Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Sitting Pretty'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the fall season….

“Sitting Pretty” (Fox, 1948) is the film where Clifton Webb overturns a bowl of oatmeal on a baby’s head after the tot refuses to stop flinging the cereal at him.

Then again, we never see Webb actually doing this; we just see him in a victorious two-shot with the vanquished, bowled-over, bawling boy (who, according to the Internet Movie Database, was portrayed by the aptly named Raymond C. Hair Jr.).

Having seen this movie a few times before, I’ve sometimes wondered why we never see Webb overturning the bowl. Was the scene too hard to stage? Or, perhaps more likely, would Webb’s character – Mr. Belvedere, of course – have seemed too unsympathetic if we had seen him doing the deed?

(Apparently this movie was Young Master Hair’s debut and swan song, for IMDB reports no further appearances by him. My guess is that he could have tolerated the oatmeal-shampoo bit. Or Clifton Webb. But not both.)

Mr. Belvedere, whose first name is Lynn, has been hired sight unseen as a baby sitter by a couple who thought he was a woman. Actually, he's a male know-it-all whose presence in the King household sets tongues a-wagging in the community of Hummingbird Hill.

The film holds up well for two reasons:

The script (by F. Hugh Herbert from a Gwen Davenport novel) is well-structured and witty.

The cast, mostly old pros, knows how to play this sort of almost-but-not-quite-realistic comedy so that any plot holes are pleasantly paved over. Aside from Webb, it’s hard to go wrong with Robert Young, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Haydn and Ed Begley.

Other performers worth mentioning: Betty Lynn (later Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou) as a teenager who has a crush on Young; John Russell, who, though fine, seems out of place in a non-western (he would later play TV’s “Lawman”); and Louise Albritton, an actress I’d never really noticed before. She was never a true star, but she was vivacious and attractive, and I’ll have to keep an eye out for her other films. (She later married CBS journalist Charles Collingwood.)

But the key to the movie is Webb’s performance. “I happen to dislike all children intently,” Belvedere says, and although the character never seems to do or say much if anything to contradict this, he is never hateful toward the three boys in his care.

In one scene, he proclaims himself to be something of a philosopher.

“Oh, I see,” Young’s character says, “you just sit and think.”

“Mr. King,” he replies, “if more people just sat and thought, the world might not be in the stinking mess that it is.”

Is there any truth to that statement? These days, who knows? But (and here’s the brilliance of Webb’s performance) when Mr. Belvedere says it, you're sure it’s true.

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