Essential: REMBRANDT (1936)

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The film starts with Rembrandt van Rijn (Charles Laughton) already a well-known and sought-after painter in Holland. He spares no expense when it comes to buying the most lavish gifts for his ill wife Saskia. While having a pot of beer at the local pub, Rembrandt makes a speech about all women and how knowing his wife is like knowing all women.

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It’s a marvelously recited piece, and Laughton does it beautifully, covering a variety of feelings the character espouses. After spending time in the village, Rembrandt arrives home and learns his precious Saskia is dead, leaving him to raise their son Titus on his own. We then see him painting her portrait, imagining his wife sitting in an empty chair in his studio. The next sequence moves the story forward.

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A big fuss is made about a large painting Rembrandt does of the city’s civic guard. To say the denizens of high society don’t like or appreciate it is an understatement. One critic complains it has too many shadows, too much darkness and confusion. Perhaps this is what Laughton grapples with putting Rembrandt on a canvas called celluloid.

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After Rembrandt’s failure with the local politicians he remarries. The new wife is his housekeeper Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence). The film then skips ahead ten years, and we see they are in dire financial straits. Furnishings are being repossessed from the large home they share. He can reverse his misfortune by painting “properly” for the prince. He is told decent painters paint decent people, not beggars (a favorite subject of Rembrandt’s).  He is supposed to paint pictures people will want for their money.

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There’s a lengthy scene where Rembrandt is taken on to the street to learn how to beg properly by a derelict (Roger Livesey) that has been sitting for one of his portraits. But Rembrandt knows that begging on the street is not the same as begging the prince to sponsor his work. Watching the scene makes one wonder what Laughton is thinking while saying the lines. Can an actor perform “properly” by only playing royal figures and men of great standing? Or can he be just as masterly portraying a beggar painter like Rembrandt van Rijn?

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The film’s a treatise about the value of art for art’s sake versus art as business. Laughton captures the pathos of a man torn between both extremes, who continues to work because of his ongoing need to create. It’s more a meditation on character than a story with a strong underlying plot. There’s an extended segment with good character development, where he returns to the country to see his own people. Laughton revels in portraying the peasant-like qualities of the man.

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When Rembrandt gets back to the city, he meets a new maid named Hendrickje (Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). He puts a clean canvas on an easel and begins to paint her portrait. She’s a former country girl, so a common bond develops immediately. Laughton and Lanchester enjoy a natural, easy chemistry. Significantly Laughton uses his dialogue as Rembrandt to speak truths about Lanchester instead of the character she’s playing. At least that’s how it feels.

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Some household drama occurs when Geertje clashes with Hendrickje, before she separates from Rembrandt. This is followed by troubles related to money owed the government, which culminates in the loss of Rembrandt’s house and furniture. But his spirit is indomitable, and we see Rembrandt and Hendrickje take up residence in a small house where he continues to paint. One day a marquis visits and offers cash for a painting. However, what Rembrandt earns must to be used to pay off his creditors. The creditors have the law on their side.

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Cleverly Hendrickje comes up with a way to subvert the law. As Rembrandt’s new “employer” claiming ownership of his artworks, she can sell the paintings and not pay his creditors since she is not the one in debt to anyone. They are happy for a time until Hendrickje takes ill, like the first wife Saskia. So the story starts to come full circle. There’s a splendid scene where he’s painting Hendrickje for the last time, and they reenact their first meeting with the same dialogue.

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The story comes full circle in another way, too. Rembrandt is seen begging on the street after Hendrickje’s death, and a brash young painter wants to do a portrait of him. The young painter and his friends take Rembrandt to a pub where they learn who he is. Rembrandt is given some pocket money, and he leaves the pub to go purchase some paints and brushes. He looks in a mirror and decides what he shall paint next.

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REMBRANDT airs on TCM the 17th of January.

Essential: MR. SOFT TOUCH (1949)

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Columbia’s MR. SOFT TOUCH pairs Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes for the sixth and final time. It is probably their best film together. A bit hard to describe, the story combines different elements. It’s a comedy, a romance, a gangster picture, and it’s a holiday drama. And while it will please fans of each specific genre, there is no schmaltzy ending, which makes it more unique.

