A Good Day For Hanging (Out)

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Mike Gebert
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A Good Day For Hanging (Out)

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Aug 31, 2008 10:19 pm

I was suffering from a mild case of mogo on the gogogo, a little too much of the hair of the dog perhaps, so I settled in for a day of old movies-- nothing too great, I didn't want to have to pay the rapt attention a classic deserves, but just some likable enough slices of another time, from the days when Hollywood could hardly make a movie that wasn't reasonably watchable.

A Good Day For a Hanging-- 1958 Western, a sort of modest High Noon imitation which shows how even a fairly routine western back then could have some interesting things on its mind. Fred MacMurray is the new marshall of a town, and the witness to the killing of the previous one during a bank robbery, which means he's front and center in terms of responsibility for the impending hanging of the kid who did it, a local boy gone bad (Robert Vaughan). His High Noon moment comes when the whole town starts to get a liberal conscience about the kid's lack of proper upbringing, and starts to want to let him go, while only MacMurray stands up for hardcore law and order values.

If the politics of the film are as anachronistic as the tidiness of the supposed western town (which feels like a soporific 50s sitcom suburb as much as it does anything on the prairie), the clash of 50s juvenile delinquent-movie progressive attitudes and a Dirty Harry/Reaganesque law and order type is strikingly ahead of its time. Or maybe, like High Noon, it's making a blacklist/McCarthyism parallel, except here it's justifying following the law (ie, naming names) to a T even when it makes you unpopular with those who would cut the bad guys some slack. Anyway, Nathan Juran is no poetic western stylist, and Fred MacMurray is stalwart but not as intensely compelling as, say, Randolph Scott, but an interesting little movie nonetheless.

Emma-- I find Marie Dressler vehicles fascinating, not because I entirely enjoy watching her (she's kind of scary) but I find it so interesting that glossy MGM had a star who was aimed at that whole class of old-before-their-time, world-weary housewives and mothers who would put on their frumpy best, walk in ill-fitting shoes after a long day of doing things for everyone but themselves, and sit down for 75 minutes of intense identification with one of their own. Once labor-saving devices and family planning conquered America, women stopped being so tired and worn at such early ages, and so there's never been another star quite like her; the equivalent audience is seeing things like Mamma Mia! today, fantasies of late-middle-aged youth, not premature old age.

In this one she's a housekeeper who is really the only mother a bunch of rich kids ever had; the dad finally marries her in old age, she inherits the estate, and three of the kids come after her to get the money. The setup doesn't entirely bear scrutiny (the spoiled grown kids hardly act like they've even met her before, let alone were raised by her) but it doesn't matter, it's all about her frumpy-old-lady common sense telling the world what's what, a Mr. Deeds for the support hose set, and you can see why her audience ate it up and she got an Oscar nomination.

A Sailor-Made Man-- There are still a couple of Harold Lloyd features I haven't seen in their complete form, and this was the one I picked more or less at random for my boys and I to watch. Lloyd plays a spoiled rich kid, which is never as sympathetic as when he plays the poor young go-getter, and the early machinations to get him into the Navy aren't that good, and fairly slapsticky teens-short stuff. Once the plot has been laboriously hauled into position, so that his girl can be kidnapped by a rajah and he can rescue her (a plot rather reminiscent of his short Somewhere in Turkey), this kicks into fast-paced action with some of his most dextrous physical humor I've ever seen, and the kids and I laughed throughout the second half (undoubtedly the part it was cut down to in the Time-Life version, where it was distributed as a short with another later feature).

True Confession-- Leonard Maltin has always had it in for this screwball comedy, giving it quite an uncommon low rating (*1/2) for a major star vehicle during that time. It's surprisingly black in spots, but that just makes it seem a little more modern than most comedies about daffy screwball types. Fred MacMurray (the reason I pulled this one off the shelf, to see what he was like when he first became a leading man) is an unsuccessful lawyer who only takes cases where his client is telling the truth about his innocence; wouldn'tcha know, his wife Carole Lombard has a sideline in occasional pathological lying, and all this leads to her on trial for a murder so that he can prove how good he is and finally get some business. John Barrymore, in one of his drunken self-caricature roles, is in there somewhere too. All in all, it's more frenetic than funny, but it's funny enough in spots, it has a great cast (Una Merkel, Fritz Feld, Lynne Overman, Hattie McDaniel, Porter Hall), and Lombard has one of her all-time-great screen partners-- not MacMurray, but Edgar Kennedy, as the cop who first interrogates her and propels her into flights of murderous fancy. And the DVD (it's in Universal's Carole Lombard Collection) is tonally about as crisp and gorgeous as any black and white movie I've seen (although there's some visible grain, but the image is amazingly crisp).
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

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Re: A Good Day For Hanging (Out)

