Essential: THE CHEATERS (1945)

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For this review I thought I’d cheat and let TCM’s former host Robert Osborne guide us. THE CHEATERS aired on the channel for the very first time on December 24, 2008. According to schedule information, it was repeated on Christmas, the following day. But since those two initial broadcasts, it has not been seen again on TCM…until this year. Thank you to the programmers for bringing it back.

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During his on-air comments Robert indicated he was glad that TCM was showing viewers this film. He hoped it would become an annual tradition for TCM to broadcast THE CHEATERS every December. Robert called it the best Christmas film nobody’s ever seen. He then mentioned how it was produced by Republic Pictures.

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Republic typically specialized in westerns or films in other genres with limited budgets. And many of its most beloved movies starred people like Roy Rogers and Judy Canova. THE CHEATERS would be one of the studio’s attempts to make an A-sized holiday film. Robert said when it was released THE CHEATERS received great reviews. He went on to mention the film’s story, about how it takes place on Christmas Eve.

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Joseph Schildkraut plays Anthony Marchaund, or Mr. M, the lead character. He was already an Oscar recipient for his role in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, and he would have Broadway success in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Robert also discussed the supporting cast—people like Billie Burke and Ona Munson, plus Eugene Pallette. He closed the intro by urging viewers to give the film a try because it would make their day merrier.

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During Robert’s closing remarks, he talked about the different titles that had been suggested, before Republic’s executives decided to call it THE CHEATERS. He said that when the studio re-released the film in the early 1950s, it was renamed THE CASTAWAY. And when Republic sold it in a package for television, the syndicated print was cut down from the original 87 minute running time to fit into an hour of TV viewing. This meant a third of the scenes were removed. But TCM broadcasts the full 87 minute version.

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THE CHEATERS is directed by Joseph Kane and can be seen on TCM this Christmas Eve. Make sure you don’t miss such a wonderful holiday classic!

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Essential: CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945)

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A romantic angle develops between the characters played by Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in this film. Though it was made at the end of the war and Morgan is playing a soldier on leave, it is still kind of “fresh” and funny. Seeing them finally get together in the end is a real treat. Plus if you’re a fan of Dennis Morgan’s singing, there’s a nifty scene where he sits at the piano while she decorates the tree in her Connecticut “home.”

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We have to put the word home in quotations marks, because it’s not really her home. It’s the dwelling of a man (Reginald Gardiner) who’s asked her to marry him. And it’s also the place she uses as an inspiration for her Martha Stewart-type housekeeping tips. She’s actually a New York City gal who writes a column for a women’s magazine. It has become so popular that she is now asked to entertain a soldier in need of a home cooked meal and some holiday cheer. Somehow Stanwyck is able to keep up the pretense long enough to entertain her guest. She even manages to fit in a nice sleigh ride. How’s that for hospitality!

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Of course, the two end up falling in love, though he thinks she’s married to Gardiner. And so does her boss (Sydney Greenstreet) who’s finagled an invitation to ye olde house in ye olde Connecticut. Greenstreet is eager to see how she oversees domestic affairs and takes care of a baby. Yes, she invented a baby– there are two of them, different genders, which makes for a few good laughs. Plus Greenstreet is anxious to watch her flip a flapjack. Or as S.Z. Sakall says in a thick accent, “flip a flop-flip!” Oh, did I say she really doesn’t know how to cook?

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Anyone who says Hollywood stopped making screwball comedies in the 1930s is wrong. This charming holiday confection is about as screwy as it gets– especially with that scene where one of the babies swallows a watch (a whole watch); as well as the scene where the other baby gets kidnapped by its real mother. Stanwyck and company have a blast with the material.

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CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT will air on Sunday December 17th and again on Friday December 22nd. Watch it both times on TCM!

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Essential: THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

Some films are totally flawless in their design. They are played with wit, grace and charm– and they leave you feeling something wonderful, something transcendent, has just happened on screen. Ernst Lubitsch’s THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is that way.

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Though filmed entirely on a Hollywood soundstage by MGM, Lubitsch manages to make the production feel European. We know it’s not really Budapest– there are no exteriors shot on location; and most of the accents are no different than those used in other Hollywood films set in foreign locales. But we believe in this story, and we believe in Matuschek and Company, the tiny shop where goods are sold around the corner. It exists in a time and place much less complicated than our world today.

