On Blu-ray: In a Smashing Performance Spanky McFarland Steals Kentucky Kernels (1934) from Wheeler and Whoolsey


All the films I previously watched starring the Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey comedy duo were from earlier in the pre-code era and as I remember heavily reliant on scantily-clad chorus girls. The 1934 production Kentucky Kernels trades in shapely legs for the cute factor, a role perfectly filled by George “Spanky” McFarland who was at the time in the midst of his successful run as a member of Our Gang. On a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently enjoyed watching this little stinker wreak havoc for Wheeler, Woolsey, and anyone else in his path.

Kentucky Kernels falls near the end of the lengthy run Wheeler and Woolsey had as a comedy screen team. While this duo's humor has only slightly reached across time to me, they had a knack for physical comedy, and this production demonstrates how polished they had become in that regard.

The story is set in the South. This tie the boys are unemployed vaudevillians who find themselves in custody of Spanky, who seems to have inherited an estate in Kentucky. As the pair attempts to claim the property, they find themselves in the middle of a family feud.

Mary Carlisle is sweet as the love interest, Margaret Dumont is allowed a bit more dignity than in her Marx Bros. films, and Noah Beery does his best Foghorn Leghorn bluster as the feuding Colonel Wakefield, but it is McFarland as a diligent little chaos agent who steals the film from Wheeler and Woolsey. He plays a boy with a penchant for breaking glass. He does it constantly: windows, light bulbs, bottles; whatever comes across his path.

This kid plays the kind of troublemaker that you would typically like to imagine at the bottom of a well, but Spanky is so darn charming and more nonchalant than devious about his mischief. He’s actually the most dangerous kind of troublemaker, with no conscience and no control, but it’s liberating to see him indulge in his appetite for destruction without a care in the world.   

Kentucky Kernels moves along at an efficient clip, buoyed most by McFarland, but also boosted by a musical interlude featuring the charming earworm One Little Kiss, and a magnificently goofy and inventive final slapstick sequence.

For more sensitive viewers, a heads up that Willie Best (billed as Sleep ‘n Eat) is featured as one of those dispiritingly lazy characters Black actors were so often required to play in the era. The disc includes three cartoons from 1934, the Popeye shorts The Dance Contest and Sock-a-Bye Baby, and Buddy's Circus which also heavily features racial stereotypes common for the time (Warners does include a title card with information about the inclusion of this 'toon).

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

 


Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise
Scott Eyman 
Simon & Schuster, 2020

Cary Grant was a complicated man. That much has been common knowledge among his fans for years. He would pinch a penny until it squealed, but was generous with his time and possessions. He’d be as respectful to a studio secretary as a studio boss, but when it came to romance, he wanted a woman who would cater to his needs and even live her own life in accordance with his preferences. He could give you an ulcer or save your life.

All these aspects of the actor have never really been woven into a compelling portrait though. I’ve read a few Grant biographies over the years and I’ve never felt that any of them mined the depths of the man effectively. They always seemed to view him as a bit alien, unknowable. 

Scott Eyman's  new book about the actor, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is the first telling of Grant’s life in which I’ve felt he was given the grace of his humanity. It is clear that the man who started life as Archie Leach was a conflicted, but essentially self-possessed person who could offer profound generosity, but felt the insecurity of early poverty.

Eyman circles back to several topics throughout the book: Grant’s uneasy relationship with his mother, his also difficult marriages, and the ever-hanging speculation about his sexuality. While his issues with the women in his life played a key role in his insecurity about himself, his sexuality seems to have been of less consequence to him than the rest of the world. 

Eyman returns to the topic several times, to the point of it becoming tiresome, but I understood that detailed exploration to be of great interest to many potential readers. In essence, it seems that Grant did have some bisexual tendencies, including with his one-time roommate Randolph Scott, but that he viewed those escapades casually, as if he was horsing around in the locker room.

I appreciated that Eyman’s analysis of Grant’s career acknowledged the actor’s hesitancy to take risks and expand his craft. He certainly had the ability to excel in roles more adventurous than the comedies, romances, and thrillers he favored. 

The work he did, especially in comedy, required great skill, and he made it look a lot easier than it was, but he could have gone deeper if he’d had the nerve to divert from his image and take a risk. It’s fascinating to imagine what he could have done with something like either of the male lead parts in The Third Man had he taken the offer.

While Grant turned down several roles that could have challenged him to grow, he was nevertheless brilliant when it came to managing his career. He mostly free-lanced, striking multi-picture deals when it seemed advantageous. When Grant retired from acting, he easily slid into business, finding that being an active member of several boards required some of the same skills he’d used in his career.

In the end, Grant found himself adored, wealthy, married to a woman who catered to his needs, and well-loved by the daughter he had after leaving acting behind. He never entirely figured himself out, but who does? He worked his way to a sort of peace and he was generous in helping the younger people in his life to learn from his mistakes.

I finally felt like I understood the essence of Grant after reading Eyman’s book. The richness of the narrative, which was smoothly written and filled with enlightening first-person accounts, and the thorough research made me feel that every possible crevice of his life had been examined. We are as close to knowing this man as we will get and I admire him more than I ever have.


Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.



On Blu-ray: Hepburn and Tracy Team up in Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952)

 


The nine films Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together may vary in quality, but it is always fascinating to watch these two together. I was reminded of that as I recently watched two of their collaborations on new Blu-rays from Warner Archive.  Without Love (1945) and Pat and Mike (1952) are in different leagues: one is a pleasant enough romance, the other is a classic, but the magic of Kate and Spence infuses both with the kind of intimate mood only these two could inspire.