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MR. SOFT TOUCH comes across as thoughtful entertainment. It is scripted in a way that makes us eager to learn more about the two central characters– Jenny Jones (Keyes) and Joe Miracle (Ford). We learn Jenny was beaten as a child, but her father said he loved her. Joe is said to be a patriot who served in the war. He’s mistaken for a man who beats his wife, which resonates with Jenny. Fortunately, Joe is not actually married, did not beat anyone, and is available for romance.

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These two help each other during a fateful 36-hour holiday period. Jenny sponsors Joe’s attempts to “reform” and he helps her at a settlement house where she works. He is not above blackmailing neighborhood crooks to pitch in. Also, he buy things that are needed for the kids, with cash he took back from the mob. Besides Jenny and Joe, there are other characters.

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One is a teen gambler (Stanley Clements) named Yonzi. Yonzi is taught an expensive lesson by Joe who’s better at dice. Another character is Rickle a talkative carpenter (Percy Kilbride) who has politically-informed opinions about everything. Then there are two busybodies (Clara Blandick & Beulah Bondi) who work with Jenny. Plus a mob boss (Roman Bohnen) who wants his money back. Oh, and there’s a reporter (John Ireland) who functions as a Greek chorus.

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What I love about MR. SOFT TOUCH is how nobody is completely right, and nobody is completely wrong. There are no easy answers for any of them. Joe’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. And what a gift that is.

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Essential: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938)

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In 1988 MGM’S classic version of Charles Dickens’ story was released on home video. There was much fanfare, as the event marked the film’s 50th anniversary. A year later another MGM family favorite would also celebrate its 50th anniversary. While THE WIZARD OF OZ had annual broadcasts on network television through the years, A CHRISTMAS CAROL was a bit neglected. Perhaps it’s because there had been so many remakes in the intervening period. When it was made available on home video, people clamored to see it again. The high school I attended did a staging of it for the annual fall play which used dialogue from the movie. I played Scrooge.

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In the 1938 film Reginald Owen plays Scrooge, and Gene Lockhart is the hapless Bob Cratchit. No matter what Bob does, it’s never good enough for Ebenezer. Both men reach the breaking point just before Christmas, and unlike Dickens’ original story, where he is just threatened with losing his job, the movie has Scrooge fly off the handle and fire Bob. I guess to increase the drama and show the Cratchits facing a serious hardship during what’s supposed to be a festive time. Nonetheless Bob and his wife (Kathleen Lockhart) are determined to give their kids a proper holiday even if old Scrooge is making it nearly impossible.

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In the next part Scrooge is alone at his home on Christmas Eve. When I played this on stage, I had to drink some foul-tasting medicine that was supposed to put me to sleep so the character would experience the strange visions that soon followed. As everyone knows, Scrooge is initially visited by his partner Jacob Marley, a sad spirit experiencing a hellish afterlife. The guy who played Marley with me has now changed genders, so I wonder if she thinks her life as a he was like chains she had to break, I don’t know.

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After the scene with Marley, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts in the course of one night (though Dickens originally spread it out over a few nights). Scrooge is taken on a journey so he can see what his life was, what it became and what it could be if he doesn’t change. It’s a wonderful way for a man to examine his conscience. The last dream sequence, involving the Ghost of Christmas Future, is the most memorable and frightening. However, MGM’s version tones down the horrific aspects of it. When I had to play that scene, we had a grave downstage with my name on it (well, with Ebenezer Scrooge’s name on it). It’s surreal to stand in front of your own tombstone.

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Of course Scrooge decides, ever so dramatically, that he must reform. In the next scene he wakes up in his flat realizing it’s all been a nightmare. But it is an experience he will never forget, and he does intend to become a permanently changed man. I loved playing the vicious aspects of the character in the beginning, but have to say it was rewarding to play the redemptive aspects of Scrooge at the end. My sister, who definitely looked like a girl, was cast as Tiny Tim.

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For her transgender role, the director put a cap on her and gave her boyish clothing to wear. She had recently injured her knee in gym class and was on crutches– that’s why they gave her the part. Though my sister and I didn’t always get along, I was forced to be nice to her in the last scene of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I knew I could go back to making her life a misery the moment the curtain came down.

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A CHRISTMAS CAROL will air on TCM the 24th of December.