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The emotional heart of the story is anchored by two would-be lovers named Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak. Mr. Kralik has worked for Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) for nine years, having advanced from his original position as a lowly clerk. As the film begins, Miss Novak comes in looking for a job, but Matuschek and Kralik are reluctant to take her on. By some miracle she is able to prove herself as a saleswoman and is subsequently hired. The story moves on from there. Kralik and Novak are now coworkers, and the two forge a bond despite often clashing with one another.

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Though much of the narrative’s focus is on the blossoming relationship between Kralik and Novak, there are plenty of moments that feature the other employees at the shop. All their lives are affected by the boss and by each other. This includes the villain of the piece Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) who we learn early on is having an affair with Matuschek’s never seen wife.

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Most of the romantic elements that occur between the leads are backgrounded during the film’s first half. But gradually it comes to the forefront, as we learn Kralik and Novak have been anonymously corresponding with each other. They’ve fallen in love through their letters to one another, but ironically have come to despise working together. He learns the truth first and withholds this information from her. The moment near the end when she finds out is truly sublime. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan perform so well in these scenes, there is never any doubt about the characters’ real feelings. They appeared in three other films, though this is certainly their most remembered collaboration.

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The success of Lubitsch’s picture cannot be underestimated. Critic Pauline Kael called it the most perfect Hollywood film ever made, praising its delicate pacing and skillful execution. MGM remade it in Technicolor as a musical with Judy Garland. In the 1990s it was re-filmed again, updated to reflect a love affair that occurs through emails. Neither one of the remakes have the splendor and grace of the original.

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THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER will air on TCM on December 15th.

A Christmas to remember

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Since it’s the holiday season I thought I’d look at Columbia’s MR. SOFT TOUCH. It pairs Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes for the sixth and final time, and is probably their best film together. It’s a film today’s audiences might not have seen, though it made a lot of money for the studio in 1949.

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Currently there are only a half dozen IMDb reviews. None of them seem to get it right. This is a story that combines several genres. Each review is written by a person who expects it to only be a comedy, to only be a romance, to only be a gangster picture, to only be a holiday drama, etc. You get the idea. But it’s not something that can be so easily classified. Anyone who thinks it should only please fans of one specific genre, or have a schmaltzy ending, will be very disappointed.

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MR. SOFT TOUCH exceeds my expectations as thoughtful entertainment. It’s never dull. The story is scripted in such a way that we want to know more about the two lead characters and what makes them do what they do. In the story Keyes’ father beat her as a child but said he loved her. Ford was a patriot who severed in the war. He’s mistaken for a man who beat his wife, which resonates with Keyes (though Ford’s character is not actually married, did not beat anyone, and is thus available for romance with Keyes).

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And so these two meet in a most unusual way and help each other during a fateful 36-hour holiday period. She sponsors his attempts to “reform” and he helps her at the settlement house where she works. He is not above blackmailing neighborhood crooks to also pitch in, or to buy things she needs with cash he stole from the mob that was his to begin with. Yes, this means the mob will reappear to get the dough back.

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There are several supporting characters who add charm to the proceedings. We have a teen gambler (Stanley Clements) and his buddies who get taught an expensive lesson by Ford who’s better at dice than they are. There is a talkative carpenter (Percy Kilbride) who has politically-informed opinions about everything, and there are two spinster busybodies (Clara Blandick & Beulah Bondi) who work with Keyes. A mob boss is played by the great character actor Roman Bohnen who died shortly after filming wrapped. And then there’s a tabloid reporter who pops in and functions as a Greek chorus– he’s played by John Ireland in what is a warm up for his reporter role in ALL THE KING’S MEN.

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What I love about MR. SOFT TOUCH is nobody is completely right, and nobody is completely wrong. There are no easy answers for any of them. Ford’s past catches up to him in what is probably the most classic ending of all time. Yet he manages to do considerable good in the hours leading up to his last few moments in this life.

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It’s a pensive character study that presents itself with humility. And what a gift that is.

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