Frank McHugh

Mighty Joe Young (1949, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

From the first scene, Mighty Joe Young is concerning. There’s a nice establishing shot of an Africa plantation, with some great matte work, then little White girl on the plantation Lora Lee Michel sees a couple African men passing with a basket. She wants what’s in the basket, so there’s a nice lengthy barter sequence where you try to figure out not if it’s racist, but in how many ways it’s racist. Michel’s supposed to be adorable but is annoying and bad, which is more than Mighty Joe can handle. It’s going to be bad way too frequently; annoying and bad is just too much. Michel gets the basket and the baby gorilla it carries. When dad (a completely checked out Regis Toomey) gets home, he says she can’t keep the gorilla but of course she can because she’s precocious and mom’s dead.

Toomey’s foreshadowing for the supporting performances in the rest of the movie, which is familiar faces giving—at best—checked out performances and, in the case of Nestor Paiva, annoying ones. Though maybe it’s not Paiva’s fault; he’s playing the part like you want to see him get eaten by lions but Mighty Joe Young is a cloying kids’ movie and there’s not going to be any great feline feasting. Worse, there’s going to be lots of lions thrown around for stunts.

The film skips ahead twelve years and 8,000 miles west to New York City, where promoter Robert Armstrong is gearing up for an African expedient. He’s opening a new safari-themed Hollywood night club, even though sidekick Frank McHugh thinks it’s a bad idea. You know who doesn’t think it’s a bad idea? Out of work rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, who’s character’s last name is Johnson and you feel like it’s because Johnson would forget anything else. Johnson’s not unlikable or annoying—actually quite the feat—but he’s beyond amateurish. Director Schoedsack does nothing for his actors.

So off Armstrong and Johnson go to Africa, joined by one of the aforementioned checked-out supporting performers, Denis Green (really, it’s hard to fault any of the actors when Ruth Rose’s script has the blandest dialogue and Schoedsack’s got zero interest in directing the cast). They’re just about to come home with all the tigers Johnson and his fellow cowboys have lassoed when Mighty Joe Young comes a-knocking–previewing the film’s impressive composite shots, where stop motion Joe will interact with the live action—and Armstrong, feeling his Carl Denham coming on, decides they’re going to rope it and bring it back with them.

Only after Joe beats up a bunch of cowboys—the cowboy thing, which goes away for most of the movie after this sequence, seems the most desperate bit of quadrant hunting—does Terry Moore appear and calm the the mighty ape. Moore is playing Michel grown-up; though, in the weirdest, definitely ickiest while not for sure being intentionally gross quadrant hunting, she’s not yet legal age, which means the contract she signs with Armstrong to do a night club act isn’t legal and also it means when thirty-year old Johnson is her love interest, he was going to have to take Moore back to Oklahoma to marry her because even in 1948 it seems like California wasn’t okay with literal dudes taking child brides. Oklahoma was, of course.

Anyway.

Things go terribly wrong and there’s a long Joe wrecking Safari-themed night club scene and fighting lions. The strange thing about the action is what the film’s willing to do stop motion and what it’s not. It uses stop motion lions sparingly, instead cutting in the real ones, usually just when a thrown lion hits something, giving the aforementioned air of animal abuse. With the horses too, in the Joe vs. cowboys scene. It also seems like the kind of movie where they’d hurt animals, while the main plot is about how you shouldn’t hurt an animal. After the night club, Johnson and Moore have to get Joe out of town—the cops want to shoot him dead—so Armstrong helps them get out.

The climax isn’t even about Joe vs. the cops or Joe escaping, it’s this out-of-nowhere orphanage fire, where Johnson, Moore, and the ape have to save children. That sequence is pretty good. The lasso thing comes back and is dumb, but it’s at last suspenseful. Most of it, anyway. They push it, which isn’t a surprise.

The stop motion’s good, but underutilized. While nothing about Joe is interesting—it feels like budget King Kong, especially the model design on Joe; the movement is great, the model itself is eh—some of the other effects, particularly with the occasional person, clicks. There’s some potential to it.

About halfway through it seems like the film’s greatest tragedy is wasting Armstrong, who’s sort of spoofing himself, sort of just doing a broad comedy performance. It rarely all comes together—Rose’s script and Schoedsack’s direction work actively against it—but, again, the obvious potential is visible. Armstrong and McHugh really ought to have been a lot more fun together.

Moore’s awful. She’s not unlikable but she’s tiring. Johnson’s at least not tiring, but it might be because he’s so unmoving you forget he’s not scenery.

A distressingly bad score from Roy Webb doesn’t help either.

From go—well, okay, from the first scene with actors—Mighty Joe Young is clearly in dire straits. The special effects sequences are technically engaging but rarely dramatically. Who knows what better writing and better direction might’ve wrought. Perhaps something entertaining, but at least the great performance Armstrong can so obviously deliver, if only someone were interested in him doing so.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; screenplay by Ruth Rose, based on a story by Merian C. Cooper; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Ted Cheesman; music by Roy Webb; costume designer, Adele Balkan; produced by Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Max O’Hara), Ben Johnson (Gregg), Terry Moore (Jill Young), Frank McHugh (Windy), Denis Green (Crawford), Nestor Paiva (Brown, a drunk), Douglas Fowley (Jones, another drunk), Paul Guilfoyle (Smith, yet another drunk), Lora Lee Michel (Jill Young, as a girl), and Regis Toomey (John Young).


I Love You Again (1940, W.S. Van Dyke)

I Love You Again is such a confident success–the whole thing rests on William Powell and everything he does in the entire picture is fantastic–it’s hard to think of anything wrong with it. It moves beautifully, its ninety-nine minutes sailing by, the supporting cast is all excellent and every one of its big comic scenes work.

