Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Wild Irish Rose - 1947

My Wild Irish Rose (1947) is an example of post-World War II Hollywood nostalgia for simpler times, a rambling, ambitious entry in what I always felt should be its own separate genre—the musical about music composers.  It is artificial in the sense that it is cardboard cutout simplistic, yet beloved for its artifice, and is an unrelenting cutesy salute to the Irish. 

It is, in true Hollywood fashion, nothing more than a caricature of Irish Americans (Irish from Ireland, in some respects, have always felt that the Irish Americans were an odd caricature anyway), but that is just what Irish Americans are comfortable with, and so they seem happy enough with the garish cartoon.  Because this is a movie I recall from many a St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, it carries, if not authenticity, then at least familiarity. I believe familiarity was all that the studios were aiming for when they made such movies, as homey as a hand-stitched sampler.

This is our first entry into a brief exploration over the next few weeks of that “genre”:  the musical about composers. 

Oddly enough, though My Wild Irish Rose purports to be a biography of composer and lyricist Chauncey Olcott, there is no recognition of his participation in the creation of many American pop songs of musical theatre in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and depicts him only as a singer/actor.  His partnership with composers Ernest Ball and George Graff are left out of the film.  Though star Dennis Morgan sings snippets of many songs associated with Olcott: “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Mother Machree,” “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” the movie does not inform us that Chauncey  Olcott had a hand in creating and publishing these songs.  Olcott has been elected into the American Composers Hall of Fame, but you’d never know it from this movie.  Upon his death, one of his pallbearers was the great man of Broadway himself, and in many respects his “American” counterpart, George M. Cohan.

Just what the movie does accomplish is a little hard to say, except for an historically accurate representation of the 19th century minstrel show (scenes which may cause acute disgust and embarrassment today, though I feel any such scene is valuable if historically accurate), and for showcasing Dennis Morgan’s lovely tenor singing voice.

But not everybody was charmed, even in 1947.  What we may have forgiven over the years, what the critics of the day were less likely to overlook. This is from The New York Times of December 25, 1947:

“To say that My Wild Irish Rose tells a story is a gross overstatement, and, even in this season of extraordinary benevolence, one cannot truthfully say that there is a recommendable spirit to the interminable song, dance and specialty interludes that fill out this picture.  As an Irish tenor, Mr. Morgan's singing will hold best with the tone-deaf, and that brogue he affects, and let's not overlook Alan Hale either in this regard, is—just call it murderous.  Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the film is so patronizing and professionally Irish in sentiment that it is downright embarrassing.”

Did the reviewer not find the minstrel affectations embarrassing?  Hmm.

I give the movie full marks if only for casting William Frawley as William J. Scanlan, the grand old man of nineteenth century Irish-themed operettas whom Chauncey Olcott was fated to replace.

And for giving our old friend Grady Sutton a brief role (we discussed Grady in this previous post).  And for casting dear Sara Allgood as Chauncey’s mother.  Trivia buffs may also note that Ruby Dandridge, the mother of Dorothy Dandridge, plays the maid of famed musical theatre star Lillian Russell; and little Kristen Morgan, Dennis Morgan’s real-life daughter, makes a brief appearance as a little girl to whom he sings on stage. 

We won’t discover too much about Chauncey Olcott’s life from this movie, but that should cease to be a surprise about any Hollywood biography.  What we have is John Chancellor Olcott of Buffalo, New York, who runs away from home and a job on a tug boat to make his fortune on the stage; gets involved with a traveling minstrel show; meets Andrea King, who plays Lillian Russell; falls in love with Arlene Dahl, whose da, Alan Hale, thinks he’s not good enough for his little girl.  George Tobias plays a Greek businessman who trails Dennis Morgan throughout the movie with malapropos babble.  George O’Brien is his body builder pal who beats up people who are mean to Dennis, and Ben Blue is his bumbling misfit pal.

Chauncey gets to New York, charms the Tenderloin, replaces the sickly William Frawley with an Irish accent even phonier than Frawley’s (which the movie notes with wry humor and is therefore the most honest thing about the tale).

