Cracked Ice

It’s been awhile since we’ve looked at a classic animated short here on the ole blog. Since it’s the middle of summer, what better time to look at a short about ice skating? It’s a 1938 entry in the Merrie Melodies series…”Cracked Ice.”

The short begins with a series of ice skating gags as we see various animal characters taking to the ice. The animation in this sequence is simple and repetitious, like many animated shorts were during this time period. Soon, though, the cartoon begins to focus on a pig character called W.C. Squeals, a caricature of film comedian W.C. Fields. He first appears calling for help when a bird character falls through the ice. A St. Bernard comes to the rescue with his barrel full of adult beverages.

Now, the pig becomes focused on getting a margarita for himself. After a failed attempt, Squeals tries to trick the dog by luring him with a bowl of bones and pulling it away with a magnet. But the magnet ends up falling into the frozen lake and getting caught around the body of a fish. As the fish moves, the magnet ends up catching hold of the blades of Squeals’ skates…dragging him around the ice with disastrous results. But somehow, Squeals manages to win an ice skating contest in the process.

Frank Tashlin directed this short, and though the gags are nothing extraordinary, the fun caricature of W.C. Fields makes this short a must see for animation fans. Many cartoons during this time would use caricatures of celebrities or create animal versions of the famous personalities. This film may be one of the best examples of that. Ted Pierce’s impersonation of Fields is dead on. A lot of fun is also had with various aspects of Fields’ personality, including his hard-drinking ways and his rivalry with Edgar Bergen’s famous ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy. This is played out in a scene that may go over the heads of many modern viewers where Squeals looks toward the screen and addresses a member of the audience. The voice that speaks back to him is an impersonation of McCarthy, who would often spar with Fields on Bergen’s radio show.

So often today, the classic shorts that don’t feature one of the famous characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc) are rarely shown on television. Many viewers will not get the circa 1938 pop culture references in this short, but this is still great classic animation and an interesting, good-spirited jab at a movie star of the past.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful

As an actress, Ida Lupino appeared in over 50 films, including films like “High Sierra” and “The Hard Way.”  But in the late 40’s, she and her husband began a production company which turned out a variety of low-budget dramas.  On her first production, “Not Wanted,” she took the reigns from director Elmer Clifton when he suffered a heart attack part way through filming.  She would end up directing her company’s other six films, including today’s movie…1951’s “Hard, Fast and Beautiful.”

The film focuses on up-and-coming tennis player Florence Farley (Sally Forrest).  She spends much of her time practicing by hitting a tennis ball into numbered squares on her parents’ garage.  One day while practicing, Florence meets Gordon McKay (Robert Clarke), a studly young man who works at the local country club.  With his position, he is able to get Florence into the club to play tennis.  Her skills quickly gain the attention of several of the well-to-do folks at the club who are anxious to sponsor her in tournaments.

This all thrills Florence’s overbearing mother, Millie (Claire Trevor).  She has sworn that she is going to make sure her daughter has the life she never had and constantly reminds her poor husband (Kenneth Patterson) about his lack of drive.  But now, with things going her way, dear old Mom begins to manipulate Florence’s career.  This includes allowing a smarmy tennis promoter, Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young) to help steer Florence’s future.

But, now there’s a problem…just when Florence’s star is on the rise, she and Gordon are itchin’ to get married.  Mommie dearest isn’t so thrilled about this. Florence is about to embark on a European tennis tour and mother has grown less thrilled with Gordon after learning that he is not from a wealthy family.  By the way, poor old dad has been left at home all this time while Mom lives it up on the tennis tour and acts flirty with Fletcher.  So, Mom tells Florence that she and Gordon can get married in Europe, and that Gordon can accompany the tour doing menial jobs.  She knows that Gordon’s pride will not go along with this plan…and he ends up breaking off the engagement.

Now, Florence begins a downward spiral into depression and alcoholism.  She becomes the bad girl of the tennis world.  But Gordon hasn’t completely given up on her and there is hope that true love will win the match.

The title sure makes this movie sound more scandalous than it actually is.  Though not anything extraordinary, it does have some good drama and a few standout performances.  Sally Forrest is well cast as the naive Florence, but Claire Trevor as the demon mother is definitely the highlight.  She’s sneaky and conniving, but not just outright evil.  She has the best of intentions, but doesn’t realize her own selfish motives.  She makes an effective villain.

My main problems with the film come from it not going far enough.  This is a B-drama from 1951, so there are limits to what they could do.  And at a compact 76 minutes in length, there’s not much time.  But the film could’ve been a lot more effective had certain elements of the story been allowed to go a bit further.  For example, there are hints that Florence’s mom may be having an affair with Fletcher Locke.  After all, she’s staying in fancy hotels halfway around the globe, while her husband becomes sickly back home.  Had this element of the story been played up more, it may have made Florence’s breakdown later on more powerful.  While we’re on that subject, I wish the filmmakers had done more with Florence’s deteriorating mental state as well.  As it is, it comes on very abruptly and is resolved a bit too quickly as well.  It’s a missed opportunity that could’ve paid off in big ways.

