Saturday, May 14, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon - IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD: The Original Colbert Report!

Welcome to Edwina Corday's Poetry Corner! Here's her poetry-chart-topping rhyme, "It's A Wonderful World":

The night will be here when we are gone,
Though we are gone, the stars will be here,
And other throats will sing in the dawn,
It’s a wonderful world, my dear.


Don't rack your brain trying to remember Edwina's lovely poem from your English class; you'll find her verses in the Hollywood school of poetry. This charming if somewhat ditzy and eccentric poetess (that’s what they call her, a poetess, not a poet. It’s a 1939 thing) is played by that luminous, long-running Oscar-winner Claudette Colbert in It’s a Wonderful World (IaWW). With that title alone, you’d have every right to expect IaWW to be a wonderful screwball comedy-mystery. Its got a heck of a pedigree. For starters, the director is none other than Oscar-nominee W.S. Van Dyke, who brought us San Francisco (1936) as well as The Thin Man (1934) and several of its sequels. The script was a collaboration between talented, versatile screenwriters Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz (the latter being part of the Mankiewicz filmmaking family, including his grandson Ben Mankiewicz of TCM fame), whose combined resumes included such classics as Nothing Sacred, Twentieth Century, Dinner at Eight, Citizen Kane, The Front Page and its distaff remake His Girl Friday, and several of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Now team up Claudette Colbert with a pre-Oscar James Stewart (note that Colbert’s name appears onscreen in a larger font than Stewart’s, since she was the bigger star at the time). It didn’t hurt that the film’s title brought to mind the stars’ beloved films It Happened One Night and It’s a Wonderful Life (even if …Life took audiences quite a while to get into film fans’ hearts. I won’t lie to you, folks: we of Team Bartilucci have always found It’s a Wonderful Life infuriating for myriad reasons. But I digress….). The action is set in both New York City and upstate New York, which is a plus for a native New Yorker like me. On top of that, keep in mind that the year was 1939, a banner year for great movies! With all that going for IaWW, the resulting collaboration should be a real crowd-pleaser, right?

Well…almost. IaWW wasn’t bad, but for much of its 86-minute running time, I found it amiable at best, as opposed to actually wonderful, laugh-out-loud funny, or nail-bitingly suspenseful. Make no mistake, the film has its moments, but as a whole, it didn’t truly grab my undivided attention until about the last 40 minutes or so, when there was shooting, tension, and clever scheming to unmask the villains. But I’m getting ahead of myself! Stewart plays a NYC private eye with the manly-man name of Guy Johnson. Showing his range just as he did in After the Thin Man (1936), Stewart’s Guy is no folksy charmer here, but a cynical tough guy who thinks dames are dopes, and isn’t afraid to cuff ’em one if they start squawking. (If Guy tried that today, he’d be in for a lawsuit!) Come to think of it, the role of Guy was probably good practice for the darker, more emotionally complicated roles Stewart played under the direction of Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.

Guy works with his older, more seasoned partner “Cap” Streeter (Guy Kibbee) for a private investigation firm called, appropriately enough, Private Inquiries. Their biggest client is the much-married souse and tobacco heir Willie Heyward, a.k.a. “Willie the Pooh” (played by Ernest Truex, great as put-upon milquetoast types in His Girl Friday, Whistling in the Dark, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among others). Having previously worked “demonstrating electric belts in drugstore windows,” Guy’s determined to hang onto his meal ticket: “Willie the Pooh’s my dream man, and I’m gonna keep fishing him out of manholes just as long as he keeps paying off.” Too bad Willie gets himself framed for the murder of Dolores Gonzales (Cecilia Callejo), a “Broadway nymph” and bubble dancer a la Sally Rand who was all set to sue Willie for allegedly jilting her. The only clue to her killer is a dime mysteriously cut in half. Our perplexed P.I. finds himself framed by Vivian Tarbel, a.k.a. the newly-minted Mrs. Heyward (Frances Drake of Mad Love and the 1935 version of Les Miserables) and her honey, Al Mallon (Sidney Blackmer, the great character actor who’s graced everything from Charlie Chan in Monte Carlo to Rosemary’s Baby). Before you can say “Nick Charles,” Guy is charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year in Sing Sing.