 

Without Love is an adaptation of a play by Philip Barry. Hepburn had first performed the role on stage opposite Elliott Nugent. It was a lackluster pairing and the production did not do well. Perhaps Hepburn felt she had something to prove by giving it another go? With Tracy by her side, she undoubtedly felt she could do better.

 

Hepburn plays Jamie, an heiress in search of a caretaker for her massive home. Tracy is a government scientist who takes the job because he is in desperate need of space to conduct his experiments and housing is scarce in World War II D.C. They eventually enter into a marriage of convenience, which inevitably leads to love.

 

While it has its amusing quirks, I didn’t find the story of Without Love all that compelling. Basically, Tracy and Hepburn make something of the essentially decent material because they can’t help but be mesmerizing together. The pair rehearsed their roles extensively and they were so in tune with each other that you always feel you are intruding when they are deep in conversation.

 

Keenan Wynn does his familiar unreliable scamp shtick and he does it well, because he has some of the film’s funniest lines. As a calmly wise girl Friday, pre-TV Lucille Ball gives a remarkably controlled performance. She doesn’t waste a word or gesture; it’s beautifully disciplined and it is a pleasure to watch her. In the thankless discarded lover roles, Patricia Morison and Carl Esmond are both oddly alluring, the former for the force of her personality, the latter for a more laidback warmth.

 

Special features on the disc include the vintage crime short Crime Does Not Pay: Purity Squad, the cartoon Swing Shift Cinderella and a theatrical trailer.

 


Pat and Mike offers a complex cocktail of sprightly female athleticism and toxic romance. The role of multi-talented sportswoman Pat was a perfect fit for the athletic Hepburn, especially as written by her good friends, the husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin (they also wrote the screenplay for Adams Rib).

 

Hepburn is Pat Pemberton, a phenomenal sportswoman, as long as her fiancé Collier (William Ching) is out of sight. Every time she locks eyes with him, her mojo fizzles. Right away you can see this fellow is no good for her. He picks apart her wardrobe, cringes at her behavior, and seems to think she exists to be an extension of him. No wonder she freezes up.

 

When sports promoter Mike (Spencer Tracy) shows up to woo Pat into a business relationship, it’s such a relief, because he looks at her like she’s worth something. Yes the something is money, at least in the beginning, but his respect for her talent quickly turns to love. He looks deeply into her eyes without a single thought of changing her and he shows his growing regard with little signs of affection, like an arm draped casually across her shoulders or his careful preservation of a handkerchief used to wipe her lipstick off his forehead.

 

That budding relationship is the core attraction of the film, but there are so many other delights. Jim Backus is a comforting presence as Pat’s supportive and perceptive friend, Chuck Connors makes a striking film debut in a bit part as a police officer, and Charles Bronson, in his Charles Buchinsky days, already shows perfect comic timing as a hood in his second film role. As a disgruntled boxer under contract to Mike, Aldo Ray is pleasingly unique with his gravelly voice and big galoot persona. The whole enterprise is bolstered by that witty, Oscar-nominated script and George Cukor’s sensitive direction.

 

The sports sequences are also a delight. In a lengthy, elegant scene on the greens, the camera drifts between long shots and close-ups as it observes the action at a golf tournament. The crowd reactions and the tension of the competition is beautifully woven into the drama of the film.

 

As Hepburn mingles on the green with several real lady golfers, or sets fire the court on fire with her powerful tennis game, she seems right at home. It’s also a lot of fun to watch the pros at work; what an excellent way to preserve the images of sports legends like Alice Marble, Gussie Moran, Babe Zaharias, and Betty Hicks.

 

The disc special features include a pair of trailers for the film.


Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Streaming Diary: Spooky Flicks for the Halloween Season

                                                      


Happy Spooky Season! Since the list of spooky streaming picks that I compiled in 2019 is so comprehensive, I have decided to simply add to that selection this year with a few more titles that I have enjoyed recently. I’ve also linked to several more films below, so this is the post to bookmark for lots of creepy flicks!

 The City of the Dead (1960)

A college student (Venetia Stevenson) is convinced by her professor to travel to the tiny town of Whitewood, Massachusetts town to study witchcraft. Since that teacher is played by Christopher Lee, you know right away that she is doomed. This flick from the lesser-known Vulcan Productions (the team behind it would go on to form the more renowned Amicus Productions) combines modern settings and ancient horrors in a fascinating way. [available on Tubi, Vudu free, Kanopy]

Return to Glennascaul (1953)

Hilton Edwards was taking a hiatus from directing Orson Welles in Othello (1952) when he made this eerie, atmospheric short with his star. It’s a dreamingly drifting ghost story, as nostalgic as it is creepy, and gorgeous to look at. [available on The Criterion Channel]

The Haunted Strangler/Grip of the Strangler (1958)

In a story written especially for him, Boris Karloff stars as a social reformer who tries to prove the innocence of a man hung for a string of strangulation killings. The film can get a bit silly; Karloff contorts his face in a hilariously bizarre way for a few scenes, but it is fun to see the actor late in his career. [available on The Criterion Channel, Kanopy]

2019 picks

2018 picks from Kanopy

Other suggestions on disc (links go to my reviews):

Bad RonaldThe Mystery of the Wax MuseumTwo on a GuillotineThe Fearless Vampire Killers, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, From Beyond the GraveA Bucket of BloodDracula A.D. 1972Village of the Damned


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