Tag Archives: Edmund Gwenn

The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock)

The Trouble with Harry is very cute. It’s fine, the film’s intentionally cute, but it’s also somewhat frustrating. With the exception of the glorious Technicolor exteriors of Vermont leaves, director Hitchcock and photographer Robert Burks don’t do anything particularly interesting. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay is so confined it often feels like Harry is a stage adaptation. It’s not; Hayes’s script is just stagy.

The film takes place over a particularly long day in a small New England town. Lovable old sea captain Edmund Gwenn is out rabbit hunting and finds a dead body. Thinking he’s killed the stranger, Gwenn goes to cover it up, eventually involving local painter and singing stud muffin John Forsythe (Forsythe’s voice sounds nothing like his singing voice). Forsythe happens upon Gwenn after going in to town to charm some groceries out of shopkeep Mildred Dunnock. He also meets local spinster Mildred Natwick, who we’ve already met because she caught Gwenn with the body. And made a date with him. Because New Englanders are naughty.

Gwenn and Natwick at the body is cute, Natwick in the shop is cute, Natwick and Gwenn are going to be cute throughout the movie. Meanwhile Forsythe has his eyes set on new-to-town local single mom Shirley MacLaine, even though Forsythe appears to be friends with MacLaine’s kid, Jerry Mathers. Mathers finds the body in the beginning, even before Gwenn. This jumbling instead of sequential plot recounting is intentional. See, Trouble with Harry is full of twists and reveals in the first half. The second half is all dead body comedy, but the first half is moving its four main cast members into situations together. Gwenn and Natwick, Forsythe and MacLaine. With Mathers popping in as needed. And it turns out he’s occasionally really needed because Hayes and Hitchcock run out of energy so it all hinges on Mathers having been cute enough early in the film.

It works, but it’s a lazy finish. Harry can get away with some lazy because part of the joke is how little people care about the dead body, whether Harry is a stranger or even an acquaintance. Hayes doesn’t have any difficult jokes in Harry. Even when he’s trying to shock, it’s never with a difficult joke. They’re always easy. And cute. Shockingly cute at times, so it helps MacLaine is so cute. And so on.

Hitchcock does really well with the cast, even when they’ve got way too much dialogue (or way too little). At the beginning, when Gwenn finds the body, it seems like he’s going to be Harry’s stage manager and narrate it. Though in talking to himself, not the audience. But then Forsythe shows up and Gwenn never gets to be the lead again. Forsythe’s too charming. And talented a artist. And swell guy.

Though he’s a dick to Natwick in their lengthy first scene together. Eventually the script reins in that character “feature” and Forsythe gets a lot more likable. Though he’s not like anyone else. He’s never cute. Even Royal Dano as dopey local sheriff’s deputy who the Scooby Gang has to hide from occasionally–and who they bully in a shocking display of classist privilege at one point–even Dano gets to be cute. And really sympathetic. Right before the troubled finish.

Though maybe the truncation of the ending saves the film from more derision of Dano, which becomes the focus for the final act. It’s really weird. Either Hayes or the source novel writer totally bungled the finish of the story or Hayes and Hitchcock screwed it up. It’s disappointing.

Gwenn is great. Natwick is great. And they’re adorable. MacLaine is good. And cute. Mathers is never around enough to get annoying.

Dunnock is good too. She seems like she’s going to have more to do than she gets.

Hitchcock’s direction is fine. It’s occasionally precious, which doesn’t clash with the humor but it also doesn’t generate any energy. Great photography from Burks. Awful editing from Alma Macrorie. Some of it is lack of coverage footage, but it’s still awful. There are also these fades to black at the end of jokes or when it’s time to jump ahead in time because Hayes’s plotting is so thin and they never bring anything to the film. Some are fine, but they’re never helpful.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is an unqualified, adjective-free perfect.

The Trouble with Harry is a diverting and often adorable 100 minutes. It’s a fine production. It’s also rather mundane.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by Jack Trevor Story; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Edmund Gwenn (Capt. Albert Wiles), John Forsythe (Sam Marlowe), Mildred Natwick (Miss Ivy Gravely), Shirley MacLaine (Jennifer Rogers), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs), Royal Dano (Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs), and Jerry Mathers (Arnie Rogers).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE THIRD ANNUAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


RELATED

Advertisements

Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).



