Tweet, Tweet! Plus, Stars in My Crown (1950)

Before I get into discussing today’s movie, I wanted to mention that I’ve started a Twitter account for my miscellaneous thoughts on classic movie and stars. You can follow me (@HTD_Classics) by clicking the Twitter widget on the right. I envision lots of random, silly fangirl gushing there, so be forewarned!

Stars in My Crown (1950)

stars in my crown family

I know there isn’t really an endless supply of good classic movies, but lately it feels like it. Even though I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years, there’s still so much out there to discover and enjoy. It’s fantastic! In the past week alone I’ve seen two completely wonderful films I’d never even heard of a month ago – One Way Passage, which I wrote about the other day, and director Jacques Tourneur’s heartwarming drama Stars in My Crown.

I’ve read quite a few excited mentions of the movie in various blogs since Warner Archive announced its DVD release last month, and after watching it I completely understand what all the fuss was about. Stars in My Crown is one of the most uplifting movies I’ve watched in a long while.

The story is narrated by the character John Kenyon, an adult reminiscing about his childhood growing up indean stockwell  a small town in the years after the Civil War. The young John is played by Dean Stockwell. I haven’t seen very many of Stockwell’s childhood roles, but I’ve been truly impressed by the ones I have seen. He’s completely natural and real in Stars in My Crown – cute without being cutesy, and with a delivery of his lines that makes you believe he just is this kid. He has an especially good rapport with Joel McCrea, which they demonstrated again a few years later in an enjoyable Western called Cattle Drive.

John is an orphan being raised by his mother’s sister Harriet (Ellen Drew) and her husband Josiah, the town parson (McCrea). Parson Gray loves his town and the people living there, and is an integral part of their lives. He’s the moral center of the place – a truly decent man who leads by his example. He’s tough when he needs to be (the way he strides into the newly formed town and starts preaching to the drunks in the bar is very amusing) and has a great sense of humor and fun.

stars-in-my-crown-joel-mccrea-1950 To me, nobody could’ve played this part and embodied it quite as well as Joel McCrea. McCrea radiated decency in a way few other actors ever did. Even among the others who often played similar “good guy” parts – Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda or even Gary Cooper – McCrea stands out in my mind as the one who most naturally represents a simple, straightforward goodness on the screen.

The movie moves along at a gentle but brisk pace, introducing us to a young doctor who takes over his late father’s practice and clashes with the parson on matters of science versus faith, the sweet schoolteacher the doctor falls in love with,  a black farmer named Uncle Famous whose land contains a vein of mica coveted by a businessman determined to acquire it from him, and the parson’s non-churchgoing best friend and former Union army comrade.

The two main plots in the film revolve around the doctor and the farmer. The doctor juano_hernandezand the parson face an outbreak of typhoid that puts them at odds with one another, causing  each of them to question their own beliefs and look at each other’s with new respect. The farmer encounters cruelty and violence from the Ku Klux Klan when he refuses to sell his land to the businessman. The scene in which the parson peacefully – perhaps even miraculously – intervenes to stop the Klan from hanging Famous is incredibly moving.

The poster for this movie features a picture of Joel McCrea brandishing two guns, along with the line “Take your choice…either I speak…or my pistols do!”  It’s a horribly misleading poster, because other than the humorous moment when Parson Gray pulls out his guns to keep the bar patrons listening to his first sermon in town, Gray is never seen holding a gun again.  In fact, a message of peace is very strong in the movie.  Parson Gray meets the Klansmen armed not with a gun, but with his faith.

Stockwell and McCrea give the two standout performances of the movie, but all the actors are great – Ellen Drew as the parson’s spunky wife, James Mitchell as the dedicated young doctor, Juano Hernandez as wise old Famous, pretty Amanda Blake in her pre-Gunsmoke days as the schoolteacher, Alan Hale, Sr. as the parson’s best friend, and Ed Begley as the greedy mine owner.

stars in my crown doctor and teacher with kids

Stars in My Crown is charming, funny, kindhearted and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being cloying, and contains a message of faith without being nauseatingly preachy. It’s a sweet, simple tale of small-town family life of the sort you don’t see often anymore, in movies or on TV. Where are the Charles Ingalls and John Walton type of TV fathers these days, after all? Parson Gray reminded me of both of them, and of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, which in my view is a very good thing.

