Grant Mitchell

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942, William Keighley)

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, a little too obviously, an adaptation of a play. There are occasional moments outside the main setting–the home of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke–but director Keighley doesn’t do anything with them. All involve Richard Travis’s character, which suggests maybe his subplot (local reporter in the center of a media sensation) should have been expanded. Except Travis wouldn’t have really done anything with it so maybe not.

Instead, Travis is simply a cog in Dinner’s gear, much like everyone else.

The film concerns Monty Woolley getting injured while visiting Mitchell and Burke’s house (under duress) and having to stay. Woolley’s character is a famous radio personality who, in private, is a manipulative, abusive egomaniac. The screenplay, from Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, never quite works as various characters see Woolley being viciously mean to other characters, yet still warm to him. It makes everyone in the film a moron (except Woolley), even Bette Davis, who plays his suffering secretary.

The film’s at its most honest when Woolley, (an annoying) Jimmy Durante and (an utterly misused) Ann Sheridan get together and bask in the fruits of their manipulations. It’s a cruel, mean-spirited film and utterly tone-deaf about it. Seeing as how it’s a studio picture about celebrities secretly being atrocious, I guess the tone-deafness shouldn’t be a surprise. But Keighley’s direction is pretty lame anyway.

The best performance is easily Davis, though Sheridan eventually gets some good material (when she’s not just there to be Woolley’s stooge). Mitchell and Burke are both good. Travis is likable if weak. Mary Wickes is great as Woolley’s nurse; she manages to weather the film, which plays his cruel treatment of her entirely for laughs, with dignity.

As for Woolley… is he good as an utterly reprehensible jerk? Sure. Is there any point to watching almost two hours of it?

No.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Jack Killifer; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Jack L. Warner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bette Davis (Maggie Cutler), Ann Sheridan (Lorraine Sheldon), Monty Woolley (Sheridan Whiteside), Richard Travis (Bert Jefferson), Jimmy Durante (Banjo), Billie Burke (Mrs. Ernest Stanley), Reginald Gardiner (Beverly Carlton), Elisabeth Fraser (June Stanley), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Ernest Stanley), George Barbier (Dr. Bradley), Mary Wickes (Miss Preen), Russell Arms (Richard Stanley), Ruth Vivian (Harriet), Edwin Stanley (John), Betty Roadman (Sarah), Charles Drake (Sandy), Nanette Vallon (Cosette) and John Ridgely (Radio Man).


monty-woolley


The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts)

With a better director, a competent editor and a slightly stronger screenplay, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford might be more than an amusing diversion. While William Powell and Jean Arthur are great together, the film underuses them in general and her in particular. There’s this great dinner scene where she’s seeing if they’re going to get poisoned by jello (something she neglects to tell him). It’s a long and wonderful scene and apparently director Roberts didn’t realize he needed to use it as the standard, not the exception.

Roberts’s weak composition and lack of coverage combined with Arthur Roberts’s hideous editing (it’s unclear if they’re related) do a lot of damage to the film. Anthony Veiller’s script has some great dialogue but the plotting is rushed, especially for a murder mystery. Also unfortunate is Veiller’s inept finish. He modifies the Thin Man dinner party revelation to include unlikely technology gimmicks.

While the film actually doesn’t share a lot in details or tone with Powell’s Thin Man series; he’s not just sober, he’s also a responsible adult. Arthur is tenacious, but she’s an aspiring murder mystery novelist, so there’s some context. They’re both wealthy, which means Powell’s got a sidekick in butler Eric Blore.

A tired James Gleason shows up as the requisite cop (he gets the film’s worst dialogue). Robert Armstrong is the best in the supporting cast as a bookie. Erin O’Brien-Moore is shockingly bad as a suspect.

The film’s amiable enough, but it should’ve been a lot better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Arthur Roberts; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel), Lila Lee (Miss Prentiss), Grant Mitchell (John Summers), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Mrs. Summers), Ralph Morgan (Leroy Hutchins) and Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Hutchins).


Central Airport (1933, William A. Wellman)

Maybe the film should have been called The Lecher, the Floozie and the Rube, because Central Airport doesn’t have anything to do with the plot. I kept waiting for it to turn into a Grand Hotel at an airport, but it’s really a soaper about pilot Richard Barthelmess who romances air show parachuter Sally Eilers only to lose her to his younger brother, played by Tom Brown.