I'd swear by my eyes if I could
see through these glasses!
On the train to prison, Guy is handcuffed to Sergeant Koretz (Nat Pendleton, Thin Man alumnus and one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite wrestlers-turned-actors), accompanied by Lieutenant Miller (Edgar Kennedy, Mr. Slow Burn himself) as they pass the time playing poker. Guy notices a personal ad in a nearby newspaper: “Why don’t you come to Saugerties Theater Wednesday evening, and see your long-lost husband? HALF-A-DIME.” (For you readers unfamiliar with upstate New York, yes, Saugerties is a real town.) Guy tricks Koretz into leaving their compartment for a smoke, and *SPLASH!* Guy manages a watery escape under cover of night. But our perky poetess Edwina happens to see the whole thing. Before you can say “I swear by my eyes,” (Edwina says that through the whole picture, not unlike Little John in the 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit Hood), Guy takes Edwina hostage, and wacky hijinks ensue, including Guy's hilarious attempt to pass himself off as a scoutmaster. Elsewhere, in one of my favorite bits, Koretz tries to convince the local police that he was jumped by a mob instead of Guy tricking him and knocking him out singlehandedly. I must say, Guy could be so obnoxious sometimes, I wouldn’t have minded if someone had punched his lights out!


How do you like them apples?
Isn't this how Stockholm Syndrome starts?
 Bit by bit, the comedy starts to percolate as Guy and Edwina find themselves obliged to join forces out in the wilds of upstate New York, with Edwina alternately helping and unwittingly hindering Guy as he tries to prove his innocence and save Willie from the electric chair. As I said, the first two-thirds of IaWW were watchable if not exactly full-tilt hilarious—but then a miracle happens, as described by my husband Vinnie: “Suddenly Claudette Colbert shifted the plot into reverse psychology!” Quick thinking, comedy and suspense suddenly blend together beautifully during the climax at the Saugerties County Theatre’s production of the Maxwell Anderson/Laurence Stallings play What Price Glory? Slowly but surely, Guy warms up to Edwina, who’s already falling in love with him despite the bickering you'd expect in such a situation (just ask Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll of The 39 Steps, among others). They infiltrate the theater when scene-stealing grand dame theater director Cecil Cunningham hires Guy as the play’s new Southern-accented actor “Cyril Hemingway.”

Cap comes to help Guy, only to become a human Whack-A-Mole as Edwina’s well-meant attempts to help both men keep backfiring. (I was starting to worry that poor Cap would be brain-damaged before this dizzy tale was over!) Vivian’s long-lost actor hubby turns up, unaware he’s got a target on his back, the poor slob! The stage cast within the movie cast includes Team Bartilucci faves Hans Conried, George Chandler (nervous bartender Louis Ord in Dead Reckoning) and Grady Sutton (who I always remember from the Odd Couple TV series episode “The Flying Felix” with Tony Randall’s attempt at lip-reading: “I…sense…much… trouble…in…the…fuselage…Frederick!” I know, I know, I’m digressing again! J)  There’s genuine suspense in the urgently-whispered conversation between Cap and Guy as we’re reminded that Willie’s life is at stake. There’s even a nifty little catfight between Edwina and Vivian at the end!