We may smile over a scene set at Delmonico’s, and at Ruby Dandridge’s wondering how flowers can be “wired” to arrive at a dressing room “how  do they send flowers over telegraph wires?” and Lillian Russell doesn’t know, either.  I love all scenes set in theaters, the plush atmosphere, the palace-like settings, the communal nature from the box to the balcony.

Olcott’s great influence on American pop music before World War I would have made a better movie, and though the story is supposedly based on a book his widow wrote of his life, the thin romance spread across too many years and miles with Arlene Dahl (in her first featured movie role) is a weak story thread; he always seems to spend more time with George O’Brien and Ben Blue.  Dennis Morgan plays a man driven to sing, yet we rarely hear him finish a song in the endless array of montages.

It’s a Technicolor movie, but the predominant shade is green.  Irish-American green, as cartoonish as a box of Lucky Charms.  But that’s all it’s supposed to be.  That is what Americans have created of St. Patrick’s Day.

What should also be noted is the camaraderie, the blending of ethnic groups, the mutual kidding, even the foolish minstrelsy, displays a younger
America more comfortable with itself, more frankly acknowledging of its melting pot.  To be American was to be hyphenated because all save the descendants of native tribes were products of immigrant families.   It was okay to be an immigrant; it was worn like a badge of honor.  The point was they chose to be Americans, and in doing so, honoring we who were born here.

Chauncey Olcott and friend

You can have a listen to this rare audio of the real Chauncey here on YouTube.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it.
My scheduled talk at the Agawam Historical Association on Wednesday was changed to tonight at 7 p.m., due to the blizzard.

- I'll be speaking about my book on the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Mass. and its importance during the Civil War for the Agawam Historical Association, at the Captain Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Mass.  Free and open to the public, the time is 7 p.m.

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - I'll be speaking about Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain at Blue Umbrella Books, 2 Main Street, Westfield, Mass., free and open to the public, 3 p.m.

The time:  1895 to 1965

Setting:  A wooden, barn-like summer playhouse…in an amusement park…on the top of a mountain…in a New England factory town

It was as unlikely a place as you will find for stage plays, but as much a part of the community as the stores and businesses and the red brick maze of factories and canals down below the mountain in the so-called “Flats” by the Connecticut River.  The place was Holyoke, Massachusetts.  For some seventy years live theatre created magic on the mountain above the city.

Though a small theater may seem like a world unto itself, it is not; not entirely.  It reflects its era and its location, that larger world outside its wooden walls; therefore this story is as much about Holyoke, the tri-city area of Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield, and the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, because this was the audience for the little playhouse on Mt. Tom.  If you are familiar with these towns, then you will find much in this book to jog your memories, for this is your story.

Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain covers seventy years of live theatre on Mt. Tom, from vaudeville, operetta, WPA-sponsored shows in the Great Depression, and its heyday from 1941 to 1962 with a resident repertory company called The Valley Players.  In the early 1960s, two new incarnations: The Casino-in-the-Park, and finally, the Mt. Tom Playhouse with touring packaged shows featuring well-known stars from television and movies.  Many stars of stage and screen, and many newcomers who would one day become stars, performed over several decades on Mt. Tom.  Through interviews, newspaper reviews, and many photographs, you will relive their performances, and go backstage for personal experiences that were both comic and tragic, and enjoy again the excitement of opening night.


Speaking of opening nights, I'd like to extend best wishes to the two theatre companies that will be performing my play Sketching the Soul this month.  The first is the Hummingbird Theatre Company of Rochester, New York.  They open tonight, Thursday the 16th:

Hummingbird Theatre Company (formerly BART Productions) presents: Sketching the Soul

by Jacqueline Lynch 
Directed by Donald B. Bartalo

Thur. March 16th - 7:30pm
Fri. March 17th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 18th - 7:30pm
Sun. March 19th - 2:00pm
Thur. March 23rd - 7:30pm
Fri. March 24th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 25th - 7:30pm

Chelsea Logan is an artist struggling with the conflict between her growing celebrity and her Amish upbringing, which she left behind to pursue her ambition, and which she neglected to mention to Mike (her boyfriend), new friends and colleagues.