The film’s premise–Powell as a teetotaler who, following a hit on the head, discovers he’s really a con artist–is well-suited as a vehicle for he and Myrna Loy. Loy plays the divorcing wife–bored with the teetotaler–who finds him a changed and intriguing man. I Love You Again comes about seven years after their first pairing and the two work in absolute unison, allowing the narrative to do without added exposition.

Watching Powell pursue Loy–and run afoul of her new beau, played by Donald Douglas (in one of the film’s only weak performances)–is delightful, with their pre-existing film partnership part of the agreed upon amusement. And it’s their filmic relationship, the one playing out in I Love You Again, where the film gets overconfident. It assumes the viewer will take that relationship for granted to a degree; the romance, which becomes the film’s driving force, isn’t the biggest plot foil.

Instead, there’s an elaborate con going on. The con’s good and beautifully handled–it’s a shame Edmund Lowe doesn’t have more scenes, but Frank McHugh’s great as Powell’s sidekick–but it confuses the film’s effectiveness. Loy’s hardly in the film’s last third, just because there’s an elaborate and hilarious set-up for the con involving Powell dressed up as a Boy Scout. Because the sequence is so good–and because Loy and Powell do have a nice scene dealing with the romance plot following it–as the film plays, it isn’t clear how much time Loy’s been off-screen.

The first half of the film, filled with some of its best comic scenes–there’s a great dinner scene with Powell, Loy and Douglas, another scene with Powell and Loy shopping–is heavy on Loy. She’s an integral part of the experience and to put her off-screen because it’s workable is bothersome (I know I’m harping on it, but Loy doesn’t get a very good close).

In some ways, this pairing is more convenient than collaborative. Powell gets to do physical comedy, play two wildly different parts (the teetotaler being completely against type for him) and gets to work with McHugh. He and Powell have a great chemistry and McHugh gets most of the film’s best lines; his character is the only one free of a real narrative.

But the film viewing experience itself is so joyful, it’s hard to identify the shortcuts the filmmakers are taking while watching. The film’s a superior diversion and the slightly less than filling feeling takes a few minutes to set in. During, there are a few moments where it’s clear Van Dyke’s not really giving the direction his all. Some of the camera set-ups are identical–even if they frequently do have some excellent cuts–and he’s not really trying. He doesn’t have to, not with the material, not with the cast, but it’d have been something if he had.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Charles Lederer, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz, based on a story by Leon Gordon and Maurine Dallas Watkins and the novel by Octavus Roy Cohen; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Larry Wilson), Myrna Loy (Kay Wilson), Frank McHugh (Doc Ryan), Edmund Lowe (Duke Sheldon), Donald Douglas (Herbert), Nella Walker (Kay’s mother), Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer (Leonard Harkspur Jr.), Pierre Watkin (Mr. W.H. Sims), Paul Stanton (Mr. Edward Littlejohn Sr.), Morgan Wallace (Mr. Phil Belenson) and Charles Arnt (Mr. Billings).


The Runaround (1946, Charles Lamont)

It takes a while for The Runaround to get started… actually, I suppose it’d more accurate to say it stalls out after the first fifteen minutes, then takes another twenty or so to get started again. The film starts out strong with Frank McHugh in a sidekick role–McHugh’s perfect in that role–and lead Rod Cameron is appealing (even if he’s not the most emotive actor). The first fifteen minutes are a comedic chase between Cameron and opponent (they’re private detectives competing–whoever brings home the missing heiress wins) Broderick Crawford. Crawford’s really broad in this role, so broad it got me thinking about the use of the term to describe performances. It doesn’t hurt the film much (though, obviously, a really good performance would have been nice), but it is a surprise coming from Crawford. There’s not much in the script, but it’s open enough he could have done something with it.

Then Ella Raines shows up (as the missing heiress) and the movie stalls out. The script tries to force her in to the existing chance and competition sequences already going and it starts getting tiresome around the forty minute mark. The characters had been moving east–from California–for a few minutes with the same gags going on, then there’s a wonderfully choreographed chase scene involving a dozen taxis and… the movie changes. A lot has to do with Raines’s character developing, but it also changes tone. The Runaround changes, almost immediately, in to a great road movie. There’s still the competition and chase elements, but they become third and fourth, behind the romance and the road movie.

Lamont is a particularly good fight scene director–I’m pretty sure the scene where Crawford knocks the door shut with a jump kick is really him–and he has some other nice sequences. Most of them are on the road… It’s nice how the movie can skirt taking too long to get where it’s going and putting in some substandard minutes and not call attention to the obvious quality shift (oddly, the less McHugh is in the story, the better the movie). It plays like it needed a rewrite, like the writers figured out certain aspects of the story when writing the script, then never went back to tighten up the scenes.

There are also quite a few good more traditional comedy moments (particularly the hotel with the annoyingly friendly employees or the husband and wife who are supposed to be acting like newlyweds, but after six years and three kids, find the idea repugnant) and they contribute to The Runaround’s success. But most of the credit belongs to Cameron and Raines’s chemistry, even if she’s done far better work in other films (though, like I said before, the script works against her for her first fifteen minutes or so).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Lamont; screenplay by Sam Hellman and Arthur T. Horman, based on a story by Horman and Walter Wise; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Joseph Gershenson; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ella Raines (Penelope), Rod Cameron (Kildane), Broderick Crawford (Louis Prentiss), Frank McHugh (Wally Quayle), George Cleveland (Feenan the cabbie), Joan Shawlee (Baby Willis), Samuel S. Hinds (Norman Hampton), Joe Sawyer (Hutchins), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Mildred Hampton), Dave Willock (Willis), Charles Coleman (Butler) and Jack Overman (Cusack).


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