six essentials–Wood, Arthur, Coburn, Robert Cummings as Arthur’s beau, Spring Byington as her friend, and–possibly most importantly–writer Norman Krasna. Krasna’s script for Jones is a masterpiece, in plotting, in pacing, in every possible way. He even pulls off a relatively awkward finish.

It’s a pro-worker social comedy, with Coburn a fat cat who decides to spy on his employees to sabotage their union organizing. Arthur, Cummings and Byington are the employees he dupes. Great interactions with all the principals, obviously with Arthur and Coburn, but there’s a lot of nice moments with Arthur and Cummings and Coburn and Byington too.

Jones’s pure magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; written by Norman Krasna; director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Sherman Todd; production designer, William Cameron Menzies; produced by Frank Ross; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Charles Coburn (Merrick), Jean Arthur (Mary), Robert Cummings (Joe), Spring Byington (Elizabeth), S.Z. Sakall (George), Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), Walter Kingsford (Allison), Montagu Love (Harrison), Richard Carle (Oliver), Charles Waldron (Needles), Edwin Maxwell (Withers), William Demarest (First Detective), Regis Toomey (1st Policeman) and Edward McNamara (Police Sergeant).


Dangerous Partners (1945, Edward L. Cahn)

Much of Dangerous Partners‘s excellence comes from the script. Edmund L. Hartmann adapted Eleanor Perry’s story, which Marion Parsonnet then from wrote the screenplay from–in other words, it’s hard to know who’s responsible for the script’s brilliance.

Partners has a complex, unpredictable plot–it constantly forces the viewer to reevaluate characters and situations. Added to that compelling mystery element (really, the plot is superior… it’s better than most Hitchcock just in terms of fluidity and inventiveness) are the characters. Again, it’s hard to place responsibility, but every single character in the film is incredibly strong. As it progresses, further depths reveal themselves… it’s just fantastic.

The film sets up five principals–John Warburton and Signe Hasso are married con artists, Warner Alexander is a businessman, Audrey Totter is his showgirl fiancee, and James Craig is Alexander’s corrupt attorney. Edmund Gwenn shows up as a mystery man in all their lives.

Of all the performances, Totter’s is the only one with any weakness. She recovers and does well.

But Hasso and Craig are absolutely amazing. Hasso’s cold-hearted con woman, just arriving in America to make a fast buck, is frightening. Especially when she cruelly knocks Warburton around to motivate him.

And Craig… Craig manages to make a reprehensible mob lawyer not just likable, but an excellent lead character. Craig really holds the film together.

So what’s wrong with the film?

Director Cahn. While his medium and long shots are rather uninspired, his close-ups are particularly disastrous.

Still, Partners still manages to succeed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward L. Cahn; screenplay by Marion Parsonnet, based on an adaptation by Edmund L. Hartmann and a story by Eleanor Perry; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by David Snell; produced by Arthur Field; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Craig (Jeff Caighn), Signe Hasso (Carola Ballister), Edmund Gwenn (Albert Richard Kingby), Audrey Totter (Lili Roegan), Mabel Paige (Marie Drumman), John Warburton (Clyde Ballister), Henry O’Neill (Police Lt. Duffy), Grant Withers (Jonathan Drumman), Felix Bressart (Prof. Roland Budlow), Warner Anderson (Miles Kempen), Stephen McNally (Co-pilot) and John Eldredge (Farrel).


Of Human Bondage (1946, Edmund Goulding)

Slow-moving (which probably goes hand-in-hand with the source material, a novel that took me two months to read, just for lack of interest), but still rather good. Goulding is an interesting director, he really holds his shots, and he creates the material out of the basic frameworks of the novel. Paul Henreid’s Philip Carey becomes redeemable a lot sooner than Maugham’s does, which makes the second half of the film much more pleasant than the first. The second half also has a great Edmund Gwenn performance.

TCM tends to show Of Human Bondage on their Henreid or Alexis Smith days, but Smith’s hardly in the film. The female lead is Eleanor Parker, who’s great… but… Parker doesn’t get to exit the film. Her character does, from the back of the head, but it’s all Henreid’s scene. This choice is interesting (and appropriate) since Parker has a lot more to do in the film. I tend not to like actor-absence in the final scenes, but it lets Henreid become the center again. So much of the film is about Parker’s presence and absence, something jarring is needed to focus on Henreid. Henreid doesn’t even try to make his character likable, because the audience gets to see his faults over and over.

The feeling of the film–the long, torturous “bondage” Carey feels in regard to his relationship with Parker’s character–is absent in the book. The novel is big and long (I just recently referred to Lanark as an enjoyable version of Of Human Bondage–and I love Maugham, by the way) and it never leaves you feeling good. In the second half of the film, Gwenn gives every scene a pleasant end, so it’s appropriate the film manages to confirm some positivity in the human condition….