As Frank Miller explains in his article on the TCM Web site, Claudette Colbert had looked forward to getting MGM’s legendary glamour treatment. However, her hopes “were dashed when director W.S. Van Dyke was assigned to the picture. Although he had helped create the screwball genre as director of The Thin Man in 1934, he was popular with studio head Louis B. Mayer mainly because he worked quickly, earning the nickname ‘One-Take Woody.’ His female star was appalled at how quickly he threw the film together, being used to the more leisurely pace at her home studio, Paramount, where great care was always taken to showcase her beauty.” Anyway, Colbert got more opportunities for glamour roles at MGM in films like The Secret Heart (1946)

43 comments:

  1. A great movie to review. I never even have seen this 1939 gem, but I want to now!

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  2. Dorian, I haven't seen IaWW, but your delightful writing style and great background details made this a wonderful review. "One-Take Woody" is an awesome nickname! It's always a little disappointing when a great cast doesn't result in a great film (though I may be in the minority, I didn't think TALK OF THE TOWN lived up to its pedigree). Thanks for a great kickoff to the latest CMBA blogathon!

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  3. It's been ages since I've watched IaWW so I'm a little concerned it might not be as "wonderful" as I remember after reading your review. The positive thing is that having done so, I'm going to have to root around in my massive movies-recorded-from-TCM pile to find it and put it on again sometime soon. Hey--any movie that features TDoY faves like Truex, Pendleton, Kennedy, Sutton and Andy Clyde is already worth the price of admission, IMHO.

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  4. Lobosco, thanks for your comments! I've been meaning to catch up with your Bing Crosby blog, and I shall happily do so ASAP. One of the great things about the CMBA 1939 Blogathon is that it's giving me more opportunities/impetus to check out great blogs like yours!

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  5. Thanks so much for your praise, Rick! "One-Take Woody" is one of my favorite Hollywood nicknames, and Our Man Van Dyke has been one of my favorite directors since I first saw THE THIN MAN. I must admit I've only seen TALK OF THE TOWN in bits and pieces (my mom always loved Ronald Colman), but now I want to give it my undivided attention so I can judge it for myself. Thanks again!

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  6. Ivan, great minds like ours think alike! :-) Team Bartilucci has also amassed a formidable set of movies-recorded-from-TCM and from Fox Movie Channel, too. I'm with you: although IaWW may not be perfect, the cast sure is. We're suckers for memorable character actors! Thanks for dropping by TotED and joining the IaWW/Blogathon conversation!

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  7. I had no idea this movie even existed...I'll have to check it, great review!!

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  8. Just wanted to take a moment from all the 1939 Blogathon fun to welcome FlickChick as TotED's newest Follower! If you're not already a fan of her marvelous movie blog A PERSON IN THE DARK, now's your big chance! :-)

    http://flickchick1953.blogspot.com/

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  9. Thanks, Clara! If/when you get an opportunity to see IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD, I'll be most interested in hearing your thoughts about it.

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  10. I'd nver heard of this movie either but it sounds strange and interesting. Plus, I do enjoy Claudette Colbert. *Adds to lovefilm queue* Thanks for the extremely well-written and fun-to-read review!

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  11. Kendra, thanks for your nice words about my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD review! I very much enjoyed your review of THE WIZARD OF OZ, too, and I left a message on your terrific www.vivandlarry.com site to tell you so. :-)

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  12. I'm with Clara: I had no idea this movie even existed. I'm finding out as time flies that I'm no as movie savy or book savy as I had once thought. Very humbling.

    In actual fact, I thought this was going to be a review of the Christmas perenial with Jimmy Stewart - a movie of a very similar name, I must say.

    Truth be told, I was never a HUGE fan of Jimmy Stewart anyway. Sacriledge, I know. Ha!

    But as usual, I read your review, Dorian - just because it was plain so well written. :)

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  13. Dorian, you are my first blogathon read of the day. I hope others are as fun and interesting as yours! I haven't seen this either, but I hardly feel like I have to now. It is an amazing thing when talented people come together nad make a real stinker -- the infamous "Ishtar" comes to mind. You always wonder why the filmmakers don't know their movie is going south. I mean, they do daily rushes and things, don't they? I just love your writing style Dorian! Good one!

