Tag Archives: Don Ameche

Midnight (1939, Mitchell Leisen)

Midnight is a rather smart film. Screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are able to do a whole bunch of plot twists–always through comedic means–because of how they’ve got the film structured. The film opens with Claudette Colbert arriving in Paris, penniless. Taxi driver Don Ameche takes pity on her and falls for her. There’s the beginning of a great melodrama.

Only Ameche loses Colbert and his subplot is about finding her. He doesn’t have any other plots, just that subplot. He’s not in the movie a lot after the first third, though he does come back in time for the finish, which is good because it’s why his name is second-billed above the title.

John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer and Rex O’Malley all get billed under the title, which stands out. They seem like bigger names than under the title billing suggests. And Barrymore’s a big part of the film. He’s the one at the center of Midnight’s actual plot–Colbert helping Barrymore keep Lederer away from Astor. See, Barrymore’s Astor’s husband and Lederer is her indiscreet companion. Lots of amazing comedy stuff from Barrymore. He’s got great material, but his performance is phenomenal–with director Leisen doing a lot of it non-verbally. Sight gags with John Barrymore, it doesn’t get much better. He’d run away with the movie if it weren’t for everyone else racing him.

Astor, for example, is fabulous. Her part–mischievous adulterer–ought to get old fast, but never does. Brackett and Wilder give each scene’s leads wonderful dialogue, but Leisen makes sure the actors without lines are doing just as much acting listening to whatever disaster is occurring or being avoided in front of them. Midnight’s never madcap, it’s never rushed, it’s always thorough. The jokes, visual or aural, always get enough time. In the second half, the film even introduces one-line caps to each sequence. It’s great–and it’s deliberately done once the film has changed gears a bit. Midnight is always unpredictable (at least in how Brackett and Wilder are getting where they’re going).

Lederer’s solid. O’Malley’s fantastic as Astor’s sidekick. It’s with him she gets the most to do; the script’s very much constructed to emphasize the comedy, Leisen’s direction–of Ameche and Colbert, of Colbert and Lederer–is often overly melodramatic. There are some gorgeous shots of the fellows romancing Colbert–great photography from Charles Lang–and they could just as much be for drama or tragedy, but instead they’re for comedy.

The “leads” are both excellent. Quotation marks because Claudette Colbert’s so much more the lead than Ameche but then again, maybe not. It’s almost like Brackett and Wilder took three separate stories–Colbert’s, Ameche’s, Barrymore’s–and squished them all together, only keeping the best parts.

Once the film gets to the third act, however, it seems like the magic might run out. The film’s pacing slows down to a real time crawl and it’s very hard to anticipate what’s going to happen. Then it turns out Brackett and Wilder had something ready for just the occasion. Fine cameo from Monty Woolley in the third act as well.

Midnight is a wonderful picture. It’s exquisitely written, smartly acted, smartly directed. The comedic range of Barrymore and Ameche is something to behold.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mitchell Leisen; screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on a story by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Claudette Colbert (Eve Peabody), Don Ameche (Tibor Czerny), John Barrymore (Georges Flammarion), Mary Astor (Helene Flammarion), Francis Lederer (Jacques Picot), Rex O’Malley (Marcel), Hedda Hopper (Stephanie) and Monty Woolley (The Judge).


blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Harry and the Hendersons (1987, William Dear)

Harry and the Hendersons has to be one of the most emotionally manipulative movies ever made. Amblin produced it (though Spielberg’s name isn’t on the credits anywhere) and it comes off as the finale part of the E.T. and Gremlins trilogy. Except in this one, it isn’t about a boy and his Bigfoot, it’s about John Lithgow and his Bigfoot, with Lithgow the hunter realizing maybe he shouldn’t be killing animals for the fun of it. (The movie’s on a lot firmer ground, reality-wise, than its predecessors). Maybe that message, the anti-hunting one, the humanization of animals one, is what makes the movie so damn effective.

It’s good it’s effective, no matter what the means, because it’s a really cheap movie. For instance, Lithgow’s only a hunting nut because his father never encouraged his drawing and continues to berate him for even having the interest. The movie’s also a narrative nightmare, with the family playing an important part at the beginning, but then falling off for the middle–when the movie’s mostly about non-speaking extras chasing Harry. Not to mention the son who goes from being important to not between the first and second acts.

The acting is all decent. David Suchet and Don Ameche are both wonderful and participants in two of the film’s three most emotionally manipulative scenes… the one with Ameche actually might not be a manipulation. John Lithgow is mostly okay. He’s believable as the sensitive guy, but not as the gun nut. Melinda Dillon’s unfortunately wasted. Joshua Rudoy’s somewhat irritating as the son. As Harry, Kevin Peter Hall does a great job–though I’m not sure what the puppeteers controlled.

Bruce Broughton’s score sounds almost exactly like the cute parts of Gremlins, which strengthens the informal bond. The technical aspects of the movie are unremarkable, with Allen Daviau’s photography, especially his outdoor photography, being an exception. As for William Dear’s direction… he has some good moments and some not so good ones. Actually, the good ones–when he fits the four family members in frame with Harry–are sometimes excellent.

But the realism, which provides the movie’s easily discernible message, is problematic. It’s just real enough for it not to make sense… it isn’t the existence of the Bigfoot, it’s–first–the reaction of the family (particularly the constantly unbelievable reactions of the daughter) and, second, the ensuing public panic. It just doesn’t make any sense after a certain point… much like the conclusion, which has a big fake ending followed by another set piece. With no real bridge between the two, it’s just another example of the cheapness.

The movie also makes the mistake of dumbing down for kids a little too much, but the positive elements make up for quite a lot.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dear; written by Dear, Bill Martin and Ezra D. Rappaport; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Donn Cambern; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, James Bissell; produced by Richard Vane and Dear; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring John Lithgow (George Henderson), Melinda Dillon (Nancy Henderson), Margaret Langrick (Sarah Henderson), Joshua Rudoy (Ernie Henderson), Kevin Peter Hall (Harry), Lainie Kazan (Irene Moffat), Don Ameche (Dr. Wallace Wrightwood) and M. Emmet Walsh (George Henderson Sr.).


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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).


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