Joel McCrea said that Stars in My Crown was his favorite of all the many movies he’d been in, and considering how many truly excellent films he was part of – Sullivan’s Travels, The More the Merrier, Foreign Correspondent, The Palm Beach Story, Ride the High Country – that’s really saying something, both about the quality of the movie itself, and about the kind of man McCrea was.

For more on the admirably modest, down-to-earth Mr. McCrea and his lovely wife Frances Dee, I recommend this essay by Moira at Skeins of Thought.

All I want is to enter my house justified.

Ride the High Country (1962)

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Elsa Knudsen:  My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.

Director Sam Peckinpah’s elegy to the Old West, Ride the High Country, is a movie that transcends genre. Even if you think you don’t like Westerns, this movie is worth watching because it’s quite simply a well-told story, beautifully filmed in stunning locations, and featuring great performances by two legendary actors.  It’s the story of the end of an era, a changing world, and the true, timeless things that remain behind.

ride the high country

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are old friends and former lawmen who take on the dangerous job of escorting gold from a mining camp in the mountains to a bank in town.   Steve is a good man who is satisfied to do his job and earn his pay.  Gil, having grown disillusioned by how little living an honest life has gotten him, secretly plans to steal the gold – with or without Steve’s cooperation.

Gil brings a brash, disrespectful young co-conspirator named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) along for the journey.  Whether Heck will continue in Gil’s footsteps or be influenced by Steve’s example is one of the more interesting questions of the movie.

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Along the way the three encounter a religious zealot, Mr. Knudsen, and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is bullied and oppressed by her father, so when Judd, Westrum and Longtree leave the Knudsen home for the mining camp, Elsa runs away and follows them.  She plans to meet up with her fiancé, gold miner Billy Hammond (James Drury).  She has only met Billy a few times, but she’s anxious to get married in order to escape from her father.

elsa and hammond bros

It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for the naive and sheltered Elsa, however, when her fiancé and his brothers turn out to be violent, drunken brutes who think that everything should be shared among them – even one brother’s wife.  Judd, Westrum and Longtree are forced to rescue  Elsa from her new husband and his brothers, who pursue them with vengeance in mind.

joel mccrea

Steve Judd is a pillar of quiet, manly virtue.  Joel McCrea, with his clear blue eyes and calm, laconic manner, touchingly portrays Judd’s inherent decency and attempt to live a life of honor.  In a world where Judd is told he’s in the way and that he’s too old to do his job, he’s determined to keep his self-respect and do what’s right.  “All I want,” he says, “is to enter my house justified.”  Not only does he succeed in that for himself, but in the end he points his old friend Gil in that direction as well.

Gary Cooper was initially considered for the part, but he died before the movie was made.  As great as Cooper no doubt would have been, it’s hard for me to picture anyone else as Steve Judd after watching McCrea in the role.  He makes this character so strong, warm and real.  It’s one of the best things he ever did.

randolph scott

Randolph Scott gives Gil Westrum roguish humor, a good bit of cynicism and, in the end, a second chance at integrity and honor.  It’s a wonderful performance.  This was Scott’s last movie before he retired, and talk about going out in style.

McCrea and Scott have a great rapport as their characters.  As you watch them interact and reminisce there truly seems to be a history of shared experience and friendship between them.  Steve and Gil worked together for years and lived through the same times, but they’ve ended up in very different places morally and ethically.  The conflict that causes between them is quite moving.

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You also see how the years have taken a toll on these once celebrated lawmen, in ways both humorous (Steve needing his spectacles to read a contract) and touching (Gil asking Steve to untie his hands after Steve captures him for trying to steal the gold, because “I don’t sleep so good anymore.”).

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Ride the High Country was filmed in the Inyo National Forest, and it’s absolutely gorgeous too look at.  The score by George Bassman is terrific, especially the beautiful and evocative main theme which you can hear in the trailer below.

The film manages to be both an exciting story and also an excellent character study full of quiet,  human moments.  There are top-notch performances by everyone involved, from the two stars to the supporting actors.