Unread post by Harold Aherne » Sun Aug 31, 2008 11:31 pm

Mike Gebert wrote: Emma-- [...] In this one she's a housekeeper who is really the only mother a bunch of rich kids ever had; the dad finally marries her in old age, she inherits the estate, and three of the kids come after her to get the money. The setup doesn't entirely bear scrutiny (the spoiled grown kids hardly act like they've even met her before, let alone were raised by her) but it doesn't matter, it's all about her frumpy-old-lady common sense telling the world what's what, a Mr. Deeds for the support hose set, and you can see why her audience ate it up and she got an Oscar nomination.
I watched Emma during Marie Dressler day a few weeks ago--not so much to see Dressler, as much as I enjoy watching her, but to look at another of Richard Cromwell's films. I had previously seen him in The Age of Consent (RKO, 1932) and recalled being fairly impressed, though in Emma he seemed rather on the high-strung side. Cromwell had an interesting career, beginning at the top in the 1930 remake of Tol'able David (which I'd rather like to see) and playing youthful roles for most of the decade before settling into supporting parts in major films and lead roles in B pictures. He was married to Angela Lansbury for a year, and it seems they had an amicable divorce. He spent most of his time in later years as an artist. I ought to see more of Cromwell before making a decision as to his skills, but I think he can be pretty good as long as he's given solid direction.

I agree that it's surprising to see the other children turn so strongly against Emma, though to be fair the movie skips ahead 20 years and we don't know what kind of personal dynamics have been going on in the interim--for all we know, they might be jealous of Dressler's none too subtle preference for Cromwell. Dressler shows her dramatic power when she yells at them to get out and in the final scene with her new family, and now I'd love to see Christopher Bean, if TCM sees fit to clear the rights.

-Harold

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Mike Gebert
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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Mon Sep 01, 2008 7:07 am

I thought Cromwell wasn't bad, if the part was a little one-note. You could certainly see why they thought of him for the remake of Tol'able David, there was a similar boyish quality.
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Oct 26, 2008 6:20 am

I put on King Vidor's The Texas Rangers the other night, just because it happens to be on a disc set I have, and found myself continuing my excavation of Fred MacMurray's career. It's an above-average little western from that dead time in the mid-30s for the genre; MacMurray, Jack Oakie and Lloyd Nolan are three stagecoach robbers, the first two join the Texas Rangers and think they're going to double-deal to Nolan's benefit, but slowly absorb the Rangers ethos and become good guys. (It's accidentally amusing is that Nolan's character is called The Polka-Dot Bandit, which makes him sound like a character on The Cinnamon Bear.)

Vidor manages some nice visuals which remain novel in the genre-- a fight on a mountainside is especially well-staged-- but there's a big problem along the way, which is that MacMurray's transformation is supposed to be the psychological linchpin of the story... and he's stiff as an oak. Especially in any scene with Nolan, who acts rings around him without half trying. He's effective at the end, when he stands up to Nolan and his righteous determination is convincing, but until then, he's just monotonal. I guess it serves to show how much he could get out of his limited range later on.

Weird throwaway moment: Oakie is trying to tell the gal that MacMurray's fond of her, and I first heard the dialogue like this:

OAKIE: Aw, don'tcha know he feels that way aboutcha?
GAL: Well, what am I supposed to do, sit in urine?

I had to play it back twice to hear the stilted bit of dialogue as it was originally meant: "Well, what am I supposed to do, sit and yearn?" :shock:
“I'm in favor of plagiarism. If we are to create a new Renaissance, the government should encourage plagiarism. When convinced that someone is a true plagiarist, we should immediately award them the Legion of Honor.” —Jean Renoir

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Unread post by boblipton » Sun Oct 26, 2008 6:45 am

I like it the way you heard it better. As I've gotten older and young people use a different vocabulary and the accents shift and my hearing goes, I mishear a lot of stuff -- and it's always more interesting than what they were trying to say.

Bob

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Unread post by Frederica » Sun Oct 26, 2008 8:17 am

boblipton wrote:I like it the way you heard it better. As I've gotten older and young people use a different vocabulary and the accents shift and my hearing goes, I mishear a lot of stuff -- and it's always more interesting than what they were trying to say.

Bob
I have the same problem with eyesight, especially when trying to read subtitles or road signs. I don't see a letter or group of letters properly, but my brain fills in the gaps...sometimes very strangely. Then I become absorbed in trying to figure out what was meant and I lose whole chunks of films while my brain tries to process the information.

Although sometimes road signs need to be cited by the grammar police--one of my favorites was a sign that advised me "Landscape Ends, 2 miles."

Fred
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Unread post by Harold Aherne » Sun Oct 26, 2008 11:33 am

Mike Gebert wrote:
Weird throwaway moment: Oakie is trying to tell the gal that MacMurray's fond of her, and I first heard the dialogue like this:

OAKIE: Aw, don'tcha know he feels that way aboutcha?
GAL: Well, what am I supposed to do, sit in urine?

