Saturday, September 22, 2012

What A Character! Frank McHugh, Annabelle’s Husband, & So Much More

Whoop it up, wranglers! Frank and the boys show
Texas visitors action in All Through the Night

This review is part of the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. The Blogathon runs from September 22nd through 24th, 2012. By all means, please leave comments for one and all! :-)

My husband Vinnie and I first saw character actor Frank McHugh (1889-1981) on TV, when we were watching the 1942 Warner Bros. wartime comedy-thriller All Through the Night (ATtN) on TCM. We of Team Bartilucci loved both Frank and the movie right away!  And why wouldn’t we, with its great high concept: “Damon Runyon Kicks Nazi Heinie in NYC.”  Heck, we could easily devote this entire blogpost to ATtN alone, considering the cast’s many wonderful character actors. In addition to our Frank, ATtN’s cast included Humphrey Bogart (who I’ve always thought had the soul of a character actor along with his star quality); William Demarest; Jackie Gleason; Phil Silvers; Barton MacLaine; Edward Brophy; Wallace Ford; Charles Cane; Conrad Veidt; Judith Anderson; Martin Kosleck; and Peter Lorre.  But for us, Frank stole the show as Barney, the newlywed among the tough but good-natured “sports promoters” (translation: bookies and gamblers) in Bogart’s crew. We’ll always affectionately think of Frank as “Annabelle’s Husband” in honor of Barney’s new bride (Jean Ames), who barely even gets time to kiss her groom before Bogie & Company whisk him away to fight Fifth Columnists in New York City. As Barney, Frank gets some of the best lines in this totally entertaining blend of comedy and action:
Barney: “Annabelle’s waiting for me…after all, I’m a married man. I got obligations.”
Gloves (Bogart): “All right, send her flowers.”
 Barney: “Well…that wasn’t my idea.”

Slugger Frank clobbers Fifth Columnists in All Through the Night!

Talking to Madame (Anderson) at the auction house after Gloves and Sunshine (Demarest) are knocked out and tied up:

Barney: “Lookit, lady, when we started out tonight, there were three of us. Twenty minutes later, there was only two. Now there’s only one. One of us isn’t enough to leave here alone!”

Hooch your daddy? Frank and James Cagney in
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
Of course, before Frank became one of our favorite character actors, Francis Curray McHugh was born in Homestead, PA in 1889, the youngest member of a family of character actors. Indeed, the McHugh family had their own stock company, including sister Kitty McHugh and brother Matt McHugh. Sometimes they got screen credit, and sometimes they didn’t, but the McHugh family was always working, whether it was Matt playing uncredited roles like “Third Man on Death Row” in My Favorite Brunette or faux waiter Frisco in The Mad Miss Manton, or Kitty McHugh getting screen credits as Mae in The Grapes of Wrath or Goldie in Blonde Trouble. Fans of the 1947 film noir The Dark Corner may also recognize Matt as the milkman who comes to Lucille Ball’s apartment. At the age of 10, young Frank literally got into the act and began his own acting career with the rest of the clan.

Frank and James Cagney as sea salts in
Here Comes the Navy (1934)
Frank made his Broadway bow in 1925 in The Fall Guy. Five years later, Hollywood came a-knockin’, and he made his film debut in The Dawn Patrol.  Warner Bros. hired him as a contract player, where he usually played the hero’s sidekick and/or comedy relief.  Usually looking and sounding nervous yet likable, Frank appeared in over 90 movies at Warners, as well as Paramount’s Going My Way and My Son John, both of which cast McHugh as priests. (My Son John was Robert Walker’s last film, which you can read about in my Strangers on a Train post, if you’re interested.  But I digress….).  Frank’s regular-joe characters ranged from mechanics to newspapermen to sidekicks to tough guys—or not-so-tough guys, like the aforementioned Barney—with hearts of gold.  Frank often appeared with another in-demand character actor, Allen Jenkins (Ball of Fire; Lady on a Train; the voice of TV’s Officer Dibble on Hanna-Barbera’s Top Cat). Sometimes Frank even got the girl, a la ATtN!

Frank as Father Timothy O'Dowd in Going My Way
During Radio’s heyday, Frank proved to be as versatile a voice actor as he was a film actor, starring in 1935’s in Shell Chateau, and then in 1938 in the Warner Brothers Academy Theater. The next decade saw Frank performing in several Radio dramas. Then, in 1946, Frank got another break: popular Film and Radio comedian Stuart Erwin had been starring on the CBS Radio sitcom Phone Again, Finnegan. Realizing he was spreading himself too thin with commitments, Erwin stepped down, and Frank got the gig, joining the cast as Fairchild Finnegan.  By the early 1950s, Frank’s film career was winding down, so he migrated to Television, racking up over 80 TV credits. From 1964 through 1965, Frank and his Going My Way co-star teamed up for The Bing Crosby Show, where Frank played Bing's comic foil, Willis Walter.