The past and present, celebrity and spiritually come to a head one frenetic weekend when her younger sister Sarah arrives unexpectedly. Chelsea must explain her sister, and the lifestyle she kept a secret, to Mike, an attorney struggling with his own ethical priorities, and to Maureen Nash an aggressive journalist who arrives with a photographer for an interview (during which Chelsea, with a rather un-Amish-like attitude, pummels the photographer into surrendering the film he has shot of Sarah!) Sarah and Mike together help Chelsea to accept and acknowledge the power of her Amish heritage and to move toward a future she had not expected.


CHELSEA LOGAN…………….……………Sara Bickweat Penner

MIKE GRIMALDI…………………………..Brian Tan

SARAH RICHTER………………………….Laura Thompson Pratt

NANCY………………………………………….Stephanie Sheak

MAUREEN NASH…………………………..Denise Bartalo

ARTHUR COAKLEY……………………….Joseph Barcia

Tickets are $12 in advance and $15.00 at the door. 

The second group to perform this same play will be the Belhaven University Theatre Department in Jackson, Mississippi.  They run March 30th to April 1st, directed by Dr. Elissa Sartwell.

JAMES KENYON as Mike Grimaldi
LECI GRAY as Chelsea Logan
RILEY PLEASANTS as Sarah Richter
RACHEL BROOME as Maureen Nash
MAC MITCHELL as Arthur Coakley

Production Staff & Crew
Director: Dr. Elissa Sartwell
Stage Manager: Frannie Maas
Scenic Design: Hannah Kenyon
Technical Director/Lighting Design: Michael Tobin
Costume & Hair/Makeup Design: Alice Bryant
Sound Design: Brittany Lyday
Props Master: Laina Faul
Dresser/Run Crew: Grace Reeves

Admission $10; Seniors/Students $5; Complimentary admission for Belhaven students, faculty, staff and their immediate families. Doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. We hope that you will join us at the theatre! To reserve tickets for any Belhaven Theatre production, please call 601-965-7026 or email your request to Tickets may be purchased with cash or check.

My thanks and very best wishes to both companies.  Break a leg!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Robert Osborne - Requiescat in Pace

When I recorded a movie on Turner Classic Movies, I often tried to get Robert Osborne's intro on the recording.  I will miss that very much.

Classic film fans mourn the passing of our Robert Osborne this week.  It is, for us, the end of an era.

We know something about the ending of eras.  To love classic films is to be acutely aware of the passage of time.  Fractures in the timeline are part of the study of classic films as much as they are in life.  Acknowledging them involves a degree of mourning, to be sure, but they always are accompanied by the sweet, blessed balm of pleasant memory and lessons learned.  So it will be with Mr. Osborne.

We'll always have Paris.

His appeal as a host to me and millions of old movie fans of all ages -- he is as dear to the millennials as he is to senior citizens -- is likely that rare mixture of wisdom, geniality, gentleness, and the respect he gives us as movie buffs.  Such gentlemanliness engenders our respect for him.  Also, for those of us who began our fandom long before the days of the Internet, who know what it was like to research a favorite film or actor from Who's Who volumes in the local town library -- we appreciate what effort it must have taken for him to compile his first book in 1965, Academy Awards Illustrated. Maybe we even used that book, if we were lucky enough that our library had a copy, for our own exploration of info on old movies.

Mr. Osborne is gone.  But that's almost like saying Humphrey Bogart is gone, or Clark Gable, or Barbara Stanwyck.  Are they really? If TCM gives us regular visits with our friends on the silver screen, then how are they gone?  We will still enjoy Mr. Osborne's influence in our lives, and enjoy the memory of his visits with us.

TCM is to hold a tribute weekend next week showing some of Mr. Osborne's many interviews.  I hope that they will make this a regular feature on the channel, perhaps at least once a week.  It will be delightful to visit with him again, in between our reunions with Hattie McDaniel, Bette Davis, and Paul Henried.