The film’s pre-code so there’s premarital sex and wedded sex. Eilers is frequently in lingerie. When she and Barthelmess meet, he can’t keep his eyes or hands off her. Only after her brother explodes does Barthelmess control his hands.

But Barthelmess doesn’t want to marry her because fliers shouldn’t get married (I think someone else dies or something). And now Eilers is a tarnished woman. Conveniently enter younger brother Brown who’s devoted to her. He’ll marry her–even after she tells him everything.

Barthelmess finds out, runs off to Mexico and becomes a hero in China, Chile and Nicaragua. He’s devastatingly heroic and Eilers gets bright-eyed whenever anyone says his name. When they meet again, they’re all set to make a cuckold of Brown, but then he’s in a life threatening situation.

My favorite part of the picture is when Eilers is upset Brown’s survived his ordeal.

Wellman’s direction is fantastic. There are some great models and effects shots.

It’s a story about nasty people doing nasty things to each other and the viewer is supposed to feel bad for them.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, based on a story by Jack Moffitt; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by James B. Morley; music by Howard Jackson and Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Barthelmess (Jim Blaine), Sally Eilers (Jill Collins), Tom Brown (Neil Blaine), Grant Mitchell (Mr. Blaine), James Murray (Eddie Hughes), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Blaine), Willard Robertson (Havana Airport Manager) and Arthur Vinton (Amarillo Airport Manager).


The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939, Harold S. Bucquet)

Watching The Secret of Dr. Kildare is about two things–seeing Lionel Barrymore’s fantastic performance (even as he’s spouting expositional dialogue, it’s riveting) and finding out the deep dark secret of patient Helen Gilbert. It’s the third film in the series and the staples are already in place–Lew Ayres, under some false pretense, stops working for Barrymore. Ayres’s parents, Samuel S. Hinds and Emma Dunn, show up for some contrived reason. Laraine Day is heartbroken Ayres doesn’t know she loves him. Nat Pendleton flirts with Marie Blake before having one fantastic scene involving a fist fight. The script’s just loose melodramatic threads to get these set pieces into place, held together by the cast’s likability, Barrymore’s talent and the mystery to be solved.

What’s most distressing about the film is its length. It only runs eighty-four minutes but halfway through, it’s already at a near standstill. It’s excruciating at times because the titular Secret is one the audience knows and the film’s present action is a couple weeks. There’s no tension to it–it’s just a matter of how everything will be fixed by the end, not if. The script doesn’t take any chances, it’s all paint by numbers. The mediocrity makes every decent moment in the film seem fantastic, whether it’s Ayres picking up Day for a date or Barrymore fishing with assistant George Reed. The occasionally inventive developments–like Grant Mitchell’s crack “doctor” and Sara Haden’s wacko–get Secret‘s heart rate up, waking the viewer.

While the script gives Barrymore a complex, textured character, Ayres’s Dr. Kildare–especially considering the film’s title bares his name–gets a lukewarm treatment. Ayres gives a fine performance–though Bucquet and editor Frank E. Hull hold reaction shots too long–but there’s no enthusasim… not just from Ayres, but from the film itself. He’s the least interesting character in the film, when he’s not around Barrymore, Dunn or Pendleton, it’s hard to believe Ayres could stay awake to deliver his lines. The scene with his fellow interns offers three other characters who give the impression of being far more interesting. Ayres’s romance with Day is boring–she’s far more lively in her scenes with Barrymore. When it’s just Ayres and Gilbert, only the change in setting, from the hospital to a skyscraper observatory for instance, keep the film moving. If it weren’t for Haden’s loon, the second half (when Barrymore and Ayres are bickering) would be static.

Bucquet, besides that annoying editing laziness I mentioned before, does a decent job. He keeps the scenes with Barrymore, those long expository scenes, interesting. But he doesn’t do anything to overcome the script’s shortcomings.

Besides Barrymore, there’s some fine acting from Pendleton (who has almost nothing to do, but approaches it with relish) and Lionel Atwill. Atwill’s a fine character actor, it’s a shame he’s mostly known for his work in horror films. Gilbert’s okay… as the film progresses, she gets more histrionic. Day has nothing to do.

