Tag Archives: John Forsythe

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.


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The Happy Ending (1969, Richard Brooks)

Jean Simmons doesn’t smile until over halfway through The Happy Ending. The movie runs almost two hours and has a present action of like eighteen years. The first eight minutes are a mostly wordless summary of John Forsythe courting Jean Simmons in the early fifties. The time period’s not important–even though the film taking place in 1969 is brought up multiple times in the present–because it’s a storybook (for the early fifties) romance where college girl Simmons falls in love with tax lawyer Forsythe. Eventually we find out Simmons dropped out to marry Forsythe.

The present action is at least sixteen years later because daughter Kathy Fields (in the film’s greatest botched role, both in Fields’s performance but mostly in director Brooks’s weird script–more on that later, obviously) is sixteen. The film opens on Simmons and Forsythe’s wedding anniversary party. Simmons wants to run off for the night, just she and Forsythe. He doesn’t want to cancel the party because it’d embarrass them in front of their friends. More on the friends later too.

So after Forsythe tells housekeeper Nanette Fabray–they’re not rich enough for Fabray to live with them, just to have her do the daily housework and hang out until after midnight when needed–to inform on Simmons’s behavior. See, Simmons’s drinks. Forsythe found her stashed booze. But it’s not open, because Simmons is recovering and being good. Through the course of the film, flashbacks reveal what she’s recovering from while also showing how she finally has to deal with it.

Simmons runs off to the Bahamas. Instead of doing the anniversary party thing, which makes sense as it’s later revealed Forsythe and Simmons don’t have any real friends, their social life solely consists of Forsythe’s clients. But we’ve already met some of the clients’ wives–they get together and get wasted and play cards in the health club locker room while berating one another for their affairs (Tina Louise has a small role as the ringleader; it’s a weird role, given Brooks’s narrative distance to it, but she does all right; the script gets her in the end). Because what the first half of The Happy Ending is about is how hard it is for women to get old and loose their looks. Brooks’s script has… sympathy, I guess, but no insight. It’s also completely unaware of the ingrained misogyny or… I don’t know what it’s called, patriarchal reinforcement. Like, the only two guys in the movie with any honest characterization are Bobby Darin as a gigolo and Lloyd Bridges as an adulterer running around the Bahamas with Shirley Jones, a friend of Simmons’s from college.

It’s a good thing they run into each other on the way too because Forsythe doesn’t let Simmons have any money since she got drunk and went clothes shopping a little while after she survived a suicide attempt, which she attempted after finding Forsythe was cheating on her with a client and–if the somewhat confusing flashback timeline does indeed progress linearly (and it seems too, Brooks’s numerous narrative devices are all way too obvious)–it’s not the first time. Forsythe goes with divorcing clients to Reno and then shakes up with them in their moments of weakness. No one ever says it because it’s not clear Brooks even recognizes it because Brooks breaks the script to coddle Forsythe. On one hand it works he never wakes up and gets it–the audience perception of Forsythe changes a lot throughout and a tad too gradually since it just gives Forsythe and Fields more screen time than they deserve, performance and character-wise. The reason it’s important it takes so long until Simmons cracks a smile in the present action, delayed by all those flashbacks? Because she’s been the subject of her own movie until then. Brooks does everything he can to avoid developing her character, particularly in the flashbacks. Because then he can’t keep Forsythe from ever seeming like a dick, which is the goal of the film. Right up until the very end.

Oh, right–Nanette Fabray’s housekeeper. Turns out she’s Simmons’s only friend, because even though her house is used for wife-swapping, Simmons herself has never participated. Because all of the other women have either slept with Forsythe or tried. Brooks is downright misanthropic in his depiction of upper middle class America but he never embraces it. Simmons is at least a dreamer; we learn right away she cries at all romantic endings, happy or sad.

Hence the title. At the wedding scene, Forsythe’s face is replaced with clips of happy endings from old Hollywood movies. Like, Brooks gives Simmons a very definite character and then avoids letting her develop the character for about half the movie. It’s not until she meets up with Darin’s gigolo where Simmons gets to do anything. Until then it’s mostly being functionally drunk and pissed off at Forsythe’s utter lack of self-awareness. And to get betrayed by mother Teresa Wright (who apparently had Simmons at age ten) and ignored by super-annoying daughter Fields.

Oh, right, and for Forsythe to track her by phone to make sure she’s all right since she’s a suicidal drunk and all. Like, he calls all the places she goes. The only place she gets any privacy is her bar, where her uncredited bartender doesn’t snitch on her to Forsythe.

And Brooks discreetly establishing Simmons’s situation is fine. It would even be efficient if it didn’t get so confused with flashbacks. There’s nothing but melodrama in the flashbacks as Simmons keeps getting into trouble and whatnot.