Several wonderful classic film bloggers have paid tribute to Robert Osborne this week.  Here are a few of them:

A Shroud of Thoughts by Terence Towles Canote.

Comet Over Hollywood by Jessica Pickens

Journeys in Classic Film by Kristen Lopez

Thursday, March 2, 2017

10th Anniversary

That's my twin brother John and I at the famous Paramount studio gate in Hollywood.  It was 2006, and as you may surmise, we were not "discovered" and given movie contracts.

Which, frankly, was a surprise to us, being so photogenic, and because that sort of thing happens all the time in the old movies.

Their loss.

However, the guard photobombing us behind the gate was powerless to keep us out.  It was two against one.

As I recall, we were taking a guided tour, along with a small group of tourists from Japan.  They were less impressed by Old Hollywood, but became more excited when we approached an outdoor "New York" street scene that they recognized from Seinfeld.

We all bring something different to the table.

It was the year before I started this blog.  I had no idea I was going to be writing about old movies in less than a year's time.  I had no idea I'd still be writing about them a decade later.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog.  I hope it has been more than just another old movie blog.  It certainly has meant a great deal to me, and I marvel that the site has received over a million page views.  This, despite the copycat sites that still steal posts from it.  That readers continue  to manage to find their way here amazes me.

Thank you so much for the pleasure of your company.  I really appreciate it.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Happy Land - 1943

Happy Land (1943) is a gentle, yet powerful film of common decency, and the discipline and quiet courage that common decency sometimes requires.  We used to attribute these as American values.  The movie is sentimental about this, and yet bravely forward-thinking for all its nostalgia: there is an underlying current of foreboding almost as if they knew how delicate decency is, and that is must be nurtured.

The title of the movie, as related by the strains of the theme song, comes from the lines in “Hail Columbia,” composed for George Washington’s inauguration, that was often used as a national anthem up until the time “The Star Spangled Banner” was officially made the National Anthem in 1931.  With all due respect to our anthem, I have a preference for “Hail Columbia”.  It is stirring, and sweet, and nobly idealistic, and perhaps a little naïve. “Hail Columbia, happy land!”  Listen to song here on YouTube. 

Don Ameche stars as a man from a Middle West small town at the height of World War II.  He is a pharmacist and owns the town’s drugstore on Main Street, and much of what we see will remind us of a Norman Rockwell painting.  He is married to Frances Dee, lives in a cozy white wood frame house, and his only son is away in the Navy.  He knows all his customers personally.  It is a good life.

At the very beginning of the movie, we see a telegram delivery girl ride her bicycle up to the front steps of Don Ameche’s house.  Perhaps no image ever instilled more fear in the United States during World War II than the telegram delivery person.  Here it is a mere girl.  Her name is Hilda, and Don Ameche, of course, knows her.

Pleasantries are quickly dispensed with.  She hands him the telegram without looking at him.  He stands silently, and the close-up lingers on his expressionless face, on which we see only a flicker of realization that his son has been killed.

The movie is filled with moments like this, strong, gutsy, brave moments that are no less courageous from the actors and the director, Irving Pichel, because they are placed in a comfortable and nostalgic setting.  Sometimes the movie may well remind us of what The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) would have been had it been filmed three years earlier; and it is perhaps no coincidence that the material is from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor, just as Best Years was.

We shift quickly to the town’s newspaper office where the editor composes a hasty eulogy for Ameche’s son in his daily editorial.  There is slight leap forward in time—Ameche takes a leave of absence from his drugstore and his employees are left to run the shop: good old Mary Wickes among them.  The minister calls on Mr. Ameche to lend comfort with the true words, “Suffering and pain are part of life too.  We must accept them.”

But Ameche’s loss of his son Rusty is compounded by his sense of injustice that Rusty “never had a chance at life.  He never went anywhere.  Just a youngster living at home, going to school, working for his dad…It isn’t right.  It isn’t fair.”