A couple odd points. 1) I always thought Alexis Smith played two characters. She doesn’t. Janis Paige plays the other one. 2) I can not understand why there’s a reference to Of Human Bondage in Seven. Not this film nor the book. Must have been an attempt at a smarty-pants move.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edmund Goulding; screenplay by Catherine Turney, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, J. Peverell Marley; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Henreid (Philip Carey), Eleanor Parker (Mildred Rogers), Alexis Smith (Nora Nesbitt), Edmund Gwenn (Athelny), Patric Knowles (Griffiths), Janis Paige (Sally Athelny), Henry Stephenson (Dr. Tyrell), Marten Lamont (Dunsford), Isobel Elsom (Mrs. Athelny), Una O’Connor (Mrs. Foreman), Eva Moore (Mrs. Gray) and Richard Nugent (Emil Miller).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory.

Between Two Worlds (1944, Edward A. Blatt)

Between Two Worlds has some nostalgic value for me. When I first discovered Eleanor Parker (through an article in the magazine, “Films of the Golden Age,” which I’ve had to drop because problematic), Between Two Worlds was somehow one of the first of her films I came across. It’s early in her career, when Warner Bros. was done using her in the one-hour B films and moved her up to the two-hour ones. However, it’s not Parker who stands out in Two Worlds, it’s John Garfield.

Between Two Worlds is a play adaptation, but doesn’t feel too much like one. It does, however, have two protagonists (Garfield and Paul Henreid). Garfield isn’t the film’s intended protagonist–it doesn’t open or close with him–but his performance is so strong, he takes the lead in a few sections. Henreid is okay, I guess, playing a character somewhat like Victor Laszlo, but Parker, as his wife, doesn’t seem to know much about him. The play is from 1924 (Outward Bound) and they updated it for World War II, so some of the tripping can be attributed to that adaptation.

Regardless, the film is too long. Some sections breeze past–whenever Garfield’s running it or when Sydney Greenstreet’s there–but others, mostly the ones with Henreid, clog. Parker’s got a great scene to herself at the end and there are a lot of good performances. Faye Emerson, who appeared in at least two other films with Parker and Garfield, is particularly frustrating. Sometimes she does good work, sometimes she does bad. She leaves on a good note and so does Between Two Worlds. I had to force myself to remember its faults.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward A. Blatt; screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, from a play by Sutton Vane; director of photography, Carl Guthrie; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; produced by Mark Hellinger; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Garfield (Tom Prior), Paul Henreid (Henry), Sydney Greenstreet (Thompson), Eleanor Parker (Ann), Edmund Gwenn (Scrubby), George Tobias (Pete Musick), George Coulouris (Lingley), Faye Emerson (Maxine) and Sara Allgood (Mrs. Midget).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory.

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

Well shit, I was wrong. I thought Foreign Correspondent was pre-Rebecca and I am incorrect.

I suppose the confusion has to do with the way Hitchcock made Correspondent. It’s very much in the style of his 1930s British films (I’m thinking primarily of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes), while Rebecca was not. Rebecca was about people, Correspondent is about events. Not that I have a problem with Hitchcock making movies about events (though Saboteur is something awful, as is The Birds). Correspondent is a damn good film. I’ve only seen it once before and the same thing happened today that happened six or seven years ago. I looked at the clock about forty minutes in and wondered how it could have gotten there. The first forty minutes of this film moves faster than any other I’ve seen. The rest moves too, but those first forty feel like eleven.

This film is a propaganda piece. But only sort of. It’s got some incredibly beautiful moments in it, moments I’m not used to in film, particularly not thrillers. In the midst of a plane crash, two characters are none-the-less affected by a death. It’s thirty seconds, probably less, but it really sets Correspondent apart. There’s also some wonderful character relationships in the film that the last hour takes the time to explore. Even the amusing scenes of a man and his assassin-to-be. The romance is exceptionally hurried, but there’s this scene on a boat that makes it all worth it. This film comes together in beautiful ways, works in beautiful ways.

It’s not a well-known Hitchcock. A quick Google search just revealed it to be “little known.” One of the reasons for the lack of notoriety is probably that Warner Bros. didn’t whore it on VHS like Universal did their Hitchcock titles. Another reason is probably Joel McCrea. Even though I saw The Most Dangerous Game at some point growing up, I had no idea who McCrea was until I started looking into film myself. This inquiry happened to coincide with AMC being great–long time ago–so I got a lot of McCrea in there. Foreign Correspondent popped up at some point during that period….

It’s not as deep as Hitchcock could get. Hitchcock did have some deeper films–Rebecca for example–but Foreign Correspondent is probably the best example of Hitchcock’s filmmaking skills. He uses methods and devices in this film that appear in everything. Whether or not these subsequent filmmakers picked it up from Correspondent, I doubt, given the quality of some of them. Watching early, raw Hitchcock is an exciting experience and Correspondent is one of the two best of these raw films (the other is The Lady Vanishes).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton and Robert Benchley; director of photography, Rudolph Mate; edited by Dorothy Spencer; released by United Artists.

Starring Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Ffolliott), Albert Basserman (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Harry Davenport (Mr. Powers), Eduardo Ciannelli (Krug), Martin Kosleck (Tramp), Eddie Conrad (Latvian Diplomat), Crauford Kent (Toastmaster), Gertrude W. Hoffman (Mrs. Benson), Jane Novak (Miss Benson), Louis Borrell (Captain Lanson), Eily Malyon (English Cashier) and E.E. Clive (Mr. Naismith).


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