The Bigamist (1953, Ida Lupino)

With a sensational title like The Bigamist, one might expect something lurid and exploitative from the film. Definitely from the titular lead, Edmond O’Brien. But, no, poor O’Brien is just a married traveling salesman with a barren, work-oriented wife (Joan Fontaine) so who can blame him for stepping out. And he only did it once; he’s not a bad guy, he’s tragic hero.

Nearly all of O’Brien’s story comes out in a flashback–screenwriter Collier Young’s use of layered narrative is the film’s biggest problem–when he reveals all to kindly Edmund Gwenn, who has just discovered him.

The flashback portions are exceptionally insensitive to both Fontaine and Ida Lupino (which is surprising, as she directed the film after all) but the present action scenes with them are better. The film does cheat Lupino out of any great emotive moments, while Fontaine gets a couple.

As the lead–but fourth-billed–O’Brien has trouble with the impossible role. After spending fifteen minutes making him a suspect, Young’s script spends the rest turning him into a hero. Except O’Brien can’t seem to get behind playing the role heroic, which causes a bit of a disconnect… not to mention a general disinterest in how the story turns out. I had been hoping they went for the cheap, obvious ending, which would have resulted in less melodrama (but robbed Kenneth Tobey of a great scene).

Lupino’s direction is somewhat stilted at times, but generally okay. Except the Los Angeles exteriors; they’re way too lifeless.

Just like the movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ida Lupino; screenplay by Collier Young, based on a story by Lawrence B. Marcus and Lou Schor; director of photography, George E. Diskant; edited by Stanford Tischler; music by Leith Stevens; produced by Young; released by Filmmakers Releasing Organization.

Starring Edmond O’Brien (Harry Graham), Joan Fontaine (Eve Graham), Ida Lupino (Phyllis Martin), Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Jordan), Kenneth Tobey (Tom Morgan), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Connelley), Peggy Maley (Phone Operator), Lillian Fontaine (Miss Higgins), Matt Dennis (Singer) and John Maxwell (Judge).


RELATED

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)

The Devil and Miss Jones has three or four stages in the narrative, but director Sam Wood basically has three. The first phase–covering the first two narrative stages–feature this singular composition technique. For close-ups, Wood either gives his actors a lot of headroom (fifty percent of the frame) or almost none. Harry Stradling Sr. shoots Jones and the photography’s magnificent, so both type of shot looks great, but with the department store setting, the extra headroom shots are always very full. It makes the film extremely visually distinctive.

In the second two phases of Wood’s direction, he changes it up a little, but retains the deliberate close-ups. Jean Arthur (who gets top billing) doesn’t even become the protagonist until about the halfway point; the close-ups make the handoff–from Charles Coburn to her–work beautifully.

The film has six essentials–Wood, Arthur, Coburn, Robert Cummings as Arthur’s beau, Spring Byington as her friend, and–possibly most importantly–writer Norman Krasna. Krasna’s script for Jones is a masterpiece, in plotting, in pacing, in every possible way. He even pulls off a relatively awkward finish.

It’s a pro-worker social comedy, with Coburn a fat cat who decides to spy on his employees to sabotage their union organizing. Arthur, Cummings and Byington are the employees he dupes. Great interactions with all the principals, obviously with Arthur and Coburn, but there’s a lot of nice moments with Arthur and Cummings and Coburn and Byington too.

Jones’s pure magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; written by Norman Krasna; director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Sherman Todd; production designer, William Cameron Menzies; produced by Frank Ross; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Charles Coburn (Merrick), Jean Arthur (Mary), Robert Cummings (Joe), Spring Byington (Elizabeth), S.Z. Sakall (George), Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), Walter Kingsford (Allison), Montagu Love (Harrison), Richard Carle (Oliver), Charles Waldron (Needles), Edwin Maxwell (Withers), William Demarest (First Detective), Regis Toomey (1st Policeman) and Edward McNamara (Police Sergeant).


RELATED