Ameche’s next visitor will have a stronger impact: Harry Carey, who plays his deceased grandfather.  We may compare this scenario with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but Harry Carey is no bumbling angel.  He speaks frankly with a kind of homespun horse sense we might expect from Will Rogers or Mark Twain, and though he has been dead twenty-one years, he is still very much alive to Don Ameche.  We know this because of Carey’s prominent portrait in Ameche’s home and at the drugstore.  Grandfather Carey’s influence is strong.  So it is with certain people in our lives, who seem to walk with us now and again even though they’re gone.

Ameche goes for walk into town, and Mr. Carey goes with him, and soon they travel not just through town, but through time.  We are brought to the end of World War I, when Harry Carey and the rest of the town welcomed home a parade of doughboys, including a younger Don Ameche.  (It is really something to consider that Ameche was still playing romantic leads at this point in his career, but in this movie he plays a character who ages, whose main purpose in the film is to be a father.  This would, as it does for aging actresses, signal a turning point, perhaps even a demise of his film career, but this movie is a gem and I hope he didn’t regret it.)  Grandpa Carey ran the drugstore then, and Don becomes a pharmacist as well.  We are then given a tour through Ameche’s adult life, of which his marriage to Frances Dee, and his son Rusty, is the biggest part.

Grandpa Carey died shortly after Rusty was born, and we jump to a Memorial Day of placing flags on Civil War vet Grandpa’s grave when Rusty is about six.  He is impressed, and knows that soldiers get flags.  He says that someday he wants one.  It is a moment of foreshadowing of doom, but Frances Dee confidently notes, “There aren’t going to be anymore wars.”  That, after all, was the slogan of World War I, when it was just still called The World War.

Grandpa Carey’s ghost remarks to Don Ameche, “She was right.  That’s the way to bring up American kids, not to be thinking always of conquests and battles, but to learn to enjoy the homely, simple things that are here all around them.”  It is a mighty thought, that to be peace-loving and grateful should be patriotic, for if we do not appreciate what patriots have won for us in war, we do not deserve the peace.  Then the strain of “Hail Columbia” repeats in chorus during this exchange.  The tune becomes our conscience.

We see Rusty playing with his friends at being Indians in a cornfield, and being dragged home by Mom to take his nap.  He balks at being called and answers, “Me no Rusty, Woman!”

Rusty gets spanked by Pop for refusing to go to kindergarten, but goes and makes pals there of two brothers who live on the other side of the tracks.  He brings them to the drugstore to meet Pop, and Ameche gives them free ice cream and orders some groceries for their family.  Their dad is out of work.  Ameche tells Rusty, “When you come across a fellow that hasn’t got anything and you’ve got things, why, you just give him some of your things.  Some folks call that charity.  I don’t like that word.  All it is, is being friendly.”

Rusty grows older, joins the Boy Scouts, and saves for a hatchet to take on a camping trip with the Scouts.  He’s almost got enough, but when he’s left in charge of the store and an old man comes in for medicine and can’t pay for it, Rusty buys it for him with his own money. Ameche witnesses the scene.  The expression of pride on his handsome face is exquisite.

He buys the hatchet for his son, and we see Rusty with other Scouts singing “My Darling Clementine” to a harmonica accompaniment.  We are back to homespun pleasures, and a montage of scenes as Rusty plays football and runs track in high school.  He was not always the star, but tried his best, and his father notes with equal pride, “He was a good loser.” This is a virtue as important as being a good winner.

Rusty dates, and his eventual best girl, Ann Rutherford, shares with him an unusual but pleasingly respectful relationship, an old-fashioned courtliness borne of modern wariness.  She does not gush over him, and withholds her kisses from him because she has seen him lose his head over flashier girls and she will not lower herself to compete.  He must win her, and with gallant gentlemanliness, he acquiesces to kisses only on the forehead until the moment when the time for passion is right.