Frank's in the swim with Elvis
in Easy Come, Easy Go (1967)
Ironically, Frank had supporting roles in two different films titled Easy Come, Easy Go (ECEG), which just goes to show that everything old is new again, at least when it comes to movie titles! The first ECEG was a 1947 comedy-drama described on the IMDb as “A film that possibly held the record for the most Irish-descent players in an American-produced movie before The Quiet Man was shot on location in Ireland, and that includes The Informer.”  The second ECEG was a 1967 Elvis Presley comedy-adventure with Navy frogman Elvis and local shopkeeper Frank joining forces to find undersea treasure—which turns tricky when Frank’s character, Captain Jack, confesses he’s afraid of water!
Being an in-demand
character actor is thirsty work!

Frank quietly retired from show business in 1969 with his wife, Dorothy, and died of natural causes in 1981, survived by his wife of 48 years and his three children. Of course, he lives on in the hearts and films of his many fans, including all of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ.  What A Character, indeed!

The 1947 Easy Come, Easy Go. Don't mix those two up!
If you want to hear more about All Through the Night, check my review here.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Mad Miss Manton: Swing Out, Sisters!

When RKO’s 1938 screwball comedy-mystery The Mad Miss Manton (TMMM) was shown on TCM, our genial host Robert Osborne noted that Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda had made three films together, all comedies: TMMM, The Lady Eve, and You Belong to Me, the latter two released in 1941. Set in then-contemporary New York City (but actually filmed in Burbank, CA in 100-degree heat, according to John M. Miller’s TCM article!), TMMM came first. Director Leigh Jason had also worked with Stanwyck and co-star Hattie McDaniel in The Bride Walks Out (1936), before McDaniel won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Gone With The Wind (1939). 

Stanwyck’s part was originally meant for Katharine Hepburn, but Bringing Up Baby’s bad box office put the kibosh on that, though of course nowadays it’s hailed as a classic. Besides, things worked out fine for Hepburn, as she moved on to her Oscar-nominated performance in The Philadelphia Story (1940), among so many other triumphs. In any case, Stanwyck’s flair for comedy is just right for her role as Melsa Manton, madcap heiress extraordinaire. That’s my favorite kind of heiress, especially if she’d like to plunk a few bucks into my pocket during one of her charity scavenger hunts!

Melsa Manton has The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles beat when it comes to chic yet zany sleuthing, at least when it comes to sheer numbers: she has eight gorgeous debutante girlfriends who are as loyal as they are endearingly kooky, with no-nonsense maid Hilda (McDaniel) shaking her head at these nutty rich folks. For the most part, the girls are happy to help Melsa solve murders, the occasional growled threat or thrown knife notwithstanding. Fun Fact: Melsa and her eight gal pals were no doubt playfully modeled on the northeastern women’s colleges known as “The Seven Sisters:” Barnard; Bryn Mawr; Mount Holyoke; Radcliffe; Smith; Vassar; and Wellesley. Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, another “sister” was added.  That’s Hollywood for you, always making everything bigger and bolder!

We first meet Melsa walking a gaggle of cute little dogs at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m.; is this how our pet-loving heroine makes extra spending money, or does she prefer to take her pets walkies when the neighbors are in bed, unaware Melsa’s pooches are leaving, er, souvenirs?  She notices Rex Realty signs plastered all over the house. Turns out it belongs to Sheila Lane (Leona Maricle, who’d also worked with Stanwyck in My Reputation), the wife of wealthy banker George Lane. Suddenly a car speeds past the site of the new subway. Melsa recognizes local gent Ronnie Belden (William Corson). Unlike the usual stereotype of New Yorkers who mind their own business, Melsa lets her curiosity get the best of her. Her impromptu investigation brings her to the deserted Lane house, where she finds a diamond brooch—and Lane’s bloodied body! As she flees in panic, Melsa drops the brooch. By the time Melsa gets ahold of Lieutenant Mike Brent (Team Bartilucci fave Sam Levene from The Killers; After The Thin Man; Shadow of The Thin Man; Last Embrace), the corpse has gone AWOL.

Don’t worry about the press as long as
they spell your name right!
Lt. Brent and the rest of New York’s Finest are pretty darn peeved, considering that Melsa and her friends have a reputation as merry pranksters. Too bad our heroine happens to be dressed in a Little Bo-Peep costume for an artists’ ball, which doesn’t exactly do wonders for her credibility. Granted, Melsa swears their playful pranks were only meant to draw positive attention for the good causes they work on in the name of their various charities, like running a TB clinic and other helpful, clean-cut activities. Melsa and her pals clearly mean well, but haven’t they ever heard that charity begins at home? Maybe they should stay out of trouble by making lanyards for the poor or something. To add insult to injury, not only do Lt. Brent and his men refuse to investigate, but Peter Ames (Fonda), editor of The Morning Clarion, writes a stern article about Melsa’s hijinks, resulting in much comical slapping. One lawsuit, coming right up! With their reputations on the line, Melsa and the girls become amateur sleuths.  Debutante Roll Call, sound off now! 

