Monday, August 19, 2019

Seven Bad Films from Hollywood's Golden Age

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in Once Upon A Honeymoon (1942)
A bad film can rankle a viewer.  In a recent article, I compared a fine film to a rose.  It need not be contemplated.  Just let its splendor touch your soul.  But a bad film, with bitterness in every fold, is different.  It can possess a viewer's mind with irate thoughts.  A viewer can feel compelled to tear up this itchy weed of a film by its roots.  They can feel compelled to warn others to avoid this intolerable, time-wasting creation. 

I have watched dozens of Golden Age Hollywood films in the last several months and I have only found only a few that fell somewhat short or were outright, indisputable clunkers.  I am compelled at this time to exorcise those clunker demons from my dear and precious soul.

1.) Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

Two beautiful young women fight madly for the love of an aging gangster in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).  Even though the gangster is played by the always charming Jimmy Cagney, it hard to believe that these women would lose their minds over him as they do.  The women's outrageously fervent dialogue makes it seem at times as if the screenwriter, Harry Brown, has never heard an actual woman talk.

Helena Carter, Jimmy Cagney and Barbara Payton in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950).
The film's gangster, Ralph Cotter, fails to measure up to White Heat's Cody Jarrett.  Cotter is more cautious.  Unlike the homicidal Jarrett, Cotter is willing to defer the use of fists or gun if a clever lie will suffice to get him out of a tight spot.  Jarrett, who demanded infallible toughness from himself and those around him, would have thumped Cotter for his circumspect ways.

I imagine that Cotter couldn't get to sleep at night without a warm glass of milk.

The biggest weakness of the film is that it plays more like a comedy than a crime drama.  Cagney's performance, though highly entertaining, is largely tongue-in-cheek.


If you want a 1950s film with a serious story to tell about an aging gangster, I recommend you watch Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).

Jean Gabin in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
2.) Once Upon A Honeymoon (1942)

Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) certainly has the famed Lubitsch Touch.  Richard Christiansen of The Chicago Tribune wrote, "'The Lubitsch Touch'. . .  embraces a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance."  Leland A. Poague, author of "The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch," described "The Lubitsch Touch" as "a style that is gracefully charming and fluid."  The best way to understand The Lubitsch Touch is to watch To Be or Not to Be and then watch the muddled, similarly-themed Once Upon A Honeymoon (1942).  Both of these 1942 releases grafted screwball comedy onto a wartime melodrama about Nazi invasions and anti-Nazi spy rings.  Director Leo McCarey failed to bring subtly, grace or charm to Once Upon a Honeymoon.  The film is contrived, confusing and tasteless.

The plot is summarized well by Joe Sommerlad of Faded Video:
Sheridan Gibney's script tells of American journalist and radio news commentator Pat O'Toole (Grant), stationed in Austria and working on an investigative piece about Baron Albrecht von Luber (Walter Slezak), an aristocrat whom he and his editor suspect of being "Hitler's finger man". When O'Toole learns that the baron is about to marry a naive American socialite named Katherine Butt-Smith (Rogers), who is really an ex-burlesque dancer from Brooklyn, he sees his chance at a major scoop, failing to factor-in the inevitably of his falling for her while Czechoslovakia and Poland fall to the Führer.

McCarey failed in the most dismal way possible to mix comedy and melodrama.  Sommerlad continued:
For a breezy comedy, the film ends up showing us the assassination of a Polish general (Albert Basserman) by machine gun fire as his chauffeured car passes down the wrong street, an orderly's horrified face sprayed with blood, plus the murder of an American double agent posing as a Parisian portrait photographer (Albert Dekker) and, most shockingly of all, Grant and Rogers imprisoned in a concentration camp after being caught with Jewish papers by mistake.
Grant and Rogers are being considered for sterilization when an American ambassador arrives to wrangle their release.

Blogger Grand Old Movies wrote, "Once Upon a Honeymoon wants to be cute and winsome while it makes a Statement that Hitler and War are bad (which everyone probably knew by then).  The whole film is all over the place. . ."

Slezak is so funny and charming in his role that, regardless of his villainy, his killing in the final moments of the film is off-putting.  Sommerlad wrote:
The film's closing punch line, after our heroine has shoved the portly Nazi villain from an ocean liner into the Atlantic, is that the man couldn't swim, so there's no need for the captain to turn his ship around to embark on a rescue mission - Baron von Luber having surely drowned by now.  Odd, and too brutal even for black comedy.
Grand Old Movies wrote, "[T]he closing 'joke' about the Baron left me feeling queasy. . ."