Rusty, played by Richard Crane as an adult, is touchingly mature.  He and his friends have fun at a late summer backyard party, but listen to Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the radio and soberly understand, wise beyond their years, that their future has just been altered.  As President Franklin D. Roosevelt had said only three years earlier in 1936: “There is a mysterious cycle in human events.  To some generations much is given.  Of other generations much is expected.  This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Back at the drugstore, Old Ben, who works in town as a night watchman, played with eloquent, natural grace by Leigh Whipper, veteran of Broadway and the first African American to receive membership in the Actors Equity Association, remarks of the latest news on the radio about the threat of fascism, “It’s the same old thing, weasel talk.  The same old bunch of gangsters and killers out to make slave of the rest of Europe.”  Mr. Whipper’s too disgusted to be scared.  He sets a fine example in righteousness for the Rusty and his pals planning on joining the service, some fighting in these pre-Pearl Harbor days for Canada.

Along with Leigh Whipper, we must note how well chosen the cast is, from Richard Crane, who despite the enthusiasm of a boy coming of age really plays his role in a careful, understated manner which makes his character very likeable that makes us, like his father, seem to take pride in him.

His best friend is played by Dickie Moore, and Ann Rutherford’s character is played as a child by Darla Hood.  Also for the trivia buffs, this was five-year-old Natalie Wood’s first movie.  She has a brief walk-on as a child who drops an ice cream cone.  It also warms the heart see Adeline De Walt Reynolds in a brief role as a patron of the drugstore who trades homemade loganberry wine for a “snake oil” tonic. (We discussed her career in this previous post.)  The wine is reprised in several scenes as Rusty shares his first drink with Dad, and other momentous occasions.

Rusty decides, rather than enlist in a knee-jerk reaction to the world news, that he will go to pharmacy school.  After the war, he wants to join his father in business, and he feels that if he has his pharmacist’s license, he will be of more use to the service with this skill.  Don Ameche is once again beaming with pride, and invites his son for a toast of loganberry wine.

Rusty’s a strapping sailor in his Navy uniform.  But the world comes crashing down on us when we see his smiling face in the bus window pulling out of town and Ameche says in his soft, low voice, “That was the last time I saw him.”

Grandpa Carey is at his side again; we’re back in the present.  Carey says, “It was all worthwhile, the whole thing.”

We know what he means, that just because Rusty’s life was short doesn’t mean it didn’t have value, and that he didn’t pack a lot into it.  Ameche understand, too, but responds, “Rusty led a good life.  You’re right about that.  I know all the other things you’re hoping I’ll say, but I can’t.  He was my boy.  And now he’s dead.  I miss him.  I can’t help it.  I’ll always miss him.  I’ll always wish he was back, as long as I live.”

This exchange, during the height of World War II, was a very frank thing to say, and brave in its open-faced acknowledgement of grief.  We are most respectful to the grieving not when we try to cheer them up, but when we acknowledge their grief.  There is no cheerleading here, but the end of the movie gives us and Ameche a startling task.  It dares us to continue our lives and force ourselves to find a purpose.

The gentle but no less firm admonition for Ameche comes in the form of Henry Morgan.  He’s a young sailor, a shipmate of Rusty’s.  He shows up to the drugstore on furlough, and in an exchange of very few words, almost as if they are reading each other’s minds, Ameche invites Henry, who has no family of his own, to stay at his house.  Frances Dee, also awed by an unspoken epiphany, kisses Henry upon meeting him as if he was her son, and they, without talking about it, suggest he take Rusty’s room.  We know their bond is sealed when Ameche takes out the loganberry wine.

The strains of “Hail Columbia” rise again with lyrics, “peace and safety we shall find.”

But we shall only find it together.

Special thanks to fellow blogger Moira Finnie (see her blog The Skeins) for introducing me to this movie.  You can watch it here on YouTube.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

For the Defense - 1930

For the Defense (1930) presents a gritty Depression-era drama, but very much on the cusp of the 1920s “era of wonderful nonsense” and a semi-biographical take on one of its outrageous characters.  It is grim, fatalistic, but with that cheeky spark of chip-on-the-shoulder humor that marked the character needed to survive the Great Depression, and which we see abundantly in films of this era.