I had to play it back twice to hear the stilted bit of dialogue as it was originally meant: "Well, what am I supposed to do, sit and yearn?" :shock:
In one of my high school classes we were watching Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights when we heard Geraldine Fitzgerald say "You can hold my hand...underneath my pants". We must have re-wound the thing about a dozen times and roared more loudly every time she said it. I'm inclined to think the actual phrase was "underneath my fan", but I really ain't sure.

-Harold

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Re: A Good Day For Hanging (Out)

Unread post by gjohnson » Sun Oct 26, 2008 1:57 pm

Mike Gebert wrote: A Good Day For a Hanging--
If the politics of the film are as anachronistic as the tidiness of the supposed western town
The late 50's/early 60's produced a lot of interesting low budget westerns using minimal sets and terse writing and a lot of psychological motivation which wouldn't of seen the dawn of day in a true cowtown of the 1870's without getting their heads blown off. That said, no matter how well made these small films are I sometimes can't get passed the fact that they all look like they were filmed on leftover Bonanza sets.
Emma-- I find Marie Dressler vehicles fascinating, not because I entirely enjoy watching her (she's kind of scary) but I find it so interesting that glossy MGM had a star who was aimed at that whole class of old-before-their-time, world-weary housewives and mothers who would put on their frumpy best, walk in ill-fitting shoes after a long day of doing things for everyone but themselves, and sit down for 75 minutes of intense identification with one of their own.
We forget that before the code was enforced MGM was as adventurous a studio as any independant around. They made Tarzan movies and gangster films and low budget westerns and they even dabbled in the occassional horror film. They also hired actors with outrageous mugs like Dressler and Wallace Beery and Polly Moran. As the 30's progressed spit and shine became the mantra and after Thalberg died Mayer homogenized the product to such an extent that if Marie Dressler had risen from her grave there would of been no place for her at MGM except as a real life washwomen cleaning L.B.'s latrine.
A Sailor-Made Man-- Lloyd plays a spoiled rich kid, which is never as sympathetic as when he plays the poor young go-getter
I prefer Lloyd's spoiled characters. He is more alive and sharper than his shy films when I find him to be such a drudge - until the final reel. I don't need him to be sympathetic throughout. He gains my sympathy through the use of his gags. That's why "The Kid Brother" is such a perfect film of his. He plays a shy, poor kid but he has his wits with him from the very beginning.
True Confession-- Fred MacMurray (the reason I pulled this one off the shelf, to see what he was like when he first became a leading man
Yes, he could come off stiff and unassuming - but he was such a busy actor working with every leading lady on the Paramount lot that I got use to his minimal approach. I enjoyed him in "The Gilded Lily", where he plays second fiddle to Claudette Colbert's romantic piccadillies but his steady, peanut-eating reporter makes for a good romantic foil. MacMurray is teamed with Barbara Stanwyck in "Remember The Night". It's sentimental holiday mush but is played so sincerely by the two stars that when Fred's lenient DA takes pity on Barbara's hard-bitten conwomen and brings her home for his family x-mas you know her cynicism doesn't stand a chance. He could play down-to-earth as well as Cooper or Joel McCrae. My favorite performance from him during his Paramount years is "Swing High, Swing Low" where he plays a jazz trumpeteer who loses his lip. Carole Lombard is around to help him recover it.

Keep watching films with your kids Mike. It gives us something to talk about.

Gary J.

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Re: A Good Day For Hanging (Out)

Unread post by Richard M Roberts » Sun Oct 26, 2008 3:38 pm

We forget that before the code was enforced MGM was as adventurous a studio as any independant around. They made Tarzan movies and gangster films and low budget westerns and they even dabbled in the occassional horror film. They also hired actors with outrageous mugs like Dressler and Wallace Beery and Polly Moran. As the 30's progressed spit and shine became the mantra and after Thalberg died Mayer homogenized the product to such an extent that if Marie Dressler had risen from her grave there would of been no place for her at MGM except as a real life washwomen cleaning L.B.'s latrine.
Gary, do you think Dressler's 30's stardom was a Thalberg creation? Marie was exactly the type of star Louis B loved, and with his mother fixation, a film like EMMA was probably his favorite MGM release that year. Don't forget, Mayer kept Wallace Beery,Lewis Stone and Lionel Barrymore on the payrolls until they croaked.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

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Unread post by gjohnson » Sun Oct 26, 2008 8:41 pm

No, Richard, I know Mayer loved Dressler but I was responding to Mike's comment that it was funny that MGM of all studios would have a frumpy star. I said it only could of happened during the pre-code years when the studio product was more varied. Of the actors you mentioned Beery was quickly relegated to b-movies for the rest of his career and the others always play supporting roles. Dressler was a star. She headlined her own top drawer films. If she had lived through the war years she would of been pushed back to playing Andy Hardy's maiden aunt. (There! I upgraded her job from the earlier mentioned latrine duty but I thought that was funnier)

By the way, what have you been doing with yourself lately? You should be well rested from Slapsticon by now. Start writing some more so we can get some arguments going on around here.

Gary J.

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