The film is drubbed by reviewers on the Internet Movie Database.
krdemont wrote:

Another huge problem is the plot.  Grant and Rogers seem to be following Selzak in his European tour of fifth-column destruction without any purpose until they arrive in France and Ginger is recruited by the photographer to become a spy.  Until then what were they up to?  Is Cary constantly looking for some "scoop" and never coming up with it?

For that matter, what was Slezak up to?  We see him selling faulty weapons to the Poles, but thereafter, his exact means of facilitating the Reich's advances are never even hinted at.  What makes this guy so important and powerful?  Oh yeah, the film says so!  Yeah, it shows Slezak meeting with some home-grown Nazi sympathizers in various countries - but what about?  How can country after country topple to Hitler just because Slezak pays them a visit?

mukava99111 wrote:

I wondered why I had never heard of this film before, considering its roster of top talents, but after a few minutes it was clear that this was a real stinker.  The problem lies with the script which can't make up its mind whether to be light or serious. Leo McCarey's sluggish direction doesn't help either.  There is no momentum.  The jokes fall flat.  The comic situations are handled with lead gloves.  They take forever to build up and generate no laughs.  The first hour is taken up with painful, labored attempts at comedy. . .

jacobs-greenwood30 wrote:

From Rogers's awful accents and Grant's silly drunkenness, the comedy elements fall short.
cutter-126 wrote:

The routine anti-Nazi propaganda speeches still resonate, but any attempt to be funny in such a downbeat atmosphere is really an uphill climb.

richard-178722 wrote:

This is one of the most unpleasantly bad movies I have ever seen, and I don't understand why.  The director, Leo McCarey, made all sorts of wonderful movies.  Ditto Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, both fine actors.  But everything is wrong with this movie, starting with the truly awful script. . . It doesn't take serious things that have to be taken seriously, even in a comedy.  That leaves the main characters, especially Rogers, reacting in very bizarre ways to very serious situations.

3.) Sylvia Scarlett (1938)


Sylvia Scarlett (1938) was another film that tried but failed to mix comedy and drama.  A few modern-day film critics hail the film as a subversive gender-bending masterpiece.  It isn't.  The idea that the film was ahead of its time and people in 1938 were too dumb to recognize it for the masterpiece it was is simply absurd.   The story is meandering, muddled, and ultimately pointless.  Hepburn's performance is erratic, implausible and irritating.  Hepburn dresses as a boy for no good reason and no one that she meets believes for a moment that she's a boy.  Rod Crawford wrote in his plot summary for The Internet Movie Database:
[Sylvia] "disguises" herself as a boy. . .
Those two simple quotation marks around the word "disguises" tells us everything we need to know about Hepburn's flimsy deception.  When she finally reveals her true identity, no one blinks an eye.  She has great anticipation revealing her true identity to handsome and charming artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), but he registers little emotion in response.  He simply remarks, "Oh, I see, you're really a girl!"  He has no questions and he expresses no resentment.  Sylvia's traveling companion, Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), has nothing more to say than "Well, well, well, well. . ."  Michael's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Lily (Natalia Paley) conveys no more than mild confusion to see that Sylvia has swapped boy clothes for girl clothes.  She asks, "Were you a girl dressed as a boy or are you a boy dressed as a girl?" 

Sylvia is just as confused.  She doesn't know how she wants Michael to respond to her revelation.  She strikes Michael for trying to kiss her, but she immediately regrets her violent reaction.  "I'm rude and rough and clumsy," she says.  "I should have stayed a boy."  No one talks the way Sylvia talks.  In instances, scriptwriters Gladys Unger, John Collier and Mortimer Offner may be trying to emulate the poetic language of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  But, sadly, they fail.  Shakespeare's poetic language is mesmerizing.  This film's poetic language is jarring and silly.  Sylvia talks and behaves like a visitor from outer space.  I expected her, at any moment, to shout, "Shazbot!" 