William Powell stars as a clever, charming, hard-drinking New York attorney whose tactics sometimes actually skirt legality.  He is immaculately dressed and performs in court with Shakespearean flourish, never loses a case, but he is flawed, and eventually must suffer the consequences.  Despite his eventual downfall, he is not, however, a tragic figure in the sense that he is the master of his own destiny.  He gambles with his clients’ lives, with his own, and refuses to take life on anything but his own terms.  No hero, but we can’t help but smile at his success, particularly during a long-played out courtroom scene where he takes a vial of nitroglycerin that is a piece of evidence and smashes it on the floor to the horror of everyone.  He knows it is not really nitroglycerin (and so do we, as the scene telegraphs that to us beforehand).  His greatest courtroom trick, however, is his bribing of juries.

Far more shocking than the nitro scene, at least to modern sensibilities, perhaps, is Powell’s self-destructive drunkenness.  It is not played for comic effect, despite his wisecracks.  The real  ugliness of the drunkenness is its treatment as being normal, being necessary to fuel the engine of a driven man.

The character is based on real-life New York champion lawyer and marathon inebriate William Fallon, who is said to be the inspiration as well for the rogue lawyer Billy Flynn in the stage and screen musical Chicago, as well as other films.  His life of hard drinking left him dead in 1927 at only forty-one years of age.

More tragic, perhaps, is the character played by Kay Francis, who loves Powell and wants to marry him, but his uncomfortable, gentle response is, “After all these months, don't you think that would be rather silly?”  He clearly loves her, but it’s a slap in the face, and we feel her humiliation. 

Kay Francis, who would go on the make six films with Mr. Powell in all, plays an actress, and her flapper’s severely short bob make her look more devil-may-care than Powell in his conservative three-piece-suits, though she is far more traditional, at least as regards her feelings about marriage.  She really looks startlingly modern compared to Powell and stands out in appearance from the Depression-bedraggled cast, as if she hasn’t gotten the memo that the 1920s are over.

Obviously, noting their relationship, the drinking, and Powell’s clever flouting of the law, we are distinctly in Pre-Code era, unrepentant and blasé about rules.  It’s also a marvel to note that Mr. Powell’s screen presence is magnetic and, unlike his cast mates, really quite natural.  Even Kay Francis, who had a strong screen presence, comes off as extremely mannered in performance compared to the smooth William Powell, who never plays to the camera, and seems not to know there’s a camera in the room.

The plot takes us from Powell’s many victories in the courtroom getting criminals off, to a tragedy when one of Kay’s admirers, played by Scott Kolk, tries to lure her away from Powell by proposing marriage.  Kay and Kolk get into a car accident which kills a pedestrian, and Kolk goes on trial, though Kay was driving.  He tries to protect her, and Kay tries to keep her involvement with him a secret from Powell, knowing he will never forgive her for being out with his rival.  Powell refers to Kolk as her raccoon coat, because that is what he wears—more shades of the previous decade.  Their scenes in a speakeasy also flout the law, and remind us that Prohibition was not repealed until 1933.

Powell will lose his first case, and find himself shipped to Sing-Sing for his chicanery , but the sordid tale ends on a note of hope when Kay promises to wait for him.  He promises to marry her, if she does.

Director John Cromwell gives us a lean and strong, quickly shot story.  Look for him also in a bit part as a reporter.  The dogged district attorney is played by William B. Davidson.  Also popping up in the cast is George “Gabby” Hayes as a waiter.

There is a sense—I wonder if it was perceived even when this film played in theaters—that we were stuck treading water in a period of time where one era was finished, but the new one had not yet acquired a personality of its own.  We were waiting warily to be introduced.  Rather than a sense of foreboding, there was a only a weak smile and a shrug of the shoulders.  We hadn’t touched bottom yet as a society; we were still in the freefall, waiting to land. 


Come back next Thursday when we shift gears to an era of another kind of anxiety but a greater message of comfort – the gentle wartime home front story of Happy Time (1943) starring Don Ameche.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.