Tag Archives: You Can’t Take It with You

‘Johnny Apollo’: ‘Now, Let’s Forget All about Legal Ethics’

Poster from original release.

Poster from second release.

You won’t find “Johnny Apollo” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) on any list of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas of All Time, and who can wonder? It’s the sort of assembly line studio programmer to which “best” can hardly be applied with any seriousness — though it must surely have been the best picture to open on March 15, 1940 in Ossining, New York. (The tie-in was that exterior shooting was done at Sing Sing.) It is immensely engaging, lively, preposterous and a lot more fun than most of the pictures you’ll find at the top of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas list.

The Smash Up

Tyrone Power plays Robert “Bob” Cain, Jr, a college athlete whose life is turned upside down when his father, a Wall Street tycoon (Edward Arnold), is sent to prison for embezzlement. With his father in jail, Bob must find a job to support himself. But when his father’s old friends and colleagues turn their backs on him, he changes his name and turns to crime; as Johnny Apollo, racketeer, he plans to earn enough money to spring the old man.

Much of the action takes place in night clubs, betting parlors, dingy offices, stairwells — anyplace where the windows look out on blinking lights. Looming over everything are the courthouse and the big house. The situations are steamed up; the coincidences are many; the patter is snappy and far above average for this kind of picture (the screenplay is by Philip Dunne); good is rewarded; evil is punished and amor vincit omnia.

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain, Jr.

With a few exceptions, it’s extremely well acted. Tyrone Power isn’t up to much, but he’s better than usual. The role suits him well, and he was relieved to be doing, at long last, a picture in modern clothes. Lloyd Nolan overplays Mickey Dwyer, a mob boss who becomes Johnny Apollo’s father figure while the old man is up the river making boilers. He lays on da Bronx accent a few inches too thick; he’s unconvincing as a brutal kingpin — he’s a whippet making like an attack dog.

The rest of the cast is terrific. Edward Arnold’s performance is the best I’ve ever seen him give. He was an old hand at playing loudmouth robber barons, but this role has more depth and complexity than most of his other parts: from the first frame, he’s a villain whose greed and dishonesty have destroyed his son’s bright future. By the end of the picture, he’s an heroic figure — his rehabilitation and enlightenment are gradual; it’s a signal pleasure to watch Arnold’s masterful handling of Robert Cain’s transformation; he plays each individual scene beautifully; taken together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. He deserved an Academy Award nomination for this one.

I’d also have nominated Charley Grapewin (best known as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz”), who gives a fine, old-style ham performance as “Judge” Emmett T. Brennan: a notoriously unprincipled shyster and world class soak. The part is a compendium of sentimental clichés, both about the practice of law and alcoholism, but Grapewin makes all of it seem vital, fresh and interesting.

Best of all, however, is Dorothy Lamour (on loan from Paramount), who plays singer/actress/gun-moll Lucky DuBarry, girlfriend of Mickey Dwyer. Once she claps eyes on Johnny Apollo, she finds it hard to look at anyone else. Her performance deserves special attention, which will make this essay far too long. You can find my appreciation of Lamour’s performance by clicking here.

The Dust Up

After the scandal hits the afternoon newspapers, Robert Cain waits anxiously for Bob to come home from the campus. Like everybody else, Bob learnt about his old man’s indictment in the papers. Arnold plays the man’s apprehension beautifully. On his way to Bob’s room, he seems grave but in command. Outside Bob’s door, he hesitates. Suddenly he looks worn out, older, grimmer. His current troubles are entirely of his own making, but he’s a pitiable figure. This overfed, corrupt plutocrat is vulnerable. Both by training and temperament, Arnold was a roaring, old-style baloney-bender who went in for big effects. But as you will see, he could play complicated emotional scenes with great finesse and fine detail.

“The prison term doesn’t mean anything to me: I could do that standing on my head!” I can’t think of a single thing that Edward Arnold could do standing on his head; I seriously doubt he could stand on his head. His parting shot is typical of his hothead blowhard personality: “And now that we’ve found out how we feel about each other, I’ll know that I’ll never have to give you another thought as long as I live!” Oh, guess again, Tubby.

Tyrone Power never learnt the trick of sounding spontaneous, but he’s better than usual in this one. He never imitates life accurately enough to make you forget that he’s acting. He works the lines too hard, overthinks everything, and stresses too many words. For instance, the line, “I guess I should just sit in class and be Exhibit A, instead of that skeleton they have hanging on the wall — all my friends being extra nice to me just to show how broadminded they are.” Power stresses eight words on a line that makes better sense when only one word — “skeleton” — is given a little additional emphasis. The best actors let the words do the acting for them, whenever possible. The most common error young actors make is to try to act out every word. Experience usually corrects this. Power, alas, went the opposite direction. When he’s listening instead of speaking, he’s a very good actor. The portrait behind him is his mother. The resemblance is remarkable.

