Happy Birthday Danny Kaye

Happy birthday to Danny Kaye, born on January 18, 1911! We listened to the soundtrack of “Hans Christian Andersen” all the time when I was growing up, even though I was too young to have seen the movie and had to put the story together from the description on the back of the album. I chose this YouTube video of the spinning record and album cover rather than one of the many clips from the movie, because this one is really the way I remember experiencing the music and the story. (It was thrilling when I finally saw the movie on TV years when I was a teenager!) And of course we loved him in “White Christmas” — another movie that I knew from the soundtrack album long before I ever had the opportunity to see it.

Danny Kaye was also a social activist and served as first Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF from 1954 until his death in 1987. Kaye held a commercial pilot’s license and in 1975 flew his plane to 65 cities in five days on a UNICEF good will mission.

Be Upstanding in Court

London Belongs to MeLast weekend I needed to escape from reality for a while, so I spent a whole afternoon watching old British courtroom dramas on Netflix: “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) with Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Lanchester; “Hostile Witness” (1968) with Ray Milland; and “London Belongs to Me” (1948) with Richard Attenborough and Alastair Sim. I enjoyed them all — I like anything with barristers and judges in wigs, in any time period. I also love to hear the call “Be upstanding in court” — it just sounds so much better than “All rise.”

“London Belongs to Me” was based on the 1945 bestselling novel of the same title by Norman Collins, also published as “Dulcimer Street.” The movie opens on Christmas Eve of 1938, and centers around the tenants of an old house in London, including the Percy Boon, a young mechanic who lives with his invalid mother, the respectable Mr. and Mrs. Josser and their beautiful daughter Doris; Mrs. Vizzard, the widowed landlady who believes in Spiritualism, and her new tenant, Mr. Squales, who claims to be a medium and is played to creepy perfection by Alastair Sim. Percy is in love with Doris, but he gets involved in some shady schemes, things go badly, and he causes the death of a former girlfriend while fleeing from the Police. The residents of the house on Dulcimer Street get involved in his trial and its aftermath.

It’s not really a great movie, but it’s interesting. The characters have an almost Dickensian quality, although perhaps it just seemed that way to me because Alastair Sim is my favorite Ebenezer Scrooge, and I just watched his version of “A Christmas Carol” last month. But parts of the movie have a noir quality, all broody black-and-white with lots of steam, smoke and gritty urban scenes, with a sense of impending war always present. I loved the street scenes, especially with this wonderful old service station where Percy worked and the Funland arcade across the street.

London Belongs to Me

Detour

Detour is a supremely dark and depressing film noir classic from 1945. It was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer for PRC Pictures Inc., one of the small “Poverty Row” studios that produced small-budget B-movies. The actors were Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake and Edmund MacDonald, and the sets are so minimal that it could easily be produced as a high school play, if only it weren’t so depressing and unsuitable.

The theme here is fate, and the treatment is anything but subtle. Piano player Al (Tom Neal) is stuck at a low-end New York nightclub, a job only made bearable by his girlfriend and co-worker Sue. When she goes off to Los Angeles to seek a better life, he mopes around until he finally decides to hitchhike across the country to be with her. He makes it to Arizona and gets a ride from unsavory bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald.) It’s all downhill from there — accidents, coincidences and bad decision-making, and Al’s life spirals downward. If only he hadn’t been picked up by Charles Haskell, Jr. If only he hadn’t picked up Vera (Ann Savage.) But these things couldn’t be avoided, because Al is in the grip of inexorable fate!

This movie has fallen in the public domain, and I watched it on the Internet Archive site. To me, it’s a perfect 1940’s Noir film, dark and brooding, unrelieved by any (intentional) humor, and filled with biting, hard-boiled slang. It also happens to feature several of my favorite things: diners, motels, lonely highways through the desert, hitchhiking, service stations. A quick look at the movie’s thumbnails (one frame per minute of the film) provides a pretty good preview.

Sitting Pretty

I can’t believe that I have never seen this movie before! Sitting Pretty (1948), directed by Walter Lang and based on the 1947 novel Belvedere by Gwen Davenport, was the first of the three Mr. Belvedere movies, and starred Clifton Webb in the title role. It’s available free on Hulu.

Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara play the modern, sophisticated suburban couple Harry and Tacey King. He’s a successful lawyer and she’s a sculptor and stay-at-home mother with three rambunctious sons and a big dog who jumps all over people. The maid quits and the couple have babysitter problems, so Tacey advertises for a live-in mother’s helper to babysit and do light housework. Lynn Belvedere applies and is hired sight-unseen, and the Kings are surprised to discover they have hired a middle-aged man with a highly superior attitude — he immediately informs them that he’s a genius. They reluctantly allow him to stay on trial, and while they are somewhat bemused by his eccentricities — he’s a vegetarian who practices Yoga and seems to have experience in every field of endeavor. But although he professes to loath children, he works miracles with the boys and even the dog, so he stays on with the family.

But of course complications arise in typical screwball comedy fashion — a nosy neighbor spreads rumors, misunderstandings come between the Kings, and Tacey leaves home to go stay with her mother. And although it’s clear to everyone that Harry and Tacey adore each other, they both sit by the telephone, too stubborn to make the first move toward reconciliation. But suddenly chaos erupts when Mr. Belvedere’s novel comes out — a book no one knew he was quietly writing while living with the Kings. It’s a shocking expose about life in the suburbs, with all characters based on real and easily-identifiable members of the community, including the head of Harry’s law firm. Harry loses his job, and when Tacey hears the news she rushes home to his arms, and all misunderstandings are quickly resolved.

The script was written by F. Hugh Herbert, and, as the New York Times review observes, “The screen plays from Mr. Herbert are not conspicuous for their tax upon the brain,” but it’s quite entertaining.

But the thing that really appealed to me were the cars, clothes, and especially the Kings’ house and all of its furnishings! Fabulous, and just my style — it makes me wish I had been born just a few decades earlier!

You Made Me Love You

Just remembering my mother with this movie clip of Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” to a photograph of Clark Gable. My mother loved this song and sang it often, and described this scene to me many times. She was around 13 when she saw this, and thought it was wonderfully romantic. I never saw the movie, Broadway Melody of 1938, so I was happy to find this clip on YouTube.

Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry

My aunt has Alzheimer’s Disease. Both my parents died young, and when I see my aunt fade away, I know I’m losing one of my few remaining connections to my parents and their generation.

During one visit with my aunt in the nursing home, I reminisced about what a great dancer she had been. “Do you remember?” I asked her. “You could do all the dances. You taught for Arthur Murray.” I was just talking, I didn’t think she was actually listening. But when she heard the name Arthur Murray, she jumped up and launched into a lively rendition of the song Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry. She knew all the words and did the whole dance routine, with lots of turns and kicks.
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