It’s such a relief when Jones and Bridges show up. Jones’s life philosophy as a professional mistress is a little… messed up. Like Brooks has good instincts for what kind of exposition the film needs, he just doesn’t write it well. Or direct it well. He’s got these walking and talking scenes where he cuts from location to location as the conversation continues. He doesn’t have a reason for the gimmick other than it maybe stretches the film’s verisimilitude to allow for these unlikely conversations and whatnot. But it’s not like the film has a different style first half to second, once the dumps become more frequent, it’s always the same dialogue tempo, with Michel Legrand’s music not booming but pressing, and Conrad L. Hall’s way too soft lights. Happy Ending really ought to look better. Like, it’s fine, but it ought to look a lot better. Brooks’s direction is tediously competent and always really safe. He never goes big, he never goes small; he avoids them equally. And it does the film no favors.

Simmons is really good when she’s got material of her own, which is maybe a quarter of her scenes. Brooks abjectly surrenders on trying to write her with Fields, which is incredible. Forsythe’s not good. He could be a lot worse. But he couldn’t be any blander. Somehow Forsythe’s bland performance doesn’t inform the bland character.

Jones is great. Bridges is better than any of the other male performances. Darin’s not good but at least he’s trying something, which is more than Forsythe does. Or Fields. Or Wright, who’s utterly pointless except for a late stage revelation which does nothing for the film but instead absolves fathers of responsibility.

Fabry’s good as the confidant, but she’s got zilch to do on her own. She’s literally the help in story and script.

There’s probably a lot you could pick apart in Brooks’s script and film, but it’s not really worth looking at in those terms. There’s gristle but so what. It’s not distinct gristle.

The film does give Simmons a potentially great role and then denies it to her. She’s still able to give a rather good performance. If the material had met her, however, it’d be a better one. Brooks is just too afraid to let her be the protagonist. It’s mildly then significantly disappointing, because he never improves and it’s almost two hours long.

Plus, Legrand’s music and (especially) the original songs grate.

And the Hall cinematography is wasted.

Happy Ending is a mess of missed opportunity and bad choices.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced, written, and directed by Richard Brooks; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by George Grenville; music by Michel Legrand; released by United Artists.

Starring Jean Simmons (Mary Wilson), John Forsythe (Fred Wilson), Teresa Wright (Mrs. Spencer), Kathy Fields (Marge Wilson), Shirley Jones (Flo Harrigan), Nanette Fabray (Agnes), Lloyd Bridges (Sam), Bobby Darin (Franco), Dick Shawn (Harry Bricker), and Tina Louise (Helen Bricker).


THIS POST IS PART OF 90 YEARS OF JEAN SIMMONS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA and PHYLLIS OF PHYLLIS LOVES CLASSIC MOVIES.


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Escape from Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges)

The Western is probably the greatest American contribution to cinema (don’t mention Leone, because Fort Bravo and the like have heart, something Leone was never interested in). Escape from Fort Bravo is an excellent example of the American Western. It’s not just conflict with the untamed West, but also the internal struggle of the Civil War. What matters about the Western, of course, is not these conflicts (if they did matter, there’d be a significant quality change once Westerns started treating the American Indians with respect and there isn’t–of course, did Westerns ever treat them with respect? Kevin Costner doesn’t count for that example either. I’m thinking American Outlaws and Young Guns). Anyway, Fort Bravo.

I first saw Fort Bravo because of Eleanor Parker. This first viewing must have been back in the late 1990s, before I knew who William Holden was, probably, and was only familiar with Sturges for The Great Escape. As a story about people, Fort Bravo is probably Sturges’ peak. Holden runs this film–though John Forsythe is a good alter ego for him–and both sort of fight over Parker. Mostly, Holden fights with himself over Parker (Forsythe, in a nice scene, obviously can’t beat Holden).

There’s no propaganda to Fort Bravo, the Northerners and Southerners are portrayed as soldiers in a war who speak the same language. This lack of propaganda is a significant aspect of the American Western. Even in the Civil War, it’s not about the ideas, it’s about the lives lost. Fort Bravo can get away with it mostly because it never shows what dicks the Rebs were, quite wisely. I can just excuse away the line about the South being right, because the truth is, they were allowed to cede. But it’s not an issue in Fort Bravo, because these interesting folks in a life-threatening situation is more interesting.

A lot of films owe the American Western. Any mainstream action film from Die Hard on is really a Western (allowing for Carpenter action films, which were earlier, but aren’t mainstream enough)–the whole Faulkner concept of man struggling to be better than himself plays out in the American Western. Fort Bravo is filled with gun battles and all sorts of action, but the real conflict is human. I was a little worried–I haven’t seen the film since 2000 at the outside–but I wasn’t wrong about it. It’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Frank Fenton, from a story by Phillip Rock and Michael Pate; director of photography, Robert Surtees; edited by George Boemler; music by Jeff Alexander; produced by Nicholas Nayfack; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Holden (Roper), Eleanor Parker (Carla Forester), John Forsythe (Marsh), William Demarest (Campbell), William Campbell (Cabot Young), Polly Bergen (Alice Owens), Richard Anderson (Lt. Beecher), Carl Benton Raid (Col. Owens) and John Lupton (Bailey).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.