Even if you’re not much of a Western fan, Ride the High Country is a movie that deserves to be put on your to-watch list.

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I watch them so you don’t have to!

As much as I’d love to do long, loving write-ups of everything I watch, there’s not enough time or energy for that. Anyway, lots of movies don’t deserve loving write-ups! I encounter plenty of stinkers in my quest for good new-to-me films.

Here are quick reviews of two such recently endured flops. I went into both of them with high hopes, but those hopes were quickly dashed.

The Richest Girl in the World (1934)

 This romantic comedy was produced by Pandro S. Berman, written by Norman Krasna, and starred Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. In spite of all those people’s involvement, it was still disappointingly half-baked.

richest girl in the worldMiriam Hopkins plays Dorothy Hunter, a fabulously wealthy heiress and the titular richest girl in the world. Since returning from Europe to live in the US she’s been keeping a low profile, having her pretty secretary (Fay Wray) pretend to be her in public so she’s not hassled.  She meets Tony Travers (McCrea) at a party where the secretary is pretending to be her and she is pretending to be the secretary.

She swiftly falls for Tony, who seems to like her pretty well, too. However, she’s concerned that no man will ever see past her riches and love her just for herself, so she carries on with the ruse of being a secretary. She decides to test Tony by throwing the real secretary, the faux heiress, in his path. That way she can see if he chooses the supposedly rich girl for her wealth, or goes instead for the “secretary” he truly fancies.

Tony is a confusing character whose motives are hard to pin down. Not because he’s so complex and richly drawn, mind you, just because the script can’t decide who he is. He seems to want Miriam Hopkins’ character, but when she encourages him to pursue the secretary/faux heiress he goes along with that just fine, too. He didn’t seem to care too much which woman he got, actually. In the end, after some misunderstandings and further ill-conceived “love tests” concocted by Dorothy, Tony proves his love for her. Or something.  They end up married, him still thinking she is a secretary.

Having recently watched 1933’s Design for Living (a fabulous movie that deserves and will get a post of its own sometime soon), I was anxious to see more of Miriam Hopkins. And of course I’m a lovestruck fool for Mr. McCrea these days. There just wasn’t enough good stuff for either of them to work with in this movie, though. Their characters and the whole story were underdeveloped and didn’t make a huge amount of sense.

I didn’t hate the movie.  In fact parts were amusing and I kept thinking about how it could’ve been really good with some changes and more fleshing out of the characters.  As it is, it’s simply very forgettable.  On the plus side, Joel McCrea looks really young and handsome!

 A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)

 Here’s where I drive away half of this blog’s already small readership by admitting that I find John Wayne completely off-putting. Every now and then I watch one of his movies, either because I’ve heard so many good things about it (like The Quiet Man) or because it also stars someone I love (like lady-takes-a-chance-john-wayne-jean-arthur-1943Montgomery Clift in Red River), but no matter how good the movie may otherwise be, I just can’t get past my antipathy for Wayne. His swaggering, macho persona is not my cup of tea.

This time I put aside my feelings and gave A Lady Takes a Chance a try because it co-stars Jean Arthur, an actress I pretty much think hung the moon. She has her cute moments in the movie, but not so many that I wasn’t checking my watch every ten minutes, wondering when this uncomfortable experience would end.

Arthur plays Molly Truesdale, a career girl who has multiple men fighting over her in New York, but who isn’t keen on any of them. Having seen these fellows, I don’t really blame her for that.  She escapes the clamoring throng of goofy boyfriends at home and takes a vacation bus trip out West.

At one of the stops on her tour she attends a rodeo. Cowboy Duke Hudkins (Wayne) is thrown from his horse and into the stands, landing right on top of Molly. He tries to get up, but she pulls him back down on top of her, so thunderstruck is she by his cowboy manliness.

After the rodeo she chases him down for an autograph and they end up spending the evening together. During most of the evening they don’t have much to say to each other, since they clearly have very little in common. They hit a couple of bars and, of course, get into a brawl in which Duke punches people out. (I know I haven’t seen many Wayne movies, but if there’s one in which he doesn’t punch someone that’s news to me.)

