Yes, ever since the big move to the new Rancho Yesteryear in May and the discovery that we are now paying for the package that includes the Fox Movie Channel, I have been watching my fair share of classic flicks on the channel that I wish were more like The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (ka-ching!) but sometimes you have to take what you can get, particularly when many of these films don’t often make the rounds on Tee Cee Em.
How to Be Very, Very Popular (1955) – Frenetic farce finds “interpretative dancers” Betty Grable (as “Stormy Tornado”) and Sheree North (“Curly Flagg”) on the lam from a psychopath who’s croaked one of their stripper pals; they wind up at a college administrated by Savannah, GA native Charles Coburn and attended by the likes of Tommy Noonan (groan), Orson Bean (who’s actually been expelled) and Bob Cummings…this last one is explained away that Bob’s uncle insisted in his will that he get a good education and then kicked before specifying how long Bob was supposed to spend in the ivy-covered halls of academia. Somehow, all this wackiness is revved up by the fact that Noonan has accidentally hypnotized North’s character into doing a striptease at inappropriate moments—the benefit being that it provides the audience with the best moment in the film, North’s frenzied “Shake, Rattle and Roll” dance.
20th Century-Fox had assigned Marilyn Monroe to co-star alongside Grable in Popular and when Monroe refused (I don’t think Marilyn was as dumb as her screen image often suggested because she no doubt read this script and could tell it was going to be a stinker), she went off to New York to become an ACT-ress and left the studio to plug in the gap with clone Sheree…sad when you think that North would later become a highly respected stage, film and TV character actress with feature films (she was a favorite of Don Siegel’s) like Madigan (1968), Charley Varrick (1973) and The Shootist (1976) and TV shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld. Apart from her spotlight dance, North has nothing to do but mimic Marilyn’s mannerisms and breathless baby talk throughout the movie—Grable doesn’t put too much effort into the proceedings, either, because she had pretty much decided at that point that this film was going to be her curtain closer. I can’t heartily recommend Popular because I’ve seen the film that it’s based on—1934’s She Loves Me Not, with Miriam Hopkins and Bing Crosby—and find it to be superior material; still, there are a few scattered laughs and good moments from Coburn, Bean, Fred Clark and TDOY fave Alice Pearce, who’s a riot as a house mother.
Sitting Pretty (1948) – While I’ve seen both Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951)—the two follow-up vehicles starring Clifton Webb as the persnickety know-it-all who can’t resist sticking his bazoo into other people’s business—the first of the “Belvedere” vehicles had eluded me for many years but I finally got to sit down and watch what is undeniably a sweet little comedy. Married couple Maureen O’Hara (sigh) and Robert Young (he’s the father…and he most assuredly does not know best) are the parents of three rowdy boys and a dog who hails from Marmaduke’s side of the family; she’s just had a maid walk out on her and finds it a chore locating someone to sit with the children so she places an ad for help…and said ad is answered by Webb, whose character’s moniker of “Lynn Belvedere” provides confusion and amusement for Mo and Bob. Webb despises children (the scene where he liberally applies oatmeal to the youngest child, who annoyingly pelts his babysitter with the stuff, is a real hoot) but he’s looking for a place where he can…well, he’s pretty secretive about that and as such, the occupants of the neighborhood (led by resident snoop Richard Haydn, who’s in a close race with Webb as to whom is the prissiest) start their tongues a-wagging, particularly when Young is out of town on a bidness trip.
At the risk of drawing ire from the Clifton Webb fans in the blogosphere, the actor took one role—acid-tongued columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944)—and rode variations of it in every movie he did afterward…much in the manner of Broderick Crawford and All the King’s Men (1949). Which is not to say I don’t like Webb or the Belvedere movies—I very much do (they’re miles and away better than the tepid ABC sitcom based on the character in the 1980s), and even though I kept wanting O’Hara to kick Young to the curb permanently the moment he starts behaving like a jackass, Sitting Pretty is a harmless and enjoyable little family comedy romp. Great supporting cast in this one, including those named plus Louise Albritton, Ed Begley and OTR stalwarts Abigail Randolph and Ken Christy. Andy Griffith Show fans will get a kick out of seeing a young Betty Lynn (“Thelma Lou”) as Ginger the babysitter but my personal laugh-out-loud moment was recognizing John Russell as Young’s fellow law partner (and yes, I did start singing the Lawman theme upon his entrance in the film).
The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) – Betty Grable is back in this sadly unsuccessful musical comedy that TDOY fave Preston Sturges wrote and directed; Betty is Winifred “Freddie” Jones, a sharpshootin’ saloon gal who has to amscray usterbay when she takes aim at her cheating boyfriend (Cesar Romero) and winds up hitting the tender posterior of court judge (Sturges regular Porter Hall—the scene where he’s arguing with battleaxe Margaret Hamilton is a comedic gem)…twice. With her gal pal Olga San Juan (who steals most of the scenes she’s in) in tow, Grable winds up in a jerkwater town whose populace mistakes her for the new schoolmarm, and she’s romanced by dull but wealthy banker Rudy Vallee, once again demonstrating that the only individual capable of making him funny is Preston Sturges.
Upon its release, Sturges’ final American feature film was shat upon by both critics and its star (Grable) and even though it’s not that colossal a turkey it’s a movie that should only be sought out by diehard fans of both Preston and She Blogged by Night mascot El Brendel, who has a bit in the film as the town marshal (I recorded this one for my BBFF Stacia). I think where Sturges went wrong is that he tried to turn Grable into a Betty Hutton clone and while I’m certainly not one to disparage Grable’s successful career in the flickers (close to twenty-five years or so of hit movie musicals, can’t be bad) I never found her particularly funny or a great actress; the best moments in the film belong to the supporting cast, which include such members of the Sturges’ stock company as Alan Bridge, J. Farrell McDonald, Emory Parnell, Esther Howard, Torbin Meyer and Dewey Robinson. (There are also a high percentage of folks from the Columbia comedy shorts department in this one, notably Brendel, Sterling Holloway and cinematic toothache Hugh Herbert…who admittedly has one of his better onscreen roles as a near-sighted dentist). You’ll also spot Marie Windsor in Bend, and Columbia supporting player Dudley Dickerson plays…here’s a stretch…a Pullman porter.