Michael Koresky of Film Comment is fair in his assessment of the film, writing:
It's an exceedingly queer movie, tonally schizoid and burdened with an emotionally zigzagging plot that seems content to give you barely enough psychological information about each character before they’re acting in a way you never could have expected and thus transforming the narrative over and over. That the film begins as something like a prestige costume melodrama before sojourning in the realm of poetic realism then diving back into screwball comedy before submerging itself abruptly into tragedy and going back to farce surely must result from the realities of its screenwriting travails.
Critics had a low opinion of the film at the time of its release.  "Land" of Variety wrote:
Despite good production values and some strong performances, 'Sylvia Scarlett' is not a reliable candidate for public favor.  The story is hard to get. It is puzzling in its tangents and sudden jumps. . . At moments the film skirts the border of absurdity and considerable of its mid-section is downright boresome.
. . .
Mistake seems to have been in not sticking to a broad vein of comedy.  In the serious passages, notably the half-crazy jealousy of the father (Edmund Gwenn) for his young and helter-skelter wife (Dennie Moore) there is little preparation in the audience's mind for anything so serious as a suicide.
. . .
Half-whimsical, almost allegorical, and with the last half having a dream-worldish element that's hard to define, and equally hard to understand, 'Sylvia Scarlett' will encounter a cross-drift of indifference to some of its basic plot situations.  Transition of a group of petty crooks into a troupe of vagabond actors traveling in a two motor coach caravan is especially harsh upon the credibility of the story.
Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote, ". . . [T]he film has a sprawling, confused and unaccented way of telling its story. . . Individual scenes of laughter and heart-break come through cleanly, but the story and its people seem purposeless and possess the blurred outlines of shapes that are being projected through a veil. . . Something fresh, touching and funny seems to have gone into Sylvia Scarlett, but it got caught in the machinery."

The opinion of the film remains largely the same today.  IMDb user cutter-12 put it perfectly when he wrote, "Contrived, fake, talky, addled, unfocused, unbelievable, and annoying pretty much sum it up."

Another big problem with the film is that the characters lack principles, which makes it difficult if not impossible to like them.  Koresky wrote, "Grant's virile crook and Gwenn's unprincipled father are just the most blatant of the film’s ethically dubious players; Michael and Lily mostly operate on self-interest and opportunism, and more than one romantic matchup in the film ends up in attempted or actual suicide."

Sylvia Scarlett's small cult of fans are not persuasive in their defense of the film.  Koresky tries hard to spin the film's vices into virtues.  He wrote, "All these decades later, the discomforts of Sylvia Scarlett are precisely what have given the film its longevity as an object of curiosity and affection."  He continued, "[T]he anything-goes, patchwork quality of the film is entirely in keeping with the devil-may-care attitude of the protagonist, a woman who does what she wants when she wants and deals with the consequences later."  He concluded of the film, "[I]t was never destined to be easily loved."

The film is regarded by its fans as thrillingly risqué due to a couple of fleeting and frivolous woman-on-woman kisses.  Koresky wrote:
Maudie touches Sylvester’s face, inspecting it for whiskers; with nothing to be found she paints a pencil-thin Ronald Colman mustache on her face.  So instantly dashing is Sylvia that she plants a kiss flush on her mouth.  This reportedly elicited groans from test audiences and resulted in mass walkouts.

As if things needed to be further complicated, Michael’s mistress Lily, a Russian adventuress played by Natalie Paley. . . arrives at the house and is also taken with Sylvester, calling him "such a pretty boy."  Later, upon discovering that she is a woman, she declares seductively "how charming" and kisses her on the cheek.
Much ado about nothing.

Watch Hepburn "squeak and squeal" (as per Aherne's dialogue) as she discloses her true sex.

4.) Love Crazy (1941)

A character has to behave in a sympathetic and logical manner for the audience to care about them and want them to work out their problems.  Love Crazy (1941) opens with architect Steve Ireland (William Powell) and his wife Susan (Myrna Loy) poised to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary.  Steve, an eccentric character, normally has his wife celebrate their wedding anniversary in accordance to a Baffin Island Inuit ritual, adherence to which requires the couple to recreate the events of their wedding day.  This year, though, he has the idea to recreate the events backwards.  His evening plans, described by Wikipedia as "eccentric and jokey," doesn't sound like a romantic or respectful way to celebrate a couple's union in holy matrimony.  This ritual doesn't make the character funny or endearing; it makes him irreverent and strange. 