Molly is interested in marriage and true love, but all Duke wants is a roll in the (literal) hay. The blatant way in which he shows and tells her that that’s all he’s interested in was surprising to me for a 1943 movie. Molly is offended by this prairie wolf and ditches him.

Having missed the tour bus during her night with Duke, Molly hitchhikes her way to meet up with the rest of the group. One of the drivers she reluctantly gets a ride with is Duke and his “better half,” an old cowboy codger portrayed by Charles Winninger. They all end up camping out together.

That night Molly makes Duke’s horse sick by stealing the poor animal’s blanket so she’d have a second one for herself, a move which made me dislike her almost as much as I disliked the charmless Duke. The poor horse got pneumonia and nearly died!  Somehow Duke is able to forgive all and take back up with Molly in spite of this, once it’s clear that the horse will be okay.

Then some more stuff happens, mostly consisting of Molly trying to use her feminine wiles to trap Duke into a life of domesticity and home cooking, Duke running away horrified, and Molly going back to New York alone. It’s no surprise when Duke follows after her, not because the two are so made for each other, but because it’s just an inevitability for this hokey film.  He meets her when she arrives at the bus station, snatching her up in his arms (after punching one of her boyfriends, if I recall correctly) and taking her back on the bus headed West.  So long to his old cowboy pal — she’s going to be his new “better half.”

I just couldn’t get into this movie at all. Duke Hudkins was kind of a jerk and Molly was much too desperate to catch him. Plus, she almost killed his horse! It was just bad.

For a city girl/cowboy romance with likeable characters and much more charm, I’d recommend Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon in The Cowboy and the Lady, which I reviewed here last week.

For a movie featuring a much more interesting bus trip, you can’t beat the incomparable It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.  That was my palate-cleanser of choice after A Lady Takes a Chance. It cheered me up immensely, as it always does.

What a wonderful scene!  One of many perfect moments in the movie. If only all romantic comedies could be as delightful and intelligent as that one.  Here’s the hitchhiking scene.  It just doesn’t get any better than this!

My search for hidden gems as great as the well-known classics like It Happened One Night is fun, and sometimes turns up something obscure but enjoyable.  On the other hand, sometimes movies are obscure for good reason.

The More the Merrier and WWII

I just read the most wonderful, detailed, discussion of The More the Merrier at Another Old Movie Blog.  As you can probably tell from my blog’s header, The More the Merrier is one of my favorite movies, and one I’m always trying to talk other people into watching.

So much so that when the grocery store had copies of it for sale, displayed side-by-side with lots of terrible old ’80s movies and sure to be ignored by 99.9% of my fellow Kroger shoppers, I was seriously tempted to buy the DVDs myself just to give them a good home.  Ha!  Really though, then I’d have extra copies to thrust at unsuspecting friends and family members, telling them to just watch it already.

Anyway, do check out the write-up on Another Old Movie Blog, preferably after having watched the film.  The post’s focus is not only on the comic and romantic plot points and the brilliant performances by Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea, but also on the World War II homefront setting of the movie.  Housing shortages, eligible man shortages, gasoline rationing, the bittersweet poignancy of wartime romance — it’s all there.

As great as the post is, I think my favorite part is this screencap of Joel McCrea.  I’m such a shallow person.

Happy New Year!

Has it really been almost a year since I posted here?  I have such a hard time sticking with projects like this one.  I’ve been watching and loving classic movies for the past 12 months, of course, but the time and motivation to write about them have been hard to come by.

But it’s New Year’s resolution time and besides that I’m on a bit of a movie-watching spree right now, so it seems as good a time as any to make another attempt to keep the blog alive.  After all, I need somewhere to write about all the wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) things I’ve seen.

Not to mention somewhere to gush without shame about my newest movie star crush, Gary Cooper.  I’m completely obsessed with tracking down as many of his movies as I can find and watching them as soon as possible.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen: Morocco, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire and Casanova Brown, all for the first time.

My DVR contains Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees, and Wedding Night is winging its way to me from Netflix as I type this.  I’ve also scoured the TCM listings for the next couple of months and have Along Came Jones, Friendly Persuasion, The Fountainhead, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Cowboy and the Lady to look forward to.