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  14. It's been a while since I've seen this film, but I do recall it, as you pointed out, as more amiable than laugh-out-loud funny - but I would watch any film that had both Cecil Cunningham and Ernest Truex, 2 character-actor greats - and I can't think of a more charming companion to have while wandering through the wilds of upstate NY than Claudette Colbert - thanks for your excellent review!

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  15. Yvette, don't fret -- since I entered the mad but marvelous world of movie blogging, I've been continually amazed at how much I still DON'T know about movies, even the ones I've loved for years! But learning new movie lore is part of the fun, wouldn't you agree?

    I agree that the makers of IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD were pretty darn sneaky with that misleading title. Alas, it wasn't the first (or last) time a movie studio used a certain amount of trickery to get us audiences into theaters. But don't worry, my friend, it's a free country, so you don't have to love Jimmy Stewart if he's not your cup of tea -- there are so many other classic movie stars (or even a contemporary star or two) to love! :-)

    I'm glad and grateful you're enjoying my blog posts as much as I enjoy yours, even when you're not that crazy about the film itself. :-) Thanks a million, Yvette!

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  16. Becky, beaucoup thanks for your praise! I'm happy to hear you enjoyed my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD review despite the film itself being merely OK at best -- at least until it suddenly roars to life in those last 40-odd minutes! I'm with you: how do filmmakers NOT notice when a movie just isn't coming together? How do good writers and directors drop the ball? For that matter, how much of a film's success is just the luck of the draw? But one thing's almost certain: there are still enough great classic movies to counteract all those "meh" movies taking up space, and great bloggers to spread the word! :-)

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  17. grandoldmovies, thanks for your charming words; I'm delighted that you enjoyed my review of IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD! I had enjoyed Ernest Truex in other character roles, but IaWW introduced me to Cecil Cunningham for the first time, and she's quickly become one of my new favorites! She stole the show in her scenes with Colbert and Stewart at the Saugerties County Theatre. Cool character actors rule! :-)

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  18. I recalled "It's a Wonderful World" as being a riotous laugh-out-loud flick from my youth, however I revisit within the last couple of years confirms your impression about the big laughs being compressed in the last half, with the opening setting it all up. Honestly, Stewart gives the funniest double takes this side of Edgar Kennedy!

    Wonderful spotlight on a comedy that deserves a wider audience.

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  19. Dorian,
    Like a few others I haven't seen this film in a really long time.
    This is such a great review which makes me aware that I love Stewart so much that I wanted this film to be better than it was. Perhaps it was his chemistry with Colbert.
    I'll just re-watch it and see if I change my mind after reading your fun take on it.
    Page

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  20. Caftan Woman, I'm delighted that you enjoyed my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD blog post, and that you and I are in agreement about its biggest and best laughs being crammed together in the last half! There's no question that James Stewart had a flair for comedy, even when he was playing a hardnosed detective. At the film's best, Stewart's double-takes darn near gave Edgar Kennedy a run for his money! :-) Thanks a million for your praise!

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  21. Dorian, I'm in full agreement that "Wonderful World" is a likable and amusing if not great comedy-mystery. Stewart and the supporting character actors are all tremendous fun. I love Colbert, but her character doesn't seem to allow her to give full rein to her prodigious comic talent, as say 1939's "Midnight" did. For me the most memorable parts were the escape from the train and the clever "half-a dime" business.

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  22. Page, thanks so much for your nice words about my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD blog post! I understand what you mean when you say your love for James Stewart made you want the film to be better than it was. I've had that feeling about so many films that had the potential to be great but somehow missed the mark. I've even found myself watching those films again (like IaWW :-)) in hopes that maybe it was better than I thought, and somehow I'd missed some crucial component that would change my opinion. Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the review itself. By the way, I adored your review of THE WOMEN, and I sang its praises on MY LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD in not one but two Comments! :-)

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  23. Hey, gang, please extend a warm TotED welcome to Whistling Gypsy! Check out her sophisticated yet friendly film blog DISTANT VOICES AND FLICKERING SHADOWS:

    http://distant-voicesandflickering-shadows.blogspot.com/

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  24. Dorian - What a wonderful review. Like you I am a big fan of comedy/mystery films and mysteries in general however, unlike you I am totally unfamiliar with this film and now I want to see it so bad! This has been added to my list. You have a terrific blog here.