Frank Capra on Edward Arnold

By the time this picture was made, Edward Arnold had all but cornered the crooked tycoon market. He’s easy to dislike: abrasive, quick-tempered, peremptory and captious; his girth suggests gluttony; zeal for strong drink burns in the beacon of his nose; his glittering eyes peer out hard and shrewd beneath the perpetual frown of cold command. His deep baritone voice is beautifully resonant, but his accent — a peculiar combination of the Lower East Side (where he was born and raised) and New England (listen to the way he pronounces “heart”) — is harsh, staccato and often unpleasant. Frank Capra, who admired Arnold’s skill almost as much as he disliked his personality, couldn’t bear the sound of his joyless, insincere laughter. In his autobiography, “The Name above the Title,” Capra provides this brisk overview:

He could be unctuous as a funeral director or cold and ruthless as a Cosa Nostra chief . . . . [H]e had a laugh as unique and as phony as a three-dollar bill. It would wind up in pitch like the flywheel starter of a fighter plane, then explode in choked-up pops like its motor . . . Edward Arnold was anathema to directors. In take after take he would blow his lines and shrug it off with that phony laugh. Other actors could wring his neck. They would have to give their all in take after take, just in case Arnold didn’t blow his lines. The result: Arnold got all the attention. Distraught directors would okay any take that he finished, regardless of how the other tired-out actors fared. But if you could put up with that — and I gladly did — Arnold was a powerhouse on the screen. His performance as the jungle king of Wall Street, who walked away from his throne for the love of his son was the philosophical clout an otherwise farcical comedy needed to make “You Can’t Take It with You” the acclaimed Best Picture of the year.

Yes, he’s right about that: Edward Arnold was a powerhouse. Capra could have been describing his performance in “Johnny Apollo.” Arnold was easily the best thing about “You Can’t Take It with You” (the stage play is infinitely superior to the saccharine screen version), but he was never at his best when Capra directed him.

Sent Up

Here’s the scene in which the Honorable Mr Justice Penrose pronounces sentence on Cain. I find Charles Trowbridge’s performance as the peevish judge hugely entertaining. It’s a very specific style of ham that he serves up, a dish that went off the menu decades ago. Because he doesn’t raise his voice or flail his arms about or pull coarse faces, and because the two speeches he delivers are humorless, terse and implacably stern, you may think Trowbridge is not a ham. But he is. Have a look:

His delivery is a classic example of High Dudgeon on a High Horse Ham: his diction is elaborate, artificial, theatrical and eccentric; every slightest inflection, intonation and cæsura has been carefully chosen and rehearsed. And he pulls the oldest ham trick in the book: he whips off his spectacles as a visual exclamation mark. Nobody in real life ever does that, unless they learnt it from watching baloney-benders like Judge Penrose. Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge was born to American parents in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but grew up in Napa and Hawaii. His accent is unlike any I’ve ever heard; I assume it’s entirely his own invention, but wherever it came from, it’s as impressive as it is weird. He made a career of playing censorious authoritarians; I’ve seen him give nearly identical performances in at least two dozen pictures, but I’m always glad to see him — particularly when a tongue-lashing is on the bill. Whenever Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge makes with the obloquy, I begin to chuckle. His turn in “Johnny Apollo” is especially delightful: the old ham pulls those cheaters off his nose not once, but twice in the same short scene. Now, that’s what I call guts.

Stood Up, Dressed Down, Cast Out, Honked Off

From a staircase at Grand Central Terminal, Bob watches a squad of prison guards herd a group of prisonbound convicts, including his father, onto the train for Ossining. He sees his father bid farewell to his attorney (Lionel Atwill). Bob intercepts Atwill as he leaves. “Did my father mention me?” “No,” Atwill replies absently, then murmurs a few sympathetic words, assures Bob there’s nothing more he can do for the old man. Justice must take its course; Robert Cain must serve his time. He wishes Bob good luck and departs. Bob must find a job. Here is what happens. The storytelling in this sequence is remarkably efficient.

George Irving plays Mr Ives, the drunkard’s son, who chastises Bob then fires him. I love the way Irving speaks the line, “My father diiiied in jail, an habitual drunkard!” (Both he and Trowbridge put just enough emphatic nasality on “an habitual” that I smirk every time I hear them say it.) It’s a pretty rum go that this Mr Ives fellow begins by accusing Bob of moral cowardice, then proceeds to crow about being the proud son of a drunken jailbird, and then summarily fires the young man without allowing him to say a word in his defense. Oh yes, young Mr Cain is a competent, diligent fellow with a first class education and an earnest desire to get ahead in the world — but the rascal has not enough family feeling in him to be a-counting Mr Ives’ beans. So Mr Ives rebukes and fires him — and then promises to write him a recommendation! The drunkard’s son will not permit the scoundrel to work for him, but he’ll recommend him to others. Get a load of Mr Probity!

I cannot quite get myself to believe that Power succeeds in making his Grand Remonstrance sound extempore, but I sure want to believe he does. I like his energy and heat, even if his delivery does make me see the words and punctuation marks as they must have appeared in his prompt script. I like the subversive argument he makes; I like how he exposes Atwill’s temporizing as false and illogical; I like the efficiency with which he rattles the attorney’s murmuring complacency and then says, “Now, let’s forget all about legal ethics.” Checkmate, you dirty son of a bitch!

More about “Johnny Apollo” here.

Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award), and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the naïve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool

Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question

Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson

Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.