Tag Archives: Charles Coburn

Lured (1947, Douglas Sirk)

If Lured had gone just a little bit differently, it could’ve kicked off a franchise for Lucille Ball and George Sanders. He’s the high society snob, she’s the New York girl in London, they solve mysteries. But Lured isn’t their detective story; it’s Charles Coburn’s detective story, they’re just the guest stars. Coburn’s a Scotland Yard inspector who has all the latest science—there’s a time-killing typewritten letter analysis sequence at beginning—but isn’t any closer to finding a probable serial killer. Even though the police haven’t found any bodies, they’ve gotten corresponding missing persons from right when they get these creepy poems sent into them.

Ball comes into the story because she’s friends with the latest victim. She and the friend were taxi dancers (Ball had come to London in a show, it closed almost immediately), but the friend was going off with some guy she met in the personals. Coburn—in an adorable and out-of-place (Lured’s got a certain light tone to the danger, but it’s not established by then) scene—recruits Ball to the police force to work undercover as bait. Because if you’re going to buy into Georgian Charles Coburn as a Scotland Yard inspector, you’re going to buy him recruiting Ball to be bait. And of course Ball is going to go for it because she’s scrappy.

So the movie’s gone from Coburn to Ball. Top-billed George Sanders has been introduced separately, as a nightclub owner and professional cad who’s taken a liking to scrappy Ball. Sight unseen. The scrappiness. Sanders has some truly adorable moments in the film, which unfortunately don’t last, but when he moons over Ball’s voice to business partner and best pal Cedric Hardwicke, it’s fantastic. Especially since when Ball and Sanders finally do get together, they’re great. They run out of moments way too quickly, as the film then shifts—middle of the second act—back to Coburn and the police investigation. Both Sanders and Ball almost entirely disappear from the action—even if it makes sense for Sanders, it makes zero sense for Ball (especially since the shift comes right after she’s ostensibly in grave danger)—and instead its cat and mouse between Coburn and his prime suspect. Lured has a protracted scene confirming the audience’s suspicions with Coburn’s. Even though Coburn’s always likable, he’s not really able to carry full scenes on his own. Having Ball come into the movie and give him someone to play off, then the scenes work, because there’s enough energy. But when he’s having wordy showdowns? Eh. It’s like Lured’s already forgotten its had Boris Karloff in a wonderfully goofy (but still dangerous) sequence. Like director Sirk and screenwriter Leo Rosten didn’t know how to pace out their action set pieces. They have all the energetic ones early, with the finales being a little too perfunctory.

It still works out pretty well because Ball’s great, Sanders is great, Coburn’s always likable, and Sirk and his crew do some fine work. The Michel Michelet score often tries to do a little too much, but it’s a fine score. It wouldn’t be doing too much if Sirk hadn’t left too much room. The storytelling is sporadic and needs a cohesive narrative tone to compensate, something to give the de facto vignettes… some, I don’t know, rhythm. Sirk doesn’t have any tonal rhythm. So the music fills in and sometimes a little too loudly.

Great photography from William H. Daniels.

Many of the performances are outstanding. Ball, Sanders, Karloff; George Zucco as Ball’s guardian angel and a recurring narrative element Sirk also doesn’t do quite right. Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray; they’re both good with potential for more (but not in it enough). Coburn’s good. Hardwicke’s all right but the part’s not great. With Coburn and Hardwicke, for different reasons, maybe the problem is the script. Or, just with Coburn, maybe the problem is he’s kind of stunt casting only without there being any followthrough. For Lured to excel, it either needed great performances in Coburn and Hardwicke’s parts or it needed to emphasize Ball and Sanders’s chemistry. It does neither.

Instead, it’s a near success, with some great acting and some excellent filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Leo Rosten, based on a story by Jacques Companéez, Ernst Neubach, and Simon Gantillon; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by John M. Foley; production designer, Nicolai Remisoff; music by Michel Michelet; produced by James Nasser; released by United Artists.

Starring Lucille Ball (Sandra Carpenter), Charles Coburn (Inspector Harley Temple), George Sanders (Robert Fleming), Cedric Hardwicke (Julian Wilde), George Zucco (Officer H.R. Barrett), Alan Mowbray (Lyle Maxwell), Joseph Calleia (Dr. Nicholas Moryani), Tanis Chandler (Lucy Barnard), and Boris Karloff (Charles van Druten).


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Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA FROM LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

Preston Sturges has a great structure to The Lady Eve. The first part of the film–the majority of the runtime–has wealthy oddball Henry Fonda returning home on a ship and falling in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Makes sense, as she’s wonderful, only she (and her father, Charles Coburn) are card sharps out to fleece rich passengers. This part of Eve is the most luxurious in terms of the storytelling–Fonda and Stanwyck have great chemistry and, in addition to Coburn providing support, there’s also William Demarest as Fonda’s comically rough valet.

With a subplot or two and a happy ending, Sturges could’ve just told the entire story on the ship. Instead, he jumps ahead. It’s kind of hard to talk about Lady Eve without including a spoiler or two; I’ll tread carefully.

The jump ahead changes up the dynamics of the relationship between Stanwyck and Fonda, with Fonda assuming the rube role he never took in the first part of the picture. And Sturges, while giving Stanwyck excellent material and the most screen time, also changes the tone of the film. There’s slapstick; the previously established characters, contained in that first section, are looser. Sturges doesn’t play the comedy for the viewer (except some of Demarest and Eugene Pallette–wonderful as Fonda’s father). It’s for the characters. So Lady Eve can be loud and lovely.

Fantastic performances and character moments throughout. Eric Blore and Melville Cooper have nice smaller parts.

Sturges, Fonda, and Stanwyck–especially Stanwyck–make magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on a story by Moncton Hoffe; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Jean), Henry Fonda (Charles), Charles Coburn (Colonel Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Martha O’Driscoll (Martha), Robert Greig (Burrows) and Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike).


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The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens)

The More the Merrier is a wondrous mix of comedy (both slapstick and screwball) and dramatic, war-time romance. Director Stevens is expert at both–that war-time romance angle is as gentle as can be, with Stevens relying heavily on leads Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea to be able to toggle between both. And they do, ably. Arthur and McCrea have spellbinding chemistry in the film.

But the film doesn’t open with either of them. It opens with–and stays with–Charles Coburn’s character. He’s in town on business (Merrier’s set in Washington DC during the WWII housing shortage) and his series of misadventures, fueled by that fantastic Coburn superiority, gets him a room with Arthur. And, subsequently, McCrea (bunking with Coburn).

The beauty of Coburn’s character is how he too toggles, but between being a slightly absentminded buffoon (he and McCrea’s goof-off scenes together are great) and a really serious businessman.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s got the distraction of McCrea while she deals with her politicking fiancé (and boss) Richard Gaines. Once the flirtation between McCrea and Arthur kicks in, which takes until the second half of the film, Merrier has this glorious new depth to it. Arthur and McCrea are just amazing, which I already said, but it needs to be said again.

Great direction from Stevens–he’s got a number of sublime shots–and photography from Ted Tetzlaff.

Stevens, Arthur, McCrea and Coburn make the film’s dramatic elements superior thanks to the absurdist comedy. It’s brilliant.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy and Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Russell and Ross; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Otto Meyer; music by Leigh Harline; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Connie Milligan), Joel McCrea (Joe Carter), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Dingle), Richard Gaines (Charles J. Pendergast), Bruce Bennett (FBI Agent Evans), Frank Sully (FBI Agent Pike), Donald Douglas (FBI Agent Harding), Clyde Fillmore (Senator Noonan) and Stanley Clements (Morton Rodakiewicz).


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