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  25. R.D., I agree with you that Claudette Colbert doesn't quite get the elbow room to really let her screwball-comedy flag fly in IaWW. The supporting character actors are definitely a joy to watch, though; they go a long way toward making IaWW watchable during the film's earlier scenes. Thanks for joining the conversation!

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  26. John, thank you kindly for your praise of my blog and my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD review! The DVD is currently available from Warner Archive (that's how I got my copy :-)). Once you catch up with IaWW, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion of it. Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

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  27. Thanks for a wonderfully entertaining post.There were so many great films made in 1939 that one that is maybe not so great tends to get passed by. What wouldn't we give to have a film like this made today?

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  28. I don't know the film, but I'm looking for it now...a comedy/mystery sounds like a lot of fun...thanks for a great and entertaining review, Dorian.

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  29. FlickChick, you make an excellent point. Even a merely okay movie from 1939 is often far more entertaining than all too many of today's films. Glad you enjoyed my IaWW post -- thanks a million!

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  30. Eve, you're most welcome! Thanks for your praise of my IaWW review! I hope you'll enjoy it.

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  31. The great thing about this blog series is it introduces us to gems we should get to know better. I definitely need to see this one. Thanks, Dorian.

    I wonder if it would be better remembered today if the title wasn't so similar to the other "Wonderful" James Stewart movie?

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  32. Kevin, I'm pleased that you enjoyed my IaWW blog post -- thanks! I agree, this Blogathon is doing a great job of introducing all of us here to newly discovered movie gems -- well, new to us, anyway! :-) I've also met an awful lot of people who've been bamboozled into mistaking IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE; boy, movie studios could sure be devious when it came to hawking a film! :-)

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  33. Great review! Like several of the commenters here, I had never heard of this film before reading your piece, which is shameful since I do love Claudette Colbert in most of her comedic roles. I'll admit, I do get distracted sometimes watching her movies, though--a few years ago, I read somewhere that Colbert greatly favored her left profile and always tried to maneuver herself in front of the camera so that it showed most often. So I sometimes catch myself counting how many times I see that left profile (and yes, it is quite a bit!).

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  34. trueclassics, glad you enjoyed my IaWW blog post; many thanks! Your anecdote about Claudette Colbert favoring her left profile for the camera explains a lot, not only about Colbert herself, but also some of the odd angles I've noticed in movies with big stars trying to almost literally put their best face forward. In THE WOMEN, for example, I noticed that Norma Shearer often hugged people from behind, undoubtedly trying to show off her own lovely profile! In case by some bizarre twist of fate anyone here hasn't seen this already, it's delightfully lampooned in Page's uproarious pictorial about THE WOMEN in her blog MY LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD:

    http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/2011/05/cmba-presents-films-of-1939-blogathon.html

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  35. Wonderful review to a 1939 movie, I have not seen. I'm a huge fan of Claudette Colbert, so I will definitetly be looking out for this movie.

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  36. Thanks, Dawn! I must admit that since I wrote this IaWW post and read these lovely reminders from all of you about how delightful Claudette Colbert is -- even in films that are just OK rather than truly stellar -- I'm hankering to sit down for a little Colbert film festival right here at home. :-)

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  37. Dorian, I am so sorry to be commenting so late, I visited and read your excellent post first thing Sunday morning, but I was still trying to finish my posts for yesterday (and I am still paying visits to fellow bloggers entries in the blogathon). I have seen It’s A Wonderful World on a few occasions, and I agree that while it is a pleasant enough film it is no It Happened One Night. I thought your comment on Stockholm Syndrome was hilarious, but Claudette Colbert’s character can be forgiven her ignorance, in 1939 they didn’t know there was such a syndrome. I guess with that sweet baby face of Jimmy Stewart’s and all those apples under the stars, it would be easy to forget you have been kidnapped.