It’s hard to get involved with the film or invested in it, because there’s little sign the filmmakers had any interest either.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Harold S. Bucquet; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Harry Ruskin, based on a story by Max Brand; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by David Snell; produced by Lou L. Ostrow; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Lew Ayres (Dr. Jimmy Kildare), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Leonard Gillespie), Lionel Atwill (Paul Messenger), Helen Gilbert (Nancy Messenger), Nat Pendleton (Joe Wayman), Laraine Day (Nurse Mary Lamont), Sara Haden (Nora), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. Stephen Kildare), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Martha Kildare), Walter Kingsford (Dr. S.J. Carew), Grant Mitchell (John Xerxes Archley), Alma Kruger (Head Nurse Molly Byrd), Robert Kent (Charles Herron), Marie Blake (Sally), Martha O’Driscoll (Mrs. Roberts) and Nell Craig (Nurse Parker).


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)

Arsenic and Old Lace has to be one of the finest–if not the finest–film adaptations of a stage production. Nothing about the film, save the knowledge it’s from a play, suggests its theatrical origins… not the one night present action, not the one set. It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, down to what has to be Frank Capra’s most inventive direction. Capra’s confined to that one set for the majority of the film and he keeps things very interesting. He reveals the house gradually, not even exploring the full size of the main room–where around seventy percent of the story takes place–until well into the third act of the film.

The film’s full of fantastic performances, but the story’s split between Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Grant disappears for a while and Massey takes over, but filling a completely different role than Grant. The film sort of goes without a protagonist for a while in Grant’s absence (Massey isn’t really an antagonist at this point) and the story accelerates into a different area without him. When he returns, he doesn’t inhabit the film in the same way. For the first half, watching Arsenic and Old Lace is watching Grant. Sure, lots of good stuff is going on around him, but his performance is captivating. It’s unlike anything else (Grant hated the performance) and it’s wonderful. Maybe because it so perfectly matches the viewer’s expectation of a reasonable person’s response to the film’s fantastic situation. The romance between Grant and Priscilla Lane–which has a lot of texture independent of the main action’s two plots (the aunts and their gentlemen and Massey’s return)–is wonderful too. Lane and Grant play great off each other; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Massey has the film’s most difficult role, since it’s so incredible. I wonder how much Arsenic and Old Lace did for Boris Karloff’s name recognition, as Massey has to personify the idea of Karloff (and the unmentioned Frankenstein) from his first moment on film. But Massey has to go further–he has to be both menacing, dangerous and silly. The viewer has to be scared of Massey and what he might do, but also has to be able to laugh at him. By the time he’s ready to go after Grant, the viewer’s already had a chance to laugh at him a little, but Massey brings it all around to present real danger.

Peter Lorre has a similar position. He has to be funny–Lorre’s performance is one of film’s great comedic performances–but also endearing and a little disturbing. He’s still Massey’s partner in crime, even if he’s incredibly likable. There isn’t a weak performance in the film or even one less than stellar, but Lorre still stands out.

The rest of the supporting cast–Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the two aunts are great–is all exceptional. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those flawlessly casted films.

My wife had never seen the film before, which made the viewing even more entertaining. It’s least like the rest of Capra’s films of the period, but that dissimilarity somehow makes it more exciting to see from him. It’s as close to experimental as Capra ever got with his style. It might even be his most impressive work as a director; he’s essential to the film, which has such a strong script, it’s easy to think he could have gotten lost somewhere.

I’m hard pressed to identify my favorite part of the film. I love the sequences with Lane and Grant in the graveyard, but Grant’s long stretch of discovering what’s going on–where he’s the whole show–is fantastic too. But then there’s Lorre….

There’s just too many great things about Arsenic and Old Lace to narrow it down.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Herman Einstein), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), John Alexander (Theodore Brewster), Jack Carson (Officer Patrick O’Hara), John Ridgely (Officer Saunders), Edward McNamara (Police Sgt. Brophy), James Gleason (Lt. Rooney), Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon), Vaughan Glaser (Judge Cullman), Chester Clute (Dr. Gilchrist), Edward McWade (Mr. Gibbs), Charles Lane (Reporter at Marriage License Office) and Garry Owen (Taxi Cab Driver).