Steve has a malicious mother-in-law, Mrs. Cooper (Florence Bates), who suddenly shows up to intrude on the couple's anniversary plans.  Susan is welcoming of her mother despite her abrupt arrival.  She obviously has not achieved independence from this domineering woman.  Steve is clearly upset, but he is too cowardly to ask the interfering Mrs. Cooper to leave.  No delicacy is needed to throw out a party crasher.  Everyone knows that a wedding anniversary is an intimate, romantic affair and a husband need not tolerate his mother-in-law's presence on this of all occasions.  Yet, there the woman is and she is not leaving.  Paul Brenner of AllMovie recognized that the couple's "domestic bliss [has been] shattered by [the] visit."  This is, to use a scriptwriter's term, the story's inciting incident.  Steve and Susan's folly in opening their door to this marital gremlin will set into motion a series of events that will have a grave effect on their relationship. 

Mrs. Cooper gives Steve and Susan a rug for an anniversary present.  Susan remarks, "I thought you knew that we had to take up the rug you gave us last year because the floor is just too highly polished."  The mother replies, "Oh, I remember very well, but the dimensions of this rug are absolutely perfect."  The dimensions of the rug, perfect or not, is not relevant to the problem of people slipping on the rug.  The couple still lay down the rug and keep it there as people slip on the rug throughout the film.  It is a tool of the gremlin-in-law to make the couple's home inhospitable.  The idea of Steve and Susan willingly laying out this hazard at the entrance of their own home suggest a self-destructive tendency on their part. 


Immature, cowardly, self-destructive.  These are qualities that are more likely to inspire disgust than sympathy.  It's as if the scriptwriters figured that Powell and Loy didn't need to play characters that the audience could like.  These charming co-stars could, instead, coast on their chemistry and depend on the good will that they had established so perfectly with their "Thin Man" roles.  But films do not work that way.  Steve and Susan are not Nick and Nora and they need to stand on their own merits to make this story work.

William Powell and Myrna Loy in Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)
Steve goes to the building's lobby to mail an insurance payment for Mrs. Cooper. 

He is on his way back upstairs on the elevator when he encounters an ex-girlfriend, Isobel Kimble Grayson (Gail Patrick), who has moved into the building.  The elevator gets stuck between floors.  Steve is battered and bruised while clambering out the top of the elevator.  At one point, he gets his head stuck between elevator doors.  Isobel invites Steve into her apartment to recover.  She serves Steve drinks while attempting to rekindle their romance.  Steve demands that she stop fondling him and rushes out of the apartment.  He leaves in such a haste that he forgets his hat.

Isobel has the elevator boy return Steve's hat to him.  Mrs. Cooper is appalled to learn that Steve left his hat in Isobel's apartment.  She soon has Susan doubting her husband.  One thing leads to another, as they often do in a comedy.  In the end, Susan becomes convinced that Steve has engaged in a sexual dalliance with Isobel and she coldly files for divorce the next morning.  Steve's lawyer, George Renny (Sidney Blackmer), advises his desperate client to pretend he is insane since the law bars a divorce when a spouse is suffering from mental illness.  Susan is infuriated by this charade and has her husband committed to an asylum.

At least Steve is a loving and attentive husband and provides well for his wife.  But what does Susan offer as a wife?  It is hard to understand the reason that Steve dumped Isobel for Susan.  Isobel is patient, kind, understanding and trusting.  These are qualities that Susan doesn't appear to have.  Steve exchanges jokey banter with Susan, but he has a natural, relaxed and honest conversation with Isobel.  She expresses a lot more affection and concern for Steve than Susan does.  True, Isobel is willing to cheat on her husband.  Infidelity is no small flaw for a spouse.  But it's clear that she is still in love with Steve and doesn't have the same feelings for her husband, who she evidently married on the rebound. 

I must admit that I am in the minority in my dislike of this film.  Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 82% Audience Score based on 686 user ratings.  Also, I should clarify that I myself did enjoy parts of the film.  The film has great comic actors, including Sig Ruman as the head of the sanitarium and Jack Carson as Susan's new love interest, and it places these talented actors into a number of funny situations.

At the same time, I am not alone in my inability to see past the film's flaws.  Let's look at a few comments from Internet Movie Database users.
ctomvelu-1: ". . . Love Crazy is a comic trifle that allows William Powell to get crazy and mug for the camera as a man about to lose his wife (Myrna Loy) through a misunderstanding involving an old flame (Gail Patrick). The movie is funny for the first half, then drags in the second as Powell goes on the run from the cops after pretending to be nuts. . ."

gim39: "This screwball comedy is so screwy that it rapidly becomes strained. The plot machinations are contrived and do not arise naturally from the characters. There are a few funny moments, but the inspiration is very thin throughout.   It is hard to say why some crazy comedies work and some do not, but it is easy to tell when one doesn't.  Powell and Loy had much better material to work with in The Thin Man."