Still, the film is enjoyable enough, helped by a solid villain.  Who knew amateur tennis had such a seedy underbelly?

Warner Archive New Releases – June 12, 2012

This week’s slate of new releases from The Warner Archive features six films featuring the great screen comedian Red Skelton.

- Watch the Birdie (1950)
– The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
– A Southern Yankee (1948)
– Half a Hero (1953)
– The Great Diamond Robbery (1954)
– The Clown (1953)

So Evil, So Young

Kind of a sub-genre of the juvenile delinquent movies of the late 50’s and early 60’s is the girls-in-prison genre.  Often we would end up with a good girl who wrongly ends up in a prison or boarding school ruled over by evil old ladies.  Today’s movie definitely fits into that mold, with two minor changes.  First of all, the film is British.  Second, it’s in colour (yep, with a “u” to honor the queen and all).  It’s 1961’s “So Evil, So Young.”

As the film begins, two teenage girls, Lucy (Jocelyn Britton) and Claire (Bernice Swanson), are in the process of robbing the safe of a wealthy family.  Apparently, Lucy used to work for the family so she knows just where to find the family jewels.  However, they are interrupted by the butler, who recognizes Lucy but not Claire.  Lucy clunks poor Jeeves on the head before they make their escape, but the butler is able to report Lucy after he comes to.

But remember, Claire wasn’t spotted by the butler so she keeps the jewels.  Lucy, on the other hand, is caught by the cops.  But rather than turn in Claire, Lucy decides to name a girl named Anne (Jill Ireland) as her accomplice.  This is to exact revenge on Anne who has been dating Lucy’s ex-boyfriend, Tom (John Charlesworth).  She even plants one of the stolen necklaces in Anne’s coat pocket.  Both young ladies end up being sent to Wilsham, a prison, but not a prison, for teenage girls.

The Matron at Wilsham (Joan Haythorne) is a strict but understanding woman, however, the head warden, Miss Smith (Ellen Pollack) is as evil and power-hungry as they come.  She seems somewhat sickly, hobbling around with a walking stick, but she is quick to find any way to make life horrible for the girls.  The slightest offense will land the girls in solitary confinement or with their sentences extended.  Though Wilsham has no bars or fences, the threat of these punishments keeps the girls from trying to escape.

Anne has trouble adjusting to life in prison at first…between Lucy making things difficult and the simple fact that Anne never did anything wrong to start with.  Though Miss Smith doesn’t trust Anne, Matron eventually gives Anne a job working as her secretary.  This just makes the other girls more jealous.

One small bright spot for the girls comes when longtime inmate Mary (Sheila Whittingham) learns that she is due to be released in a few days.  The girls even throw her a party one night after lights out.  But the fun is short-lived when Miss Smith walks in.  She singles out Mary for punishment, locking her in solitary and threatening a 12 month extension of her sentence.  The next day, Mary is found…having hung herself.  This launches a riot with the other girls who mercilessly attack Miss Smith.  Anne, however, keeps her nose clean as she is working to gather leads that will point her to Lucy’s real accomplice and get her released.

Juvenile delinquent movies are lots of fun and “So Evil, So Young” is no exception.  The highlight of the film has to be Ellen Pollack as Miss Smith…a truly despicable and nasty character.  It’s interesting, the woman can barely walk…I’d bet any of the young ladies in the prison could easily overtake her, yet they live in total fear of her.  And we the audience don’t question this because Pollack’s portrayal is quite scary.  When Mary hangs herself, Smith fakes remorse but you can see behind her eyes that she believes the girl got what she deserved.  This is one of the best evil prison warden performances I’ve seen!

The story really does draw the viewer in.  I really did end up caring about Anne being cleared of the charges and seeing the other girls rise up against the evil Miss Smith.  So, my only complaint about the film is that the ending is not as satisfying as I had hoped.  The story is wrapped up very neatly and quickly in the last few minutes of the film.  What’s worse, though, is that our villain never really gets her comeuppance.  In the end, Miss Smith still comes out of the situation fairly unscathed.  I suppose some would say that is the mark of a true villain, but I was desperate for her to get a taste of her own medicine.

I admit, when I started watching this film, and heard the British accents coming from the cast, I was a bit worried.  I guess I wasn’t sure if proper British society could manage a good teens in trouble flick.  But the Brits managed to create a stellar entry in the juvenile delinquent genre!  Long live the Queen!