Saturday, 2 December 2017

A quartet of vintage filmic gems: Daddy Long Legs, Tales of Manhattan, O. Henry's Full House and Last Holiday

There's a scene from a film I saw on television some 50 years ago that has stuck with me: Charles Laughton is playing classical music on a piano in a deserted New York bar when the saloon keeper appears and orders him to play "good" music. Laughton segues into vigorous boogie-woogie - only to revert to classical as soon as the owner retires to a back room. It's very funny. I only recently discovered that the film was Tales of Manhattan (1942),  an anthology movie directed by Jules Duvivier. The screenplay involved 13 writers and - besides Laughton - its five episodes starred, variously, Charles Boyer,  Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, Cesar Romero, George Sanders, Roland Young and Paul Robeson (a sixth episode, starring W.C. Fields, was filmed, but dropped). The linking device is a tailcoat which comes into the possession of the main character in each episode. With the exception of the truly awful final sequence - a toe-curlingly patronising...

...depiction of credulous cotton-pickin' darkies - it's Golden Age Hollywood at its best: slick, clever, heart-warming, fast-moving and morally uplifting. Laughton (as a struggling composer) and Robinson (as a derelict ex-lawyer trying to pass himself off as a success at a college reunion) are excellent. It's well worth tracking down a copy made from a decent print, but, if you don't want to wait, the whole film is available here:

I'd never heard of O. Henry's Full House,  another five-episode black & white 20th Century Fox anthology film, released in 1952 - ten years after Tales of Manhattan - but I'd read at least three of the stories. This one involved a mere eight writers, but a different director (Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King) handled each episode. It's slightly less starry than Manhattan - but Charles Laughton makes a reappearance as a genial vagrant trying to get himself arrested so he can spend winter in prison rather than on the freezing streets of New York. It's not quite as diverting as its 1942 predecessor: there's a painfully unfunny "comic" sequence in which two city slickers kidnap a child for ransom in a rural community, only to discover that the parents don't want the little monster back - and I'd recommend having some insulin handy for two of the other episodes, one featuring a heartbroken girl who's convinced she'll expire when the last leaf drops from the autumnal tree outside her window, and a famous tale involving the sacrifices made by a poor young married couple to buy each other Christmas presents. But it's well worth watching: John Steinbeck introduces each story, Marilyn Monroe makes the most of her tiny role as a street-walker ("He called me a lady!"), and Richard Widmark reprises his cackling psychopath act from Kiss of Death. Here's a trailer (which mysteriously neglects to mention Howard Hawks as one of the directors):

Daddy Long Legs (1955) is another of those films I thought I'd seen, but hadn't. It's a musical, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron - and it's lovely. A wealthy, jazz-loving American business mogul finds himself stranded au milieu de nulle part with assorted big-wigs on a US State Department-organised visit to France, and sets off to find help. He happens upon a chateau which houses the world's happiest and least convincing orphanage. Fred watches the oldest inmate - 18-year old Miss Caron - organising the other children, and is so taken with her that he decides to adopt her and pay for her to be educated in America. When his appalled business manager points out that "There's a name for what you're asking me to do," Astaire assures him his intentions are pure: he'll never meet the girl, and his role as her benefactor will remain secret - she never even saw him when he visited the orphanage. The plan goes ahead, and Astaire forgets all about his adoptee. He can't even be bothered to read the letters the girl sends him from her New England college - the world's happiest and least convincing college - until his secretary and business manager insist that he does so.
Well. wouldn't you know it, Fred and Leslie do meet (without her knowing who he is) and fall in love, but when it's made clear to Fred how sordid their liaison would appear if it ever became public, he takes off around the world, leaving his little French miss heartbroken, etc. Astaire apparently loved the script because it actually addressed head on the awkward issue of a middle-aged man romancing a girl 30 years his junior - he loved it enough to continue work on the picture after his wife died near the start of filming. Astaire was getting on a bit at the time (he was 55), and he's understandably not at his absolute sparkling best, especially in the early scenes - but the whole thing just somehow works. That's largely, I think, because Leslie Caron (who was actually 24 at the time) is just so ridiculously, heart-meltingly cute, what with the French accent and the pout and the whole gamine thing. And is such a terrific dancer - and a more-than-decent actress (she does upset, lovelorn and delighted equally well) - that the incredible silliness of the whole enterprise just doesn't matter. Here, she and Fred dance a very silly dance to a very silly song at the college hop:
Here, the couple dance to the film's most famous number - Johnny Mercer's "Something's Gotta Give" - Oh là là!:
Does Daddy Long Legs have a happy ending? Is the bear a Catholic?

My final screen gem is a (very) British film I'd never seen and hadn't even heard of. Last Holiday (1950) was  written by J.B. Priestley, and stars Alec Guinness as an unattached salesman who, on learning that he will die in six weeks of the rare and incurable affliction, Lampington's Disease, quits his job and decides to blow his savings on a stay at an expensive hotel in an upmarket resort. By the simple expedient of not telling anyone anything about himself, he becomes a Man of Mystery who affects the lives of everyone around him. He finds himself being offered hugely well-paid jobs and positions as an advisor on influential government committees - none of which he will live long enough to enjoy. After a few weeks, a new guest arrives - Sir Trevor Lampington, the man who gave his name to the disease Alec Guinness is supposed to be dying of. Lamps (as he probably wasn't known by his friends) informs Guinness that... well, you can probably guess.
Kay Walsh fiddles with Alec Guinness's dickie bow
One of the many pleasures of Last Holiday is the acting - Guinness is almost perfect in one of his gnomic, nondescript, everyman roles; Wilfred Hyde-White is in fine form as an inventor who Guinness puts on the right track; Sid James is excellent as a Cockney businessman who is miserably out of his depth among the hotel's snooty clientele until Guinness breaks the ice for him; Bernard Lee is rivetting as a police detective on the trail of a gang of crooks; Kay Walsh excels as a hotel employee who guesses that Guinness isn't quite what he seems; and even Ernest Thesiger (who is reputed to have to have once enlivened a soirée by asking "Anyone for a spot of buggery?") manages to keep his waspish queen persona sufficiently in check to convince as an unpleasant health crank. The plot is a bit stagey and creaky and Priestley's preachy "messages" about class and society and all pulling together are decidedly un subtle - but it's recommended viewing nonetheless. I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, but there's a DVD of it available on Amazon. There isn't even a clip of Last Holiday on YouTube, so I'll have to leave you with another still:
Look out, Alec - he's behind you!

1 comment:

  1. Like most films' premises the switch to the delightful Boogie Woogie from the practice - based and superior European classical is a nonsense.

    The boogie - woogie players,of course, practised. Just not quite as long as Beethoven's latter - day exponents. Here's a smidgeon of Boogie Woogie