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  38. whistlinggypsy, thanks for your kind praise! I'm tickled pink that you got a kick out of my "Stockholm Syndrome" wisecrack; we're an irreverent bunch here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. It's like you said: with baby-faced Jimmy and fresh apples beneath the stars, it really would be easy to forget you've been kidnapped, especially if you're a romantic poetess like Claudette Colbert's character! :-)

    Believe me, there's no need for you to apologize for commenting late! Like you, I've been scrambling to read and comment on our fellow bloggers' work, too, juggling that with family obligations, other writing deadlines, and my business-writing job (thank goodness I'm lucky enough to be able to work from home!). But it's worth it to be able to create and enjoy terrific movie blog posts by talented folks like you. Thanks again!

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  39. Haven't seen or even heard of this one, but it does sound like it has a sort of fun charm to it. Great review!

    -Caroline

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  40. Just getting around to reading all the 1939 posts due to lots of interviews last week!

    Really enjoyed the post! I love both actors. It's a fun movie, but really different in a way. Interesting that they were paired up.

    It is funny for movie fans today to think, James Stewart was just getting his big start in 1939!

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  41. Jessica Noelle Pickens, it's nice to meet you here at TotED after reading your recent COMET OVER HOLLYWOOD blog posts! I'm glad you enjoyed my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD post -- many thanks! Feel free to drop by TotED anytime!

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  42. Caroline, glad you enjoyed my IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD review! Despite its flaws, the film does pick up steam as it goes along, and Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, and the rest of the cast are always fun to watch no matter what. Thanks for your praise, Caroline; come on back and visit us here at TotED any old time!

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  43. This morning I got a nice e-mail from the charming Diane Stones, as follows:

    "Dorian,

    My husband and I were channel surfing and came upon this movie yesterday on FX. As we were watching it the newspaper ad came on the screen which contained the name "Saugerties". We nearly jumped out of our seats because we live in Saugerties, NY! Neither of us had ever seen this film and sat glued watching and laughed with glee every time they mentioned Saugerties. I'm curious to know who decided to use Saugerties in the movie as the place where the clue was to be found. Back in 1939 Saugerties would have been a quaint sleepy little town. Today we are celebrating our bi-centennial and we were designated last year by "Budget Travel" Magazine as one of the Top 10 Coolest Small Towns in America! We are the home to Jimmy Fallon of SNL and now Late Night fame. In fact I was his 2nd grade school teacher. We have wonderful activities, festivals and attractions here all year round. Check out the website at http://www.welcometosaugerties.com/
    But, PLEASE if you could please find out how Saugerties got into this Wonderful Jimmy Stuart movie let me know. I imagine there must have been someone working on the writing staff familiar with the area at the time. When Guy and Edwina leave NYC they wind up in Terrytown and take a ferry across the Hudson River. That was probably near where the Tappan Zee bridge is now. There are many apple orchards along the river so that was cool when they stopped to get apples. I enjoyed your blog.

    Diane"


    I sent Diane a nice e-mail back:

    "Thanks for looking me up via my Tales of the Easily Distracted blog post! Isn’t it amazing how movies can enlighten and bring fans together like this? :-) I’m always tickled when a film, book, or TV show makes reference to places and people I’m familiar with, too.

    While I don’t know offhand exactly how Saugerties and environs got into the script of It’s a Wonderful World, my guess is that it was co-writer Ben Hecht’s idea, since he was originally from New York. Hecht might even have visited Saugerties on vacation, as there were/are a number of resorts upstate. Heck, I remember visiting Saugerties at least once myself many years ago, though I was just a tiny tyke at the time. :-)

    Diane, if I come across any further It’s a Wonderful World info, I’ll gladly let you know. Thanks for contacting me, and thanks for the link to your wonderful Web site, too! Have a great weekend!

    Best wishes,
    Dorian"

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