Martin Hafer: ". . . I've got to admit that the main story line is pretty poor.  The idea that a wonderfully happy couple would get divorced over one little misunderstanding that could easily be explained is really far-fetched.  But, this is the basis for this movie.  As a result, despite all the wonderful moments that follow you wonder WHY William Powell would want Myrna Loy after all that she put him through!"

mountainstonePT: "A terribly written film, obviously milking the Powell/ Loy magic. . ."

5.) No Time for Love (1943) 

Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in No Time for Love (1943)
 No Time for Love (1943) rehashes the class-conflict romance of It Happened One Night (1934).  Again, Claudette Colbert plays an upper class lady (though she is a successful photographer rather than a spoiled socialite).  This time, Fred MacMurray occupies the rugged and roguish Clark Gable role.  He plays a member of a sandhog crew digging a tunnel under a river in New York City.  The filmmakers figure to have the actor outdo Mr. Gable, famously bare-chested in the earlier film, by having him bare-chested (and sweaty) as often as possible.  But MacMurray is terribly miscast in the role.  He is awkward and obnoxious where Gable had been natural and charming.  Then, late in the film, MacMurray reveals that he is really an engineer working undercover as a sandhog and he only pretended to be cocky and brutish.  It would have helped if the audience had been let in on this crucial secret earlier in the film.

Fred MacMurray and June Havoc in No Time for Love (1943)
6.) Love on the Run (1936)

Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in Love on the Run (1936)
Let us take a look at a similar cloning project.  M-G-M's Louis B. Mayer sought to duplicate the success of It Happened One Night, a comedy with Clark Gable as a news reporter traveling across the United States with a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert), with Love on the Run (1936), a comedy with Clark Gable as news reporter traveling across Europe with a runaway heiress (Joan Crawford).  Director Frank Capra made the characters of It Happened One Night sympathetic and he made the film's situations natural and believable.  The makers of Love on the Run went in an entirely different direction.  Their characters and situations are just plain goofy.  Gable's newsman in It Happened One Night is a wholly honorable gentleman, but Gable's newsman in Love on the Run is mostly dishonorable.  The heiress in It Happened One Night is disgusted when she mistakenly concludes that her traveling companion has betrayed her for his own personal gain.  It's a delightful relief to her when she finds out that she misjudged the man.  In Love on the Run, Gable actually betrays the heiress for his own personal gain.  Somehow, the couple get together anyway.  It's a more entertaining film than No Time for Love, but it's no It Happened One Night.

7.) For Heaven's Sake (1951)

Edmund Gwenn and Clifton Webb in For Heaven's Sake (1951)
Sandra Brennan of AllMovie summarized the plot of For Heaven's Sake (1951) as follows:
When the continual bickering of a married couple threatens to tear them apart, an angel is sent to help them get back together and start making babies in this fantasy. The husband is a busy producer for theatrical shows so the angel disguises himself as a wealthy Westerner looking to invest in a show. He meets the couple at a casino where the angel discovers a special gift for gambling. He is so good that the IRS threatens to intervene and he must be rescued by another angel.
George Seaton, the writer and director of Miracle on 34th Street, reunited with Miracle star Edmund Gwenn for another funny and sentimental tale about a supernatural figure who brings a man and a woman together to provide home and family to a young girl.  How could Seaton have gotten it so right with the first film and gotten it so wrong with the second?  For Heaven's Sake has none of the charming humor or heartfelt sentiment of Miracle on 34th StreetMiracle on 34th Street is never silly.  For Heaven's Sake is always silly.  Miracle on 34th Street is graceful.  For Heaven's Sake is forced.  Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that "[W]e have to advise that the whimsies with which this picture begins and in which it dissolves at the climax are far on the sticky side — the sort of stuff that may seem poignant if you're a softie, but nauseous if you're not."

I'll spare you a discussion of the screwball comedy failure It's a Wonderful World (1939).
Reference sources

Land, Variety (January 15, 1936).

Michael Koresky, "Queer & Now & Then: 1935," Film Comment (July 3, 2019).

Andre Sennwald, The New York Times (January 10, 1936).

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