The Feminine Touch (1941, W.S. Van Dyke)

Don Ameche is a university professor working on his book revealing jealousy as an outdated concept. Rosalind Russell is his wife, who wishes Ameche would get jealous over her. Enter Kay Francis and Van Heflin as their extra-martial temptations (though, not really, because Ameche’s not interested in Francis and he’s right about Russell too). Actually, only Heflin is interested. Anyway, as a romantic comedy The Feminine Touch establishes rather early what it’s going to need to get itself sorted out and then takes around ninety minutes getting there. The performances are good for the most part (Russell gets tiresome after about seventy minutes) and it’s decently written–until the third act, there are some rather amusing scenes.

The problem with the film is it doesn’t play to its strengths. Until the third act and the lead-up to it, Francis and Heflin are basically fodder. Heflin’s fantastic as the would-be philanderer, but his character is useless, around to give Russell something to do (ignore his advances). The film’s greatest strength is Ameche and Russell’s happy marriage, which provides for some very good scenes. Their chemistry is so strong and with W.S. Van Dyke directing, it’s hard not to wonder if The Feminine Touch wasn’t originally a project for William Powell and Myrna Loy. But when it choses the necessary path for standard martial comedy conflict, it gets unpleasant. The third act tries to force joke after joke, reducing Ameche to something out of Tex Avery. It gets silly, instead of smart and, as opposed to the beginning, when it really felt like Joseph L. Mankiewicz was producing the film, by the end it felt like he went home after a while to read a book.

Van Dyke’s direction is excellent, of course, subtle but comedic, while maintaining a sympathetic connection to the protagonists of each scene. However, there’s a terrible dream sequence–it looks like someone aped a bunch of Dali on a wall and had Ameche and Russell walk in front of it. Van Dyke does not do well with the fantastic (or, apparently, insuring the set decorators in charge of painting backdrops had heard of perspective–the dream sequence is particularly bad because it’s two dimensional).

The strong start but the small scope of the story (there are five actors credited at the beginning and it’d be hard, after seeing it, to list more than eight) combined with turning Ameche into a caricature and Russell into a manipulative jerk–not to mention the really poor handling of a one month gap between scenes–makes The Feminine Touch decidedly lacking. Especially in terms of a title. It really has nothing to do with the film….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by George Oppenheimer, Edmund L. Hartmann and Ogden Nash; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Albert Akst; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Rosalind Russell (Julie Hathaway), Don Ameche (Prof. John Hathaway), Kay Francis (Nellie Woods), Van Heflin (Elliott Morgan, Publisher), Donald Meek (Captain Makepeace Liveright), Gordon Jones (Rubber-Legs Ryan), Henry Daniell (Shelley Mason, Critic), Sidney Blackmer (Freddie Bond, Elliott’s Lawyer), Grant Mitchell (Dean Hutchinson, Digby College) and David Clyde (Brighton, Elliot’s Butler).


Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)

It’s called Dinner at Eight, not Leading Up to Dinner at Eight. I had this film taped from TCM and it was near the head of my movielens recommendations–and movielens has been frighteningly accurate–so I watched it….

There’s a lot of good acting in the film–I can’t decide which Barrymore is better or if Wallace Beery is the best. Billie Burke, as the hostess, is good and Jean Harlow’s got some nice moments.

But, really, come on. I can’t believe this one has the reputation it does. It’s not just that it’s stagy, it’s that it isn’t about any of the characters, just about being about them. And it’s too long. Way too long. And there’s no dinner. Don’t be cute, show me the damn dinner.

For a while, it seemed all right. Star-crossed lovers and ruminations about aging… but then it just got long and irritating.

I think I’m going to have to go with Lionel, now that I think about it more.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Frances Marion, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber; director of photography, Williams H. Daniels; edited by Ben Lewis; music by William Axt; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Marie Dressier (Carlotta Vance), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), Lee Tracy (Max Kane), Edmund Lowe (Dr. Wayne Talbot), Billie Burke (Mrs. Oliver Jordan), Madge Evans (Paula Jordan), Jean Harsholt (Jo Stengel), Karen Morley (Mrs. Wayne Talbot), Louise Closser Hale (Hattie Loomis), Phillips Holmes (Ernest DeGraff), May Robson (Mrs. Wendel), Grant Mitchell (Ed Loomis), Phoebe Foster (Miss Alden), Elizabeth Patterson (Miss Copeland), Hilda Vaughn (Tina), Harry Beresford (Fosdick), Edwin Maxwell (Mr. Fitch), John Davidson (Mr. Hatfield), Edward Woods (Eddie), George Baxter (Gustave), Herman Bing (The Waiter) and Anna Duncan (Dora).


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