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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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Busses Roar (1942, D. Ross Lederman)

Busses Roar is a slight propaganda film. It doesn’t fully commit to any of its subplots, not even the patriotism. With the exception of the establishing the villainous Japanese, German and the gangster at the opening and the flag-waving speech at the end, it’s not too heavy on it.

Most of the film’s almost an hour runtime takes place in a bus terminal. The gangster (Rex Williams, who isn’t any good, but isn’t as bad as the film’s worst) has to take a bus to deliver a bomb to some oil fields. There’s the whole range of bus passengers to put in danger, but the actual bus in crisis sequence is hurried. Director Lederman does a lot better establishing all the characters.

Most of that action is Julie Bishop trying to get someone to buy her a ticket. Her character is the smartest part of George Bilson and Anthony Coldeway’s script, just because they can introduce so many supporting cast members through her storyline.

Ignoring its overtly bigoted elements, the film has some decent performances and moments. For example, the storyline with newlyweds Harry Lewis and Elisabeth Fraser isn’t bad at all.

The most hilariously awful performance is probably Peter Whitney as the German spy.

Richard Travis gets top-billing–and is Bishop’s eventual love interest–and he manages to be both weak as a leading man, but somewhat likable.

Unfortunately the big action finale is ineptly and cheaply executed; the bus depot scenes look perfectly good.

Roar it doesn’t. More like gurgle.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by D. Ross Lederman; screenplay by George Bilson and Anthony Coldeway, based on a story by Coldeway; director of photography, James Van Trees; edited by James Gibbon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Richard Travis (Sergeant Ryan), Julie Bishop (Reba Richards), Charles Drake (Eddie Sloan), Eleanor Parker (Norma), Elisabeth Fraser (Betty), Richard Fraser (Dick Remick), Peter Whitney (Frederick Hoff), Frank Wilcox (Detective Quinn), Willie Best (Sunshine), Rex Williams (Jerry Silva), Harry Lewis (Danny), Bill Kennedy (The Moocher), George Meeker (Nick Stoddard), Vera Lewis (Mrs. Dipper), Harry C. Bradley (Henry Dipper), Lottie Williams (First Old Maid), Leah Baird (Second Old Maid) and Chester Gan (Yamanito).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 1: DREAM FACTORY.

The Monster Walks (1932, Frank R. Strayer)

I went into The Monster Walks with what I consider reasonable expectations. I thought it would be bad. I thought it would be a bad, low budget, rainy night in a mansion with a killer ape loose movie.

It is all of those things, but it’s also awful. Director Strayer apparently had such a low budget he wasn’t even able to get shots of the mansion from outside. Inside, he’s going from one setup to another on a set. When he actually utilizes close-ups, it’s a big deal.

The editing, from Byron Robinson, is weak. He probably didn’t have much to work with, but he still cuts the shots poorly. It’s hard to explain; the characters seem paused between the angles.

The problem is Robert Ellis’s script. He doesn’t have any real drama. A girl, played by Vera Reynolds, travels home to the scary mansion for the reading of her father’s will. His body’s there too, which seems unsanitary. The other heirs have it in for her. Maybe.

None of these other heirs have much of anything going on for themselves. They want the money, sure, and they have some secrets, but none of them have anything going on. It’s not just a lack of subplots, it’s a lack of the characters having enough personality to have them.

A tepid performance from Rex Lease–as Reynolds’s beau–doesn’t help either.

Mischa Auer is exceeding creepy as the maid’s son, however. Great Nosferatu outfit on him.

It’s a dismal Walk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; written by Robert Ellis; director of photography, Jules Cronjager; edited by Byron Robinson; produced by Cliff P. Broughton; released by Action Pictures.

Starring Rex Lease (Dr. Ted Clayton), Vera Reynolds (Ruth Earlton), Sheldon Lewis (Robert Earlton), Mischa Auer (Hanns Krug), Martha Mattox (Mrs. Emma ‘Tanty’ Krug), Sidney Bracey (Herbert Wilkes) and Willie Best (Exodus).

Murder on a Honeymoon (1935, Lloyd Corrigan)

Murder on a Honeymoon is a tepid outing for Edna May Oliver and James Gleason’s detecting duo. It’s the third in the series and, while Oliver and Gleason are back, it’s clear some of the magic was behind the camera. Robert Benchley and Seton I. Miller’s script is a little too nice (in addition to being boring) and Lloyd Corrigan’s direction lacks any inspiration.

Honeymoon takes place on Catalina, which–from the film–seems to be the most boring vacation spot in the world. The only time the murder investigation overlaps with vacation activities is in a closed casino, which is one of the film’s better sequences.

But the script’s the real problem. It ignores suspects, forgets the supporting cast and makes Gleason way too nice to Oliver. Their bickering originally had a give and take–in Honeymoon, Gleason pulls his punches. The only one being really mean to Oliver is the film’s confirmed villain.

Even the supporting cast is a little weak. None of them have story arcs–except Lola Lane–and she’s absent for most of her own arc. Lane isn’t in the picture long enough to make an impression, but DeWitt Jennings is rather weak and Spencer Charters’s incompetent local police chief needs work. It might not be Charters’s fault, since the script never lets Oliver cut into him deep enough.

There are some amusing moments with Arthur Hoyt’s unprofessional medical examiner though.

The murderer’s identity’s a surprise, but a surprise doesn’t make up for the rest.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan; screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Robert Benchley, based on a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by William Morgan; music by Alberto Colombo; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Lola Lane (Phyllis La Font), George Meeker (Tom Kelsey), Harry Ellerbe (Mr. Deving), Dorothy Libaire (Mrs. Deving), Leo G. Carroll (Director Joseph B. Tate), DeWitt Jennings (Captain Beegle), Spencer Charters (Chief Of Police Britt), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. O’Rourke), Chick Chandler (Pilot French), Matt McHugh (Pilot Madden), Willie Best (Willie the Porter), Morgan Wallace (McArthur) and Brooks Benedict (Roswell T. Forrest).


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