  1. Frances Mercer as Helen Frayne, the most sensible of Melsa’s gorgeous friends. The daughter of prominent East Coast sportswriter Sid Mercer, the raven-haired beauty was a “Powers Girl” model in New York in her teens back in the 1930s (as were my dear mom and aunt. Wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall with those gals swapping stories). Mercer went on to act and sing on stage, screen, and TV, including the Broadway musicals All the Things you Are; Very Warm for May; and Something for the Boys.
  2. Kay Sutton as Gloria Hamilton. This lovely brunette’s screen credits include Carefree; The Saint in New York; Vivacious Lady. Gloria gets a nice punch line when the girls find what may or may not be bodily fluids:
    “How can that be blood? It’s blue.”
    Gloria: “Maybe he shot Mrs. Astor.”

    Oh, Kay! 
  3. Catherine O’Quinn as ditzy Dora Fenton. I’m almost certain O’Quinn is one of the blonde Goldwyn Girls in Team Bartilucci fave The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Anyway, she gets some delightful lines here, especially this TMMM bit, which becomes a running gag:
    “Helen, you search the upstairs.”
    Helen: “Oh, no, I was never much of an individualist. If the upstairs has to be searched, we’ll search it together.”
    “Why, that’s Communism!”
  4. Whitney Bourne, as Pat James (Blind Alibi; Double Danger; Beauty for the Asking, with Lucille Ball)), who never saw a snack she didn’t like, even at a murder scene! I’m sure Lt. Brent is thrilled to see his crime scene ruined. Hey, Pat, you gonna finish that? Don’t your rich parents feed you at home, you poor little rich girl you?
  5. Ann Evers as Lee Wilson (If I Were King; Gunga Din; Casanova Brown).
  6. Linda Perry, billed here as Linda Terry. By any name, she plays Myra Frost, Melsa’s flirty friend. Ms. Perry’s credits include They Won’t Forget; The Great Garrick; and the 1937 movie adaptation of the Perry Mason film The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.
  7. Vickie Lester (billed as Vicki Lester) as Kit Beverly. Vickie’s star was born in Tom, Dick, and Harry; Tall, Dark, and Handsome; The Great Plane Robbery.
  8. Eleanor Hanson as Jane.  (Guess it's one of those one-word names, like Margo or Annabella.) She also appeared in the Western Flaming Frontiers and bit parts such films as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and worked again with TMMM co-star Penny Singleton in Blondie Goes to College. Wonder if Singleton and Hansen ever reminisced about making TMMM?
One stiff, hold the mayo!
Before long, the lawsuit takes a back seat, along with a corpse or two, as Peter finds himself falling in love with the spirited Melsa and trying to save her from shady characters like ex-con Edward Norris (Stanley Ridges of Possessed; To Be or Not to Be; Sergeant York), a convicted murderer who’s working on the subway and just might have a score to settle. Even Blondie gets into the act—no, not songbird Debbie Harry, but the original Blondie, Penny Singleton, formerly Dorothy McNulty from After the Thin Man. She’s funny and memorable in this pre-Blondie comedy caper as Frances Gluck, who’s stuck on Norris and tries to convince the girls of his innocence, even trying to pass off the future Blondie Bumstead as an old chum, with hilarious results and a smattering of social commentary.

Kit (talking to Hilda with her mouth full): “Have you another piece of cake, Hilda?”
Hilda: “Yes, I have, but the kitchen’s closed for the night.”
Melsa: “Hilda! Miss Beverly is our guest.”
Hilda: “I didn’t ask her up!”
Helen: “Come the revolution, we’ll stop being exploited by our help.”
Melsa (giving Hilda a wry look): “In my house, the revolution is here!”

Who needs Charlie's Angels
with 8 crimefighting debs?

“Lt. Brent, the good news is we’ve found George Lane’s body. The bad news…er….”
Blondie Beats a Murder Rap!
Lt. Brent saves the day!
Who knew he was a counter spy?
Although Fonda and Stanwyck were great onscreen, Henry Fonda was less than thrilled with his role. He’d been borrowed from Walter Wanger Productions and, as Axel Madsin wrote in his biography Stanwyck, Fonda “...hated his role, hated the script's sneering repartee with his leading lady, and tried his best to ignore everybody.”  Fonda himself later admitted, "I was so mad on this picture; I resented it." Philip G. Epstein’s script from an unpublished Wilson Collison novel was clearly meant as a female star vehicle, and as Miller suggested, “Fonda probably did not appreciate the scenes in which he was beaten up by eight flighty debutantes!” But Fonda got over it, happily co-starring with Stanwyck again in two other hits, as mentioned earlier, and becoming close friends. In fact, Robert Osborne said Fonda admitted to his subsequent wives that he carried a torch for Stanwyck for the rest of his life (and why not?)!

Here's a link to our pal Dawn Sample's great Noir and Chick Flicks blog post from 2011!

I knew those crazy kids would make beautiful music together!

You say you want a revolution?
Hilda's your go-to gal!