Saturday, November 14, 2009

At the (old) movies: Before the Wizard

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent showing of “There’s Always Tomorrow” (Universal, 1934)….

For years, the name Frank Morgan meant only one thing to me – and, quite possibly, to you, too: the Wizard of Oz.

After all, for many years, the annual showing of MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” was the only time I saw Morgan, though once in a while he might show up in some other old movie my folks were watching.

In recent years, Morgan has been more visible, thanks to Turner Classic Movies. He’s always a welcome presence, even if he sometimes does go over the top with a vehemence that would make Chuck Yeager dizzy.

But when he turned down his rhetorical rheostat, Morgan could be quite affecting. One of the many virtues of “The Shop Around the Corner” is his performance as store owner Hugo Matuschek. As Matuschek, Morgan is his usual, endearingly funny self, yet he is also quite touching after Matuschek finds out that his wife has been cheating with one of his employees.

This subtler, lower-gear version of Morgan is also on display in “There’s Always Tomorrow.” (If that title sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the 1956 movie with the same name – and plot – that was also made by Universal and stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.)

Morgan plays Joseph White, a married man whose wife and five children are so busy that they don’t seem to have time for him. One of them is played by a young actor named Robert Taylor.

One night, while Joseph is reading the paper on the front porch (the rest of the house is occupied by family members and guests who are attending a party he apparently forgot about), a woman approaches him and asks for directions. By a strange coincidence (which later turns out to have been no coincidence at all), the woman is Alice Vail (Binnie Barnes), whom Joseph used to work with. They renew their friendship, and if you don’t know where the plot is headed from there, it’s a cinch that you haven’t been to any movies since the world premiere of “The Great Train Robbery.”

On Thursday nights, Joseph goes to lodge meetings, or so he tells his family, but we and the entire free world know better: He’s really hanging out with Alice.

Perhaps because of censorship reasons, we’re supposed to believe that all the two of them do is talk. This may be a tall order, but Morgan and Barnes do their best, and the effect is kind of refreshing in a retro sort of way, especially considering that if the movie were to be made today, we'd probably see them both between the sheets, in 3-D, with off-screen color commentary.

Eventually Joseph’s kids find out what’s really been going on, and Alice finds out that they’ve found out. The rest of the plot would take too long to summarize, but let’s just say that:

Alice gently puts Joseph’s insensitive offspring in their place.

Alice gracefully bows out of Joseph’s life.

Binnie Barnes was one hell of an actress. She’s able to portray the sadness of unrequited love, but with a wistfulness that never threatens to teeter into the abyss of self-pity.

(Did I really write that last sentence? Geez. I’d better stay away from movies like this. But I won’t stay away from movies that feature Binnie Barnes, and you shouldn’t, either.)

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