See what I mean?  When I get interested in something, I really get interested! I’d first seen and enjoyed High Noon and Love in the Afternoon years ago, because they co-starred Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn respectively, but neither of those movies made in the 1950s gave me a real clue as to how wonderful (and wonderful looking) Cooper had been in his younger days.

Then sometime last year I watched 1939’s Beau Geste on TCM and realized just what I’d been missing. The man was beautiful. Tall, gorgeous and very sexy. Thanks to the Christmas holidays I finally had time to immerse myself in some of the movies on my to-watch list and it was a lovely experience.  Not only was Gary Cooper easy on the eyes,  he was also an extremely charismatic, subtle, talented actor.  Stay tuned for lots of Coop chat in the coming days and weeks!

I also hope to write some more about Joel McCrea, having recently seen him in two fabulous movies (The Palm Beach Story and Foreign Correspondent) and one strange, disjointed film (Preston Sturges’s The Great Moment).  I can’t wait to write about those three, especially The Palm Beach Story, which is one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages.  It’s absolutely hilarious from start to finish.  Plus McCrea once again demonstrates the uber-hotness I first discovered in The More the Merrier.

Not that it’s all about the men!  I’ve also been delving into Claudette Colbert’s work quite a bit in recent weeks and having lots of fun getting to know her better.  The Gilded Lily, part of the newly released Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray Romantic Comedy Collection, was an especially entertaining trifle.  Colbert and MacMurray had great chemistry and were always fun to watch together.

So that’s some of what’s coming up here very soon.  I have no idea if anyone is even reading this blog anymore, it’s been so long, but I’m excited to give it another try.  There are few things I enjoy as much as rambling on and on about classic movies and movie stars.

Joel McCrea, where have you been all my life?

Joel McCrea It really is amazing how many actors and actresses I’ve overlooked all these years, in spite of being a big classic movie fan and TCM viewer.  I’ve been in a rut, I suppose, watching the same actors and often the same movies over and over to the neglect of others.

I’m almost glad, though, since now I’m having the fun of discovering the work of people I hadn’t seen much of before, like Joel McCrea.

McCrea’s so wonderful in The More the Merrier – laconic, masculine, funny, decent, and oh so handsome and sexy.

There’s so much heat between his character, Joe Carter, and Jean Arthur’s Connie Milligan.  The air in any room they’re in together seems electrically charged.  Even before they meet it’s there, with her dancing her little bottom-wiggling rumba in her bedroom and him dancing his in the hallway.  And once they do meet the rest of the movie is a delicious exercise in unresolved sexual tension, epitomized by the famous scene on the front stoop.

I love the way Joe puts her fur on her as they walk along, removes it, and puts it back again, all as an excuse to touch her bare shoulders.  And of course once they collapse onto the steps he can’t stop putting his big hands all over her neck, back and waist.

Yet there’s nothing at all unpleasantly groping about it, in spite of Connie’s halfhearted, short-lived attempts to push his hands away.  It’s intensely romantic, in fact, with her nattering on about the merits of her boring fiancé, Mr. Pendergast, while getting more and more distracted by the way Joe’s looking at and touching her.  She almost collapses when she tries to stand up after they kiss, so weak-kneed is she after all of that.

Wonderful stuff.  They don’t make scenes like this anymore.  In a film today they’d have been pushing each other up the stairs and tearing each other’s clothes off.  I don’t say that in moral judgment, really.  I’m just glad for these kinds of tension-filled scenes in older movies.

Right after this Joe and Connie go to bed in their separate rooms and talk through the thin wall between them in what is another incredibly romantic moment.  And of course all of this intensity is heightened by the fact that it’s wartime and Joe is about to leave, possibly never to return.

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I’m not sure what the point of all this is, exactly.  Mostly that I fancy Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier, I suppose, and am looking forward to seeing more of him in other movies. 

Bird of Paradise

For more on the hotness that is Joel McCrea, check out this article from Bright Lights Film Journal:  Golden Boy: The Sexy Ways of Joel McCrea.

 

 

McCrea with Dolores del Rio in the racy pre-code Bird of Paradise (1932)