Saturday, 27 June 2009

Back to the Oldies

Some people indulge in "comfort food" to alleviate whatever; my vice is "comfort movies". Whenever I feel I am getting a surfeit of tasteless modern fare or I'm satiated with foreign arthouse flicks (and there have been a profusion of these lately), I go back in time to preferably beautiful black and white minor films. Since I last wrote, there has been time for two of these which were dandy, plus a relatively more recent colour movie which didn't quite do the trick. The gems, such as they are, first:

Quality Street (1937): I am a big Katharine Hepburn fan even from this period in her career when she was considered 'box-office poison'. Based on a J. M. Barrie play, she plays a spinster living with her sister Fay Bainter, whose one true love -- Franchot Tone -- has gone off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. When he returns ten years later, he seems not to recognize the plain schoolma'am she has become, so she pretends to be her own young and flirtatious niece to win him back. The joke is that he really has been in love with her all along and he must find a way of disposing of the mythical niece to satisfy all of the nosy neighbours; foremost of these is the wonderful Estelle Winwood who was still appearing in films when she was pushing 100. This movie directed by George Stevens, is impossibly twee like so much Barrie whimsy, but the wonderful Hepburn brings a warmth and glow to her role which makes it all worthwhile.

Angels over Broadway (1940): Written and directed by Ben Hecht, this film nominally stars Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as a penniless hustler, the ever-so-gorgeous Rita Hayworth as a showgirl down on her luck, and Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic playwright (it's fascinating how often he was chosen to play a drunk!) They get together one evening to help poor snook John Qualen -- a fixture in John Ford films -- raise 3000 bucks to satisfy his boss who is about to turn him over to the police for embezzlement. And it is Qualen who really makes this movie the happy experience it is, as Mitchell concocts a scenario where Fairbanks will get Qualen into a crooked poker game, contriving for him to leave early on with his "come-on" winnings. It's a very small little movie, but it manages to convey a big heart.

Hot Enough for June (1964): Some titles remain more in the memory than the movie attached to them, and so it was with this one which I hadn't seen for yonks. In truth, the film has not aged well, although it still had its moments. For some reason, the title was changed in the U.S. to "Agent 8 & 3/4", suggesting some sort of spoof, since Dirk Bogarde is the unsuspecting spy sent to Prague, but is hardly meant to embody the derring-do of a James Bond. In fact he acquits himself admirably while managing to romance communista Sylva Koschina. Bogarde was THE British heartthrob of the 60s, but in fact was not one for the ladies, which makes his romantic leads somewhat hilarious in retrospect. The very best thing about this movie was the casting of Robert Morley and John LeMesurier as the couldn't-give-a-damn British spymasters and Leo McKern as their Czech counterpart. All very good-natured, but not as memorable the original title (which was the code-phrase for identifying overseas moles). I doubt that I will be tempted to revisit here again.
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